Fertile recruiting ground fuels SEC domination
NEW ORLEANS – Derek Edinburgh walks into the humble, cinder-block coach’s office at Edna Karr High School and the room suddenly becomes crowded.
He is 6 feet 8 and 320 pounds and plays offensive tackle for the Cougars. On size alone, he is the kind of player who makes college recruiters’ hearts flutter, and he is rated as the No. 22 offensive tackle in the country. But his recruitment was almost a non-event: He took no official visits and committed in July to LSU.
“In the South, the level of competition is the best against the best,” Edinburgh said. “And then the cream of that crop is going to go to SEC schools.”
Some 400 miles northeast of New Orleans, offensive lineman Bradley Bozeman has made local history. He’s believed to be the first football player in the history of Roanoke, Ala. – population of roughly 6,500 – to earn a scholarship offer from Alabama. Just a junior at Handley High, the 6-4, 315-pound Bozeman won’t play for the Crimson Tide until 2013, but it didn’t take him long to accept the school’s offer when it came in June.
“I had to slap myself,” he said. “I thought I was dreaming.”
This is huge news in a place Bozeman describes as “a little-bitty community that is all about football, pretty much. When we went to play for the state championship, Roanoke was a ghost town – everyone was there. When we came back after we won, it was the biggest parade I’ve ever seen.”
You want to know why the SEC is going to win its sixth consecutive national championship Monday night?
Go to Edna Karr High, in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, just across the Mississippi River from downtown. Or go to Handley High, a small dot on the map just a few miles from the Georgia border in eastern Alabama.
Go to the metropolitan areas in the South, go to the small towns, go anywhere in between. You will find fantastic players everywhere – big, fast, athletic, relentless, driven. You will find future pros in shocking numbers, per capita. And you will find that those fantastic players want to stay home and play in America’s best conference.
“You’ve got all those talent-producing states in the South, and they just seem to be getting better,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell says. “That’s why the run of national championships is going to continue.”
Farrell breaks down the national geography this way: the key recruiting state in the upper Midwest is Ohio; the key recruiting state in the West is California; and the key recruiting state in the lower Midwest and Southwest is Texas. Each of those states is surrounded by others that produce far fewer prospects. In the South, there is talent-rich Florida but also a whole lot more.
“You also have Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana producing a lot of players,” Farrell said. “South Carolina has improved. North Carolina – if you consider that an SEC recruiting area, and a lot of schools have – has improved. You’re just not going to find another region geographically that has that kind of talent surrounding its one big state.
“And now every kid in that region wants to go to the SEC because they’ve won the last five championships.”
In terms of current recruiting rankings, Rivals.com has three SEC schools in the national top five: Alabama, LSU and Florida. There are eight SEC schools in the top 20: those three plus 2012 member Texas A&M, Tennessee, Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia. Even perennially downtrodden Vanderbilt is holding down a spot in the top 25.
This is nothing new. Last year, the SEC had four of Rivals’ top 10 classes and eight of its top 20. In 2010, it had four of the top six and seven of the top 18. In 2009, the numbers were six of the top 12 and nine of the top 19.
Recruiting rankings should be viewed with a healthy amount of caution and restraint, but the proof is in the hardware and the draft boards. We know that SEC players and coaches have been the ones with their mitts all over the crystal football for years. And we know that the SEC has produced the most pros for a while now, too.
Especially certain kinds of pros. Most notable are the defensive linemen, where many experts say the real SEC athleticism advantage can be found. As ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel reported this week, there have been twice as many SEC defensive linemen selected in the past five NFL drafts (28) as the next-highest league (14 for the ACC).
But Farrell says the elite smaller athletes tend to be found more often today in the South as well.
“The prototypical SEC kid is an insanely fast playmaker who just dominates high school football,” he said. “The defensive linemen that come out of the Southeast are ridiculous, but there are a lot of wide receivers, defensive backs and running backs, too.
“The one thing that still isn’t produced consistently is quarterbacks and offensive linemen.”
That doesn’t mean the SEC schools can’t find those players, of course. LSU just landed a commitment from five-star quarterback Gunner Kiel of Indiana. The quarterbacks for the most recent national championship teams at Alabama and LSU came from outside the traditional SEC footprint – Greg McElroy and Matt Flynn were from Texas, and Matt Mauk was a Hoosier.
But it’s not as though the quarterback cupboard is completely bare. The two best SEC quarterbacks in recent years – both among the very best in league history – are from the area. Cam Newton was from Atlanta and Tim Tebow came from Jacksonville.
“You can still win a national championship at USC or Texas,” Farrell said. “Urban Meyer will be able to recruit the Southeast at Ohio State and will compete for a championship. But for everyone else [outside the SEC], everything has to go absolutely perfectly in recruiting and on the field.
“In the SEC, if a kid gets hurt or you miss on a kid [who doesn’t play up to his billing], you’ve got someone else to put in. They have the depth.”
Edna Karr coach Jabbar Juluke grew up in the St. Bernard Housing Project and played his youth football at Willie Hall Playground. It was there that he learned what it took to compete.
“We’re just tough people,” Juluke said. “New Orleans is a tough city. We are gritty, grimy folks. We don’t mind rolling up our sleeves, and you’re not going to be tougher than us.”
Nobody embodies that more than star LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who also played his youth ball at Willie Hall and, like Juluke, went on to play at Catholic powerhouse New Orleans St. Augustine. If there is a more fearless 5-9, 175-pound player in college football, nobody has seen him.
“I’ve seen 10 Tyrann Mathieus in our neighborhood,” Juluke said. “But they don’t get the opportunity because they don’t have the foundation with academics.”
That’s why Juluke tries to stay on his players about their grades. Only a high school since the early 1990s, Edna Karr has produced five NFL players – including standouts Patrick Surtain and Robert Royal – and there may be more to come.
On Wednesday, the weight room adjacent to Juluke’s office was being used by four Edna Karr graduates who are playing college football – two at Tulane, one at Colorado, another at Southern. All told, in his nine years as coach, Juluke has sent 40 players on to play Division I football.
But the current group of Cougars, who have finished second in the state in Class 4A in each of the past two seasons, looks like the best in school history. Recruiters already know their way down the rutted street to Edna Karr, where the enrollment is about 93 percent African-American, but they’re due to start coming in even greater numbers.
In addition to Edinburgh, a receiver is headed to Arizona and two or three other players should sign letters-of-intent next month. The junior class could have six D-I signees, including standout defensive back Noel Ellis and tight end Standish Dobard. The sophomore class could have eight major-college recruits, led by defensive end Gerald Willis, an elite prospect who already has scholarship offers from all the SEC powers.
Ellis and Dobard were the first players in Edna Karr history to attend the Under Armour underclassman combine in Florida last week, and they will be in San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-American combine. They also will watch the BCS championship game Monday night and imagine what it would be like to play on that stage.
Both young men are soft-spoken, but also confident they can one day write their own chapter in the rich heritage of Louisiana football.
“It’s an attitude we have,” Ellis said. “We act like football’s all we got. It’s like our future.”
If their future depends on football, the South is the right place to maximize it. Specifically, the SEC.
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