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.
Florida: Jan. 22 • Texas: Jan. 29 • California: Feb. 5 • Georgia: Feb. 12
When Jim Harbaugh decided to return to Michigan as head coach, he clearly identified a big problem with the Wolverines’ roster — there weren’t very many players with “Fla.” in their bios.
From 2011 until he was fired after the 2014 season, Brady Hoke signed two players from the state of Florida. This was after Rich Rodriguez, whose Florida ties helped him sign 5-star running back Noel Devine at West Virginia, spent three years mining the state for talent.
Harbaugh recognized the deficiency and immediately went to work. By National Signing Day two months after his arrival, Harbaugh had added three recruits from Florida in the 2015 class.
He added six more Florida recruits in his first full recruiting cycle, including three prospects from Flanagan High School in Hollywood, Fla. Michigan also added Flanagan’s coach, Devin Bush Sr., to Harbaugh’s large staff of coaches and analysts. Devin Bush Jr. was one of the three Flanagan players who arrived before last season as well.
Harbaugh continued to look for ways to make inroads in Florida. He held part of Michigan’s spring practice at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Three stops on Michigan’s massive satellite camp tour were in Florida — one in Fort Lauderdale, one in Jacksonville and one in Tampa.
There was an immediate payoff. Two of Michigan’s three 2017 commitments from Florida are IMG players, while the third is from Fort Lauderdale and was at the Michigan satellite camp.
Harbaugh is also eyeing the long view. He wants players of all ages in Florida to see the Michigan colors in the Sunshine State.
He’s not alone. Florida is a crucial state on the recruiting trail for most Big Ten schools. Which schools have landed the most Florida prospects in the past five recruiting cycles? The answer might be a little surprising. Average ranking is where the prospects from 2012-16 landed on the 247Composite’s state of Florida list.
|TEAM||2012-16 recruits||Average ranking||2017 recruits|
Schools like Purdue, Indiana and Illinois have collected a lot of quantity in Florida. Ohio State (and Michigan since Harbaugh arrived) have signed the most highly rated players.
There has been more than 300 3-star or better prospects in the state for the past several recruiting cycles, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. It’s hard for anyone outside of Harbaugh, Urban Meyer or Notre Dame to lure an elite Florida prospect to the Midwest. Schools currently in the Big Ten not named Michigan or Ohio State have only signed five top-50 players from Florida in the past five years. KJ Hamler, who has already enrolled at Penn State and is the No. 42 player in the state for 2017, will make it six in six years. Two of the six (Penn State’s Michael O’Connor and Wisconsin’s D.J. Gillins) were quarterbacks who quickly transferred out.
It’s too early to tell if Harbaugh’s early recruiting success will produce impact players, though Eddie McDoom had a nice freshman year in 2016 and 2017 commit Cesar Ruiz could start on the offensive line next season.
No Big Ten team has been exceptional in the past five years of turning Florida recruits into Big Ten stars. Even Ohio State’s record is a little spotty.
Joey and Nick Bosa were fantastic additions from Florida, but the Buckeyes’ problems in the passing game might have never materialized if Florida recruits Johnnie Dixon, James Clark and Torrance Marshall had developed better to this point. Marshall just left the program, while Dixon and Clark seem poised to get passed on the depth chart by younger wideouts … including Binjimen Victor and Trevon Grimes, two recent additions from the Fort Lauderdale area.
The Past: Sunshine speed
It’s pretty clear that one of the priorities for Big Ten programs when they send recruiters to Florida is speed. There are fast players in the Midwest, but there aren’t nearly as many as a place like Florida, where one school can have as many FBS-level skill players as entire counties in even the most talent-rich portions of Big Ten country.
Of all the Big Ten teams that have signed a bunch of kids from Florida in the past five years, Wisconsin has found the most success with blending Sunshine State speed and locally grown beef. Three-fourths of the Badgers’ starting defensive backs in 2016 were Florida kids, and one of the top reserves in the secondary was as well. A two-year starter at wide receiver, Robert Wheelwright, is also from Florida.
Seven of Wisconsin’s 14 recruits from Florida in the past five years are from the Big Ten’s favorite region of the state, the part of south Florida just north of Miami. This includes Broward, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, though the majority of the players come from Broward, which includes Fort Lauderdale and its sprawling suburbs.
Florida is a weird state to split up geographically. The population is concentrated on the coasts, and there is a big area in the middle that is either sparsely populated or completely uninhabitable because of the Everglades.
The typical way to split it up is by latitude. Slice the state up into three parts — north Florida, central Florida and south Florida. North Florida includes Jacksonville and Tallahassee, central Florida includes Orlando, Tampa/St. Petersburg and the east beaches from Daytona to Vero Beach. South Florida is everything below St. Pete on the west side and everything south of Vero Beach on the east side.
Miami-Dade County is often its own recruiting fiefdom, and while nearly every Big Ten school has landed recruits from the Fort Lauderdale area in the past six years, only three (Illinois, Nebraska and Purdue) have secured more than one player from Miami since 2012. The two sides of south Florida aren’t really connected either, thanks to the big swamp in the middle.
Here’s a look at the geographical breakdown for the Big Ten, which includes 2017 commits and early enrollees. For our purposes, “south Florida” is just going to be St. Lucie, Palm Beach and Broward counties. Southwest Florida and Miami-Dade are separate.
|Region||Big Ten recruits, 2012-17|
The Present: Rise of a super factory
Saying that 20 players came from southwest Florida is a little misleading. Thirteen of those prospects are from IMG Academy.
Other NCAA coaches didn’t like Harbaugh’s grand idea to hold part of spring ball in Florida much, and they really didn’t like that he did it at IMG. So much so that it will not be allowed soon after a new rule was passed.
There have been great Florida high school powerhouses, schools that could routinely produce six, eight, even 10 FBS-level players in one season. There’s never been anything quite like IMG Academy.
Previously known as the place where teenage tennis stars went to train, IMG has become the top source of college football talent in America. When Penn State signed O’Connor from IMG in 2014, it barely caused a ripple in the college football community. Alabama landed Bo Scarbrough that same year, but the school had only a few FBS prospects.
The number grew to 10 in 2015, including seven who were 3-star prospects or better. It exploded in 2016. IMG had 21 3-star or better prospects in 2016, and 20 more this season. Even the long snapper, a 2-star prospect in 2017, has committed to Alabama.
Two of the top three players in Florida in the 2016 cycle, Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson and Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta, went to IMG. The school boasts nine of the top 20 in 2017, including Michigan commits Ruiz and linebacker Jordan Anthony.
It’s possible that three IMG alums could be Power 5 starting quarterbacks next season, with 2015 graduate Deondre Francois at Florida State, Patterson at Ole Miss and 2017 alum Kellen Mond at Texas A&M.
The Big Ten has been quick to pounce at IMG. Four of those 21 prospects ended up at Big Ten schools. Seven of the 20 from this cycle are committed or have signed.
It helps that these aren’t necessarily Florida kids. IMG recruits from all over the country. Ruiz, a Michigan commit, is from New Jersey. Hamler, who enrolled at Penn State, is from Michigan.
Marcus Williamson is an Ohio kid who committed to Ohio in April 2015, then decided to play his senior season at IMG. He remained loyal to the Buckeyes.
That hasn’t always worked out for Big Ten schools. Joshua Kaindoh, the top senior prospect at IMG and a top-10 player in the nation in 2017, is from Baltimore and originally committed to Maryland.
After spending a few months in Florida, he decided to make it a few more years and flipped his commitment to Florida State.
The Future: Importing might get tougher
The Big Ten currently has 31 players committed or enrolled from Florida in the 2017 class. Twelve of the 14 schools have at least one, and half the league has at least three.
Like anywhere in recruiting, relationships and connections can have lasting effects. Illinois once landed a lot of players from Florida when Ron Zook, who had plenty of ties to the state, was its coach. Then the pipeline waned a bit with Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit in charge.
The Illini have regained their footing in the state, adding five players in 2016 and four more either committed or signed for 2017. Why? Lovie Smith coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Hardy Nickerson, his defensive coordinator, played for the Bucs and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Indiana has six players from Florida committed in 2017, which would bring the Hoosiers’ haul to 14 in the past three classes. Tom Allen, recently promoted to head coach, joined the Indiana staff just before the end of the 2015 recruiting cycle after spending the previous year at South Florida as Willie Taggart’s defensive coordinator.
Ohio State and Michigan currently have six of the top 37 players in Florida committed for the 2017 class (Williamson isn’t listed in Florida but would be No. 26). Florida’s Big Three used to dominate the state. While Jimbo Fisher continues to build national title contenders at Florida State, trouble in Gainesville and Miami has allowed others to slide in.
Alabama and Ohio State have landed more elite Sunshine State recruits in this class than Florida and Miami, and schools like Michigan, Clemson, Georgia and Auburn are all lurking as well.
Mark Richt could get Miami back on track. It remains to be seen if Florida’s Jim McElwain can improve his staff’s ability to recruit or not.
There is trouble brewing for other Big Ten schools in Florida. It started last year when Central Florida hired Scott Frost, and he has quickly made the Golden Knights an improved presence on the recruiting trail.
This coaching silly season was an incredible one for schools outside the Big Three in the state. South Florida lost Taggart but quickly rebounded with Charlie Strong, a great recruiter. Florida International added Butch Davis, who helped build national championship rosters as an assistant and head coach at Miami.
And not to be outdone, Florida Atlantic named Lane Kiffin its new head coach. Frost, Strong, Davis and Kiffin all have strong reputations as recruiters.
That doesn’t mean USF, UCF, FAU or FIU are going to start stealing 4-star recruits from the Big Three in Florida or away from top-tier Big Ten schools. It is likely to mean that those players ranked outside the top 75 or top 100 in the state each year are probably going to be tougher to import to Big Ten country if one of those four head coaches really wants them.
Everybody wants to collect the talented players in Florida, but out-of-state coaches at non-elite programs might find that to be a little trickier in the next couple of recruiting cycles. The same goes for the elite players if Richt and McElwain get rolling as well.