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It should come as no surprise that Marshall and Louisville are producing standout passers. In the 2000 draft the New York Jets selected Herd quarterback Chad Pennington in the first round, the first quarterback taken, while the Baltimore Ravens chose the Cardinals' Chris Redman in the third round, the third quarterback picked that year. "The schools that really promote the forward pass," says Walsh, "are where you can best evaluate a quarterback, where he is allowed to function spontaneously and have the freedom to open up the offense and make plays."
The success of Leftwich and Ragone also reveals holes in the recruiting system, rife with gurus and Internet services. Leftwich is a product of H.D. Woodson High in Washington, D.C., where basketball is king. "A lot of these good athletes are from schools off the beaten path that a lot of recruiters don't want to go into," Pruett says. "They get carried away with some guru saying some other guy is good." Pruett knows the Woodson program well—he and Woodson coach Bob Headen played semipro football together in the late 1960s. During Leftwich's senior season, former Marshall offensive coordinator Tony Petersen popped in a tape of Leftwich. "I watched five plays and said, 'I'll take him,' " Petersen says. "He had a natural lightning release and a big-time arm. A lot of guys will say, 'Boy, I like a quarterback to be a coach's son with a high GPA' Sometimes the inner-city schools don't get looked at, but it didn't bother me where he grew up."
Leftwich, then a 6' 4", 190-pound rail, drew interest from a lot of smaller schools. "I could have gone to any I-AA school in America," he says. But Marshall's games are televised in the D.C. area every week. Leftwich liked what he saw when he watched All-America wide receiver Randy Moss set records and draw national attention while at Marshall. "It's a quarterback's dream offense," says Leftwich. Moreover, a move from the big city appealed to him. "I wanted to get away. I had been in D.C. my whole life. There weren't any vacations to Florida."
Ragone's experience exposes a weakness of the early commitment system, which has become popular in recent years. Coaches from big schools invite top prospects to their summer camps and offer the players scholarships before they play a down in their senior years. The rush to secure players early widens the margin of error. "It's hard enough for us to judge players at 22 years old, after four years of college football," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian says. "Imagine how hard it is to judge a 16-or 17-year-old high school kid."
As the top schools make their handshake deals with recruits, the rest of the prospects fall into the pond that the mid-level schools like Louisville and Marshall are fishing. On a steamy June day, Thundering Herd quarterbacks coach Larry Kueck still had plenty of potential fall recruits to sort through. "I'm guessing that the big schools have narrowed it down to two or three quarterbacks right now," he said. "We can't do that. I've looked at eight quarterbacks on tape in the last two days."
The early commitments leave little room for late bloomers such as Ragone. A product of Cleveland St. Ignatius, a powerhouse in Ohio high school football, Ragone didn't start until his senior year. The summer before, he went to the Miami ( Ohio) camp and attracted the attention of the coaches—for his punting. "I was not playing," he says. "What coach is going to look at me?" By the time Ragone led St. Ignatius to the state semifinals in November 1997, most of the big-time schools had lined up their quarterbacks. "John L. looked at the tape and said, 'Gosh, we've got a chance to get this kid?' " says Louisville defensive coordinator Chris Smeland, who recruits in Ohio for the Cardinals.
Ohio State, the team Ragone wanted to play for, showed little interest. The following summer in the Big 33 game, which matches Ohio all-stars against elite players from Pennsylvania, Ragone was named Ohio's MVP. Last year, when Louisville played at TCU, former Ohio State coach John Cooper served as the analyst on the ESPN telecast. "He said on TV that I was one of the better quarterb acks in the country," says Ragone. "That was sweet." That's not the only worm that has turned. According to Ragone, one big-school recruiter who passed him by has become an agent. Says Ragone, "He's tried to contact people who know me. He wants to talk with me now."