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Why are there disparities in recruiting regions?

Trying to understand what’s going on in the disparate recruiting rankings and outcomes across the fruited plains.

The other day our own RedmondLonghorn posted one of the most fascinating pieces of 2018, examining “where blue-chippers come from” and contrasting that to “where NFL players come from.

The major and somewhat shocking revelation was how overrated everyone’s favorite recruiting regions (Texas, Florida, and the South) are and how underrated the traditional recruiting turf of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania has become. There’s a lot going on in all of that data and a dozen variables of causation to sift through in determining how to interpret everything.

Here’s a few stabs at explaining what we see in these numbers:

The recruiting services are incentivized to invest more time and scouting into the south

There are a solid number of reasons why this would be the case. The first is that the south, Texas, and Florida legitimately produce a higher number of players per capita than do the Midwestern states so it makes sense to allocate most of your focus on those regions.

Another is that interest is higher there and it’s easier to sell #content on the top players to SEC fans then to try and figure out which Pennsylvania kids might be better than anyone currently guesses.

But even beyond that, if you’re spending most of your time scouting the well known blue-chippers in Georgia then you’re going to be more aware of different gems that show up and explode onto the scene from other parts of Georgia than you’ll be of players from less heavily scouted areas.

There are more opportunities to scout and evaluate kids in the South

Nike currently has eight SPARQ events scheduled for 2018. They’ll be taking place in:

-Miami, FL

-Dallas, TX

-Houston, TX

-San Francisco, CA

-Los Angeles, CA

-Atlanta, GA

-New York/New Jersey (the Jets facility)

-Canton, OH

That’s where you can get laser timed 40s and the rest of the Nike tests done rather than relying on hand times or trying to look up track records, it gives players a chance to do drills against the other best athletes in a region, and it creates hype and evaluation opportunities for recruiting writers.

The South also has more 7on7 camps and other events because football is more of an intense, year-round sport in that region than in the cold of the Northeast, Midwest, or greater western US.

With all of the extra hype, attention, and overall product coming out of those hotspots there’s little doubt as to why they’d tend to get overrated in terms of how many NFL players they are actually producing.

The south also tends to coach up talent more than in the north. Coaches love snatching up kids from Texas because they’ve been well coached and proven their stuff against real competition with real stakes, but that also means that some of the players from Texas are much closer to their ceilings than a kid from a less intense football culture like the Michigan high schools. When you compare them side to side it appears that the Texas kid is much better but that gap can shrink or disappear after three years or so of college coaching.

There are some underrated regions located nearby programs known for their development

South Carolina produced 1.5x as many blue-chippers and then 1.6x as many NFL players as expected from the size of their state. Meanwhile, Clemson university is getting to be pretty well known for cranking out NFL prospects every year.

What’s interesting about Clemson’s process is that they make much greater use of the redshirt than many other programs with access to bluechip talent. It’s normal for schools like Michigan State to use redshirts liberally across multiple position groups. The high upside 3-star who has a chance to grow and develop into an NFL player is an essential ingredient for a non-blueblood in the power 5. Similarly, the maxed out 3-star who never has elite athletic ability but becomes an ultra-savvy and skilled player as a fifth-year senior is another invaluable piece.

But when you’re recruiting top talent that has NFL potential, you don’t really want to use up a year of eligibility sitting the player in the film room, hammering them in the weight room, or giving them reps with the scout team. You want to try and work them in as a back-up or get their speed and energy on the field with special teams. Unless you’re Clemson and you believe that an intensive year with your S&C program and under your tutelage without seeing the field is going to be worth it even if the player leaves before he’s a RS junior. Clemson hands out a lot of redshirts and they develop players really well, particularly on defense. The same is true of Iowa but with a particular penchant for cranking out offensive linemen that are taught pro-style techniques.

Similarly, the reason that North Dakota and Idaho are punching above their weight in terms of producing NFL players surely has a lot to do with Boise State and North Dakota State. When the local program that is incentivized to scout you and develop you happens to be among the very best at doing so then you tend to outperform the national average.

Wisconsin gonna Wisconsin

Most of the best players in Wisconsin, of which there are many, end up going to Wisconsin and many of their “hidden gems” are probably more well known to the Wisconsin staff than they are to the rest of the country. But since so many of them end up at Wisconsin anyways, it’s tough to pull them out and probably a questionable investment for many programs and there’s little reason for national recruiting services to boost their rankings or scout them intensely.

The Badger state only produced .7x as many NFL players as the average population of that size so it’s not exactly a gold mine. It’s also difficult to access from the east because you have to drive around Lake Michigan and from the south because it’s so far north, so any scouting of the region by either programs or recruiting services is a high cost/low reward kind of venture. Still, looking at all of the walk-ons they get that end up being All-B1G or NFL players maybe there should be more of an effort to scout some of these cheese farming communities on the part of a few programs that are lacking in talent.

The state only produced .3x as many blue-chippers as you’d expect from their population. I think we all know that’s a joke and that .7x number could arguably be larger if more top programs were investing in Wisconsin recruits.

Now here are some interesting takeaways I’ve had from the data in terms of what’s going on and what could be occurring in the future.

Urban Meyer’s wandering eye

When Ohio State won the national championship in 2014 their starting lineup included eight Ohioans on offense (including the QB and entire OL) and seven Ohioans on defense. They also had three former 3-stars on defense and seven former 3-stars on offense. Four of those were the OL.

Incidentally, from left to right that OL went:

Taylor Decker: 3-star drafted in the first round.

Billy Price: 4-star DT that was drafted in the first round.

Jacoby Boren: 3-star that was undrafted.

Pat Elflein: 3-star drafted in the third round.

Darryl Baldwin: 3-star that was undrafted.

The funny thing about this crew was that not only did they prove immensely talented overall, but Jacoby Boren was All-B1G in 2015 at center and then Elflein moved over and won the Remington award for nation’s best center there in 2016 and Price did the same to lock down the award in 2017.

The 2018 Buckeyes look like a national contender but only figure to start seven Ohioans TOTAL (five on offense with two on the OL, two on defense) and only have two former 3-stars projected to end up in the starting lineup. One of those 3-stars is an Ohioan being asked to carry on the tradition at center (Brady Taylor) After winning big with Midwest talent, Meyer has leveraged that success into national recruiting with regular forays into Texas to sign the top players from the Lone Star state and into Florida and other favorite locals to take the top rated players in the country.

How well that works out for Ohio State remains to be seen but there’s little doubt that someone else stands to benefit.

Harbaugh’s Michigan took eight Michiganders and two Ohioans in 2017, five Michiganders and zero Ohioans in 2018, and so far have gained commitments from one Michigander and two Ohioans for 2019. They’re hitting the Midwest harder than the Buckeyes, and also regularly venturing into Connecticut. For a big school like Michigan with a national recruiting profile it’s probably not necessary to try and mine for gold in a place like Connecticut but it sure does make sense for them to let Meyer pick fights with Texas while they make good on the lower rated but apparently still excellent Midwestern crop of players.

Leighton Vander Esch and the consistency of rural overachievers

While places like North Dakota and Idaho probably punched above their weight in bluechip prospects because of the football programs that are nearby, that just stands to confirm the fact that while America’s rural population is smaller, more dispersed, and harder/more costly to evaluate, it still produces a lot of football talent. The better players out in nowhere Wisconsin or up in Bismarck are often as good or better than the players in Atlanta or Houston but they are rarely going to be rated as such because it’s hard to verify something like that until they prove it on a college field.

Leighton Vander Esch is the extreme example of the rural prospect but as crazy as his story is it’s not that irregular. The essence of the story is this: a small town produces a big, athletic kid who ends up playing QB for the eight-man football team because they want to get the ball into the hands of their best athlete. He’s a big fish in a small pond with little chance at exposure outside of it and Boise State barely hears about him and only offers him a preferred walk-on spot.

The 6-3, 190 pound kid shows up at a program where football is taken very seriously, gets a redshirt, and gets high level nutrition, strength coaching, and football development for a couple of years before emerging on the field as a 6-4, 250 pound freak. He dominates, the NFL catches on, and now he’s on the Dallas Cowboys.

Some of that is spectacular, some of it really isn’t. Wisconsin has five Vander Esch type stories every year, so do many other programs with an eye for the “high upside” gem who hasn’t committed his athletic ability and frame to football development yet.

Roughly 19.3% of the American population, or 60 million people, live in “rural” parts of the country. That’s a small fraction of both the population and the prospects but you’re still talking about tens of million of people. In a pool that big, stories like Leighton Vander Esch’s can’t help but happen regularly. Some of them are cropping up in the south and everyone becomes aware of them, some of them are not.