When it comes to recruiting, nearly every college football program says its main objective is to dominate within its home state’s boundaries.
But is that really so important?
It depends entirely on the school in question.
Coaching staffs in states like Tennessee, Oregon, Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia — states where four- and five-star prospects are hard to come by — have to get creative in recruiting, looking outside their home states to fill up their rosters.
For a program like LSU, the only Power 5 school in a talent-rich state, recruiting well at home is more of a necessity.
“If we’re speaking about the state of Louisiana, I think it is more important to dominate your own state when you don’t have a competitor at the Power 5 level within your state,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN's national recruiting director. "Because you then start to run thin on excuses.
“Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida — they have multiple schools competing, and I get that. But when you’re LSU, I think there is a higher expectation level to keep the best players at home — and by and large — 90, 95 percent of the time — they do.”
Keeping the best talent in-state was indeed a key to LSU’s resurgence in the 2000s. However, loading up on in-state prospects is by no means a guarantee of success for every program.
In fact, many major programs heavily comprised of in-state players were mediocre or worse this season.
On one hand, the Georgias, TCUs, Miamis and USCs of the college football world relied on homegrown talent to win double-digit games or claim conference titles.
But there were also some massive failures.
Of the 25 top-tier programs that signed the highest percentages of in-state players over the past decade, only 12 posted a winning record in the 2017 regular season.
The combined record of those 25 teams was 178-126, a mediocre .586 winning percentage.
Uncharacteristically poor seasons by home-state-reliant programs like Baylor (1-11), Florida (4-7) and Florida State (6-6) taint that record, but the group’s general mediocrity also indicates that recruiting effectively within your school’s region can sometimes be just as important as staying almost exclusively in-state.
Geography often plays a key role in a recruit’s decision, regardless of where state lines exist.
“I know that people like to say, ‘Oh, that’s a border state; the in-state school should get him,’ " said Shea Dixon, staff writer for 247Sports' LSU affiliate, Geaux247. "But if you’re 400 miles from one (in-state) campus and 100 miles from another one that’s outside your state, I would think the advantage would go to the outside-the-state team, and nobody ever views it in that realm."
The bottom line is that the best programs win by attracting the best talent. Sometimes those programs exist within a fertile recruiting territory, and they're able to capitalize on that advantage. But if your home state doesn’t produce enough blue-chippers, you have to recruit elsewhere.
For instance, take a look at the programs represented in this season's final regular-season rankings.
Of the 22 major-conference teams in the most recent Associated Press top 25 poll, 11 signed less than than the average of in-state signees (34.25 percent) over the past decade. Two of the four playoff teams (Oklahoma at 15.7 percent and Alabama at 33.98) were below that average, and reigning national champion Clemson (35.92) was barely above it.
“That is the one thing that nobody gives (Clemson coach) Dabo Swinney enough credit for,” Luginbill said. “The state of South Carolina is roughly 5 million people. There’s no way you can fuel two Power 5 programs in South Carolina and Clemson. Each of their recruiting classes is close to 50 players — 25 per (team). So to build a Power 5 championship roster (with in-state talent alone), it’s impossible.
“But that’s also where their location and their footprint really benefits them, because when you look at the (surrounding) areas like Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, look at what Clemson has done,” Luginbill continued, rattling off a list of prominent Tigers from the past several seasons.
“Sammy Watkins was from Florida. C.J. Spiller was from Florida. Mackensie Alexander was from Florida. Deshaun Watson was from Georgia. Wayne Gallman and Stephone Anthony, North Carolina. Christian Wilkins was from Connecticut. Who knows how the hell that happened? But when you have the ability to replace what you don’t have within your own state…”
And when you don’t, you can become irrelevant.
Take, for example, Tennessee — a program with a great history, membership in the Southeastern Conference, top-notch facilities and a passionate fan base.
“(The talent base is) the only thing about Tennessee that prevents me from calling it a great job,” Luginbill said. “I think it’s a really, really good job, but the problem is you might have six to eight Power 5-recruitable athletes per year in the state, which means you have to go into everybody else’s backyard to fill out the rest of your class. That is really, really hard to do.”
Even harder? To recruit at a talent wasteland like Nebraska — a state that produced just 50 major-conference signees in the past decade.
To survive, Nebraska must pursue prospects who live hundreds of miles away.
“(Nebraska has) become almost obsolete. We did a study on their class — I want to say it was the 2014 class — and the average miles away from Lincoln for all signees was over 900 miles away,” Luginbill said.
“There’s no players. There’s no players in the state, and there’s no players that border the state. Then when they went out of the Big 12, they lost quite a bit of their stranglehold on Texas. They’re in a real bind. That is a much more difficult job than people think it is. Because it’s an era where kids are taking unofficial visits, they’re getting on campus as freshmen and sophomores. How the hell are they supposed to get to Lincoln?”
Other programs in talent-dry states, like Washington State and West Virginia, have succeeded in part because they recruited players to unique offensive systems.
Similarly, prominent universities like Stanford and Northwestern can use academic reputations to their advantage, and schools like Notre Dame and BYU can use religious affiliations to attract prospects from coast to coast.
Sometimes programs develop reputations at particular position groups, allowing them to reach far beyond their typical recruiting footprint to attract top prospects.
Take Georgia’s recent run of success at running back, for example. Since the Bulldogs landed Knowshon Moreno out of New Jersey in 2006, they've managed to sign backs from up and down the East Coast.
Among the program’s prominent running backs in the past decade are players from North Carolina (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall), Florida (Sony Michel), Pennsylvania (D’Andre Swift) and, yes, Georgia (Nick Chubb and Isaiah Crowell).
Continuing the trend, Kirby Smart’s staff already has gone to North Carolina to secure a commitment from arguably the top running back in the 2018 class, Zamir “Zeus” White.
Closer to home, LSU’s self-proclaimed status as “Defensive Back University" (or “DBU”) enables secondary coach Corey Raymond to attract high-profile cornerbacks and safeties from all over the region. In the past 10 recruiting classes, LSU signed 22 of its 40 defensive backs from Louisiana but also reached into Texas, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia to fill out its secondary.
In that decade, LSU’s six All-American defensive backs hailed from Florida (Patrick Peterson in 2009 and 2010), Louisiana (Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu in 2011; Eric Reid in 2012) and Texas (Jalen Mills in 2015; Jamal Adams in 2016).
“Corey Raymond has a huge advantage before he even walks in a door,” said Mike Scarborough, publisher and recruiting analyst at Rivals.com’s LSU affiliate, TigerBait. “It’s just perpetuated itself, from (former LSU head coach Nick) Saban to (former LSU secondary coach Ron) Cooper to Corey Raymond. ...
"You just know when NFL scouts and GMs see an LSU defensive back on paper, they automatically get the benefit of the doubt before they even get looked at.”
Added Dixon: “It’s what USC is for quarterbacks. If you’re a great quarterback, you go to USC. It doesn’t matter if they won three games last year; they’re going to sign the best five-star quarterback at Thousand Oaks or whatever school in L.A. or California, and it’s just going to be a pipeline. It really doesn’t ever matter about wins and losses, and that’s sort of how LSU’s DBU and how whatever different program you want to name and a position where they’ve been great with sells it.”
In general, however, it’s most valuable to recruit close to home — and in a fertile state like Louisiana, within the boundaries of your home state. It’s difficult to box out the likes of Alabama, which has swiped away several of Louisiana’s blue-chip prospects since Saban became the Crimson Tide coach in 2007. But locking down Louisiana is always the goal for the LSU staff.
“We want to own Louisiana. We want to control this state and make sure that we’re keeping the best players home,” said former LSU general manager Austin Thomas. “We put Louisiana first; we want to represent this state well and build the class in Louisiana and then reach outward into our footprint.”
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