With schools becoming more and more accessible to kids outside of their conference footprint, the battle for out-of-state kids has increased in recent years.
A result that once seemed liked a foregone conclusion – big-time programs landing every local prospect they want – has given way to some interesting occurrences lately. LSU, for example, lost a trio of 2014 Scout 100 recruits from its own state to Alabama but still landed the No. 2 class nationally by loading up on out-of-staters.
Under masterful recruiter Urban Meyer, Ohio State flashed its ability to both protect its own borders while also cherry-picking a handful of players from outside its region. OSU landed all five Scout 100 players from The Buckeye State but also grabbed four-star prospects in Texas, Georgia and Florida.
A rather brutal 2014 recruiting effort exposed an ugly truth about Big Ten schools not named Ohio State, however – in most cases, they are the hunted as opposed to hunters.
The Big Ten may do well overall when it comes to reaching outside its border for players, but not every prospect is created equal. In 2009, Purdue managed to secure a whopping 14 players from Florida – nearly all of which were rated as two-star recruits. Five years later, members of that group finished out their college careers by winning exactly as many Big Ten games as you did – unless you happened to play for any of the 11 other B1G schools in 2013.
Therefore, it’s important to provide context when examining just how successful Midwest teams are at attacking the rest of the country and defending their own territory. For the purposes of a nice, round number, we’ll look at both the Scout 100 and Scout 300 to assess just how the conference fared with a broad base of talented players and whether that changed when it came to the absolute best of the best.
The new, 14-team Big Ten comprises a 10 state area plus Washington, D.C., which sits just a handful of metro stops away from Maryland’s College Park campus. In the 2014 recruiting cycle, the conference’s chances of landing a Scout 300 prospect from its own region essentially came down to a coin flip.
A total of 32 of the 68 Scout 300 players from Nebraska to New Jersey ended up signing with schools outside of the Big Ten, although nine of those defections came from unaffiliated Midwest power Notre Dame. If you exclude the Irish because of their ties to the area, that drops the percentage of pilfered players from 47.1 percent to a slightly more respectable 33.8 percent.
The conference fared better in keeping its own top players, though. Fourteen of the 20 Scout 100 players from Big Ten country stayed home, and three of those six exceptions belong to Notre Dame. It helped that Ohio State was able to lock down its quintet of in-state talent, but other places did their job, too. Minnesota, for example, held onto Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeffrey Jones, the No. 78 overall player in the country. Jones has been aggressively pursued by Florida as National Signing Day grew closer.
“I get a little bit concerned when you’re talking about Florida and Michigan, and all those people coming in,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said after getting confirmation that he’d landed Jones. “He had a great all-star game and got great exposure, and the more exposure you get, the more it can make your head spin.”
On the flip side, cases like Plainfield (Ill.) Plainfield South five-star linebacker Clifton Garrett appear to be increasingly problematic for the Big Ten. Garrett, the No. 24 player in the country according to Scout, didn’t just choose LSU. He chose the Tigers without bothering to even consider a Midwestern alternative. The four schools he took official visits to were LSU, Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
The SEC may already have access to the best talent in the country, but its showing that its not afraid to take some from the Big Ten, as well. Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t land any of the coveted Cleveland Glenville trio that visited Tuscaloosa yet ultimately signed with OSU, but he did ink three players from Midwest states, including a Scout 100 member in Cedar Falls, Iowa, offensive guard Ross Pierschbacher. The 14-member SEC signed 30 players from Big Ten territory, almost half of which came from Ohio. That number has grown over time as technology has made recruits across the country far more accessible.
“I think the country gets smaller. And I think it gets smaller with technology. It gets smaller with iPads and TV and phones that are computer-driven,” Miles said. “Today, the planes seem to fly more efficiently. The travel seems to be easier. I think this country is smaller and it continues to shrink.”
For the Big Ten, though, conquering America hasn’t been nearly as easy. While other schools nabbed nearly 50 percent of Midwestern Scout 300 players, the Big Ten failed horribly at countering with its own attack. Of the 232 players from non-B1G states, a grand total of nine signed with a Big Ten school. That’s a success rate of 3.88 percent.
OSU prides itself on fencing off the state of Ohio, but sometimes the Buckeyes are forced to look elsewhere. Ohio State was responsible for bringing in five of the conference’s nine Scout 300 players from outside the Midwest.
“Trust me, we uncover every stone for kids in the state of Ohio, OSU director of player personnel Mark Pantoni said. “We spend unlimited time and resources on them. We want to sign as many kids in Ohio as we can. That’s our ultimate goal. Ohio is first, and then we branch out to the Midwest, Southeast and Texas.”
How did OSU manage to buck the trend by reeling in five such prospects? The Buckeyes not only rely on a brand name and national exposure but also almost exclusively target players with Ohio connections.
Hinesville (Ga.) Liberty County linebacker Raekwon McMillan had two high school coaches from Ohio, and Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer wide receiver Johnnie Dixon went to a school that Meyer regularly raided during his time at Florida. Fort Worth (Texas) All Saints’ Episcopal offensive guard Demetrius Knox was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has an OSU alum on his high school coaching staff, while Leesburg (Ga.) Lee County quarterback Stephen Collier was born in northern Kentucky and knew all about the Buckeyes.
“To say we recruit the state of Texas is false. To say we recruit the state of Florida is false,” Pantoni said. “To say we're going to get a kid from Fort Lauderdale with no connections there, it's very hard because you have to beat the three in-state schools, Georgia, Alabama. And that's a long way and it gets cold here so...”
His voice trailed off, but the rest was implied. When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is hunting. Outside of Columbus, the Big Ten hides.