Recruiting Profile: Montavis Pitts
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #9

The story of Montavis Pitts, a multi-talented football player from tiny Loachapoka High School in Alabama, is the stuff football recruiting legends are made of. In the short span of a few days last May, Pitts changed from a little-known player with just two scholarship offers into a Virginia Tech verbal commitment with over a dozen offers, including all the heavyweight teams in the SEC.

How did an unknown player, a rising senior, suddenly spring from obscurity into Rivals100.com's listing of the top 100 players in the country, with SEC coaches like Tennessee's Phil Fulmer and Florida's Steve Spurrier suddenly drooling over him? It didn't take a carefully orchestrated recruiting strategy, nor a polished highlight film, nor a boisterous coach working the phones with recruiting coordinators.

Instead, all it took was for Montavis Pitts to strap on his track shoes at a football combine and do what he does best: run like quicksilver, posting a 4.29 in the forty yard dash. Now he is one of the most highly sought-after players in the country, a young man with 21 scholarship offers whose world will turn upside down this fall when recruiters and recruiting analysts start ringing his phone off the hook.

Meanwhile, thanks to Pitts' sudden stature in the recruiting world, the Virginia Tech coaches face a months-long battle to try to hang on to Pitts, who gave the Hokies a verbal commitment in mid-May. But they face stiff competition, as Pitts will be wooed by the SEC programs he grew up watching and cheering for. For Montavis Pitts, Virginia Tech coaches, and Virginia Tech fans, the next few months will be etched in their memories and talked about for years to come.

A Few Days in May

On May 16th, under the innocuous headline "Hokies get 4th junior recruit," Roanoke Times sportswriter Doug Doughty told of a 6-1, 180-pounder named Montavis Pitts from Loachapoka High School in Alabama who had given a verbal commitment to play football for Virginia Tech. The announcement came as a complete surprise to Hokie fans who follow recruiting, and they immediately scrambled to learn more about the kid from the tiny high school just five miles from the campus of Auburn University.

The problem was, there was nothing to be found out about Pitts. He was not in the databases of SuperPrep, PrepStar, or Rivals.com, and there was little to no mention of Pitts or Loachapoka High School (pronounced LOACH-uh-POKE-uh) to be found in Internet searches. Doughty's article gave no junior-year stats for Pitts and included no mention of the most coveted piece of information of all, his forty-yard dash time. Doughty's article said only that Loachapoka's coach, Jerome Tate, did not time his players in the 40, saying only that Pitts was "pretty dadgum fast."

To make matters worse, the article had an error in it. It cited Pitts' time in the 100 meter dash as a middling 11.8 seconds, not a very impressive time. And Pitts only had two offers other than Tech: Southern Mississippi and Middle Tennessee State.

Many Hokie fans began to question the scholarship offer to Pitts, a kid who lived in the shadow of Auburn's Jordan-Hare stadium but had drawn almost no interest from the Tigers. Others said not to worry, that Virginia Tech defensive backs coach Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward, who was recruiting Pitts, had found a classic diamond in the rough. Ward, who had solidified his reputation as a recruiter one year earlier by bringing in Pennsylvania's Kevin Jones, was certainly worthy of the benefit of the doubt.

A new piece of information seemed to bear out the diamond-in-the-rough theory: it was discovered that in early May, Pitts had set three records in the Alabama State 1A track meet: 10.97 seconds in the 100 meters, 21.95 seconds in the 200 meters, and 22 feet, 10 inches in the long jump.

His 100 meter time had beaten the old class 1A record by 0.16 seconds, his 200 meter time shaved an astounding 0.56 seconds off the previous record, and his long-jump was nearly a full foot longer than the old record. He also won the 300 meter intermediate hurdles in 41.01 seconds, beating the second-place finisher by over 1.2 seconds.

Doughty's reported 11.8 seconds in the 100 meter was in error of course, and he ran a correction shortly thereafter.

But the weekend of May 19th and 20th, mere days after his commitment to Virginia Tech, the previously-unheralded Montavis Pitts suddenly became a household name in college recruiting.

Accompanied by his coach, Pitts attended the Capital City Combine in Montgomery Alabama, and while there, he did something that changed his life forever: he lined up for the 40 yard dash and ran a combine-record 4.29, the fastest time recorded out of the 184 kids in attendance.

"I didn't really believe I had run a 4.29," the soft-spoken Pitts told the TSL Extra in a recent phone interview. "I had to ask 'em about two or three times."

Pitts was running on artificial turf in his track shoes, timed by two stopwatches. They lined him up for another run, and he did it again. "The second time," he said, "I ran a 4.33, because I hesitated a little bit on my start. But I was pretty consistent."

The 35 major-college scouts in attendance, from schools like Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama, and Notre Dame, were floored. Under NCAA rules, they weren't allowed to talk to Pitts, but they could certainly talk to Jerome Tate, his coach.

And talk they did. "I think I got twelve offers that day," Pitts said.

The reporters gathered around Pitts, and the superfast wide receiver from little Loachapoka wasn't a secret anymore. His stock shot up dramatically, and within weeks, he was named to the Rivals 100 list of the top one hundred recruits in the nation.

And among the Hokie faithful, the question was no longer whether Pitts was any good, but rather, whether or not Tech could hold him to his verbal commitment in the coming months. Buried with a flood of scholarship offers, Pitts expressed willingness to look elsewhere. On June 28th, he told Alabama web site BamaOnline.com, "Iíd say Tennessee is my favorite. Iím going to visit Florida in a couple of weeks. Just to look around and see the campus. I probably wonít decide where Iím going to go until a couple of days before signing day. If I do make a decision early, Iíll probably keep it to myself."

Those aren't exactly the words of a kid who's not wavering.

"Blessed. Truly Blessed."

Loachapoka is a small, impoverished town of about 250 residents, just five minutes from Auburn University. The school district has just over 400 students, including an enrollment of just over 200 at Loachapoka High School, which houses grades 7-12. The entire student body is African American.

"We've got decent facilities for a small school," said Loachapoka head coach Jerome Tate. "We've got an updated stadium -- our stadium will hold about 3,000 people. Basketball has been the mainstay here. We've got four boys state champions and two runner-ups. We've got one girls champion and three runner-ups. As a matter of fact, we just had a kid who finished at Vanderbilt, and a guy who played at Alabama named Walter Pitts (Montavis Pitts' second cousin). That was before my time here."

Tate knows how to evaluate talent. A 20-year high school football coaching veteran, he started coaching at Lanett High School in Lanett, Alabama and will be coaching his 7th season at Loachapoka this fall. He was an All-American defensive end at Alabama A&M in 1981. At Lanett, he coached several players who went on to play in college and the NFL, most notably Josh Evans, a defensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans, and Cliff Jackson and Tavakius Bonner, both of whom played at the University of Miami in the mid-late 90's.

"I'm not bragging, but I've got a little gift: I can spot good athletes," Tate says simply.

And he spotted Montavis Pitts early. While it is popular to think that Pitts is an overnight sensation, that's only to the outside world. Tate has known that Pitts was special for years. "In his first game he played as a ninth grader, we threw him a deep pass. He dropped it, but just to see him run with the grace and everything, I told the other coaches, when he becomes a senior, it's going to be a long line out there waiting on this boy. He was about 6 feet tall then, and he was dunking a basketball backwards in the ninth grade."

When asked to describe Pitts as an athlete, Tate says, "Blessed. Truly blessed. He is truly a special athlete. He's got a lot of God-given natural ability. He's fast, fast, fast, with great jumping ability. I donít want to put my foot in my mouth, but I think if he continues to work hard like he's been working here lately, I think he should be put in one of those categories like a Deion (Sanders).

"I'm looking at the kid, once he gets a little older and gets into a better weight and nutrition program, I really think he's going to pop a 4.1 (in the forty-yard dash). I honestly think that. He reminds me so much of John Stallworth (a former Pittsburgh Steelers receiving great) when he runs. I got a chance to look at John Stallworth work out while I was at Alabama A&M, and he's just so graceful."

Pitts played sparingly for Tate as a ninth-grader, returning a kickoff for a touchdown. As a tenth-grader, he was used primarily at receiver, where Tate says he had "29 or 30 catches for 7 touchdowns and close to 600 yards." (BamaOnline.com reported that Pitts caught 21 passes for 571 yards and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore).

As a junior, Pitts played a wide variety of positions (the school only turns out about 30 kids for football, and most play both ways), but his primary responsibility was on offense, where he played quarterback. He had 1,090 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, and 23 touchdowns. As the starting cornerback, he intercepted 5 passes, returning one for a 75-yard touchdown. Pitts also returned four kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns.

"Last year he got thrown into a position that he didn't want to play (quarterback)," said Tate. "He wanted to play receiver, and I wanted him to play receiver, but we had nobody else (to play quarterback)." In the coming season, Tate hopes to get Pitts back to the wide receiver position, which he sees him playing in college. That's fine with Pitts, who says that receiver is his favorite position.

But still Pitts remained an unknown, although he was receiving attention from some colleges. "Alabama and Ole Miss, they were writing me since tenth grade," Pitts said. "UAB and Southern Miss, Jacksonville State, Middle Tennessee State -- schools like that."

Knowing that he had a great player on his hands, Tate sent a highlight film of Pitts to Virginia Tech assistant coach Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward. An Alabama native, Ward had met Tate while Ward was coaching at UT Chattanooga and recruiting players that Tate coached at Lanett. "I trust Whammy, and that's why I went to him first, because I know he's going to shoot straight with me, and he knows I'm going to shoot straight with him," Tate said. "Whammy's a good friend of mine, and I was just sending a film to Whammy, and I knew Whammy would give me a good assessment on his (Pitts') abilities."

Tate got more than an assessment of Pitts' abilities. "Two weeks later, he called me back, and he told me they (Virginia Tech) wanted to sign him."

Pitts jumped on the offer right away. "I talked to him (Ward) on the phone and he came to visit me at school. I committed before he came to school."

The Capital City Combine

But things were about to take an interesting twist for Pitts. Anxious to unleash the talent Pitts has, Tate took his star player to the Capital City Combine the weekend of May 19 and 20 in Montgomery Alabama (Pitts had paid for the combine prior to his VT commitment). There, 184 high school players from throughout the state of Alabama were put through a series of drills in front of the watchful eyes of several dozen college scouts.

Tate had high hopes for Pitts at the combine. "I told him, 'Son, you're going to go down to the combine and blow it up.' To tell the truth, I honestly thought he was going to run a 4.25."

Pitts got close enough with his 4.29, dipping below the magical 4.30 in a controlled environment, in front of dozens of people, and sending the college recruiting world into a frenzy that will peak this fall when recruiters really start to hit him hard. "I had one coach tell me," Tate relates, "that once school starts back, he's probably going to get hit by every school in the nation."

For Pitts, the combine was an eye-opener in other ways. Thrown into the mix with the best players in the state, he felt good about how he stacked up against them. "I'm better than most of them, probably all of them. I don't want to brag, but that's my opinion. Most of them were pretty good, but that made me work even harder on the drills, because I was trying to beat them out. And I beat 'em.

"Can't too many people shut me down. I can stop myself. At receiver, I try to be like Peter Warrick. I have pretty good hands. I can dodge people, shake 'em down. I'm pretty versatile -- I can be used in many ways. I'm an extraordinary athlete, just explosive when I have the ball in my hands."

So he doesnít lack for confidence. Pitts is alternately boastful and reserved, vacillating back and forth between supreme assurance and wide-eyed wonder at the world that has suddenly opened up in front of him. On suddenly finding himself ranked among the top players in Alabama and in the top 100 in the country, he expresses a resolve to prove his new advocates right: "I have to go out and perform this year and show them that I'm one of the tops in the country. I'm going to live up to it."

He ran track for the first time last year at Tate's urging, and he feels that it improved his speed. "Since the middle of last season, I started hitting the weights pretty hard. I probably have about another inch or an inch and a half (to grow). Last season I weighed about 173 pounds, so I've gained about 7 pounds in the offseason."

Thankfully, there is one area that is not a concern for Pitts: qualifying academically. He is already a full qualifier, having scored a 17 on the ACT ("I didn't study for it," he admits, "I just went in and took it. I wasn't really worried about it"), with a GPA of 3.5. Pitts actually underestimates his GPA at 3.0 or 3.2, until Tate corrects him and says it is 3.5.

Pitts lives with his grandmother. His mother lives close by -- she moved to a nearby town, and Pitts wanted to stay with his grandmother in Loachapoka. His mother and grandmother emphasize academics, but Pitts says, "I stay on myself about my grades, and I try to do the best I can."

What a package. Speed, confidence, and academics. Things will get crazy starting this fall.

Recruiting Ö and the VT Commitment

Tate knows that he's going to have his hands full guiding the recruitment of Pitts. "The good thing about it, I've been in this situation before," the coach says, "with some of the other kids I've coached, and they'll tell me this and that, and what to look out for. So I guess I'm equipping him real well to deal with this.

"I told him your life is going to change here in the next couple of months. A lot of things are going to be coming at him. I just try to keep it real with him." Tate pauses. "Girls (laughs), agents -- you know, there's some agent right now working the Internet, seeing this kid who runs a 4.29, and they're not stupid. And they're going to say well hell, if this kid can prosper in college, you may be talking about a kid who can be a top 5 NFL draft pick.

"The only thing I'm going to try to do is just keep it kind of sane for me, more or less him, because Iím probably going to be the one they're talking to. The only request I'm going to have for schools is that they not bother him on Thursday night, the night before a game.

"We will sit down and talk, and I'll just try to tell him, make sure you choose well where you want to go, because that will stick with you the rest of your life. When they throw dirt over his face, wherever he chooses, that's where he's going to be for life."

Pitts is currently up to 21 scholarship offers, and Tate can't begin to remember them all at this point. "Florida, LSU, Bama, Auburn, VT Ö " He pauses, sighs, and utters a mild expletive before continuing, "Tennessee, Southern Miss, UAB, Middle Tennessee, Ole Miss ... did I say Southern Miss yet?" They're obviously all starting to run together for Tate, who says that no ACC schools or Big East schools (other than VT) have offered Pitts.

With regards to the all-important question of whether or not Pitts' commitment to Virginia Tech will stick, Tate doesn't know. "To be honest with you, that's one I can't answer for you. I think his main thing is, he wants to go somewhere where they're going to utilize his talents (as a receiver). If I can name a school -- one thing I've been telling him is that he'd be crazy to go to a school like Nebraska. That's not to say that they're not a great school, but they're not going to throw the ball.

"Coming from a small school, we didn't think he was going to get all the hits that he's been getting. But who's to say he still won't go to that commitment? I don't know. He's not telling me, and he says he's not going to say anything until about a day or two before signing day."

Pitts himself is very guarded on the subject, not answering questions directly. When asked if his commitment to Virginia Tech is firm, and what he plans on doing from here on out, he says, "Now I'm just going to wait. All these offers came so quick. I didnít expect them. I'm just going to wait it out."

And then he goes quiet, not offering up any more information.

Pitts says that so far, he has decided who three of his five official visits will be. He says that he will visit Virginia Tech, among others. "I have Virginia Tech, Florida, and Tennessee. Those are my top three visits. I still have to figure out my last two." (This conflicts with earlier published reports that said Pitts was going to visit Auburn and Alabama this season, but the other reports did not note if those would be official visits.)

Pitts has camped at Tennessee and Auburn this summer, but he's not likely to go to any other camps. Coach Tate notes, "Those dadgum camps can get expensive."

As for his childhood favorites, including the nearby Auburn Tigers, Pitts says, "I live right near Auburn, so I liked Auburn growing up. But Florida was probably my favorite. And Florida State. I have been to over 20, maybe over 30 Auburn games."

Regardless of whether Pitts stands by his commitment to Virginia Tech or decides to go elsewhere, he is an extraordinary story in the fascinating world of college football recruiting. Working on his game and taking care of his academics in a small school under the watchful eye of a coach who knew he was special, Pitts has suddenly had the world laid at his doorstep. Like most young men who aren't quite sure what's in store for them, his goals for the immediate future are simple and direct. Of the recruiting whirlwind that faces him, Pitts says:

"I'll try to have some fun with it. I know it can get on your nerves after a while. But it will be pretty exciting."

 

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