Big Ten recruiting winds blow to the south

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

When Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster checked into his hotel Tuesday morning in Shreveport, La., the woman working at the front desk spotted the Golden Gophers logo on his shirt and smiled.

"The coach from Michigan just left," she told him.

Both Minneapolis and Ann Arbor, Mich., are located more than 850 miles from Shreveport, making it an odd place for Brewster and one of his Michigan counterparts to cross paths. But these days, Big Ten coaches are just as likely to bump into one another in Shreveport, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and Houston as they are in Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Detroit.

When Purdue head coach Danny Hope called ESPN.com on Wednesday afternoon, he was navigating a road near Bay City, Fla. An hour earlier, Wisconsin defensive line coach Charlie Partridge phoned in from the Fort Lauderdale area.

The Big Ten recruiting range is expanding far beyond the Midwest, and coaches are spending much of their time in the fertile states of the south and southeast.

If one incoming recruit symbolizes the recruiting change in the Big Ten, it's a safety expected to sign Wednesday with Wisconsin.

His name: Dezmen Southward.

His hometown: Fort Lauderdale.

"There's certainly great, great players in the Midwest, but just in terms of numbers, all you have to do is look at Division I signing day and the number of kids who play Division I out of this region here," said Partridge, who has recruited the Florida area for Wisconsin, Pitt and Iowa State, among others. "You can come down and get two to three kids who can have an impact on your program.

"People are recognizing the value of recruiting down here."

It's hardly a revelation for Wisconsin, which has recruited Florida for quite some time and boasts three coaches, including head coach Bret Bielema, with extensive experience scouring the Sunshine State. Ohio State also has been a southern presence for quite some time, plucking players like Super Bowl participant Santonio Holmes from Belle Glade, Fla., and, more recently, starting center Mike Brewster (Orlando).

But several factors drive the recent Big Ten migration to the south and southeast, beginning with the relatively new coaching blood in the league.

  • Brewster, who just completed his second season at Minnesota, forged his reputation as an ace recruiter at North Carolina and then Texas, where he landed players like Vince Young from the Houston area. His first recruiting class at Minnesota featured players from 17 different states, including Texas, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.

  • Illinois head coach Ron Zook had the same job at Florida from 2002-04 and maintains strong ties to the southeast region. The Illini roster currently features nine players from Florida, and Zook has five verbal commitments from the state for the 2009 class.

  • Second-year Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez has recruited the south for years as the head coach at West Virginia and an assistant at both Clemson and Tulane. Undoubtedly his greatest recruiting find, former West Virginia quarterback Pat White, hailed from Alabama, and Michigan's 2009 class already contains six players from Florida and could add two more (teammates Denard Robinson and Adrian Witty) on national signing day. The Wolverines' 2009 class currently features only four in-state players.

  • Hope, who enters his first season at Purdue, was born in Gainesville, attended high school in Miami and had his first coaching job at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla. He recruited the area extensively as an assistant at Louisville and head coach at Eastern Kentucky, and the trend certainly has continued at Pudue. No Big Ten program has experienced a more dramatic southerly recruiting shift. Of the Boilermakers' 15 verbal commitments and two early enrollees, 12 come from Florida, two from Georgia, one from Texas and none from Indiana.

"If you're going to notice one school that has put more of an emphasis, it's Rodriguez's staff," Partridge said. "You certainly see those guys down here a lot more than I used to see Michigan. Ohio State has always come down here and had success, and Minnesota has gotten their kids. And you look at Purdue. Purdue is certainly putting their time in.

"That makes sense."

Hope isn't surprised that his first recruiting haul at Purdue will be so heavily rooted in his home state. Though his relationships in Florida certainly played a role, Hope's biggest draw to the state is the type of player he can recruit there.

Big Ten fans have heard the speed argument ad nauseum, especially during the league's recent bowl-game disasters. But there's some credence to it, a fact not lost on Hope or his colleagues.

"We were really looking to add some speed at the skill positions," Hope said. "That's where we had the most seniors on our football team that are graduating. We had to find some guys who could come in and compete early in their careers. So speed was a factor.

"And when we got done with the evaluation process, there were more of them down here that we had a chance to get, so we've focused a lot of effort down here. We've had just about all of our coaches here some."

Purdue's 2009 class features two quarterbacks, four wide receivers, a running back and several other "athletes" who could handle the ball in college.

Minnesota was in a similar spot last year, needing to upgrade the nation's worst defense, particularly the secondary, and add depth at wide receiver and running back. Brewster brought in a class ranked No. 23 nationally by ESPN's Scouts Inc., and filled several needs.

"With the weather being warm year-round, there's a tremendous amount of speed, a tremendous amount of athleticism and that's how you want to build your football team, with tough kids that are athletic," Brewster said. "In great numbers, there are those types of players in the south."

As speed seemingly becomes the dominant factor in college football, Big Ten coaches look at the glut of talent in the south and head for warmer climates.

"They're no dummies, they know where the speed is," said Tom Luginbill, national recruiting director for Scouts Inc. "And you've got to have fast guys if you want to continue to win. If you asked them all, 'Hey, if I had my druthers, where would I love to be able to have our pool of players come from?' They can't come out and say Florida and Georgia and Alabama, even though it may be true, because obviously, they've got relationships to maintain in the Midwest and within their own state.

"That doesn't take away from the quality in the Midwest, but by and large, they're all going to look down south and take a peek and figure out where is their time best spent."

Despite the large numbers of FBS-ready recruits in the south, Big Ten teams must be particularly thorough in their scouting before greenlighting a push for a prospect, especially given the proximity of SEC and ACC schools.

Partridge spends the entire spring evaluation period in Florida. Hope technically was an assistant coach (offensive line) for Purdue last year -- head coaches are no longer allowed to recruit off campus during the spring evaluation period -- so he made sure to visit the southeast.

Ohio State assigns three assistants -- Darrell Hazell, Paul Haynes and Taver Johnson -- to Florida, while co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell spends a lot of time in Georgia. Minnesota tight ends coach Derek Lewis is a New Orleans native who recruits Louisiana extensively, and Brewster has 3-4 assist
ants with ties to Florida.

"The thing you don't want to do is waste time," Brewster said. "And the competition for players in the south and California and those areas is extremely intense. The biggest thing I talk to my coaches about, 'Let's make sure we've got a realistic opportunity to get the kid. Why would a kid pass 200 schools or whatever it may be to come all the way to Minnesota?

"There's got to be a real reason."

Ohio State has found some of those reasons in Georgia, a state that produced Buckeyes players like Cameron Heyward and Anderson Russell.

"It's an area that is very accessible to Columbus," said Ohio State tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator John Peterson. "You're in the same time zone and obviously, there's a lot of Midwest, northern families that have vacationed or traveled there, or extended families who have moved to the Atlanta area.

"The population's huge, so there's a lot of players to pick. And with how things are televised, the amount of information kids can get at their fingertips, allows a team to be more visible and more popular right in a city like Atlanta."

Brewster emphasizes that his top recruiting priority remains Minnesota, which he called one of the nation's most underrated states for talent. If an in-state prospect emerges, "he is the first focus," Brewster said.

But when the recruiting net inevitably expands, Brewster and his coaches know where they're headed.

"I'm flying from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Miami, Florida," Brewster said of his itinerary this week. "I would say the out-of-state time is probably spent much more in the south than it is anywhere else."

And that's not about to change.

"Sometimes people will say, 'That's a knock on the Midwest.' Well is it? I don't know," Luginbill said. "The proof's in the pudding. Who are the teams right now that are deemed to be the fastest teams in all of college football? They're the teams that come from within the states or the surrounding states that are loaded with football talent year in and year out that has great speed.

"It's no secret. Everybody's trying to get in on that. Everybody wants a piece of the pie."