How local recruiting dictates scheme: Mapping college football's elite talent

At the top level of college football, the local Jimmys and Joes explain the Xs and Os.

Let's say you're a first-year college football head coach. You're gonna need some players. Let's also say you aren't picky about the schemes your offensive and defensive coordinators run and are willing to run whatever fits the best players available to you.

We could use data alone to figure this out by region, showing which kinds of players tend to rank highly in each state. But your school's recruiting turf isn't confined to your state's borders. Each team has to think about its region as a whole.

So let's use this interactive recruiting map of every FBS signee since 2002 (the beginning of the recruiting rankings era), made by Corn Nation's Paul Dalen:

With a closer look at the map, we can pinpoint which regions are actually producing specific types of elite athletes. By doing that, we can figure out which offensive and defensive systems are easier to recruit to in different parts of the country. This can help explain why certain styles of college football are more prevalent in certain areas.

We've chosen to focus on game-changing, blue-chip players for most of this story. First, we must accept that some regions simply produce a ton of premier football talent. Consider a map of just the four- and five-star talent from the last 10 years (five-stars are larger on this version of the map):

5_stars_medium

The Southern United States is entirely covered by university logos all the way west to the I-35 triangle in East Texas ... and then you find a range of mostly elite football-free territory until you reach the California coast. In the Northern lands, top players cluster around the major metropolitan areas. (As a general rule, proximity to big cities is essential to having regular access to top-tier talent.)

And the Southern states tend to produce more of the obvious, can't-miss talent. Observe the same map with only the five-star players featured (all players are of equal size on this map, since they all have the same ratings):

2004-2014_5_stars_medium

Going by current conference lineups, seven SEC states produced five or more five-stars in this 10-year period, with six for the ACC, five in Big Ten country, two for the Pac-12, and one for the Big 12. If it wasn't plainly obvious already, the South has enough talent to load up multiple programs with elite athletes. Everyone else has some work to do.

This tells us Southern schools can land more talented players. But it doesn't tell us exactly what they can do with them, compared to other regions. Here's a brief summary of the advantages and disadvantages to recruiting in each respective region.

The Southeast: Run the dang ball, stuff the dang run

The biggest edge enjoyed by SEC teams is their proximity to four- and five-star defensive line talent (all maps below show recruits since 2004), almost all of whom stay in the region for college:

Southern_dl_medium

For running either 4-3 or 3-4 defenses that rely on quality up front, the South has more than enough talent to go around. Alabama's titles have come largely as a result of having nearby stores of athletic big men to plug into Nick Saban's physical schemes. It's the reason Auburn could throw waves of quality pass-rushers at Florida State's Jameis Winston in 2013 and dominate Oregon's run game in 2010.

The South is also rich in four- and five-star running backs and offensive linemen, allowing the defense-plus-run-game formulas enjoyed by multiple SEC champions to pay off:

Southern_run_game_medium

In short, this is why Southern teams tend to run classic systems.

When Southern teams have any struggles to find players, those struggles crop up in the expected places. Four- and five-star quarterbacks don't emerge in the Southeast (except for in Florida) with as much regularity as other positions.

Southern_qb_medium

This point is fairly obvious from observing SEC games, which (until the bizarre 2013 season) are better known for physical slugfests than explosive, offensive displays.

What the South occasionally lacks in raw numbers of quarterbacks or other hard-to-find talent can be found in abundance in the neighboring states of Texas and Florida. For the bigger programs that can effectively recruit in those areas, no scheme is limited by what the nearby talent allows.

It's also worth noting that all Southern counties are not equal. Teams in Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri have to pull kids out of other states with regularity in order to have a chance at fielding teams that can compete nationally. (Though recruiting outside the region isn't a problem for SEC teams.)

Alabama, Auburn, and others have shown that the Southern strategy of combining great defensive fronts with mauling run games is a championship formula.

Texas: Spread it out

The great advantage to recruiting in Texas is the state's prolific production of great passing game talent. There's a reason 13 NFL teams started quarterbacks from Texas high schools at some point in 2013, with Johnny Manziel likely joining the club. Chalk it up to statewide summer seven-on-seven drills, an earlier adoption of the spread, a massive population, and a fervent cultural obsession with football that draws the state's athletes to learn from some of the nation's best high school coaches.

So everyone recruits Texas. Witness the recent pilfering of Texas' well of three- to five-star quarterbacks by programs around the nation:

Texas_qb_medium

Besides the obvious in-state programs, many Southeastern and Midwestern teams regularly come to Texas to find their quarterbacks or other skill talent. The state now has as many as five hubs of talent that BCS schools find worth regularly combing for talent, led by Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.

The entire Big 12 depends on evaluating and drawing talent from Texas, as the other states in the conference produce a rather paltry number of top recruits. The state's abundance of quarterbacks and receivers allow Texas to fuel multiple programs with the needed components to field spread offenses, hence the scoring explosions across the Big 12 and now in the SEC as well.

The challenges in Texas recruiting, like in the South, are fairly minimal. One problem is finding four- and five-star players in the defensive front seven ...

Texas_d_front_medium

... and another is keeping them.

The state doesn't produce linebackers, defensive ends, and defensive tackles at quite the same rate as it does quarterbacks or wide receivers. What's more, there are several strong programs that already mine the state for speed and won't ignore chances to compete for its best defenders as well.

It's difficult for schools that rely on Texas to field premier defensive fronts if they aren't one of the first dogs to the bowl. This means competition is fierce between the main programs to remain at the top of the food chain in securing the few four- and five-star defensive tackles produced by the state. Only two of the state's top 40 2015 prospects are defensive tackles, according to the 247Sports Composite consensus, while eight are running backs and four are receivers.

Big 12 teams are still largely relying on the 4-3 defense, but we may see more shifts towards systems like the 3-3-5 that look to make hay with athletes rather than relying on stout people up front.

Florida: The one-stop shop

Florida tends to be the talent-richest state in football. And even if Texas or California tops it at times in total blue-chips, neither state can compare to its breadth, both geographically and in position groups.

It's included in the Southeast, but it's also a large and dense enough region to look at by itself. All of its four- and five-stars since 2004, with very few heading far outside the state's borders:

Floridian_supremacy_medium

There's not really any region of the state that doesn't produce some upper-tier prospects. South Florida has the largest share of blue-chips, but the whole state is covered.

And there's not really any type of player or schematic fit that Florida programs could run that would require heavy out-of-state recruiting to land the right pieces. If you have major access to South Florida, it behooves you to focus on speed in your offensive and defensive schemes, but otherwise, all options are on the table.

The thing about all that speed, though, is that the whole four-state region fights for it. The excess reserves of speedy players in Florida result in nearby programs coming in to snatch up players, particularly the offensive skill players and defensive backs, which tend to appear more frequently in the southern half of the state:

Raiding_florida_athletes_medium

The Northeast: Think big

Northeastern four- and five-stars are not particularly numerous at all, especially outside the big cities:

Northeastern_elites_medium

The metropolitan areas of Pittsburgh, Philly, New York City, Baltimore, and D.C. make up the bulk of the talent in the region. There's scarcely enough to load up the nearby football programs with great talent, particularly with programs like Alabama and Michigan sliding in to snatch up the best prospects.

One strength of the region is in the number of blue-chip recruits who come into college already tipping the scales at 250 pounds or better:

Ne_250__medium

There is a recruiting base for local programs to rely on in building physical, power-oriented offenses and 3-4 defenses.

Wide receivers come along as well. But four- and five-star signal-callers are difficult to find in Northeastern high schools:

Ne_qb_s_medium

Teams that rely on the Northeast for their base of players and want to move beyond run-heavy schemes have to venture west or to Florida to find blue-chip throwers.

Over the last four years Penn State, for example, has relied primarily on its local grounds, while venturing out to find stars like quarterback Christian Hackenberg of Virginia. Expect the Nittany Lions to expand south even more with James Franklin in charge.

Penn_st_recruiting_medium

The Midwest: Great blocking, but who's it for?

America's heartland also has a lot of blue-chip talent packed in select areas:Midwest_elites_medium

Too many big dogs, and not enough food in the bowl.

The obvious metro areas of Chicago, the Twin Cities, Kansas City. Cleveland, Cincinnati/Dayton, Wichita, Indianapolis, and Detroit are the main talent hubs for the Midwest. Those areas also encompass several of the nation's premier programs.

Therein lies the main problem for recruiting in Big Ten country: too many big dogs, and not enough food in the bowl. Michigan, Notre Dame, and Ohio State are the only premier programs with natural recruiting territories that offer enough top talent to field championship teams, and even these teams regularly venture into national recruiting. Nebraska and the other big programs in the area have to cast even more of a national net.

As for the talent that exists within the Midwest, you'd assume based on the styles in the B1G that you'd find plenty of big linemen and athletic running backs, the same as in the South's offensive output. You do find a similar occurrence of blue-chips checking in at 230 pounds or better on the scales, giving you physical fronts on offense and defense:

Big_midwest_medium

But the running back vs. quarterback ratio of talent is not what you'd expect. The number of elite running backs produced is fairly small in comparison to other regions, particularly the South's. Georgia and Alabama combine to produce about as many blue-chip backs as Big Ten country does from Nebraska to Ohio:

Midwest_rb_s_medium

However, the number of top-shelf quarterbacks is about on par with most of the SEC's, Texas and Florida excepted:

Midwestern_qbs_medium

Midwest programs have long understood that the keys to success include locking down the local talent while mining the Southeast, Texas, or California for athletes to man the skill positions and back seven. However, there may be an opportunity for programs to get ahead of the curve by making greater use of today's spread-to-run schemes, rather than the pro-style systems prevalent across much of the region. They can avoid competing for the limited number of feature backs and pro-style quarterbacks while still utilizing the road-grading talent available in the region.

If that's not already obvious, Urban Meyer will use Ohio native and former five-star Braxton Miller to drill it into heads for one more year.

The mountains: Get creative!

There's a reason the Rockies aren't filled with universities that have long traditions of gridiron supremacy:

Western_elites_medium

Colorado has Denver ... and beyond that, you're going to have to go east or to the Coast to find players. The Arizona schools have a very solid pocket of high school football but have lacked the programs to keep blue-chips in-state, though they appear to be turning it around.

Boise State routinely demonstrates the necessary strategy for teams that don't have top local bases. When such is the case: the specific scheme matters less than the ability to build regional pipelines and carefully evaluate players to fit your system every year, making quality rosters with players that larger programs in the richer regions picked over. Boise State does this primarily in California.

The West Coast: Great athletes, but who's blocking?

The Bay Area in Northern California and then the super-fertile Southern California high school football systems are the closest existing challenge to Texan or Floridian talent supremacy:

Pacific_coast_elites_medium

The key to recruiting in the Pac-12 is all about recruiting California, although Seattle does produce like metropolitan areas are prone to do.

Given that there's only one major powerhouse program in the state of California (USC), and more than enough top recruits to fill out its classes, California is a common ground for savvy programs to raid. Oklahoma's Bob Stoops has been saying hello to California's four- and five-star receivers, running backs, and defensive backs for years:

Ou_raiding_cali_medium

The Californian recruiting landscape is perhaps most similar to Texas, with tons of four- and five-star athletes to play the skill positions and secondary:

Wc_athletes

Sufficient great quarterbacks in the South:

Wc_qb_s_medium

And, outside of Los Angeles, few big bodies to fill out the trenches (four- and five-stars weighing 250 pounds or more):

Wc_big_bodies_medium

USC can more or less run whatever schemes it pleases, but the other schools have to be mindful of what kind of line talent they can expect to bring in on a regular basis. On the other hand, there is enough speed to be featured in Pac-12 spread offenses, as well as in Midwestern offenses thousands of miles away.

What do you think?

In summary: the US' coasts tend to feature more of the nation's athletes, while bigger bodies concentrate more heavily in-land. Big cities and evolving demographics are leaning in the favor of Southern and Western football teams, as are those cultures' dedicated focus to developing high school talent.

Ultimately though: there are still strategies and enough players to stock talented programs all over the country. What's the best path and system for accumulating talent at your school?

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