One of the best ways to evaluate the quality of a college football coaching job is the geographic location of the school.
No matter how good a coach may be, he won’t win if he’s not able to recruit good players. There’s truth to the old saying it’s not about the Xs and Os, it’s about the Jimmys and Joes.
When Kane Wommack returned to Mobile to be the head coach at South Alabama, one of the factors that made the job attractive was the number of quality players on the Gulf Coast.
Wommack is only 33 years old, but he arrives in Mobile with a great reputation for coaching aggressive defenses and relating to his players. He also has a personality that makes him easy to like by fans and the people who support the program.
All those things are important. But Wommack, like every other college coach, knows success starts with putting together a roster of talented players.
Jim Nagy, executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl, has spent his entire career evaluating the talent of football players. He has confidence Wommack will succeed at South Alabama, in part because of the players he’ll be able to attract to the Jags.
“If he can just keep the players home in the two-county Mobile-Baldwin area, he can put together a great roster,” Nagy said. “South Alabama is not going to get the players who are going to Alabama and Auburn, but if they can keep those other guys home, they’re going to have a great chance to be successful.”
That is certainly a strong argument. Just take a look at the wide receiver position, where there were starring performances this season by former Saraland star Velus Jones Jr. at Tennessee, former McGill-Toolen standout Marlon Williams at Central Florida, former Blount teammates Kadarius Toney at Florida and Reggie Todd at Troy, and South Alabama stars Jalen Tolbert from McGill-Toolen and Caullin Lacy from Faith Academy. Trae Barry is a converted quarterback at Spanish Fort who is now about to embark on an NFL career after playing tight end at Jacksonville State. That’s just a partial list of players at one position.
But is it realistic to expect to keep star players home? Whether we’re talking about South Alabama or Southern Cal or Texas or Western Kentucky, it’s getting increasingly hard to convince players they need to stay close to home to attend college.
Take a look at the players who are the leading contenders to win the Heisman Trophy this year. All of them left states that have great college football options to play elsewhere.
Despite all the great players in Alabama, here are the best players on the current Tide roster and where they played in high school: Mac Jones (Florida), DeVonta Smith (Louisiana), Najee Harris (California), Jaylen Waddle (Texas), Alex Leatherwood (Florida), Patrick Surtain Jr. (Florida) and Will Anderson Jr. (Georgia).
The other top Heisman contenders include Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (Georgia), Ohio State’s Justin Fields (Georgia), Florida’s Kyle Trask (Texas) and Kyle Pitts (Pennsylvania).
Around the SEC, Auburn, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Texas A&M are the only teams led by an in-state quarterback. Auburn’s Bo Nix is the classic example of the home-state kid who grew up dreaming of playing for college football at the nearby school. Mississippi State’s Will Rogers took over from a transfer quarterback. South Carolina’s starter is a native of the state but only found his way to Columbia after playing for Colorado State. And Kellen Mond found his way back to Texas A&M only after playing high school football at IMG Academy in Florida.
Even if a player decides to stay close to home to attend college, there’s the problem of keeping him around for his entire career.
Before last week’s conference championship games, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts tweeted, “Roll Sooners.” Hurts is from Texas but played for championship programs at Alabama and Oklahoma.
The Big Ten championship game featured quarterbacks who previously played for other schools. The Northwestern quarterback (Peyton Ramsey) is from Ohio, played first for Indiana, transferred to Northwestern then finished his college career in Indianapolis against Ohio State.
Ramsey’s opponent in the title game, Justin Fields, signed with home-state Georgia before transferring to Ohio State.
So, keeping players at home is monumentally important for success on the field. But there are players to be found everywhere.
Signing the right ones, whether they are from across the street or across the country, is even more important.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. and on the iHeart app.
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