Conference realignment changes landscape of the recruiting game

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Mon. January 23, 2012 | Matt Baker | Email

Conference realignment changes landscape of the recruiting game

Sean Culkin wasn’t sure he’d be able to play in the SEC. Georgia and Mississippi State were interested in the three-star recruit from Indian Rocks Christian, but they made him play the waiting game.

Then the seismic shifts in conference realignment spread from college football’s power brokers to a teenage tight end at the 262-person school in Largo.

“Me playing in the SEC, I didn’t really know,” Culkin said. “I thought I could do it. When Missouri came into play, I loved everything about it.”
Culkin committed to the SEC-bound Tigers last month, but the move might not have happened without the realignment shock waves that have shaken the NCAA’s landscape the past two years.

The SEC’s additions of Missouri and Texas A&M and the Big East’s expansion are changing recruiting in Tampa Bay and throughout the Southeast. Colleges are reevaluating where they recruit, what types of players they seek, when prospects commit and how they can raise their national perception.

Culkin is one of the first area players to feel the aftershocks , and he likely won’t be the last.

“I think it’s more how they’re going to change their recruiting,” said Gabe DeArmond, who covers Mizzou for Rivals, “than anything they’ve done yet.”

Mining the Southeast

Shifting territories is the most obvious way conference realignment affects recruiting.

After the Big 12’s formation, Mizzou plucked most of its out-of-state players from Texas and surrounding areas, including QB Chase Daniel and 2010 first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon. Since 2005, it has landed recruits from Atlanta, Texas, and Miami, Okla., but none from Atlanta, Ga., or Miami, Fla.

The move to the SEC is expected to change that. Mizzou will still recruit Texas, but coach Gary Pinkel has said he’s devoting one recruiter to Atlanta and two to Florida.

The reason is simple.

“Kids want to be able to have their friends and relatives see them play,” said Jeff Tarpley, who covers Texas A&M for Rivals’ AggieYell.com.

Because the Tigers and Aggies will soon be playing regularly in Gainesville and Athens, more players from Florida and Georgia will consider heading west. That’s one reason three-star Plant High receiver Austin Aikens has Mizzou as one of his five finalists.

Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten — and away from regular games in Texas — has already changed where the Huskers recruit. From 2007-11, Nebraska averaged six recruits per year from Texas. After their first year in the Big Ten, the Huskers have only one commit from the Lone Star State.

Culkin said he first heard from the Tigers after their move to the SEC became official in the fall. Coaches told him they began searching for players in their new region.

“My name came up, and they wanted to make a visit,” Culkin said. “They saw me and immediately offered there.”

Tampa Bay is already becoming an important part of Missouri’s recruiting with a handful of area players receiving offers, said DeArmond, publisher of PowerMizzou.com. Nick Otterbacher, the school’s director of football recruiting, is a Tampa native. Instead of thriving on Texas recruits that the Longhorns passed up, the Tigers will begin feasting on Tampa prospects the Gators don’t want.

“There’s no delusion they’re going to get a kid from Tampa that has a Florida offer,” DeArmond said.

But BCS-quality players like Culkin that the Gators don’t offer are Tiger bait.

Need for speed and D

Dipping into the Southeast could also fill two vital needs for the Tigers and Aggies: Defense and speed.

Most of the Texas high schools that populate the A&M and Mizzou rosters run the spread offense. Because the spread needs more receivers, many players who would traditionally be safeties or linebackers are wideouts.

“As a result, you have a lot more offensive players in Texas,” Tarpley said. “Defensive players are at a premium.”

Not so in the Southeast, where more pro-style systems produce more defensive prospects. Nineteen of the 22 defensive starters in this year’s national title game between LSU and Alabama came from SEC states.

Tarpley predicts A&M will look for more defensive players in the Southeast, while Bama, Ole Miss and others will start recruiting pipelines to Houston for receivers and running backs.

Plant’s Aikens said Mizzou is also looking to tap into the speed of Florida talent to compete in its new, faster conference.

“Down south in Florida, we have a lot of players with a lot of speed,” Aikens said. “That’s what the SEC is — more speed and real fast players.”

Earlier timeline

As SEC schools invade Texas and the Big 12 expatriates take to the Southeast, Tarpley expects a clash in committing cultures.

Texas schools offer players early, and recruits there don’t take long to pick their colleges. Tarpley said some programs will have half of their recruiting classes filled by the time they play their spring games.

But recruits in SEC states are notoriously slow to make up their minds or change them on signing day. Four of Florida’s top 20 prospects haven’t chosen a college, including Berkeley Prep’s Nelson Agholor. Only one of Texas’ top 20 players is uncommitted.

The Aggies already have five commits for the class of 2013. That’s the same number as Arkansas, LSU, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt have combined.

Changing profile

How programs fare in their new conferences will depend largely on how well they recruit, and early results are mixed.
Rivals ranks A&M’s incoming recruiting class No. 8 — tied for the highest ranking the Aggies have had in the Rivals era.

“It hasn’t hurt,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told CBSSports.com. “We walk around with (SEC logos) on shirts and stuff like that and it hasn’t hurt recruiting at all. There are certain kids that just like to compete against what they think is the best league and the best players and be a part of that.”

But Mizzou and UCF haven’t seen bumps from joining more high-profile leagues. Despite UCF’s announcement that it’s moving to the Big East, the Knights’ recruiting class is ranked No. 105, their lowest position since 2004, according to Scout.com.

Scout’s national rankings have Missouri’s incoming class No. 36, its average spot since 2007.

Rivals’ analysts said it could take several years before the effects of conference realignment on recruiting shake out. But some ripples are already becoming visible — like Culkin.

After Missouri’s offer, Culkin researched the school’s academics, offense and coaches before pledging to the Tigers. Mizzou’s new conference was only one small part of the equation.

“That they were going to the SEC,” Culkin said, “was icing on the cake.”

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

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