YOUNGSTOWN - Youngstown State football coach Eric Wolford recruited all over the East Coast when he was piecing together the 2014 recruiting class.
Yet, most of his evaluations came right here in Ohio.
"It pays to come to football camp," said Wolford of the five-day camp he and his staff hold every June. "Twelve of these 24 guys, and a portion of them were out of state, were at our camp. If you come to football camp here at Youngstown State, there's a pretty good chance you'll have a chance to sign with us on signing day."
One of those 12 was 6-foot-5, 190-pound quarterback Hunter Wells from Navarre Fairless High School. Wells was a first-team all-state selection in Division V as well as being named the Northeast Inland Offensive Player of the Year and the Canton Repository Stark County Player of the Year.
The strong-armed Wells could compete for a job right away since former starter Kurt Hess graduated after four years under center. Wolford gave high praise to Wells, who set a county record with 3,558 passing yards as a senior, breaking the mark set by former Ohio State quarterback Justin Zwick.
"He'll be here in the summer, and he'll be one those guys fighting for the quarterback job along with the other guys," Wolford said. "(Offensive coordinator) Shane Montgomery, who coached (Ben) Roethlisberger, said 'I see a lot of similarities in this guy (Wells) that I did with Ben.' Ben, early in his career, was very thin. So, that's a pretty good comparison, and I hope it holds true."
Wells isn't the only prospect Wolford believes is a prize recruit.
Wolford pointed to Shane Dixon, a 6-4, 185-pound safety out of Bradenton, Fla., as someone the Penguins were able to entice to Youngstown despite several other schools recruiting him. He finished with 109 tackles, including 72 solo stops, and had five pass breakups and two interceptions as a senior.
"We were battling a lot of other schools," Wolford said. "At the end of the day, Youngstown State prevailed."
Cincinnati Winton Woods High School-product Adrian Rankin also falls into that category. The 6-3, 240-pound Rankin, who made 5.5 sacks and a team-high 56 tackles, was a teammate of Daniel Cage, who chose the University of Notre Dame over several prominent Division I colleges. Rankin played defensive end and was a two-time honoree as team Lineman of the Year.
"There's been times when you watched films and you said who's who," Wolford said. "That's a good sign."
Rankin was the only defensive linemen out of the Penguins' 24 signees. The defensive front was viewed as an area of weakness for the Penguins, who were pushed around in their final two games against North Dakota State and South Dakota State. The losses kept them out of the playoffs for a seventh straight year.
"There are some other potential opportunities out there that I'm not at liberty to discuss," said Wolford of continuing to improve up front. "I wasn't going to reach. I'm not going to take a guy who's not better than what we have."
Youngstown State only reeled in one local athlete, Austintown Fitch punter Nick Sheely. He will have big shoes to fill as he takes over for Niles-product Nick Liste, who finished his final season with Penguins. Wolford said a depleting population and a weak pool of athletes in the Mahoning Valley (four total Division I prospects) led to the lack of area recruits.
"It's just been a down year for the Valley," he said. "At one point in time, back in the early 90s, this was one of the more popular destinations as far as getting tough kids who work hard. Everything has just changed.
"Next year obviously looks better."
When Wolford was hired more than four years ago, athletic director Ron Strollo pointed to his ability to recruit as the main reason he was chosen for the job. Wolford's class included kids from seven different states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia), and while he lamented at losing a few top recruits to Division I schools at that last minute, he was confident this class was one that will help YSU right away.
"I think you're going to see a majority of those guys on defense get a chance to play," Wolford said. "I don't put any limits on skill positions. I usually always redshirt offensive linemen, but the linebackers, corners, tight ends, safeties, running backs - I think a lot of those guys have the potential to play."