Nicknamed the Garden State, the state with the densest population doesn't have many green thumbs left. But college programs are cultivating New Jersey football talent, turning recruits into one of the state's leading exports.
On the NFL's opening weekend, it was no surprise players from the traditional powerhouse states dominated rosters. Football factory triumvirate California, Florida and Texas led the way. Usual suspects Georgia and Ohio rounded out the top five.
Then there was a big surprise from one of the littlest states. New Jersey, smaller than the largest county in California, had the sixth-most NFL players with 63.
"Although not perceived nationally the same way," Kansas coach Charlie Weis said, "[New Jersey] is grossly underrated."
Not to college coaches anymore, though, says Weis, who has signed two prospects from his native New Jersey and has a third committed in the 2014 class. A New Jersey high school coach for seven seasons in the 1980s, Weis remembers it was mostly just the local schools recruiting the area then.
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood has been with the Scarlet Knights for nearly a decade and agrees with Weis. The public perception differs greatly from the coaches', though, Flood said. While he recruits mostly in his own state, he has competed with Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and UCLA over the last nine years.
"There are many schools around the country from major conferences that recruit a little bit more nationally," Flood says, "and any of the schools that do it, they always come to New Jersey."
Dan Higgins counts at least 40 programs that annually visit his school. Of those 63 players in the NFL, four have come through Higgins' program at Piscataway High School. And all four played at different colleges. Malcolm Jenkins signed with Ohio State; Kyle Wilson went to Boise State; Dwayne Gratz signed with UConn; and lineman Anthony Davis played at Rutgers.
Of the 63 NFL players, 36 colleges are represented. Sixteen of those schools are FCS programs or below, including Division II Bowie State and Stillman College. Higgins said coaches told him they like recruiting players from New Jersey because they sometimes have a higher ceiling. The state does not allow spring football, so Higgins said there is "more tread on the tire" and room for recruits to blossom in college. There is a competitive streak on the field because for many of the state's players, they only get 10 Friday nights under the lights.
"When fall comes, they might not be polished but they're friggin' hungry," Higgins said, "and that's what's most important."
New Jersey recruits developed by local programs have gone to schools as far west as USC, where Brian Cushing attended after graduating from Bergen Catholic.
"The kids that I've had that made it to the league were extremely talented, no doubt," Higgins said, "but the other part, the separation with a Jersey kid, is they fight tooth and nail for every crumb and opportunity to make it happen. It's a crowded state. There's competition for football. There's a competition to drive your car and find a parking spot."
With Rutgers still building, on top of it being the only FBS program in the state, outside programs see an opportunity. Rutgers is doing better with in-state recruits, but the Knights have landed only five of the 29 four-star prospects from New Jersey over the last two classes.
National programs believe they can win battles for elite New Jersey talent. The big boys of college football prefer to invade Rutgers' territory for local products than compete with Ohio State, Texas or the Big 3 from Florida for recruits from their backyards. Of the 74 Ohio players in the NFL, 18 played at Ohio State; only 11 New Jersey products made it to the NFL via Rutgers.
"Rutgers can compete and they're doing their very best, but no way they can keep it all," Higgins said. "It's open season on a lot of kids, and some kids stay and some kids go and a lot more are going than staying. The four- and five-star guys are not staying, so the schools come rushing in."
College coaches flock to the state to find talent at every position, too. Miami coach Al Golden, a New Jersey native, called the state a "melting pot of high school football."
There is no physical archetype for a New Jersey player, say the college coaches who annually recruit the state. The Southeast is known for its speed and the Midwest has the linemen and bruising linebackers. College coaches say New Jersey boasts a little of everything, which makes it an ideal recruiting ground.
In February, Miami signed three New Jersey recruits, including ESPN 300 recruits Al-Quadin Muhammad and Kevin Olsen. Muhammad was a 6-foot-3, 230-pound defensive end; Olsen a 6-foot-2, 195-pound quarterback. Golden also signed a burly defensive tackle and has another committed for 2014.
"It's so diverse," Golden said. "You're talking about so many communities in a highly dense area. You're packing a lot of punch because of the population density and the diversity. It's about everything you could want from a recruiting standpoint."
Coaches can potentially visit double-digit high schools in a given day with the high density. A coach can fly into Newark or Philadelphia in the morning and visit a list of schools before nightfall. Golden estimates that a coach could see as many as 45 schools in a week in New Jersey without spending more than a few hours in the car.
Several of those high schools are among the country's best, as well. Ohio State's Ed Warinner recruits New Jersey for the Buckeyes and signed five-star Eli Apple in 2013 and landed 2014 four-star Noah Brown (Sparta, N.J./Pope John XXIII). He recruited the northern part of the state while an assistant at Army for 13 seasons, too. North New Jersey is home to Paramus Catholic -- where No. 2 recruit Jabrill Peppers resides -- and St. Joseph Regional, both in the top 12 of the USA Today Super 25. Don Bosco Prep has won multiple national championships, and Bergen Catholic is another state program often with a national ranking attached to its name.
To visit all four schools, it would cost a coach only 30 minutes in his car.
"You can hit a lot of schools in a day and you're not hitting eight schools and finding one good player. You're going to find a good player at all eight schools," Warinner said. "Some places in the country you go to seven schools and only see one Division I player."
Simply put, college coaches are looking for football players wherever they can find them -- whether in the hotbed of the South, Florida, or in Montana (which has nine NFL players). /p>
"Football is a sport that is unique because you need a certain type of kid," Higgins said, "and this state breeds that kid."