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60 Percent of College Football’s Elite Talent Stays Close to Home

June 10, 2020

The 2020 Hail Varsity Football Yearbook hits mailboxes and newsstands very soon. To get you ready, we’re sharing extra bits and pieces from the main features in the issue. I wrote about the 10-year anniversary of Nebraska moving conferences for the 2020 Hail Varsity Football Yearbook. So far, that undertaking has produced two other “extra” pieces, one from Brandon Vogel on closing in the Big Ten, and one with an outsider’s perspective on the move.

When Nebraska left the Big 12 following the 2010 season, its coaching staff conducted a recruiting study of sorts. How drastic a strategy change was the conference shift to the Big Ten going to mandate? How likely are kids to leave home to play college ball? NU looked at the ESPN top-300 recruiting rankings from previous seasons to gauge when high school prospects verbally committed to schools and where those schools were in relation to the player’s high school.

What the Huskers found was that more than 60% of kids, on average, chose football programs that were either in the same state as their high school, or in a bordering state.

In moving leagues, Nebraska’s entire footprint changed. It wasn’t in old stomping grounds anymore, and it had no foothold in the new ones it would need. 

Tim Beck, Nebraska’s former offensive coordinator under Bo Pelini, had a rather simple question: where do you go?

“You played Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and then all the Texas schools—you had Baylor, Texas, and then Texas Tech (and Texas A&M)—so you had six schools in the Oklahoma-Texas area,” Beck said. “It was easy to go into the South to recruit. Or, easier. And then you still had Iowa and Colorado and the Kansas areas, and Nebraska, to recruit.

“You had the same type of players that Colorado had, that Missouri, that Kansas State and Kansas had. When you got to the Big Ten we lost some of that.”

One of the big questions that former coaching staff has still to this day is whether its decision to scale back the efforts in Texas in order to redistribute that attention elsewhere was the right one to make.

“We took a little bit of our emphasis out of Texas and placed more emphasis throughout the Midwest with people going to recruit Ohio and Michigan,” former defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I don’t know if that paid the dividends that it could have and should have.”

Visibility is currency in college football recruiting. And if you show up and win, even better. That goes for competitions beyond the gridiron.

Beck recalled recruiting for Kansas before he got the Nebraska job on Bo Pelini’s staff.

“Our basketball team won a national title, so I’m down (in Texas) recruiting in January and all they’re talking about is KU basketball,” he said. “It gave you instant credibility even though we were football because they were talking about it. The national media talking about the basketball team gave KU credibility in a home.”

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Before joining the conference, Nebraska had played Michigan three times since World War I. It had only played Ohio State twice, a two-game road series in 1955 and 1956. High school coaches in Big Ten recruiting grounds knew of Nebraska but they didn’t intimately know Nebraska. Those relationships had to be built. So Nebraska threw itself into those battlegrounds.

In 2012, and then again in 2014, Nebraska’s recruiting classes finished outside the top-25 nationally. Much has been made about the way Nebraska’s old head coach viewed recruiting, there’s no need to have a conversation about cupboards. But the strategy of the thing, that’s at least worth getting into. 

Contrast then to the approach current head coach Scott Frost and company have taken: recruit nationally, hit hard in the Florida/Alabama/Georgia area, control the 500-mile radius, cast a net coast-to-cast. Frost has signed three straight top-25 classes to begin his Nebraska tenure.

That got me thinking about whether those regional trends had changed in the years since Nebraska’s old staff conducted their study.

Using the 247 Composite, I mapped out the top 100 high school prospects in the last five recruiting cycles to see where they committed to play college ball in relation to where they played high school ball.

Not much has changed.


Which makes what Frost is trying to do that much more interesting.

The hope is that a coach can build up a program with a nationally-recognizable brand like that of Nebraska’s to be a wining factory. Produce big seasons, which get the program in the homes of the best recruits in the country, which gets those recruits to campus, which sustains the cycle of winning. Clemson came from relative recruiting obscurity. Nebraska will answer the question of whether geography was as big a contributing factor in that as most assume.

Because the bulk of the elite talent is in the south, specifically the SEC and ACC footprint. Of the 156 prospects rated as a 5-star in the last five cycles, 80 of them came from the southeastern part of the country. If they’re mostly staying close to where they played high school football, along with the rest of the top-100 players, will winning be enough to bring them to the middle of the country?

And how much winning will it take?

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