Steve Mask is used to witnessing it by now. He has seen it for going on nine years.
Dameyune Craig walks into a classroom or a gymnasium at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile, Alabama. He scans the area, smiles and turns on that hometown charm.
“He can call kids by their names,” said Mask, football coach at St. Paul’s. “He can say, ‘I know your mom. I know your dad.’ ”
This isn’t only reserved for St. Paul’s.
Craig, LSU’s new wide receivers coach, is a celebrated son of Mobile. He’s to Mobile what Frank Wilson is to New Orleans, one recruiting reporter said.
His ties run deep in Alabama’s coastal metro area, high school coaches there said, and he’s a familiar face expected to boost LSU’s recruiting in a talent-rich place just a three-hour drive from Baton Rouge.
“Dameyune will definitely be a plus for LSU in the recruiting battle here,” said Ben Blackmon, football coach at Mobile’s Spanish Fort. “I think LSU can have a presence in Mobile.”
LSU didn’t only hire a former record-setting Auburn quarterback and a successful recruiter and assistant at South Alabama, Florida State and Auburn. It also got a guy who gives the Tigers the in they might need to begin diving into one of the south’s most football-crazed areas.
Over classes from 2006-15, 69 players from the Mobile metro area signed with a Southeastern Conference school, according to ESPN.com.
That ranked 10th among southern metro areas and ranked first per capita. The Mobile metro area produced 3.3 SEC signees for every 100,000 males on average each of the past 10 years.
That doubles cities like New Orleans and Memphis and dwarfs the mighty Texas metro area of Dallas (0.45). Alabama’s Julio Jones, C.J. Mosley, D.J. Fluker, Mark Barron, T.J. Yeldon and AJ McCarron and Auburn’s Nick Fairley and Reese Dismukes all came from the Mobile area.
“It’s a talent-rich area,” Craig said during his introductory news conference at LSU. “I’ve had success down there because of my ties and playing high school football down there and winning state championships. (I) try to stay up with the community, and I look forward to going back down there and recruiting.”
Craig didn’t wait long. A day after that news conference last week, he offered a scholarship to St. Paul’s defensive lineman Ryan Johnson, the No. 5 defensive end in the 2017 class according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings.
LSU also offered Spanish Fort linebacker Thomas Johnston, who’s in the top 30 at his position in the 2017 class. Former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who recruited Alabama for the Tigers last year, offered Johnston in July.
Steele left LSU for Auburn last month. Craig left Auburn for LSU this month. Both are now selling different programs to Johnston.
“Both need help at linebacker,” Blackmon said. “That’s what Thomas does.”
There are more Mobile-area offers coming, too, Blackman said. Justin Thomas, a 250-pound defensive end, is ranked in the top 25 at his position and has offers from Alabama, Tennessee and Florida State. Blackmon senses an offer coming from Craig soon.
This might be more like the norm with Craig on staff. He led Mobile’s Blount High to state championships in 1990 and 1992 before quarterbacking Auburn.
“He got hurt his junior year, or we’d probably have won three,” said 59-year-old Ben Harris, Craig’s old high school coach who is now retired.
Craig broke his arm in the first month of his junior season of 1991. Still, Blount advanced to the state championship game, but the Leopards lost that one.
“I thought he was going to be a great pro,” Harris said of his dual-threat QB. “He could run and throw it. Good technique throwing the ball.”
An injury ended Craig’s pro career, and now here he is recruiting Mobile for a fifth school. He spent 2006-07 at Tuskegee, returned to Mobile as receivers coach at South Alabama for 2008-09 and then spent 2010-12 at Florida State before a three-year stint at Auburn.
Craig’s mother and father still live in his hometown of Prichard, a Mobile suburb, Harris said. The two meet often when Craig returns on recruiting trips. They’ll get coffee or dinner and talk about old times.
They’ll get interrupted, too. Craig is a popular and well-known face in the 400,000-person metro area.
“When he shows up at high school games, he’s flocked,” said Shea Dixon, recruiting reporter for Geaux247, the 247Sports affiliate covering LSU. “People run out of the stands to talk to him. He’s like Frank Wilson in New Orleans. He’s respected there. He’s adored.”
Despite its distance from Baton Rouge and its similar culture to south Louisiana, Mobile-area players have rarely signed with LSU. The Tigers had gone eight signing class without inking a Mobile player before defensive end Jakori Savage, a Baldwin County product, joined the 2016 group.
LSU signed two Mobile-area kids in 2007: defensive end Sidell Corley and defensive back Phelon Jones. Both left the program after their redshirt freshman seasons.
“I think we are in a better position than we have been to recruit some natural spots,” coach Les Miles said when asked about Mobile. “You take I-10 to Florida, and Mobile is an ideal spot. We had been good there at a point, but we haven’t done what we are capable of doing there recently.”
Nick Saban signed two future standouts from Mobile during his stint in Baton Rouge: quarterback JaMarcus Russell and defensive back Chevis Jackson. Russell’s signing with LSU broke a 13-year skid that spanned the entire 1990s in which LSU did not sign a player from the area, a surprising dry spell.
After all, it’s quicker to get from Mobile to LSU than to just about any other SEC program. The 199-mile trek on I-10 is shorter than the 222-mile drive to Auburn and about the same as the 195-mile ride to Tuscaloosa.
And Mobile’s culture is more similar to that of south Louisiana than, maybe, anywhere else, said Mask, a north Alabama native.
“All the people in north Alabama say Mobile actually belongs to Louisiana,” Mask said, laughing. “It’s a different culture.”
“You’d be surprised how many people live in Mobile-Baldwin that have LSU ties,” Blackmon said.
Mask was walking down a hallway at St. Paul’s, heading to his office, when speaking to a reporter. “Do you see a lot of LSU apparel in Mobile?” he’s asked.
“I’m right now looking at an LSU jersey on the walk to my office,” he said.
Hanging in the hallway at St. Paul’s is Jackson’s No. 21 LSU jersey.
“LSU has decided to make Mobile a priority,” Mask said. “As they say, I think business is about to pick up.”
LSU Mobile Signees
LSU signed its first play from the Mobile area since 2007 this year. Before JaMarcus Russell in 2003, LSU went 13 signing class without inking a player from Mobile. In all, the Tigers have signed just 10 players from the Mobile metro area in the last 35 signing classes.
DE Jakori Savage
DE Sidell Corley, DB Phelon Jones
DB Chevis Jackson
QB JaMarcus Russell
DB Anthony Marshall
DL/OL Bien Harbin
QB/P Keith Murray
OL/DL Mike Cooley
OL/DL Curt Gore
Mobile In The SEC
The Mobile metro area produced 69 SEC signees from 2006 to 2015, according to a list compiled by ESPN.com and published last year. That ranked 10th among southern cities, but was easily first when factoring in population. Vigor led all Mobile high schools with nine SEC signees.
Per capita (SEC signees per every 100,000 males each of last 10 years)
Mobile High School
: Vigor (9), St. Paul’s (8), Davidson (8), Foley (5), McGill Toolen (5)
*Figures from ESPN.com
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.