February 17, 2012

Recruiting raiders find talent in other's territory

Nothing beats home cooking, but sometimes you gotta rely on take-out.

That even applies to college football recruiting.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly would love to stock his roster full of Oregonians and then cherry pick a few elite out of state prospects. Alas, the state of Oregon's rather modest population (fewer than four million) doesn't allow such luxury.

"There are a lot of good players here," Kelly said. "(Ndamukong) Suh was an Oregon kid. Kellen Clemens was. We've got a lot of Oregon kids on our roster. The talent level is in comparison to anywhere, but the volume isn't. So you have 'X' amount in California and 'Y' amount in Oregon. The top players in our state match up well with kids across the country, there just isn't as many."

That's a common issue for most college football programs. Talent isn't distributed evenly across the country and aspiring programs must go into prime recruiting areas in other states and try to take out a top prospect or two.

That's no easy task.

Rivals.com looked at the last four recruiting classes to determine the college football programs that are having the most success recruiting the top prospects within a 50-mile radius of four prime recruiting areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Houston and Chicago.

Not surprisingly, Georgia and nearby South Carolina led with 21 state-ranked prospects from the Atlanta area in the last four years. Illinois leads with 13 Chicago-area signees in that span. Texas leads with 24 in Dallas and 16 in Houston with Texas A&M and Oklahoma not far behind.

But that doesn't mean it's not worth it for others to try. The ones who do are finding there is a huge quantity of quality.

Just ask Oklahoma State. It knows it will never dominate in Dallas, but it has discovered less-heralded prospects can still have a big impact.

"We used to try to get one out of 10 (prospects) from those schools," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "There are so many players in Texas that you may get somebody who is a three-star, and he'll become a three-year starter for you and help you win nine or ten games.

"Dallas is huge for us. It's a three-hour drive so we consider that in-state. The Houston kids like living here because it's a college town, it's a safe place to live and it's far enough away from home but not too far. It's similar to Atlanta for us. We've gotten some players from Atlanta schools."

Oklahoma State isn't the only school that has learned the trick - just ask Texas.

"I think the competition is becoming more and more fierce because of all the programs outside the state you're finding coming into the area," Texas recruiting coordinator Bruce Chambers said. "For a long time, it was the old Southwest Conference schools and the Big 12 schools. Now, you're finding Big Ten schools ... Pac-12 schools ... it really has intensified."

One of those new outsiders is Oregon's Kelly.

Kelly concedes he cannot compete for quantity with USC in Los Angeles or Texas in Dallas or Houston, so he aims for quality.

"I know I'm not going to do a great job going head to head with Texas. They're the local school and they get the pick of the litter," Kelly said. "The kids we've got from Texas are the ones Texas didn't offer."

Ironically, Texas' incredible success rate actually helps others.

"One of the great things that (Texas coach) Mack Brown has done for us is that usually their recruiting is (largely) done in April," Kelly said. "We know who is committed to Texas, so we can move on. We know we're not going to win those battles, so we're not going to waste our time. We let the first wave go through and then we go to the next kid. The kids we got - LaMichael James and Darron Thomas - worked out well for us."

Oregon lured Thomas out of Houston in 2008. The Ducks won two conference championships, reached the 2010 national championship game and won the Rose Bowl last season with him as the starting quarterback.

Stanford has similar success stories in the Lone Star State.

The Cardinal signed quarterback Andrew Luck out of Houston in 2008 and running back Stepfan Taylor out of the Dallas area in 2009. Luck was a two-time Heisman runner-up and Taylor has had two 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Cardinal.

Additionally, Stanford signed linebacker Chase Thomas from the Atlanta area in 2008.

Luck, Taylor and Thomas played prominent roles in helping transform Stanford from one of the country's weakest teams into one that has posted 23 victories and has finished in among the nation's top 10 in each of the last two seasons.

The Cardinal has signed six more players from the Atlanta area in the past four years.

Of course, Stanford is far from alone in mining the talent-rich Atlanta area.

Alabama, which is about 200 miles away, has signed 15 highly rated Atlanta players, including six players this year. Five of them were ranked among the state's top 20 prospects.

Auburn also has signed 15 recruits in the past five years.

Even long-suffering Vanderbilt, hoping to duplicate Stanford's sudden rise, has signed nine Atlanta-area prospects, including three this year.

Georgia may the leader in Atlanta, but NCAA scholarship limitations (25 per year) ensure there are plenty of very good players to go around.

"It's just a matter of sheer numbers," said Jep Irwin, the head coach at suburban-Atlanta Marietta Lassiter High School. "I don't think the University of Georgia has the allotted days admissible and staff to go out and visit and see all the kids you need to see and make all the kids a top priority.

"Look at all of Alabama's success. South Carolina is doing better. Auburn won a national championship two years ago. There are a lot of schools that are pretty close. Tuscaloosa is about a five-hour drive. Auburn is an hour and a half. Geographically, it's just difficult for Georgia to put a lock down on this area. They've done a great job recruiting great players, but they can only sign a maximum of 25."

Irwin has hosted recruiters from coast to coast in recent years. In the last few years, Lassiter players have signed with N.C. State, Georgia, Auburn and UCLA among others.

Dozens of other schools in that area have also sent players into the college ranks. And more than a few of them did not grow up dreaming to play for Georgia or Georgia Tech.

"The area has changed," Irwin said. "Atlanta is now an international metro area and there are not as many families that have grown up as life-long Georgia fans."

It's just another reason why programs shouldn't concede areas to the area powers.

In some metropolitan areas, a couple of programs may have an advantage but do not dominate.

That's especially true in Chicago, which once was primarily Notre Dame's territory.

Over the past four years Illinois has signed almost twice as many state-ranked Chicago-area players as anyone else (Iowa has seven), but it hasn't gotten the top-rated prospects.

"No one dominates Chicago recruiting," said Rivals Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Hemholdt. "It is the wild, wild west out there."

Actually, modern conveniences have made a difference.

"Chicago kids will go anywhere in the country," Hemholdt said. "You've got O'Hare airport, which flies to every mom and pop airstrip in the country, and Midway, which is a Southwest Airlines hub. Chicago kids can get to any place in the country in under three hours.

"Teams like Iowa, Illinois, Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and obviously Northwestern always recruit that region, but you also had kids go to Auburn, Florida, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Stanford, etc., out of Chicago in this last class."

Of course, it cuts both ways. One of the reasons Notre Dame no longer dominates Chicago is that it may no longer need to.

"Chicago used to be prime Notre Dame recruiting territory, and Chicago is filled with Notre Dame fans - shoot, Rudy was from Joliet, a southern suburb," Hemholdt said. "But Notre Dame has decreased its focus on Chicago in recent classes as they have tried to implement a more national recruiting approach. They still recruit Chicago, but they do not dominate recruiting in that area. No one does."

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.




 

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