It didn't take long for Peter Gambardella, the football coach at Curtis High School in Staten Island, N.Y., to realize he had something special on his hands when he put Dominique Easley into his lineup two years ago.
"In his sophomore year, we went undefeated. But, in the eighth week, we were losing to our rival, 20-6,'' Gambardella said. "In the second half, he sacked the punter. Then he blocked a punt that his brother, David, who was a senior, returned for a touchdown. Finally, he picked up a fumble and returned it 80 yards for a touchdown. We won, 26-20.''
That was only the beginning. Last year, Easley returned fumbles for touchdowns in consecutive games and almost took an intercepted screen pass back for a score the following week. Last week, he had three sacks and two forced fumbles.
That's why ESPNU rates Easley, a 6-foot-2, 258-pound defensive lineman, as the 41st-best prospect in the country, and why it appears Penn State has landed another good one for its 2010 recruiting class.
The Nittany Lions continued to remove all the drama from signing day in February by getting Easley, the consensus top player in the state of New York this year, to become the 18th member of a class expected to number 20 or 21 players on his official visit to University Park over the weekend. At least 15 of the players that have committed are rated four stars or better on the five-star scale used by the two major scouting web sites, Rivals.com and Scout.com.
"I always liked Penn State,'' Easley, who committed Saturday after the Lions defeated Temple, told the Staten Island Advance. "I didn't think I was going to commit, but being out there and talking to everybody made me feel like this was the place.''
Easley had 18 scholarship offers, including those from Florida, Miami, Georgia, Boston College, Rutgers, Oregon, Michigan, Syracuse, Pitt, UCLA, Tennessee and Texas Tech. Reportedly, he was close to committing to the Gators on a summer camp visit but dropped the defending national champions when they asked him to delay his pledge. Since then, Penn State seemed to be in the driver's seat.
Easley had visited Penn State for spring practice and attended a game last year. This, however, was the first chance for his father, David, a serviceman stationed in South Carolina, to see the university with him.
"The education is unbelievable, and Coach [Larry] Johnson is the coach for me because he reminds me of my high school coach," Easley said via text message to NittanyNetwork.com.
In addition to his lofty ranking by ESPN, Easley is also ranked in the nation's top 151 senior players by both Scout and Rivals and has already been invited to the Under Armour All-American Game.
Easley is considered an outstanding pass rusher, a product of an explosive first step and above-average power. As a junior, he recorded 10 sacks. In Curtis' 2-1 start this season, he already has 25 tackles and five sacks.
"He showed he had the ability to take over games,'' Gambardella said. "He definitely worked on his game in the offseason. He's coming off the ball extremely well, using his hands well. He has the kind of quickness you rarely see.''
Easley, who has timed at 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash, is the fifth defensive lineman to have committed to Penn State for this class, joining Michigan's C.J. Olaniyan - who committed last week - hybrid linebacker Dakota Royer of Manheim Central, Central York's Kyle Baublitz, Virginia's Evan Hailes and Johnson City, N.Y.'s DaQuan Jones, who is ranked the No. 2 player in his state behind Easley.
Easley is considered a defensive end, but there is speculation that he could eventually grow into a tackle or, as the Nittany Lions are apt to do, be utilized at both positions depending on the situation.
"I think he saw what went on [with Penn State's defensive linemen] at practice last spring,'' Gambardella said. "We're moving him back around. He's big enough to play inside, and he's quick enough to play outside.''