Dominique Easley took a time-out from crashing the backfield in the Under Armour All-America Football Game and headed up to his family in the stands during the second quarter at Tropicana Field. He knew what he was going to do for the ESPN camera. His 10-year-old sister, Destinee, gave him the hand-off - a symbol of his destination.
The 17-year-old high school defensive lineman from Staten Island had decided that morning on the best college fit. He took a University of Florida cap from Destinee and put it on his head. It was Saturday, Jan. 2, in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the twists and turns of his recruitment had come to an unofficial end. It will officially end on national signing day Wednesday when he plans to write "Dominique Easley" on a letter of intent to play for the Gators.
"It just feels right with the people there and the coaches," Easley said.
But Florida's victory is a defeat for Happy Valley. After earning a team MVP award in that game and turning heads during the three days of practices, Easley moved up from No. 41 to the nation's No. 3 recruiting prospect in the Class of 2010 on the ESPNU 150. He was a large fish in this recruiting bowl that got away from Penn State, having decommitted earlier that week.
"I think it's big," said Tom Luginbill, the national recruiting director for ESPN's Scouts Inc., which puts together the top-150 list on ESPN.com.
"Defensive linemen don't grow on trees. When you get a great one, they're hard to come by. So it stings when you lose a guy like that."
Easley is listed as the No. 1 prospect in the state of New York. On offense, he played guard and tight end, but it was on defense where he made his heaviest impact. Curtis High used him at end and tackle, and he contributed to two Public School Athletic League city title teams.
He had 16 sacks as a senior.
Here's the scouting report:
"He's a very quick kid off the line; he's got a great first step," said Matt Alkire, the Folsom resident who is the Northeast recruiting analyst for Scout.com. His site rates only Philadelphia's Sharrif Floyd, a fellow Florida-bound recruit out of George Washington High, ahead of Easley nationally at defensive tackle.
"He's just an extremely disruptive force in the backfield. He jumps snap counts well. He knows how to use his hands. He's strong at the point of attack. He's got a good motor. He's got quick feet. He comes well in pursuit. He tackles well."
Easley had been carrying about 260 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame, but he's now up to 274 after working in the weight room. His time in the 40-yard dash is listed at 4.7 seconds.
The recruiting chase began to warm up after Easley's junior season. His father, David, and Curtis coach Peter Gambardella sent out highlight tapes. Penn State got involved in the spring.
"He went down there for a spring game," Gambardella said. "We took him to a spring practice. He went to a few games last year. So he got a real taste of the atmosphere."
Florida, the national champion two of the previous three seasons, had also shown interest dating to the spring. Easley thought about committing to play for the Gators as early as late July when he attended the Friday Night Lights camp for top prospects in Gainesville.
"He spoke to them," David Easley said, "and the impression that we both got was that because of not being so familiar with who Dominique was and exactly what type of player he was and just how good the kid is, I sensed they were still kind of hesitant about it. They weren't sure because it's not a secret that New York City is not a football place."
So Easley wound up making an oral commitment to play for Joe Paterno in September after visiting again. David Easley said Dominique was comfortable with defensive assistants Larry Johnson and Kermit Buggs.
"I was very much for Penn State," David Easley said. "It was solely because of the fact of Penn State having so good of an educational program. Do they have a good football program? Yes, they do. But I wasn't concerned about the football program because I just figured football would work itself out. Like I tell Dominique all the time, 'Football is going to come to an end. What are you going to have after that?' That's why he chose Penn State, because he was so focused on the whole education thing. That was partly because of me."
But his son visited Oregon in early December and on the Wednesday before the Under Armour game, Easley announced that he was decommitting from Penn State.
"It was a good place, but it wasn't right for me," he said.
David Easley, who is divorced from Dominique's mother, Caren, and on leave from his job as a police officer in South Carolina after suffering injuries during Army service in Afghanistan, knew why. Penn State came across as "old school."
"Penn State has an environment, they're really like my type - because I'm in the military, I'm in law enforcement," David Easley said. "It appears that it's a very rigid program. That's the way it appeared to him. He's a young kid. He wanted to be somewhere he could be himself. He didn't think he could relax and let his hair down in a program like that. It came out that it wasn't the way the program really is, but he still felt comfortable with a school like Florida."
Easley's decision was reminiscent of that of another former Staten Island football standout, wide receiver Vidal Hazelton. His father was high on Penn State, but Hazelton ended up going to Southern Cal. Hazelton later transferred to Cincinnati after the 2008 season.
Nittany Lions' hopes
And what about Penn State's immediate future without Easley? Alkire says not to worry. Florida still has Scout.com's top-ranked recruiting class. But the Nittany Lions' class is running a solid sixth, including commitments from defensive tackles who are No. 70 (DaQuan Jones) and No. 161 (Evan Hailes) on Scout.com's top-300 list. That organization has Jones ranked behind Easley as the second-best prospect from New York and fifth nationally among tackles, while Hailes is rated as the fifth-best overall prospect from Virginia and 14th nationally among tackles.
"One thing I always caution people with, with Penn State in particular, is Larry Johnson's ability to take a kid that may not have been as highly rated and turn them into a very effective player," Alkire said. "Those kids might not turn into a dominant force like Dominique might, but they still give Penn State what they need, which are defensive tackles to hold the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers, who are always excellent, to patrol the field and make plays."
Gators reel him in
Gambardella said his player called Florida and Oregon after decommitting. Miami was also in the picture. Easley felt a sense of comfort with the Oregon defensive line coach, Jerry Azzinaro, who had played high school football on Staten Island at Tottenville High, also a public school.
"We knew he was going to make a change that we were going to air during our game," Luginbill said. "During the week, he told us, though, it was going to be Oregon."
But he enjoyed his time that week with several Under Armour players who had already committed to the Gators. "They were real great," Easley said. "I loved being around them."
At the time, though, the Florida program had hit a bit of turmoil. Gators head coach Urban Meyer had stepped down for health reasons the previous Saturday, then ran a reverse the next day and said he was just going to take a leave. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, who had done much of the recruiting with Easley, became the interim coach.
"It wasn't a factor for me," said Easley, who spoke to Meyer after committing. "He was real excited. He said he's going to come back."
That's good news for Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, bad news for everyone else.
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