Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and there are a few states that are critically important for the entire nation, but particularly for the Big Ten. Florida, Texas, California and Georgia — these are the states that produce the most talent, but none of them are inside the conference’s footprint. Land of 10 is taking an in-depth look at how the Big Ten has fared recruiting players from these key battleground states.
California is one of the three biggest producers of football talent in the nation, but there’s a slight difference when comparing it to the other two. For Big Ten schools, that difference is distance.
The Golden State is on the other side of the country, and either two or three time zones away. That makes it tough to sell potential recruits on the benefits of playing in the Big Ten. It also, maybe more importantly, makes it tougher for Big Ten coaches to reach those players in the first place.
When Big Ten coaching staffs determine where and how to spend the resources available for recruiting, approving a lot of trips to California can be tough to do. It’s a huge state, and driving from one recruiting region to another is inefficient.
Let’s say an assistant coach goes to California for a couple of days. If he wants to see prospects in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, that’s probably an extra flight to save time.
|Team||2012-16 recruits||Avg. ranking||2017 recruits||Avg. ranking|
The majority of the players who signed with Big Ten schools since 2012 have been from the Los Angeles area, or nearby counties that make up that part of Southern California. Big Ten schools have secured players from the Bay Area and parts of central California, which includes places like Modesto and Fresno, but the conference rarely goes north of Sacramento.
Maryland’s Denzel Conyers went to junior college in Oroville, Calif., which is 70 miles north of Sacramento, and that makes him the most-northern addition to the conference from California in the past six recruiting cycles.
|Los Angeles area||36|
|San Diego area||4|
The Past: Short-term fixes
While California had nearly 200 3-star or better high school prospects in the 2017 recruiting class, the state is also home to 65 junior college football teams. A few Big Ten teams have focused on scouring those junior colleges for talent.
Of the 59 California players Big Ten teams signed from 2012-16, 26 were from a variety of junior colleges. Illinois led the charge with 11 JUCO signees. The Illini have had a couple of successes, but overall the conference hasn’t found many impact players among those 26.
Here’s the breakdown:
There’s something notable about the coaches who collected most of those junior college players. They aren’t Big Ten head coaches anymore.
Illinois, Purdue and Maryland have all changed coaches since the end of the 2015 season. The Illini added a player from California in the 2017 recruiting class, and for the first time in six years, it was a high school prospect. The league signed only one junior college player in the 2017 cycle among the 10 new editions.
The Present: ‘Calibraska’ in full effect
Michigan and Ohio State have collected a handful of elite players from California between them in the past six years, though the Wolverines reportedly could be losing one of them if tight end Devin Asiasi transfers.
But Nebraska is setting the pace for Big Ten recruiting in the state.
Since Mike Riley, who has plenty of ties to the state from his days in the Pac-12, became the Nebraska coach, the Cornhuskers have made recruiting California a top priority. When they were in the Big Eight/Big 12, it made sense for the Cornhuskers to look south for talent given the games they played in Texas and Oklahoma every year.
Riley was an assistant at Southern Cal and a head coach at Oregon State. Nebraska is now the closest school in its conference to California, with shorter commutes to Los Angeles and the Bay Area than from Madison or State College.
Nebraska landed two top-50 players in California in 2013, before Riley arrived. One was running back Terrell Newby. The Cornhuskers signed four players from the state in 2016, including three top-40 prospects.
They landed three more top-40 guys in 2017 and were in the mix for several other California prospects. A fourth player, wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, is actually a California kid as well.
Among the haul has been a pair of quarterbacks, and either Tristan Gebbia or Patrick O’Brien could be the future at that position for Nebraska. Counting Lindsey, there has also been three wide receivers, including Keyshawn Johnson Jr., and two cornerbacks, including Elijah Blades, who flipped from Florida.
If Riley is going to return Nebraska to something resembling its fan base’s expectations, hoarding blue-chip skill players from California is a strong step in his plan.
The Future: More opportunities, but no Gold Rush
It will remain a challenge of resources and geography for most Big Ten teams to seriously recruit in California. As mentioned last week, there is lots of potential coaching unrest in Texas in 2017, which should encourage Big Ten recruiters to use that to their advantage.
The situation in California is somewhere in between what’s going on in Texas and Florida, which is now loaded with great recruiters at nearly every in-state school.
USC could be a national title contender in 2017, but the Trojans have always been an elite recruiting machine in Southern California. Coaching turmoil, NCAA sanctions — very little has slowed the Trojans down.
There are other less rosy situations, though. UCLA had a bad 2016 and hasn’t been able to turn Jim Mora’s recruiting success into great seasons. Stanford has become nearly as strong as USC on the recruiting trail, but Cal changed coaches and has potentially left an opening in Northern California.
California is the main supplier of talent for several FBS schools outside the state as well, particularly the Pac-12 schools in the northwest. Washington and Oregon have rarely been great at the same time, but Willie Taggart and Chris Peterson could make that happen. That could also make it tougher for Big Ten schools to convince players to move two or three time zones away when there are great options for guys who want to leave home but enjoy West Coast living.
But there’s too much talent in concentrated areas for Big Ten schools to ignore California, and the conference as a whole should probably do better than 10 prospects in one cycle.