March 8, 2012

Lack of in-state prospects can't stop Wyoming

Wyoming tight end Spencer Bruce remains virtually unknown outside his home state, yet he belongs to one of college football's most exclusive fraternities.

He's a major college football player from the state of Wyoming who received a scholarship directly out of high school.

How much of a rarity is Bruce? Wyoming hasn't produced a single FBS signee in either of the last two recruiting classes.

The last player from this state to sign with an FBS program was Green River wide receiver Drew Martinez, a two-star recruit who enrolled at the University of Wyoming in 2010. Green River safety Andrew Meredith and Bruce signed with Wyoming a year earlier. Meredith is the only three-star prospect to come from Wyoming since the current version of Rivals.com formed in 2002.

"We've been aware of that," said Bruce, a graduate of Gillette Campbell County High. "It's a pretty big honor, being one of the select few from Wyoming. We're aware of one another. It's a great honor to be one of those few guys on the team."

Wyoming isn't alone in this regard. Alaska, Rhode Island and Vermont also haven't produced any FBS players in the last two signing classes, but there are no major college football programs in either of those states.

And that leads to two obvious questions.

Other than the issues that come with being the least populous state in the Union, why hasn't Wyoming produced more college-ready talent? And how in the world has the University of Wyoming still managed to earn bowl bids two of the last three years?

The first question isn't easy to answer. Yes, the 2010 Census measured Wyoming's entire population as 563,626. The state doesn't have that many people, so why should it produce that many quality football players?

But this hasn't always been a state bereft of football talent.

Five Wyoming-bred players were on NFL rosters this season: Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end John Chick and safety Chris Prosinski, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, St. Louis Rams linebacker Brady Poppinga and Detroit Lions safety John Wendling.

Wyoming had more NFL players in 2011 than seven other states (Alaska, Idaho, South Dakota, West Virginia, Delaware, Maine and North Dakota). Wyoming did produce four FBS recruits in 2002 and three more in 2003, but the state hasn't delivered nearly as many prospects since.

"There have been some players, and I think there will continue to be some players," Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. "There just aren't tons of them."

Since Christensen took over Wyoming's program in 2009, those players have been few and far between. In fact, they've been virtually non-existent.

Maybe the talent just isn't there. Maybe it's being overlooked. Whatever the reason, high schools across the state haven't had much reason to cheer on National Signing Day.

"High school coaches in the state would probably agree there's not a ton of Division I prospects, but we always think there's one to three or four that have the potential to play at that level," Sheridan (Wyo.) High coach Don Julian said. "But the last two years that hasn't truly transpired."

IN SELECT COMPANY
According to the Rivals.com database, here are the only Wyoming high school players to sign with FBS programs since 2004. Drew Meredith was a three-star recruit, but the rest are all two-star prospects.
NamePos.YearHigh schoolCollege
Spencer BruceDE/TE2009Gillette Campbell CountyWyoming
Jim DownsOT2008GlenrockWyoming
Clayton KirvenOT2007BuffaloWyoming
Drew MartinezWR2010Green River Wyoming
Andrew MeredithS 2009Green RiverWyoming
Erick PauleyDT2005Green RiverWyoming
Chris ProsinskiS2006BuffaloWyoming
Dane StrattonOT2004Cheyenne EastColorado State
Rick WolfleyOT2006Star ValleyBYU
Julian's school has earned two state titles and one runner-up finish over the last three years. Sheridan running back Jordan Roberts was the Gatorade state player of the year last fall.

In most states, the Gatorade player of the year has his pick of multiple major conference offers. Roberts was asked to walk on at a couple of FBS schools, but he opted to sign with FCS program South Dakota instead.

"There are kids here who are capable," Julian said. "Why it hasn't happened the last couple of years, I guess I don't have a very good answer for that. We only have the one Division I school in the state - the University of Wyoming. I think a lot revolves on how they feel about the kid. If they're recruiting a kid heavily as a Division I prospect, it draws more interest out [Colorado State], [Colorado], Utah and BYU."

Yet that hasn't prevented the University of Wyoming from winning.

Wyoming posted a 7-6 record and won the New Mexico Bowl in Christensen's debut season. After slipping to 3-9 in 2010, the Cowboys went 8-5 last season and returned to the New Mexico Bowl. The Cowboys' lone starter from Wyoming in last year's New Mexico Bowl was offensive tackle Clayton Kirven, who just completed his college career.

The Cowboys compensate for the lack of home-state talent by focusing on the neighboring state of Colorado. Wyoming's 2011 roster included two dozen Coloradoans.

"Obviously you have to branch out farther than you would if you had enough prospects to fill your needs in the immediate area," Christensen said, "but we always look at Wyoming and Colorado first and foremost as our home recruiting base and evaluate all the prospects in that area."

But they can't merely look at one or two places. In last season's New Mexico Bowl, Wyoming's 11 starters on offense came from eight different states. Wyoming will look just about everywhere and will mine just about every connection in its search for prospects.

For instance, Christensen is a former offensive coordinator at Missouri, a school that traditionally recruits Texas heavily. Last year's Wyoming team featured 13 Texans.

Christensen played for Washington and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater on Don James' staff. Wyoming featured six players from Washington in 2011 and signed five more guys from that state last month.

During his years as an assistant at Toledo, Christensen worked with a player named David Odenthal who went on to coach in Germany. Those ties helped Wyoming have three Germans on its 2011 roster, and two more players from Germany signed last month. The Cowboys also had players from American Samoa and Canada last year, and they just added an Australian kicker.

And they also make sure the few Division I players who come from Wyoming don't leave the state. No Wyoming high school player has signed with an out-of-state FBS program since BYU lured away Star Valley offensive guard Rick Wolfley in 2006.

"We'll continue to look," Christensen said. "There's nothing we want more than to have players that can help us win at the highest level in the state of Wyoming play at the University of Wyoming."

He hasn't been able to find many. Of course, that makes the rare exceptions particularly noteworthy. Because the Cowboys' roster doesn't include many players who grew up in Wyoming, those few home-state guys are accorded favorite-son status by the team's fans.

Bruce appreciates and understands the sentiment. It wasn't too long ago that he was the one cheering hardest for Prosinski, Corey and Casey Bramlet of Wheatland High or any of the other home-state guys whenever he watched Wyoming games.

"I'd always look at the roster and see if I could pick out the guys who were from Wyoming, and I'd pay special attention to them," Bruce said. "I'd watch them most often."

Maybe there will be another Wyoming kid in the stands this fall taking particular interest every time Bruce catches a pass or makes a crucial block. And perhaps one day he'll be one of the next Wyoming residents to get that rare shot at playing major college football.

He'd be joining a very small club.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.




 

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