January 12, 2009

Corralling state's top talent paramount to ASU success

When it comes to football recruiting, few areas of the country have seen explosive growth that rivals Arizona. As recently as five years ago, many college coaches in the region used to not even bother spending time mining for talent in the state.

The 2003 recruiting class saw fewer than 25 prospects from the Grand Canyon State sign Division-I football scholarships, and only 10 recruits inked with BCS-level programs, nine of whom landed in the Pac-10, including five at ASU.

Just five years later, national programs including Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State, among many others, are very active in the state, and Pac-10 powerhouse USC has become a force to be reckoned with for upper echelon talent.

In Arizona's 2008 football class, no fewer than 51 recruits signed with FBS/FCS programs, including 22 who signed with BCS programs. 18 of those recruits landed in the Pac-10 including eight at ASU.

The number of college football players coming out of the Arizona high school ranks has literally doubled in just a five year period.

A dramatic population increase in the last several decades has added several million new residents in the state, and the Phoenix metro area has seen its population more than double over that time period.

The area is also extremely young, with the largest demographic by far being children under the age of 18 (27 percent).

One of the byproducts of that type of growth has been the opening of many more schools, and along with that a lot obviously comes more and better athletics programs across the region and state. There is much more competition and increasingly improved coaching.

In recent years, schools that didn't even exist several decades ago have become regular sources of talent for college recruiters. Even newer schools, often build as recently as the 2000s, are also beginning to put out prospects.

That development is a dual-edged sword for Arizona State.

On one hand, the Sun Devils benefit by being one of the rare colleges in the country -- perhaps the only college in the country -- to have no competition in the form of another college football program within 100 miles of its campus in a huge Top-10 national population center.

On the other hand, where there used to be little competition for the top players in the region, that no longer is the case. Colleges in the west no longer overlook Arizona and particularly the Phoenix market when it comes to recruiting. If anything, the pendulum has swung completely the opposite direction and the Valley is now being over recruited.

As a result, ASU has more talent than ever in its back yard, but it also has a tougher time getting that talent on its campus before it gets poached by elite national programs.

That trend may have started several years earlier, but it really proved to be a blow to the Sun Devils in 2007, when the majority of top in-state players left Arizona to attend college, including elite prospects Everson Griffen (USC), Kristofer O'Dowd (USC), and Jaivario Burkes (Nebraska), and solid high major recruits William Yancy (Nebraska), Blake Behrens (Colorado) Glenn Love (UCLA), Cameron Jordan (Cal) and Marcel Jones (Nebraska), among others.

In the transition between Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson, those prospects all slipped away. With the Sun Devils struggling along the offensive front, losing offensive line prospects Burkes (has started at left tackle at Nebraska), Jones (second-string right tackle at Nebraska as a red shirt freshman) and Behrens are losses of particular note and perhaps most emblematic of ASU's need to keep upper echelon talent at home in order to sustain success.

That's the one thing that has become particularly clear when assessing ASU's standing as a member of the Pac-10 and in the larger college football landscape.

Regardless of the outside perception of ASU as a "sleeping giant," the school is not viewed as a destination that many out of state elite prospects are clamoring to be a part of. If anything, ASU has in recent years been behind not only USC but Cal and Oregon in the pecking order for west coast football recruits.

Now, Stanford has come on strong under the direction of Jim Harbaugh, UCLA has a proven recruiter in Rick Neuheisel, Oregon State has a well-earned reputation for success with Mike Riley and Washington has a young gun who could be a recruiting force in Steve Sarkisian.

The competition for recruits in California, Nevada and the Pacific Northwest won't be getting easier anytime soon, and the Sun Devils have traditionally not recruited Texas particularly aggressively or successfully.

So then, it's clear that for ASU to sustain success on the football field, and indeed to take a step forward as a successful program, it's going to need to do an even better job cultivating the ever-increasing homegrown talent pool.

No doubt Erickson is aware of this. He and his staff did a tremendous job in their first full year on the job, successfully prying Gerell Robinson and Jarrell Barbour (regardless of his ability to qualify) away from Arizona, and also landing Zach Schlink and several others who should prove to have solid ASU careers.

At the same time, Ray Polk, Sean Renfree, Marc Anthony, Dion Jordan, Jamal Womble and others got away -- players ASU would have liked to have had.

ASU's 10-win campaign no doubt helped to solidify a consensus top-25 class in 2008, but the Sun Devils took a step backward on the field last fall, and it's led to a bit more uncertainty with the 2009 cycle.

A number of the state's top recruits, specifically Adam Hall, Craig Roh, Taylor Lewan, Markus Wheaton, Bryce Lamb and Drew Terrell have all elected to commit elsewhere already, or have already ruled out the Sun Devils.

With under four weeks to go until signing day, the state's top ranked recruit, Devon Kennard appears to be leaning toward leaving the state for college, while No. 2 prospect Corey Adams appears more likely to stay home and play for ASU.

Kennard and Adams, as well as the other aforementioned prospects ASU found itself on the outside looking in on, are exactly the types of recruits the Sun Devils need to successful land at a very high rate in order to have any real likelihood of climbing up several rungs in the Pac-10 pecking order and challenge for the Pac-10 title on a more consistent basis.

The 2010 class is already looking like it too will be strong, with Marquis Flowers, Devon Carrington and Nick Rowland among those in the state who could become Rivals250 national recruits.

Erickson has said repeatedly that his primary objective in recruiting is keeping Arizona's top talent at home for college, and that's exactly what needs to happen for ASU to take the next step as a program.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the recruitments of Kennard and Adams and the elite Arizona recruits that follow them in 2010 and beyond. But it's relatively clear that Arizona State will more often than not need to consistently land those recruits in order to reach the next level as a program.

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