Pilof picks Rutgers

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Dennis Semrau/Special to the Times-Tribune
Middleton's Sam Pilof (center) is shown here with Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano (left) and his father, Paul (right).

The third time proved to be a charm for Sam Pilof.

Pilof, a junior linebacker at Middleton High School, took an unofficial recruiting visit to the Rutgers University campus in Piscataway, N.J. this past weekend.

On Saturday, Pilof took a big weight off of his shoulders when he verbally committed to head coach Greg Schiano to play football for the Scarlet Knights as a member of the 2024 recruiting class.

“It feels great. It’s hard to explain,” Pilof, said during a phone call on Sunday before he returned home. “Now I can just focus on my senior season and try and improve myself.”

After trimming his list of suitors to three, including the University of Wisconsin and Penn State University, Pilof said that he was prepared to make a decision during his third trip to the Rutgers’ campus.

He didn’t hesitate when asked ‘Why Rutgers?’

“Coach Schiano’s message and how the players all look up to him and how all the coaches are all bought in and the family atmosphere,” Pilof said. “Coach Schiano is just amazing. All the coaches basically recruited me, but I loved my position coach, all the defensive coaches.”

Schiano, who has guided Rutgers football to a program-record five bowl championships, is in his third season back as the head football coach “On the Banks.” The Wyckoff, New Jersey, native is in his second stint with the Scarlet Knights after taking the program to new heights from 2001-11.

One of the top recruits in Wisconsin, Pilof also held a Power Five offer from Iowa State. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Pilof is the fourth commit for the Rutgers 2024 recruiting class and the first player on the defensive side of the ball.

He joins commitments from quarterback AJ Surace (Lawrenceville, N.J.), offensive lineman Kenny Jones (Delran, N.J.) and athlete Gabriel Winowich (Franklin, Mich.). Those four verbal commitments have boosted Rutgers’ 2024 recruiting class up to No. 33 in the nation.

Pilof’s playing time was limited as a junior in 2022 due to an injury, but he still finished with 68 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

“I only played about four games because of a severe high ankle sprain,” said Pilof, who still was able to earn All-Big Eight Conference second-team and all-region honors. “I don’t care about the accolades. I just want to play football.”

Rivals, 247Sports and On3 designate him as a three-star linebacker.

When reached by phone on Sunday, Pilof was shopping at Scarlet Fever, a campus store.

“I’m buying a bunch of clothes for the family,” said Pilof, who said he arrived Friday and had an enjoyable weekend. “I got the whole treatment. The whole bit. They were great. It’s the best coaching staff in the country.”

While he grew up a Wisconsin fan, Pilof said Rutgers “is a good fit.”

“I wanted to get out of Wisconsin,” he added. “I wanted to go away to school. I have a lot of family out East, North Jersey, South Jersey, Brooklyn, South Philly. I have a lot of uncles and aunts.”

Former Middleton defensive coordinator Brad Rogeberg — who coached Pilof the last three seasons — said he was excited to hear that Pilof would be continuing his football career in the Big Ten.

“He’s a Big Ten player. He really is,” Rogeberg said. “I think he’ll do well there. I’m actually glad he’s getting out of this area and going somewhere a little bit different. I’m glad for him. He’s looking to grow as a player, grow as a person in a different environment. So I’m glad he’s doing that.

“His dad is from the area. They were the first team that showed him a lot of love. He’s excited.”

Pilof previously announced an offer from Wisconsin’s former staff under coach Paul Chryst in June, 2022. He said he made unofficial visits to Illinois, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Penn State, Purdue and UW during the 2022 season. 

But Pilof said he never forgot that Rutgers was in the picture from the beginning of the recruiting process.

“I received my offer from Rutgers on March 18, 2022 over Zoom,” Pilof said. “They were my first offer. They meant a lot. They’re loyal.”

Pilof, who announced his commitment Saturday evening via his social media, said he informed Schiano of his decision in a memorable way. 

“I said to him, ‘I know where I am going.’ And he said ‘where?’ I just started doing the chop motion and he jumped up and was super excited,” Pilof said. “I just decided it was going to happen today. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Pilof, who said he was unsure if he would early enroll in January, watched the Rutgers practice on Saturday and was impressed with the facilities.

“I have been there three times,” he said. “The new recovery suite is pretty sweet.”

He said the Rutgers staff had been recruiting him hard.

“They were always loyal to me,” Pilof said. “I am loyal myself so loyalty is a big thing for me.”

Pilof played inside and outside, depending on matchups for the Cardinals. According to Rogeberg, Pilof’s acceleration is “off the charts.”

“He’s got a great nose for the ball. In my 30 years of coaching, you don’t get many kids like that. He plays at a different level. His speed game is impressive,” Rogeberg said. “In our first game against Waunakee, he played inside linebacker in that game. He had a high ankle sprain and missed some time unfortunately. He rehabbed hard to get back.”

Pilof will be a four-year varsity player this fall, moving up to the varsity in a situational role as a freshman during the 2021 alternate spring season. He has been a rising star ever since.

“My challenge to him was that when he first came out, we knew he could rush the quarterback. He had that skill,” Rogeberg added. “I’ve been working on him to be more well-rounded, closing down on runs, playing with his hands, playing with his leverage.

“That’s the biggest challenge I have with Sam every year, is showing him another aspect of the game he’s got to get better at. He’s up for the challenge.”

Pilof was originally expected to announce his decision in January, but admitted that he was glad he waited.

“I just changed my mind on where I wanted to go and jumped the gun too early,” he said. “Wisconsin offered. I had an offer from them, but just chose Rutgers over them and Penn State. But I knew I wanted to play in the Big Ten, of course.”

Pilof, who plans to study Exercise Science in college, is competing for the Middleton lacrosse team this spring after running track as a junior.

“I ran track last year, the 100 and 200. But I’ve played lacrosse my whole life,” said Pilof, who is a midfielder. “I just did track for football because the coaches liked seeing times. I like the physical nature of lacrosse. It’s a lot of fun.”

When asked to describe himself on the football field, Pilof said “tough and nasty. That’s what Rutgers liked about me.”

Rogeberg agreed.

“He’s relentless. He practices that way,” Rogeberg said. “If it’s Monday or Tuesday, Sam’s not just going through the motions. It doesn’t matter what day it is. Sam goes hard. He gets after it. He just likes to compete. It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday under the lights or it’s Tuesday and it’s scout team, he gets after it. He’s got a lot of intangibles.”

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