- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Mark Richt is not blowing smoke when he addresses the difficulty in building a recruiting fence around Georgia’s borders.
Football coaches across the country recognize the wealth of talent that exists in the Peach State, and they frequently make Georgia a key area in their recruiting game plans. However, the greatest threat to the Georgia coach’s in-state recruiting success comes from programs in the Southeast -- particularly from the Bulldogs’ rivals in the SEC.
The last decade unquestionably belonged to the SEC, with conference schools claiming seven straight BCS titles, beginning in 2006. Then the conference boasted the BCS runner-up (Auburn) at the end of the 2013 season and a College Football Playoff participant (Alabama) at the end of last season.
But where did the players come from in what certainly ranks as the golden age of SEC football? More than any other location, they hailed from Georgia – specifically from the Atlanta area.
We examined the signing classes for every SEC program over the last decade (2006 through 2015) to see which states and metro areas were the most fertile for SEC programs and also reviewed trends in in-state and out-of-state recruiting. Over the next two days, we will reveal some of those trends for teams from the SEC West and then the SEC East.
Here are some of the statistical trends that became evident while reviewing nearly 3,500 players who signed with SEC programs over the last decade:
GEORGIA IS ON TOP
With 582 SEC signees between 2006 and 2015, Georgia easily took the crown as the conference’s top talent-producing state.
Every SEC program signed at least two players from Georgia and most signed far more than that. In fact, seven of the 13 SEC programs outside Georgia (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) looked to the Peach State more than any other for out-of-state talent. Georgia had 435 prospects sign with out-of-state SEC programs, which was also the most for any SEC state.
In Kentucky’s case, the Wildcats actually signed more Georgians (50) than Kentuckians (49). And South Carolina came close to matching that trend, signing 71 players from its home state and 70 from Georgia.
Given their considerable size advantage, it’s no surprise that the SEC’s three most populous states (Texas, Florida and Georgia) also produced the most SEC players. Those states are also known as recruiting hotbeds, which further explains why Florida (520 SEC signees) and Texas (419 – and to be clear, we’re counting all Missouri and Texas A&M signees as SEC signees even before the Tigers and Aggies joined the conference in 2012) rank second and third in SEC signees over the last decade.
Speaking of Missouri and A&M joining the league, it will be interesting to see how their SEC membership affects these recruiting trends in another decade. As we’ll cover in another section, Texas A&M’s signing classes are composed of more in-state talent than any other SEC program, so Kevin Sumlin’s staff doesn’t necessarily need to leave the state to find elite prospects. But the Johnny Manziel era raised the Aggies’ national and regional profile, and that might help Sumlin look elsewhere more often, should he decide to do so.
ATLANTA BOASTS TOP METRO AREA
If the Metro Atlanta area were a state, it would have produced more SEC players in the decade than all other states except Florida and Texas. Overall, 345 players from the Atlanta area signed with SEC programs, which was more than twice as many as the next metro area (Dallas with 159).
Further, the top two high school programs for SEC talent – Stephenson with 25 SEC signees and Buford with 18 – are both within the Metro Atlanta area, as are six others that produced at least 10 SEC signees.
But let's not just talk numbers. Let's talk names. The area produced some of the SEC's top performers over the last decade: a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 selection in the NFL draft (Auburn's Cam Newton), arguably its top defensive back (Tennessee's Eric Berry), a Ray Guy Award winner (Georgia punter Drew Butler), ESPN's top two overall prospects in 2013 (Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche and Auburn's Carl Lawson) and a long list of NFL draft picks.
The other most fertile SEC recruiting areas -- Dallas, Miami and Houston – also rank among the most populous areas in the South. Those cities’ spots on the list won’t surprise anyone, but mid-size Southern city Mobile, Alabama, ranking ahead of Nashville and Orlando might. The Mobile area produced 69 SEC signees, including stars such as 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, among others.
EXAMINING IN-STATE TALENT PHILOSOPHIES
In any conversation about the nation’s top football talent-producers, states such as California, Texas, Florida and Georgia will figure heavily. So it makes sense that Texas A&M (78.8 percent of its signees between 2006 and 2015 hailed from Texas), Georgia (62 percent) and Florida (60.3) boasted the most in-state talent of all SEC programs over the last decade.
It’s interesting to review the philosophies of SEC programs that share the same state. In Alabama, both Auburn (34.8 percent) and Alabama (37.5) sign similar numbers of in-state recruits. Same with Tennessee (26.4) and Vanderbilt (17.5) although both of those programs are forced to look outside their state’s borders far more often, as Tennessee is among the less-fertile football states in the Southeast.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State (56.9) and Ole Miss (29.6) employed considerably different recruiting strategies when it came to talent from their home state. While Mississippi State had more in-state talent than nearly any other SEC program, Ole Miss ranked 10th out of the 14 teams, frequently looking to Florida, Georgia and Tennessee to fill out its recruiting classes.
Programs in states that aren’t as rich in talent had to employ similar recruiting strategies. Kentucky simply isn’t a great state for high school football, which partially explains why only 11 Kentuckians signed with any out-of-state SEC program in the decade, and why Kentucky signed just 49 in-state players out of its 255 overall signees.
Or take a school like Arkansas. Sure, the Razorbacks have signed some solid players from their home state in recent years, but on their current roster alone, standout players hail from Texas (Jonathan Williams), Florida (Alex Collins and Denver Kirkland), Oklahoma (Keon Hatcher), California (Sebastian Tretola) and Colorado (Dan Skipper).
For its size, Alabama is a solid talent producer, but one secret to the success of the state’s football powers is supplementing their homegrown talent with recruits from elsewhere. That’s what can help a program go from good to great, which Alabama has certainly accomplished since Nick Saban took over as head coach in 2007.
Run down the list of Alabama’s top offensive players in the Nick Saban era. Sure, there are Alabamians such as McCarron, Jones and Yeldon at the top of the list, but the Crimson Tide also made use of players from Louisiana (running back Eddie Lacy), Florida (receiver Amari Cooper and running backs Trent Richardson and Derrick Henry), Michigan (running back Mark Ingram), Texas (quarterback Greg McElroy) and Georgia (quarterback Blake Sims) to keep the offense clicking.
Likewise, Auburn would not have won SEC titles in 2010 and 2013 were it not for Georgia-born quarterbacks Newton and Nick Marshall, and Gus Malzahn’s running game would not have been nearly as dangerous without out-of-state running backs Michael Dyer (Arkansas), Tre Mason (Florida) and Cameron Artis-Payne (Pennsylvania).
Coaches at every program want to make the home state their first priority, but sometimes they must develop more creative recruiting philosophies in order to produce competitive teams. Most SEC programs recruit at a high level, but the ones that win most consistently are generally those that do the best job of complementing their in-state talent base with elite prospects – frequently at the offensive skill positions – from other locales.
A player could be listed twice if he signed with two different SEC schools. For instance if he initially signed with a program, failed to qualify and later signed with a different SEC program. Or if he was dismissed by/transferred from one SEC school and later signed with another SEC program.
If a player signed with a school more than once, we listed only the school he was attending the first time he signed.
All Texas A&M and Missouri players counted as SEC signees although they were in the Big 12 until 2012.
Did not count anyone twice in top metro area or high school lists.