Written by: Rajan Nanavati, Editor and Founder of Hail To The District
If you want to better understand just how important it is for college football coaches to scout and find recruits in the smallest cities and small towns in the United States, then you need to look no further than at some of the guys taken among the top 10 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft.
After a prolific career at Penn State University, running back Saquon Barkley was considered by many scouts to be the best player in the NFL Draft. Barkley came to Penn State as a three-star recruit from Whitehall Township in Pennsylvania, a town with less than 30,000 people.
Defensive end Bradley Chubb recorded double-digit sacks for the North Carolina State University Wolfpack in each of the past two seasons, was named the ACC’s defensive player of the year, and selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, by the Denver Broncos. Yet Chubb was a largely overlooked recruit coming out of Powder Springs, Georgia (a town with a population of less than 15,000 people), only receiving interest from third-tier football programs in the southeastern US.
Quarterback Josh Allen was one of the most highly coveted players in the entire draft, with prototype physical tools for a starting quarterback. In high school, he was the leading scorer on his basketball team, and could throw a baseball at a velocity of more than 90 mph. Yet Allen was passed over by virtually every college football program in the country, as few knew anything about the strapping young man from Firebaugh California, a town with a population of less than 7,600 people.
Linebacker Roquan Smith was a consensus All-American in 2017, the winner of the Butkus Award last year (given to the best linebacker in the nation), and the centerpiece of a University of Georgia team that went to the national championship last year. Smith hails from Montezuma, Georgia, a town with less than 4,000 people.
But it’s not just about the guys who’ll be heading to the NFL after their college career is over. In 2010, the New York Times cited a report from the University of St. Thomas, stating that 31 quarterbacks starting for NCAA or NAIA schools came from towns of 1,400 people or fewer.
For all the great players playing for the great prep high school football programs all over the country, there are tons of “diamonds in the rough” in small-town football programs who get overlooked by both the national recruiting services and by college football coaches each year, yet can still go on to have enormously successful college football careers.
Some will argue that it’s easier than ever for colleges to find these lesser-known players. High school football players, and/or their parents and their coaches, can use electronic communication and/or social media to get the attention of a college football coach. A player’s game film, and any other highlights can easily be transmitted digitally to a host of college programs, in a matter of seconds. Social media “buzz” can help athletes get on the radar of any of these college football coaches and programs.
But even with all of that, the reality is that college scouts and coaches only have so much time they can devote to recruiting; after all, the amount of time we have to do anything is a constraint for us all. Depending on for which college they’re employed, they might not have the resources (ie, the expense account) to make trips everywhere they’d like as well. As a result, the big “powerhouse” high school programs, with a track record of producing the most coveted players each year, tend to be the place these coaches will devote give a higher priority.
From there, the college scouts will devote their attention to the “big name” players coming out of the smaller towns — the ones who the national college ranking services have already found, and to whom they’ve given out their five-star and four-star grades already.
In other words: if you’re not from a nationally-acclaimed school, if you’re not the “big man on campus” at a smaller high school, and if you’re not someone who’s been noticed by the high school player ranking services, you’re fighting for a very small piece of the “available time” pie for a college football recruiter.
But the folks from smaller towns in the country, where football is king, will tell you that the prioritization of that “time pie” is incorrectly ranked. In many cases, they might be right. While the “big name” cities and programs might garner more national attention, the players from smaller towns and high schools in the country were brought up in an environment where the entire locale eats, sleeps, and breathes football. Young sons born to families in these towns spend their whole lives devoted to their sport of choice. The entire town shuts down on Friday night when their high school game is taking place.
What we tend to forget is that these kids have football in their blood, and truly understand the importance and the magnitude of the game. College and NFL programs want players who are true “football junkies,” and you’d need to look no further than the kids growing up in these types of towns to find them.
It may be true that the football factory high schools around the country produce the most talented players, it might be the case where these players have relied and coasted on their talent, instead of truly working on their craft from the days they were basically old enough to stand up on their own. But the kids from the smaller towns? Those guys are all about the latter, especially having been taught that it’s going to be much harder for them to get on the college football recruiting radar since they’re growing up in a town of 5,000 people, as opposed to a town with 500,000 people.
As the saying goes: never underestimate the size of the player in the fight, because you’ll never know the size of the fight in the player. The same goes from where they came from: never underestimate the size of the small town they came from because being the pride and joy of that small town they came from made them the player they are today.