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Friday, January 27, 2012
Updated: February 1, 3:32 PM ET
Top football talent shifts to the South

By Paula Lavigne
ESPN.com

High school senior Eddie Williams has been fortunate in many ways. Fortunate to have been offered a scholarship to play football at Alabama. Fortunate to have an uncle who pushed him to practice and play as much as he could. Fortunate to have parents who worried enough about him following his friends' path toward crime and gangs to send him out of town to live.

But of all the factors that propelled Williams to become a top recruit, none may be more important than the simple fortune of having been born in Florida.

Great recruits come from every part of the country, and the NFL has had players from every state. But in the past decade, more than 50 percent of the top high school recruits have come from one region -- the South, according to an "Outside the Lines" analysis of data from the PARADE All-America High School Football Team and SuperPrep recruiting magazine.

Although that finding won't surprise football die-hards, what stands out in the analysis is by how much the South has steadily grown to dominate the recruiting landscape -- a trend that also shows up in the NFL, where 55 percent of the league's rookies who played in at least one game in 2010 were from high schools in the South. The shift even outpaces the South's population growth -- in 2010, census data show about 37 percent of people in the United States lived in the South, but in the same year, about 53 percent of the top recruits came from there.

It hasn't always been this way.

In the mid-1960s, the percentage of top recruits was more evenly distributed throughout the Northeast, South, Midwest and West. But in the 1970s, the percentage of top players from the South started to break away and grow to dominate the other regions, according to the PARADE data and data on NFL rookie classes analyzed by "Outside the Lines."

A combination of social change, economic circumstances, opportunities to play and a community culture that reveres high school football are factors in the southward talent shift.

Confluence of events led to talent distribution change

Since 1970, 15 NFL players have come from Griffin High School in Griffin, Ga., a town of about 25,000 people about an hour south of Atlanta. Head football coach Steve DeVoursney says he gets a police escort to jam-packed Friday night games -- a scene anyone who has watched "Friday Night Lights," the TV show about football in a small Texas town, will appreciate.

"As far as football goes, it's just a big part of the South," he said. "It's like family, God, tradition and football. And sometimes not in that order."

Williams, who goes to high school in Panama City, Fla., said he had his heart set on a football career since he was in elementary school, and, as he got older, his uncle pushed him to practice, "from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep."

"I think the best players are coming from this region because that's basically all we have to do down here. That's all we do, just play football," he said.

Tom Lemming has witnessed the shift southward firsthand. A microwave-sized box full of DVDs sits aside Lemming's desk at his home outside Chicago, where Lemming reviews the thousands of videos and résumés he receives from high school football players every year when he's not driving across the country visiting players in person. In the 1970s, Lemming started a magazine rating the nation's high school football recruits and is today a recruiting expert on CBS Sports Network.

Back then, Lemming says top football recruits were more evenly distributed across the United States, with perhaps an emphasis coming out of the East and Midwest left over from the 1950s and '60s.

"Youngstown, Ohio, had great players, so did Pittsburgh. Philadelphia was very good, and New Jersey was always good and Chicago and Detroit. Flint, Michigan, had ball players back then. Now it's a ghost town," he said.

Lemming describes a confluence of events in which the steel mills and other industries pulled out of the Northeast and Midwestern states, while at the same time the Civil Rights movement paved the way for black athletes in the South to play big-time college football.

"… Then you got a lot more, better athletes who are playing down there and not really concentrating on baseball and basketball, but football," Lemming said.

When schools in the Northeast and Midwest got rid of spring football -- a decision Lemming pegs to sometime in the '70s -- that also whittled down the number of top recruits from those regions, as spring ball remained a tradition in the South.

Lemming said that in 1985, there were 141 athletes out of the Chicago area who played Division I football. "Now we are lucky to get 50 or 60," he said. "De-emphasizing football has really hurt ballplayers getting full rides to colleges out of here."

Ron Zook has coached at several colleges and was head coach at Florida from 2002 to 2004, and then went to Illinois, where he remained until he was fired this past season. Zook, who has a reputation as a good recruiter, said high school spring ball is a "giant factor" in grooming players. It gives them many mores practices during which they can improve, he said, and it lets college coaches see them when they have time during the offseason.

"You go to the South, or where they have spring ball, and you see these jamborees. It's like coaches' conventions. Everybody's there," he said.

Football seen by many as a way out of poverty

In a typical year, DeVoursney said about 50 college coaches visit his players in Griffin, with another 30 or 40 reaching out by phone or email. He said those opportunities push his players to be better, play harder, study more and get good grades, because many players see football as their only way out.

"A lot of our kids are economically challenged," DeVoursney said. The free meals they get at school, or when they're playing football, are sometimes the best meals they're getting, he said. "When that's your only way out, you're going to do everything you can to keep it and try to be the best you can at it."

The South's poverty rate -- at 12 percent -- is higher than the rates in the Northeast, West and Midwest.

Williams grew up in Greensboro, a poor, small town in the Florida panhandle. He said his parents feared he would get drawn into crime and gangs, so when he was 12, they sent him to live with his aunt and uncle about 90 minutes away in Panama City.

His dad and uncle recognized his talent at an early age, he said, and they pushed him to excel at football, enrolling him in camps in middle school and making sure he went to a high school where recruiters would notice him. Williams said he's never thought about a career other than football, and he committed to Alabama at the beginning of his junior year.

"Football is my motivation because I'll be the first in my family to go to college and graduate," he said. "My little brother could look up to me."

When quarterback Faton Bauta transferred to William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., last spring, he noticed the differences in his teammates right away. Bauta had been on scholarship at Brooklyn Poly Prep, a private high school in New York, until the spring of his junior year when his parents -- after decades of operating a restaurant and managing real estate in the city -- decided to retire to South Florida.

"At Poly Prep, you've got a lot of fortunate kids from fortunate families that are able to supply them with a great education," he said. But at Dwyer, Bauta found himself sharing meals or even bringing lunch for players who didn't know where they were going to get their next meal.

Several students at Poly Prep were already studying what they wanted to study in college, he said, and only a few were really serious about playing football, even though Poly Prep is known as a football powerhouse in the Northeast.

"At Dwyer, every kid, no matter what he did … they're at every workout, they're at every run. And not only were they there, but they're always ready to work," he said. "That's their oasis, for some kids, to be there working. That's their way to try and make it."

Football in the South is simply king

It wasn't just the players in Florida who were more into the game. It was the fans as well, Bauta said. Games in Brooklyn would draw 50 to 100 people, but in Florida, Bauta said he played in front of crowds of 2,000 -- even 8,000 -- people.

"You're like, 'I've got a whole town,' or, 'I've got a whole school behind me,'" he said. "And you have no choice but to work hard and do whatever you can to make your team win."

Communities rally behind high school football from the plains of Texas, through the Mississippi River delta, down to Florida and up through the Carolinas, Lemming said. In South Florida, for example, even little league football games draw thousands of fans, and they're reported on by a dedicated youth sports network out of Fort Lauderdale.

Lemming said the difference between the North and South in football importance can be seen nearly everywhere.

"I was sitting at a McDonald's in Duncan, South Carolina, a couple years ago. And in Chicago, if you are at a McDonald's, you're seeing pictures of Michael Jordan on the wall or you're seeing pictures of Sammy Sosa, guys that were great athletes there," he said. "I was sitting down there and I saw a picture of the high school quarterback on the wall of a McDonald's there, which shocked me, mainly because they would never have that in the North, in New York or Pittsburgh or Chicago, a high school athlete."

Amid the throngs of fans at high school football games in the South are also dozens of college recruiters, eager to get players like Williams and Bauta to commit as soon as possible. Williams said recruiters from Florida started talking to him after he played his first varsity football game as a freshman. At the start of his junior year, he committed to Alabama, where he hopes to play receiver.

Bauta, who was worried that recruiters would forget about him after he left Brooklyn, said he received three offers his first week at Dwyer and 20 more by the time he eventually committed to Georgia.

One trait that draws so many players to the South is something Bauta said he noticed shortly after starting at Dwyer.

"The speed of my wideouts, especially, and the speed of the game itself was different," he said. "I knew I had to adjust throwing to my receivers because they were so quick."

Lemming said there are fast players in the North, "but normally they are playing basketball in the winter time. They are not running track, because there's nowhere to run track in the north when it's snowing."

Whether it's the more favorable weather, the greater emphasis on football or more opportunities to practice, the South simply has more speed across positions. When recruiting in the South, Zook said: "The biggest difference I always felt was the number of big guys that can run. I think everybody's got big guys that can run, but how many do you have that can run?"

Many of those speedy players -- Bauta and Williams among them -- end up choosing schools in the Southeastern Conference because of its reputation as a tough, competitive conference.

In fact, most of the players who have helped SEC teams win six straight BCS titles have stayed close to home.

Over the past five years, a third of ESPN's top 25 recruiting classes have been from SEC schools. And 92 percent of the players in those highly-ranked SEC classes are from the South.

Zook said it's harder for Northern schools -- though there are exceptions -- to lure talent away from the South in large numbers.

"There's no question [SEC schools] have done a good job, and they're in that area," he said. "And I'm not sure there's anything that you can do in the North other than just keep doing what you're doing and eventually it's going to change -- or at least level out."

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at paula.lavigne@espn.com.