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January 18, 2012
What if Patrick Peterson and Trent Richardson had teamed up at Florida rather than signing with two of the Gators' biggest SEC rivals? How different would the ACC have looked the last several years if C.J. Spiller had signed with Florida State instead of Clemson?
Peterson, Richardson and Spiller all were rated as the No. 1 prospect in the state of Florida their senior years in high school. Each chose to leave the state for college and went on to earn All-America honors - Peterson at LSU, Richardson at Alabama and Spiller at Clemson.
In the process, they blazed a trail for today's top Sunshine State recruits.
Last year marked the first time since the current version of Rivals.com started in 2002 that more than half of Florida's top 10 high school prospects signed with out-of-state colleges. This year, the top two committed prospects from Florida have decided to leave the state.
The change hasn't led to any recruiting slumps for the state's so-called Big Three programs. Not even close. Wednesday's Rivals.com team recruiting rankings had Florida fourth, Miami sixth and Florida State seventh. But they're putting together top classes even as more and more of the state's top prospects decide to go elsewhere.
"Some guys want to grow up and get out in the world," said Tracy Howard, a cornerback from Miramar and the state's top-ranked recruit. "People want to experience new things. Florida gets kind of boring after a while."
Howard, the nation's No. 13 overall prospect, hasn't decided whether he also will leave home. The 5-foot-11 defensive back has called Florida and LSU his leaders, though he also is considering USC and Florida State.
The state's No. 2 prospect - wide receiver Nelson Agholor of Tampa Berkeley Prep - also is still pondering whether to leave the state. Agholor, ranked 18th nationally, is choosing among Florida, USC, Florida State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
That leaves Jacksonville Bolles offensive tackle John Theus and Panama City Arnold all-purpose athlete Eddie Williams as the state's top two committed recruits. Theus has opted to play for Georgia. Williams has committed to Alabama, where he expects to play wide receiver.
Although Theus is leaving his home state, he doesn't necessarily think he's part of a trend. Nor does he believe Florida's top programs will stay down for long. This year marked the first time since 1978 that no Florida school was ranked among the top 20 teams in the final Associated Press poll (No. 23 Florida State was the state's lone ranked team).
"You can definitely see Florida State is on the rise," said Theus, who grew up a Seminole fan. "Florida will be good. ... Guys are just seeing what school fits them best.''
The number of top prospects leaving Florida shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. Florida traditionally has served as more of a battleground state than other Southeast recruiting hotbeds.
"I don't know if it has to do with the results of the in-state teams or that Florida just seems to be kind of an open-season place," said Chris Nee, a Florida recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "It's not like some states. In Louisiana, the majority of kids go to LSU if they're supposed to be at that level of football. In Alabama, it's Alabama or Auburn. In Georgia, it's Georgia. Florida's more of an open playground. A lot of people come here, throw around their weight and do win some of those battles.
"It's kind of always been that way, but the last couple of years, obviously some major kids have gone out of state."
Florida's top overall prospect has left the state four of the last six years: Spiller from Lake Butler Union County to Clemson in 2006, Peterson (then known as Patrick Johnson) from Pompano Beach Ely to LSU in 2008, Richardson from Pensacola Escambia to Alabama in 2009 and Orlando Dr. Phillips defensive back Hasean Clinton-Dix to Alabama in 2011.
Spiller and Peterson developed into first-round draft choices. Richardson finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting this year and is a probable first-round draft pick, while Clinton-Dix just completed his freshman season.
Alabama and Clemson have been particularly effective in attracting top Florida players.
Three of the four five-star prospects Clemson signed last year came from Florida: South Fort Myers wide receiver Sammy Watkins (the 2011 Yahoo! Sports freshman of the year), St. Augustine Pedro Menendez linebacker Tony Steward and Punta Gorda Charlotte running back Mike Bellamy. In fact, five of the top seven recruits from Florida last year signed with either Clemson or Alabama.
Clemson has benefited from the ties that former assistant Brad Scott and current recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott have to the Sunshine State.
Brad Scott was born in Arcadia, Fla., and earned degrees from USF and Florida State before working as an assistant on Bobby Bowden's Florida State staff from 1983-93. Scott was Clemson's chief recruiter last year for Watkins and Bellamy, though he left the coaching staff after the 2011 season to become an assistant athletic director. Jeff Scott, Brad's son, also was born in Arcadia and served as the Tigers' chief recruiter for Steward.
The lone Florida player on Clemson's list of 2012 verbal commitments is Tallahassee North Florida Christian cornerback Travis Blanks, the 12th-ranked prospect in the state and the No. 60 recruit in the nation.
"I chose Clemson just because it fit my profile," Blanks said. "The system fits me, and the type of people around that program fit me.''
Alabama benefited last year from the friendship between Clinton-Dix and Dr. Phillips teammate Demetrius Hart, a five-star prospect who also signed with the Tide. Alabama's recent success and proximity to Florida have continued paying off this year, as the Tide have verbal commitments from three of the state's top 11 prospects: Williams, Miami Northwestern receiver Amari Cooper (ranked No. 45 overall) and Jacksonville First Coast receiver Chris Black (No. 58).
Yet even as so many elite prospects head out of state, Florida's three major powers are on the verge of delivering top-10 classes.
Part of their success, oddly enough, has come with out-of-state recruits.
Florida and Florida State have succeeded by looking outside their state's borders.
Three of Florida State's four highest-rated prospects are Denton (Texas) defensive end Mario Edwards (the nation's No. 3 overall prospect), Hueytown (Ala.) quarterback Jameis Winston (No. 10) and Mobile (Ala.) defensive end Chris Casher (No. 36). Florida's top two recruits are Charlotte (N.C.) offensive lineman D.J. Humphries (No. 2) and Shelby (N.C.) defensive end Jonathan Bullard (No. 6).
Only six of the Seminoles' 15 commitments are from Florida, whereas in-state residents made up over three-quarters of the 2011 Florida State recruiting class that ranked second nationally. Nine of the Gators' 18 commitments have come from out-of-state players.
"I think it's just how things have worked out," Nee said. "Florida State and Florida had some major positions of need where it made more sense for them to go out of state."
For example, the state of Florida lacks an elite quarterback prospect this year, so Florida State pursued Winston. Stanford-bound Noor Davis of Leesburg is the only Florida linebacker in the Rivals100, so Florida State landed Ukeme Eligwe of Stone Mountain (Ga.) and Florida added Antonio Morrison of Bolingbrook (Ill.).
Miami is taking a different approach. Rather than expanding their reach, the Hurricanes have concentrated on protecting their borders. Twenty-four of the 31 prospects in Miami's recruiting class played high school football in Florida.
The Hurricanes aren't necessarily getting the elite Sunshine State guys. Of the top 15 Florida high school prospects, only five-star running back Duke Johnson of Miami Norland has verbally committed to Miami. But Al Golden's staff is acquiring plenty of promising recruits while repairing relationships with high schools across the state.
Some Florida high school coaches complained that former Miami coach Randy Shannon didn't recruit in-state prospects heavily enough. They can't make the same charge about Golden.
"Miami was very aggressive early on," Nee said. "Miami had to do something to improve relationships with local coaches in that area because of the previous staff. They're doing a good job of that this year, building bridges and improving those relationships for down the road.''
An early look at Miami's 2013 recruiting class shows the benefits of Golden's strategy. The Hurricanes already have four verbal commitments from high school juniors. All of them are from Florida.
Although Florida's three major powers are going about their business a little differently, they all have reason for optimism. They're putting together the types of classes that eventually could help them regain their status as national title contenders.
That much is even obvious to in-state recruits who haven't yet decided whether to stay close to home.
"With the recruiting classes they've got now,'' Howard said, "if everybody pulls together and stays with their commitments, they'll be back up there.''
(Olin Buchanan of Rivals.com contributed to this report).