One of the most impressive football recruiting hauls in ACC history was accomplished by a single assistant coach working without the benefit of a staff and in remote territory.
When Joe Pate came back from Alabama in the late winter of 1999 with quarterback Philip Rivers and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, the foundation for a record setting offensive era at N.C. State was secured.
Pate was selected by then-Wolfpack athletics director Les Robinson to stay in touch with recruiting targets following the dismissal of Mike O'Cain and most of his staff by school chancellor Marye Anne Fox in late November.
The signings of Rivers and Cotchery rate as classic examples of how misleading recruit ratings can be.
Cotchery, out of small Phillips High in Birmingham, was hardly recruited. He got feelers from Alabama-Birmingham, Memphis and Southern Miss, but was seen more as a mid-major basketball prospect than a football catcher.
"I don't know that Jerricho had any stars in the five-star recruit rating system," Pate said. "If he did, it was probably just one star or maybe two. He didn't go to the Auburn or Alabama summer camps, so I guess it was just assumed that he wasn't really a top-level player."
Rivers, playing at Athens High on a team coached by his father, got interest from Auburn as a tight end and from then-Mississippi coach David Cutcliffe.
"Coach Cutcliffe knew Philip was a great quarterback prospect, but he might have been the only one," Pate said.
When Chuck Amato was eventually hired off the Florida State staff to become the Wolfpack head coach, he rushed to secure the commitment from Rivers that had originally been made to O'Cain and Pate. But on the Florida State recruiting board, Rivers was listed relatively low.
With the San Diego Chargers, Rivers has become an NFL star. Cotchery, in seven seasons with the New York Jets and one with Pittsburgh, has 374 career receptions for almost 5,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
"A lot of the credit for those two goes to Coach O'Cain," said Pate, now an assistant athletics director for the Pack. "He did a great job of selling the players on State as a school. That made a big difference."
Pate's recruiting territory, dating back to the Dick Sheridan era at N.C. State, had included Alabama.
"If you recruit a certain area as long as I did in Alabama, you develop communication lines with the high school coaches," Pate said. "Of course, I'd known Philips' father (Steve) for a long time, and I didn't have any doubt about what he could do. Then when he got here, he got great coaching from Norm Chow.
"But it's interesting that in Philip's senior high school season, Athens played Phillips. Steve told me that if we could get Jerricho, we should. I remember Steve telling me, 'Cotchery's the kind of kid that Florida State's been beating everybody with.' He was right, and Jerricho was like Philip - just as good a person as a football player."
Being the inexact undertaking that it is, football recruiting has always been wildly unpredictable. Five-star players routinely turn out to be busts, and long-shots develop into stars. Here are three other regional examples of players who exceeded recruiting expectations:
Ted Brown, NCSU: The all-time leading rusher in ACC history had two scholarship offers as a 5-foot-9, 170-pounder at High Point Andrews. He picked the Wolfpack over ECU in 1974. After being relegated to the junior varsity team during his first month at N.C. State, Brown almost transferred to ECU. But he stayed, soon got his chance and rushed for 4,602 yards in regular-season games and went on to a seven-year career with the Minnesota Vikings.
Jeff Blake, ECU: As a high school quarterback in Sanford, Fla., during the late 1980s, Blake was 6-0, 170 pounds and deemed too small to play the position at the college level. Only ECU promised him a legitimate chance to play quarterback. He responded by leading the '91 team to an 11-1 record, finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy vote and went on to pass for almost 22,000 yards in the NFL.
Darian Durant, UNC: Although the 5-11, 205-pound Durant wound up in the Canadian Football League rather than the NFL, his story was much the same as Blake's. At Wilson High in Florence, S.C., Durant was a standout quarterback but recruited almost exclusively as a defensive back by colleges. He had a two-star rating in the 2000 class. At UNC, he got a break, made the most of it and passed for almost 9,000 yards in spite of injury problems.