Pre-existing relationships have become even more important in the pandemic world of college football recruiting in which virtual campus tours and Zoom interviews have become the norm.
The ability of Mike Houston’s East Carolina staff to establish a solid pre-pandemic relationship at Lakewood High School in Sumter, SC, wound up earning the Pirates their second verbal commitment for the recruiting Class of 2021 on May 24.
James Wright, a 6-foot, 193-pound safety, decided on ECU after pondering scholarship offers from more than 20 programs. Among those were Akron, Army, Charlotte, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Miami (Ohio), Temple and Western Kentucky as well as a prominent Ivy League school.
It was a fairly easy decision for Wright, even though he never had a chance to visit ECU’s campus after being offered a scholarship on March 19 after the shutdowns created by the virus outbreak.
“I believe there was a visit set, and this was all before the pandemic started or when we got out of school, it was about that time,’’ Lakewood coach Larry Cornelius said. “But once we got out of school all trips were cancelled. So since then, obviously, everything has been done virtually. It makes the recruiting situation very tough, not just for ECU but for every college out there. So I think it’s an advantage for any school that has already created those ties. Whether it be the student-athlete or the coaches themselves, it helps out a lot.
“I think they (ECU) had already established that communication line. We’ve had communication with ECU, both myself and my recruiting coordinator. So they’ve been constantly discussing various things and I think ECU has done a great job at that (with Wright).’’
Wright arrived at Lakewood High as a freshman in 2017 at the same time Cornelius was taking over as head coach after a successful stint in Georgia. Like many athletes, Wright shared a love for basketball and football, and initially hoped to play both for the Gators.
Cornelius immediately recognized Wright as an athlete with potential. But as summer workouts convened for the Gators prior to the 2017 season, an issue led to Wright sitting out his freshman season of football.
“He’ll be the first to tell you that he struggled in the summer going into his ninth grade year,’’ Cornelius said. “I had a coach on the staff who got on him pretty good, and he didn’t come back.
“He is completely opposite of what he was as an upcoming ninth grader as far as being able to take criticism. Now he thrives on that. If you yell at him that actually motivates him more to do better, and most kids aren’t like that. That’s what I love about high school athletics. You see these kids grow before your eyes. That is our job, to help them become more mature men and be better citizens and set them up to overcome adversity. I think James is the epitome of that.’’
Wright went on to play junior varsity basketball as a freshman, but Cornelius maintained a relationship by continuing to talk with him in class or in the weight room.
“And like I said, he just matured over his freshman year, came out for spring football of his freshman year and we haven’t looked back,’’ Cornelius said.
Wright made an immediate impact for the Gators on defense where he appeared in all nine games, making 32 tackles and a quarterback sack.
It was during Wright’s sophomore campaign that the ECU coaching staff got their first look first at him while recruiting Lakewood quarterback Malik Richardson. The multi-talented Richardson would eventually make a verbal commitment play for the Pirates, but later backed off that pledge and wound up signing with Western Carolina.
Wright’s performance as a junior would bring ECU back to Lakewood in pursuit of him in 2019. He starred on defense where he ranked second in team tackles (54) and interceptions (3). Wright also added 136 yards and four touchdowns rushing on offense.
Cornelius used Wright at running back, receiver, as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation, at safety and linebacker on defense.
“He’s better suited for the defensive side because of his mentality,’’ Cornelius said. “With his speed and quickness, we were able to put him at receiver sometimes. He doesn’t have the best hands in the world, but he’s efficient. We like to use him on some long routes, some goes, corners, posts, etc., and we had a Wildcat package for him.
“It’s funny. We make fun of James. Everyone in the world knows when James goes in at quarterback we’re not going to pass it. He can’t throw a football to save his life. I wish he could. But it’s not in his cards right now. So when he came in he’s either handing the ball off or keeping it. Ninety percent of the time he was keeping it running a little power or something like that, and it was effective. We converted every first down that he was in or it turned into a score with the exception of one time and one game and that was in the playoffs.
“I’ve been around athletes my whole career. But it’s rare to find kids like James who are more of the complete package. You know they are going to do the right thing off the field. They are true leaders. I always say he’s the type of kid I would feel safe with him babysitting my two boys.’’
Wright isn’t the only Lakewood player ECU is showing an interest in. His secondary teammate, 5-10, 170-pound rising junior Zayveon Wells, may be in line for an offer from the Pirates soon, according to Cornelius. Wells had 43 tackles and a team-high six interceptions in 2019.