Colorado’s re­cruit­ing suc­cess started be­fore the wins came

Big­ger bud­get, more sup­port sta≠ pay­ing o≠ for Bu≠aloes

The Denver Post - - SUNDAY - By Nick Kosmider

boul­der» When Dante Sparaco ar­rived at IMG Academy in Braden­ton, Fla., in Au­gust, the for­mer Cherry Creek football player be­came a team­mate of some of the coun­try’s top four- and five-star prospects.

The col­lege prep school in­cluded play­ers who this sea­son com­mit­ted to pro­grams such as Alabama, Texas A&M and Ohio State.

Sparaco would tell his new team­mates he would be play­ing col­lege football at Colorado, and he was of­ten met with raised eye­brows. The body lan­guage sent a mes­sage: You’re join­ing a pro­gram headed nowhere.

“Be­ing re­cruited by them and know­ing what’s go­ing on in­side the pro­gram, you know that’s not what’s hap­pen­ing,” said Sparaco, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who could play de­fense for the Buffs. “Even though you can’t prove it to them with on­the-field (re­sults), you know what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing. When the win­ning comes, it just makes it that much eas­ier to say, ‘Look, I’ve been telling you guys that they were worth it — that they had a vi­sion and it was real.”

Sparaco, who com­mit­ted to the Buffs 10 months ago, doesn’t have to do much con­vinc­ing these days. Since he be­gan his fi­nal high school sea­son, CU has won 10 games, cap­tured the Pac-12’s South Divi­sion ti­tle, au­thored the big­gest sin­gle-sea­son turn­around in league his­tory and earned a berth in the Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl.

That bounty has helped boost a re­cruit­ing class for CU that is ranked 18th in the coun­try by, putting the Buffs be­hind only Washington (15th) and USC (17th) among Pac-12 pro­grams. CU re­cently added im­pact play­ers to the class — in­clud­ing fourstar Pomona of­fen­sive tackle Jake Moretti, who flipped last month from a pre­vi­ous com­mit­ment to Ohio State. CU also re­ceived ver­bal com­mit­ments in Oc­to­ber from DeSoto High School stand­outs KD Nixon and Xaiver New­man, who played for a Texas high school state cham­pi­onship Satur­day.

As im­pres­sive as CU’s on-field rise has been this sea­son, its emer­gence as a player on the na­tional re­cruit­ing scene has been per­haps just as re­mark­able.

“Be­ing suc­cess­ful this year kind of so­lid­i­fied a lot of guys,” said CU coach Mike MacIn­tyre, speak­ing gen­er­ally about re­cruit­ing. “It sort of put the other nail in the cof­fin, so to speak. So that’s ex­cit­ing.”

But the mo­men­tum for a na­tion­ally ranked re­cruit­ing class — af­ter years of fin­ish­ing at the bot­tom of the Pac-12 — started rolling long be­fore the Buffs be­gan pil­ing up wins this sea­son. Two years ago, ath­letic di­rec­tor Rick Ge­orge and MacIn­tyre agreed that in or­der to com­pete, CU had to ex­pand its re­cruit­ing bud­get and build a big­ger sup­port staff fo­cused on iden­ti­fy­ing prospects, sim­i­lar to those found at schools in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence.

More sup­port al­lowed the CU staff to put more eyes on game film, al­low­ing as­sis­tants to be more ef­fi­cient in the play­ers they tar­geted when they hit the road to re­cruit.

“We had a lot of roots laid down with the sys­tem that we’ve had for 26 months now,” MacIn­tyre said. “It’s a process as time goes along. And then our new fa­cil­i­ties, when they come and see that any­time, it blows them away.”

CU added a big piece of the puz­zle one year ago when it hired Dar­rin Chi­averini, a for­mer Buffs wide re­ceiver, to be the team’s co-of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and re­cruit­ing co­or­di­na­tor. Chi­averini’s en­ergy, strong in­ter­per­sonal skills and knack for ef­fec­tively us­ing so­cial me­dia cre­ated a surge in re­cruit­ing suc­cess upon his ar­rival.

Chi­averini also un­der­stands that re­cruit­ing is much like real es­tate. Lo­ca­tion is ev­ery­thing.

“When I first got to back to Colorado,” he said, “we had sat down as a staff and talked about get­ting back into Texas heav­ily. We ended up putting five coaches down there to re­cruit, re­ally hit the high schools and re­ally de­velop re­la­tion­ships with the coaches and the play­ers. At the end of the day, re­cruit­ing comes down to re­la­tion­ships. Do they trust you? Do they think what you’re say­ing is true? When you start build­ing those re­la­tion­ships and you start having some suc­cess on the field as well, it takes it to another level.”

Of the 24 CU com­mits in the 2017 class, eight hail from Texas. Three of those, in­clud­ing four-star wide re­ceiver Laviska Shenault Jr., are from DeSoto, the alma mater of Bron­cos line­backer Von Miller. Chi­averini said play­ing a big bowl game in San Antonio will only fur­ther boost CU’s promis­ing foray into the Lone Star State.

“It’s huge, awe­some,” Chi­averini said. “Not only are you play­ing a for­mer Big 12 ri­val, you’re play­ing in the state of Texas when we have eight or nine com­mits from down there, and a lot of them are com­ing to the game. You’re go­ing to be vis­i­ble down there. It’s a win-win for us to go down there and show­case our brand.”

In re­cruit­ing, like baseball, it helps to have a strong closer. When MacIn­tyre was an as­sis­tant un­der David Cut­cliffe, first at Ole Miss and then at Duke, Cut­cliffe rec­og­nized an un­com­mon knack for re­cruit­ing he knew would serve MacIn­tyre well once he be­came a head coach.

Op­er­at­ing the com­mand cen­ter for a top-20 re­cruit­ing class proves MacIn­tyre, col­lege football’s na­tional coach of the year for 2016, has only im­proved since then at mak­ing his pitch.

“There’s not nec­es­sar­ily a tan­gi­ble thing you can lay your finger on, but it’s the way he talks and the way you see his eyes light up when he talks about some­thing he’s pas­sion­ate about,” Sparaco said. “He just com­mands an air of re­spect and dig­nity when he comes into a room and talks to you. When stuff hap­pens like that, you just know he truly be­lieves in what he’s talk­ing about. When the per­son who’s talk­ing be­lieves it, it’s kind of hard for you not to be­lieve it.”

Dante Sparaco vis­its Fol­som Field on Nov. 26. Andy Cross, The Den­ver Post

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