Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Colleges

Could USF, UCF expand Big 12's recruiting footprint into Florida?

As the Big 12 weighs as many as 20 expansion candidates, programs sound like college recruiters, pitching their academics, brand names, attendance and potential.

Perhaps USF and UCF should skip all of that and take a more direct approach as they try to persuade the power brokers in Texas and Oklahoma. Their best shot might be to focus on recruiting.

"The Big 12 doesn't need an influx of money," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals. "What they really need is to open up a new recruiting territory."

One like the Interstate 4 corridor.

USF has touched on that message in its correspondence with the Big 12. Its documents reference "a foothold in one of the country's most populous and rapidly growing regions," the ability to "recruit top talent" and a growing "amateur and youth sports hotbed."

They could have also pointed to recruiting rankings. Including Bradenton's IMG Academy, Central Florida featured 22 four- or five-star recruits in the 2016 class and has another 22 in 2017.

All of those factors could help the Big 12 erase the recruiting hit it took in the last round of conference realignment.

From 2004-06, the Big 12 dominated recruiting in talent-rich Texas, landing 113 of the state's top 150-ranked players; the SEC plucked only 13. But when Texas A&M bolted for the SEC, starting with the 2012 season, the Big 12's stranglehold disappeared. Over the past three classes, the Big 12 signed only 69 of Texas' top 150 players. The SEC took 54.

A&M has benefitted most from the switch by touting the SEC brand, but schools such as Ole Miss have, too. The Rebels signed Texas' top 2016 prospect (offensive tackle Gregory Little) and can promise the state's recruits they will play in their home state a few times over their careers.

"I think a lot of those teams that are getting kids, they've always recruited Texas," said Ryan Bartow, 247Sports' national recruiting insider. "Now they just have a little extra selling point."

If the Big 12 adds USF and UCF, its current programs can use that extra selling point to fight back against the SEC in one of the country's most fertile recruiting grounds. But history, and analysts, are divided on what kind of pipeline Texas Tech or TCU could build to Tampa Bay.

Miami joining the Big East in 1991 did little to open up Florida prospects to Syracuse or Pitt. Penn State didn't necessarily help Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan or Michigan State tap into Pennsylvania after it joined the Big Ten.

Yet Missouri has completely shifted its recruiting base since leaving the Big 12 for the SEC the same year as Texas A&M did.

Since 2011, the number of Texans on the Tigers' roster has fallen from 35 to eight. The number of players from Florida or Georgia, meanwhile, jumped from two to 18. That list includes two possible starters from the Tampa Bay area — tight end Sean Culkin (Indian Rocks Christian) and running back Ish Witter (Alonso High).

"We're starting to get more to the South," said Culkin, who expects 50 friends or family members to be in Gainesville when he plays the Gators in October. "You play down there more, you see how recruiting goes."

Josh Newberg, a veteran local recruiting analyst for 247Sports, said the rest of the Big 12 probably wouldn't follow Missouri's lead if the conference expands into Florida. It would be too hard for newcomers to alter a hierarchy dominated by Florida State, Florida and Miami, especially if they risk upsetting coaches and recruits who are closer to home.

"The question then becomes, 'Is this player at Florida worth flying 1,500 miles to get when we might fly over three or four of the same caliber players in our own back yard?' " Newberg said.

Instead of a wholesale shift, Newberg said Big 12 programs might supplement their rosters with a player or two each class. Some already do: Armwood High's Eric Striker became an AP second-team All-American at Oklahoma, and Bucs linebacker Jeremiah George went from Clearwater High to Iowa State.

Farrell expects a potential impact greater than that — if coaches can convince their presidents that it's necessary.

"Bigwigs look at TV money, and that's the bottom line," Farrell said. "But coaches look at recruiting, and I think they would be intrigued by USF and UCF."

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes. Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]

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