Football recruiters hit paydirt in three states

James Hawkins and Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

It’s no coincidence Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s month-long satellite camp tour included 21 stops throughout the South and California, and that Michigan held four of its spring practices at IMG Academy in Florida.

According to Detroit News research, resulting in a database of 2015 season-ending rosters for all NFL teams, Harbaugh was in the most fertile recruiting grounds for top football players.

The database breaks down where each player went to high school and college, and what positions he plays.

Roughly 33 percent of players on NFL rosters at the end of last season came from high schools in Florida, California and Texas.

Florida led the way with 213 players, or 11.7 percent of all NFL players, including players on injured reserve. California was a close second with 207 players (11.4 percent) and Texas was third with 184 players (10.1 percent). Following a significant dropoff, Georgia ranked fourth (125 players, 6.9 percent) and Ohio (88 players, 4.8 percent) fifth to round out the top five states.

Florida, California and Texas high schools also dominated the rest of the country at sending the most quarterbacks (40.4 percent), running backs (41.3 percent), fullbacks (40 percent), wide receivers (38.5 percent), offensive linemen (27.9 percent), defensive ends (29.2 percent), cornerbacks (42.2 percent), safeties (38.4 percent) and kickers (40.6 percent) to the NFL, ranking as the top three states at each position.

Broken down regionally, The News’ study found the South had six of the top 10 talent-rich states compared to one in the West (California) and Midwest (Ohio) and two in the Northeast (New Jersey and Pennsylvania). Those six southern states – Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina – accounted for 705 NFL players, or 38.8 percent of all NFL rosters.

One reason Florida, California and Texas send the most preps to the pros is population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, California boasted the highest population in 2015 at 39 million, followed by Texas (27 million) and Florida (20 million).

But there are other factors at play, from weather and spring football to year-round training and funding.

“You look at the culture in those states like Florida and Texas, specifically, and football is ingrained in the culture there,” ESPN college football recruiting analyst and reporter Tom VanHaaren said. “It's such a huge part of who they are.

“I was at one of the high schools (in Dallas) for a camp and the facilities that they have, they had an indoor stadium that some college programs would be envious of and stadiums that cost millions of dollars because (football) is so important to them.”

Longtime high school recruiting analyst Tom Lemming drives all 48 states and said in Florida, any “little dink town” makes it a priority to fund the football program no matter how poor it is.

Lemming recalled a trip he made a couple years ago to a small town in South Carolina to meet a coach and a player at a McDonald’s. Instead of professional athletes, the fast-food restaurant had pictures of local high school players on the walls.

“Down in the South, football is king. You got people tailgating everywhere; it's like going to a college game at these high school games,” said Lemming, co-host of the national weekly high school recruiting show “The Lemming Report” on CBS Sports Network.

“These kids see that at the age of 5 and 6, their heroes are not anybody from the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Bulls or Pistons. Their heroes are the high school kids they get to know in their own small community. You don't see that in the North.”

You also don’t see spring football, something Lemming, in his 37th year covering recruiting, said most of the northern states used to have before it was cut in the 1970s.

As a result, high school players in warmer states are at an advantage because they are able to compete and train constantly, from football season to weight training to spring football to 7-on-7 camps until the cycle starts all over again.

“I think the competition factor is so big. What makes such good football players at the next level is being able to handle the pressure and being able to handle the level of competition because everybody is good, whether it's the college level or NFL,” VanHaaren said. “Having that practice and just having the repetition of competing against really good players and knowing what to handle in a stressful situation and how to handle it, I think that's really important for being successful at a higher level.

“Having the opportunity to play against really good competition – not just anybody – all year round is a huge factor."

Leveling the playing field

Clearly, if colleges are looking for NFL-caliber talent, their best bet is to travel the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast and California.

But how do schools in the Big Ten, like Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, compete with the SEC and ACC to tap into these fertile areas?

Satellite camps.

For example, if a Big Ten coach realizes he doesn’t have the number of players within his region he needs to elevate the program, he can cast a wider net and go into areas where those players are.

"In today's recruiting landscape, everything is so accelerated. You want to get freshmen, you want to get sophomores, you want to get juniors on your campus in an unofficial capacity,” said Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director and college football analyst for ESPN.

“It's hard to do that in the Big Ten when you're trying to get a kid from Florida to make an unofficial visit to your campus as a sophomore when he can actually get in a car and go see 10 programs in five days within 200 miles of where he lives. Because it's harder to have that interaction and get kids on campus, you try to combat that and compensate by doing satellite camps. They can't come to you, so you go to them."

According to VanHaaren, Ohio State has had the most success of any non-SEC or ACC school recruiting the South partially because of Urban Meyer, who has ties to Florida after coaching the Gators from 2005-10.

It also helps Meyer is proven winner, leading the Gators to two BCS national championships (2006, 2008) and Ohio State to the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship.

“That name recognition, the big-name coach is drawing (prospects). The ability to win at a high level will draw them there. If you don't have that stuff, it's going to be really difficult to draw them out of the South because they have all that right at home,” VanHaaren said. “There are plenty of schools they can go to right at home where they can win at a high level. Or if they're not at a championship level, there's still the other option for them and they can stay in the warm weather, they can stay in the South and still compete down there and their family can watch them.”’s Josh Helmholdt, who covers college football recruiting in the Midwest, said the expansion of social media and prospect video on demand on websites like Hudl and YouTube has made recruiting on a national scale easier. Social media allows coaches to build relationships and stay in touch with prospects while online videos let coaching staffs instantly find and evaluate a player.

Neither, though, offer the face-to-face interaction that a camp provides.

"The more face time you get with a prospect, the deeper that relationship is going to be, the stronger that bond is going to be,” Helmholdt said. “That's why the satellite camps – certainly Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska have utilized them extensively – are definitely a tool that Big Ten schools are using to their advantage."

Still, good players can be anywhere, but college coaches know where the top talent comes from consistently.

“If I was in coaching, I would be doing as many satellite camps as I possibly could, and the reason I would be doing them would be recruiting,” said Gerry DiNardo, a Big Ten Network analyst who was previously head coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana.

“Satellite camps are for schools that want to recruit outside their footprint during a non-evaluation, non-contact period where they can have an evaluation and contact.”

Different strategies

Michigan and Michigan State have had success recruiting the nation in their own way.

Twelve of Michigan’s 18 commits for 2017 are from outside the Midwest, with two apiece from Connecticut, Florida and Georgia, and one from Alabama, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Virginia and Montreal. Michigan’s 2016 class followed a similar trend with 23 of its 29 commits from outside the Midwest, including six from New Jersey and Florida, and three from California.

Curtis Blackwell

Michigan State has three 2017 commits from Florida, and had two of its 20 from New Jersey for 2016.

While the South is a priority for Michigan State, its primary focus is Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, western Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

“Due to time, we can’t spend as much time in the South as much as we can in the Midwest,” said Curtis Blackwell, Michigan State’s director of college advancement and performance who oversees recruiting. “If we only have one day off and we can go out recruiting for one day, by the time you get to California and back or by the time you get to Texas and back, that’s a whole day of travel, whereas you can go hit 10 schools in the state of Michigan in one day just by driving from your office straight to those areas.”

Blackwell said Michigan State staff attended camps in Georgia, Florida and Texas — the three primary southern states the program hones in on — but distance has been an obstacle to get players to make unofficial visits.

“Our brand is strong in the Midwest, so we have been fortunate that we’ve been able to get a lot of good players from the Midwest,” Blackwell said. “We try to get a lot of top players from the South, but we just have not had a lot of success getting those guys to visit our campus. So we go recruit a kid, we say we like these five guys in Florida, but if they don’t come visit our campus, then we can’t move the process along.”

Plenty to go around

Al Golden was Miami coach from 2011-15, and the Hurricanes spent the majority of time recruiting Florida. Of the 15 Miami commitments for 2017, 11 are from Florida, and in the 18-player 2016 class, 16 are from Florida.

After being fired last October, Golden joined the Lions as tight ends coach and is working with a group of players that includes two from Texas, one from Florida, one from North Carolina, and one apiece from Illinois and Maine.

Previous experiences showed Golden talented players could come from anywhere. When he was at Temple, the Owls went 9-4 in their third season in the Mid-American Conference, and Golden said his staff focused on recruiting within five hours of Philadelphia, an area with immense population that includes New York.

Then, at Miami, Golden said his staff once did a study that looked at what high school area NFL picks were from, breaking it down by position. Golden said the study found that about 470 Division I players were from Florida, so even if Miami, Florida and Florida State dominated the state’s recruiting, there were plenty of players for other teams.

During his first year with the Hurricanes, Golden said Miami Central High had 17 players go Division I.

“That’s about the equivalent of New York state and all of New England,” he said. “So think about being a coach in the Midwest or the Mid-Atlantic: Where would you spend your money? It got to the point where we had two and three coaches assigned to some of those high schools (in Florida).”

Staying at home

Incarnate Word, where Lions rookie tight end Cole Wick played, is a newer program, holding its inaugural season in 2009 and joining the Football Championship Subdivision in 2013. Wick and linebacker Myke Tavarres, who signed with the Eagles, became the school’s first two NFL players this year.

Yet, being in San Antonio puts Incarnate Word’s staff in the heart of a fertile recruiting area. So, besides a few California trips and some looks at junior college players, coach Larry Kennan said his staff recruits almost exclusively in Texas.

“Texas has so many good players that you can get overlooked,” he said, noting that’s what happened with Wick, who was part of a graduating class of 26 students at Sacred Heart Catholic High in Hallettsville, Texas, about 100 miles east of San Antonio.

“In recruiting, probably No. 1 in importance is your location, because if you can get what you want at home, most guys would do that rather than go away.”

Incarnate Word’s roster for 2016 lists four players with hometowns outside Texas — Louisiana, California, Illinois, and England.

A popular selling point in recruiting is tradition, but with little history, Kennan said he tries to pitch players on creating the program’s tradition. Having former NFL running back Ricky Williams on staff helps. Kennan winning a Super Bowl as an assistant with the Raiders helps, too.

But with a limited recruiting budget, being in Texas is the biggest factor as the school tries to pick up kids that other in-state powers passed on.

“We’re not really trying to project to the NFL,” he said. “What we’re selling to guys is that if they come here and they’re good enough, we can coach them well enough because of our backgrounds in the NFL, that they’ll have a chance to go to the NFL.”

‘Recruiting niche’

When DiNardo was an assistant at Colorado from 1982-90, he and the rest of Bill McCartney’s staff had to think outside the box. He said there weren’t enough good prospects in Colorado, so much of the recruiting happened in California and Texas, as well as Michigan because McCartney was from Metro Detroit.

The process eventually paid dividends as the Buffaloes won the national championship in 1990.

“We succeeded because we found our recruiting niche,” DiNardo said.

DiNardo coached at Vanderbilt from 1991-94, and because of the academic requirements, he had to search more nationally. Use of a private plane also was critical, and he said his staff would spend more time sending handwritten notes to recruits.

Then he moved to LSU in 1995 and was back in the heart of recruiting heaven, focusing primarily on Louisiana with several other hotbeds nearby.

DiNardo said he never targeted specific players for specific positions. And he’d be surprised if many teams concentrated efforts in such a way.

“You’re obviously trying to reach out to the most populated areas and where football is the most important, which is the SEC footprint,” he said. “So if you’re outside the SEC footprint and you want to recruit the SEC footprint, you do what Jim Harbaugh does.”

Moving south

The South wasn’t always the most fertile recruiting ground brimming with NFL players.

When Lemming first started scouting high school prospects in 1978, California, Texas and Florida all had good players, but the talent was more equally spread throughout West, Midwest, South and Northeast.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Lemming began noticing a gradual shift to the southern states when the Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland public schools stopped producing as many players as they had been in the 1980s.

“I remember in 1985 Chicago had 141 kids get full rides to Division I and Division I-AA,” Lemming said. “Now they can’t get close to 100 and that sort of parallels the other major cities in the North,”

The change was sparked 20-30 years ago when mills and factories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois shut down, eliminating blue-collar jobs. As a result, families migrated South, leading to a decrease in population and quality of football in the Midwest, and an increase in the Southeast.

“I also think you’re seeing some increases as a result of resources, money, whatever it is that has been placed into athletics at the high school level or even prior to that at the youth level,” Luginbill said. “Whether it’s facilities, whether it’s resources to allow for more offseason and year-round training, you have an opportunity to make the player better earlier and you have the opportunity with more high schools, more population for more kids going out for football. And that’s more a result of evolution and time changing.”

One change Lemming doesn’t foresee, though, is another shift in the recruiting hotbeds.

“The northern coaches spend half their time or more than half their time recruiting in the South now,” he said. “So you’re not going to see that trend changing. There are fewer and fewer kids getting scholarships in the Midwest as opposed to 30 years ago. And I don’t see that trend changing.”

Geoff Robinson contributed to this report.