North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

February 6, 2013

Football recruiting is now a war without borders

By Erik Harris
North Jefferson News

ANALYSIS — Behind all the crystal balls, ponderous rings and sticky Gatorade showers, there is a vicious war raging. It’s a war that sees no end and unlike its more civilized on-field destination, grants its warriors no timeouts.

College football recruiting has ascended into one of the sport’s most covered aspects over the past few years.  Fans, along with coaches, nervously await the future academic destinations of our nation’s talent-loaded teens.  A desirable prospect choosing one’s favorite team is enough to joyously send a person several inches above their otherwise modest vertical leap.

The recruiting battlegrounds vary drastically from one prospect to the next.  Coaches might find themselves passing through a lavish high arching doorway armed with a persuasive sales pitch before creaking over the floors of a mobile home, scholarship offer in hand, only hours later.

For years, coaches have stressed the importance of “protecting their borders.”  Meaning that in order to achieve success on the recruiting trail, they have to convince their states top recruits to stay home and attend the state university.  For the most part, if he lassoed the premier talent residing between the borders, fans recognized it as a successful recruiting campaign, despite the lack of production through the other 49 states. Sure, exploring border-sharing states and the occasional cross-country leap has always been a priority for coaches, but in-state production has been the main focus.  

Though that philosophy remains integral, Alabama athletics director Mal Moore made a hire six years ago that changed the strategy and expectation of recruiting not only in the Yellowhammer State, but nationwide.

Nick Saban took the reins of a moderately-good Crimson Tide program on the road to its 15th season without a national title in January 2007.  His first season at the Capstone was very “Alabama,” as he led the Tide to a quiet 7-5 record.  However, Saban’s off-field battles were a bit noisier.

After barely cracking ESPN’s top 20 recruiting rankings in 2007, Saban assembled the country’s third-ranked class one year later (this was Saban’s first full class at Alabama).  Not only was the blue-chip talent an improvement from past Bama classes, but the out-of-state reach exhibited great promise.

The 2008 class was full of talent that quickly impacted the program.  Saban took advantage of an exceptionally-strong batch of in-state athletes that included Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Marcell Dareus and Mark Barron.  But without Saban’s commitment to stretch beyond his borders to woo distant targets, Alabama would have missed the services of Barrett Jones, Don’ta Hightower and the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram.

Saban knew that the state of Alabama would produce elite players every season as it always has. But to fuel the machine he was prepared to build, he would need a “bigger boat.”

From 2008 to 2012 Alabama has landed the third most ESPN 150 players with 48, behind Florida (52) and Texas (51). Though the impressive numbers are similar, Alabama used much different tactics to produce such depth.

Both Texas and the Sunshine state have long been considered fertile recruiting grounds. Along with the state of California, they produce more high-end talent than anyone.  Based on this, the Gators signed 33 of their 52 highly coveted recruits from their own backyard. Mack Brown had it even easier, leaving the ripe pastures of Texas for only six of his 51 prized signees.

Meanwhile in Tuscaloosa, Saban’s local fishing hole — though plentiful compared to the other 47 states — pales in comparison to the vast waters of Florida and Texas.  Consequently, the trending Tide was forced to travel beyond their state lines to catch over half of their trophy fish.

Only 20 of Alabama’s ESPN 150 signees came from within the state. The other 28 players were lured in from 12 different states. Many of them were A-list recruits from neighboring states Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. Saban also raided Louisiana, Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan and Texas.

Tapping into out-of-state resources has played a pivotal role in Saban’s dynasty.  If not for the developing of long distance relationships, stars such as Trent Richardson, Chance Warmack, Eddie Lacy and Terrence Cody would have never strapped on the crimson and white.

With Alabama’s new coaching staff ruling the recruiting trails, Auburn quickly assembled a staff capable of keeping pace.  The hiring of Gene Chizik in 2008 and the extra attention placed on recruiting brought immediate success to the Plains.

The Tigers burst on to the recruiting scene by landing the number four class in the country, according to ESPN, in 2010 (Chizik’s first full class at Auburn).  This came on the heels of a very respectable 2009 signing class.  Auburn also took an increased interest in prospects outside of the state.

Chizik’s extended recruiting directly led to the Tigers capturing the 2010 BCS National Championship. Let’s just say that without the out-of-staters, Auburn would have chased the crystal ball without the likes of Emory Blake, Philip Lutzenkirchen, Onterio McCalebb, Daren Bates, Michael Dyer, Nick Fairley or Cam Newton.

Clearly recruiting is not the only recipe needed for success. There is player development, on-field strategy and leadership ability along with countless other qualities. But its safe to say that without strong recruiting and the willingness to pursue distant talent, the Heart of Dixie is not home to the last four national titles.