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October 25, 2010

Stanford also winning off the field

Devon Cajuste wanted to commit to Stanford hours after arriving on campus.

Highly interested in coach Jim Harbaugh and the football program already, Cajuste quickly fell in love with the community, the debonair campus, the rigorous academic curriculum.

The Flushing (N.Y.) Holy Cross three-star wide receiver was in a different world - and loved it. No noisy, gridlocked streets like back home. No crowded sidewalks. The juxtaposition of Queens and Palo Alto could not have been more striking.

It's not that Cajuste, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, dislikes New York City or was aching to leave his family and friends 3,000 miles behind, but Cajuste knew Stanford was right for him. This was it.

He just knew, you know?

"I begged my dad to commit," Cajuste said. "He told (Harbaugh) that I have to wait. I wanted to commit on the spot so I didn't hesitate at all."

Stanford has that effect on many recruits. The Cardinal have more commits (22) than any other Pac-10 program and, while others are scrambling to land pledges during the season, Harbaugh and his staff are putting the final touches on their class. All 22 were committed before Stanford's first game this season.

More than one-third of Stanford's class is four-star prospects and they come from all across the country. Linebacker James Vaughters is from Tucker, Ga. Remound Wright plays in Fort Wayne, Ind. Anthony Sarao, an outside linebacker, is out of Absecon, N.J.

Players from 12 different states - including Louisiana and Minnesota, hardly hotbeds for Stanford recruiting in years past - and Washington, D.C., are represented in its 2011 class. Getting a hodgepodge of players from different regions is necessary, Harbaugh said, but also a luxury because it's like "mining for gold."

"You want to find the best players and the best students and the best people you can find," Harbaugh said. "I feel like those youngsters can come from anywhere throughout the country."

Since being named head coach in December 2006, Harbaugh has implemented his style in recruiting and on gameday, and it's working magnificently. Stanford's record has improved every year since he's been there.

Stanford is 6-1 overall, ranked No. 13 in the BCS and Associated Press poll. Its only loss came at Oregon, now the No. 1 team in the AP and coaches polls, after the Cardinal led the Ducks by 18 points after the first quarter.

Harbaugh's first statement arrived Oct. 6, 2007, in his first season. He led perennial doormat into the Los Angeles Coliseum to face No. 1 monster USC. Stanford pulled off one of the most shocking upsets of the decade, ending USC's 35-game home winning streak with a 24-23 victory.

From there, it's only been up for Stanford. The Cardinal won eight games last season, the most since 2001.

But as impressive as Harbaugh's victories on the field have been, his wins in the recruiting battles might be better.

Stanford, despite its stringent academic requirements and lack of football history, currently sits No. 8 in Rivals.com's 2011 rankings. That's ahead of Florida, Georgia, Auburn and USC.

Last year, Harbaugh hauled in the No. 26 recruiting class, following his No. 20 showing in 2009. The 2008 class, Harbaugh's first (he came in late in the recruiting process for the 2007 class) was No. 50.

Prior to Harbaugh's arrival, Stanford had finished dead last in the Pac-10 twice in three seasons.

So how has Harbaugh managed to pull off so many upsets in the recruiting game?

"He's a real guy," said Evan Crower, a three-star quarterback from San Diego (Calif.) St. Augustine committed to Stanford since September 2009. "He's funny. He's a coach that people dream of playing for. That's why I respect him and like him a lot."

Cajuste said: "He really treats you like he's no different than you. You obviously have that respect for him because he is the head coach but he's like a family member already. He hugs you, he laughs with you he treats you no different than his own family. He's just an overall outgoing, amazing guy."

The academics also can be a positive when recruiting. Multiple prospects Rivals.com contacted welcomed the challenging academic standards.

"I don't like being easygoing through things. I know Stanford is a challenge," Cajuste said. "It's going to challenge my entire life in all aspects. That's what I'm looking for."

Like many successful coaches, rumors persist that Harbaugh will leave Stanford at some point. The hottest rumor is that the former Michigan quarterback will return to Ann Arbor to replace Rich Rodriguez following this season.

His brother, John, is a successful head coach with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens, and talk of Jim leaving for an NFL gig seem to hang over Stanford, as well. According to reports, Harbaugh interviewed for the New York Jets job in January 2009 prior to Rex Ryan's hiring. Last offseason, reports swirled around Harbaugh being courted by the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills.

This pattern has not gone unnoticed in the recruiting world. Crower said he's heard the rumors, is aware Harbaugh might be offered other jobs and that "it's a pretty big concern of everyone, of all the recruits."

But Crower said even if Harbaugh left he'd probably stick with Stanford. There is something special about the place, Cajuste said.

"It had this aura about it," Cajuste said. "When you walk there you grasp the history and the players that have gone through there and the people themselves. Everyone is so happy and proud to be at Stanford and you can sense that feeling when you walk onto campus.

"There was just this weird aura about it. I just knew that's where I wanted to go."



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