MIKE MINTER IMAGINED the headlines more than a year ago: Former NFL defensive back makes history by bringing elite recruits to FCS school.
When the 2022 recruiting cycle officially drew to a close earlier this month, Minter's prediction was nearly ubiquitous. The biggest story in recruiting came when Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders flipped one of the country's top recruits -- Travis Hunter -- from national power Florida State to FCS Jackson State in December.
Only, that's not exactly the story Minter wanted to tell.
"I wanted to beat him," Minter said. "Deion was the No. 1 [FCS class] the year before and we wanted that No. 1 spot."
Minter had his own football bona fides, starring at Nebraska during the Cornhuskers' title years in the 1990s before playing in a Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers. Now he wanted to use his own cache to spark some recruiting interest at tiny Campbell University, where he'd coached since 2012 -- five years before the school even offered scholarships.
Flash back to January 2021, and Minter walked into a coaches meeting with a big idea.
"We're going to sign the No. 1 recruiting class [in FCS]," he told his staff. "We're going to start going after five-star and four-star recruits."
Minter was reacting to two big changes to the college football landscape. The first was the NCAA's decision to allow all football players an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 season was upended by the pandemic. This inevitably meant a roster crunch for FBS schools forced to meet an 85-scholarship cap while perhaps a half-dozen or more veterans stuck around a year longer than expected.
The other shift was a new NCAA rule that allowed all athletes to transfer once, without penalty. The transfer portal had already shifted recruiting dramatically, with several schools prioritizing older transfers over high school recruits, but the new rule would likely flood the market, Minter thought. The net effect of both changes was simple: A treasure trove of good high school players would find themselves without the big-time offers they might've expected in years past.
Change was happening everywhere in college football, and Minter thought the time was right to put tiny Campbell (enrollment 6,200) in tiny Buies Creek, North Carolina (population 2,942), on the college football map.
"When I left that room, those coaches might've said, 'Coach has been smoking something,'" Minter said, "but they never batted an eye."
It was still Sanders who landed the biggest fish at an FCS school, stunning the football world by signing the No. 2 overall recruit in the country. But the bulk of Sanders' success came by luring transfers. Hunter was one of just five high school recruits he signed in the 2022 class.
Minter still hit his goal. He inked 247 Sports' best high school class for an FCS program, lured nearly a dozen three- and four-star recruits, and finished with a class ranked better (88th nationally) than several Power 5 schools, including Washington and Arizona State, plus nearby FBS schools like Liberty (97th) and Charlotte (107th).
(ESPN's rankings, which prioritize high school signees but do also take into account transfers, ranks Jackson State as the No. 59 class in the country, by far the best among FCS programs.)
And if Minter is right about where things are headed in college football, it's possible Campbell's 2022 class won't seem like an outlier in the future. As the competition for scholarships at the highest levels tightens, it's entirely possible places like Campbell could find a foothold in college football's new roster management landscape.
LAST FALL, EDRIC WELDON'S plans looked like most high level recruits. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound outside linebacker had early offers in hand from places like Alabama, Florida and Miami, but he hadn't played a ton of football before 2020. He figured if he put a few more highlights on tape during his senior season at Hallandale (Florida) High, he'd have his pick of elite programs when he was ready to make his college decision.
Then came the injury.
In an early September practice, Weldon tore his ACL and MCL. His season was over, and most of his big-time offers disappeared.
In a crowded marketplace for talent, most programs viewed Weldon as expendable, and his story wasn't unique. Why roll the dice on someone like Weldon, an unrefined talent coming off an injury, when a team could add an established veteran through the transfer market, a guy who'd already trained in a college environment, added muscle, learned a playbook? Coaches under firm orders to win now had an easy risk-reward calculation, and it didn't favor the high school kids.
"Since the COVID thing came and all those players got the extra year, it didn't just mess it up for me, but it really messed things up for a lot of kids," Weldon said.
In 2022, FBS schools signed, on average, 20.8 high school seniors. Two years earlier, before COVID-19 when the transfer portal was in its infancy, that number was 22.4. Add that up, and more than 100 players who might have landed at a Power 5 school had to look elsewhere, and hundreds more went from Group of 5 offers to FCS, junior colleges and prep school.
"With many programs so focused on the portal, there are more high school athletes available later in the process than ever before," said Western Michigan coach Tim Lester, whose program took a late look at four-star safety Myles Rowser, a Michigan native who ultimately landed at Campbell.
COVID-19 resulted in an extended moratorium on official visits, fewer schools held camps, and many players missed some or all of their junior seasons. That created a huge rush to the finish line for the 2022 class, and players like Weldon, late bloomers who remained uncommitted into the fall of 2021, were in a difficult spot.
"It was kind of a rat race in the summer," one MAC personnel director said. "You had kids who hadn't been on campus in 18 months, and it was really about trying to get to as many guys as you could."
Translation: Some players were bound to fall through the cracks and Minter was ready to sweep them up. Where others saw risk, Campbell saw opportunity.
"I wasn't talking to anybody after I got hurt, but [Campbell safeties coach] Patrick Miller still stood in there with me," Weldon said. "I told him, 'Coach, I'm hurt. You still want to take a chance on me?' He told me, 'Yeah, we can rehab you, build you up, and get you right.' Everybody else fell off, but they didn't."
THERE'S NOT MUCH mystery in the story of Jackson State's recruiting success. When Deion Sanders calls, people pick up the phone. Sanders' pitch: Come to Jackson State, play for an HBCU, get tons of attention, earn NIL money, and play for one of the best to ever strap on shoulder pads. It was enough to lure a five-star corner away from a Power 5 school.
At Campbell, the strategy has to be a bit different.
"Well, it helps being the Camels," said Braxton Harris, Campbell's recruiting director. "You can always get people's attention right out of the gate."
The nickname is fun, but that earns little more than an introduction. From there, it's about education and attention. On visits, recruits fly into Raleigh, North Carolina, about a 40-minute drive from campus, where coaches show them around and remind them that the amenities of big-city life are just down the road. Then they make the trip down I-40 to Buies Creek and explain that here, a good football player can be something special.
Campbell has been playing football only since 2008 and it didn't offer scholarships until 2017. Still, its program has landed four different players in NFL camps, including, most recently, running back De'Shawn Jones, who worked out with the Seahawks in 2018 and several more in the Canadian Football League and XFL. That's real success, given Campbell's humble beginnings, but now Minter wanted recruits to view Campbell as a true stepping stone to the NFL. That process began by making recruits feel like they were stars.
For many of the three- and four-star recruits Campbell pursued, the narrative was the same. A year earlier, players were expecting the royal treatment on official visits to big-name schools. Instead, they found themselves on waiting lists, firing off text messages without a response. It was a blow to the ego for guys who knew they'd played well enough to warrant more attention. Campbell was more than happy to provide them with that love.
"They're looking for that attention," Harris said. "Sometimes people dog kids for wanting that attention in the recruiting process, but to me, that's not a bad thing. That shows how we're going to take care of you. If we're not opening the door for you on a date, what's going to happen when we're married?"
Then there's the promise of playing time. Recruits who might've been seen as valuable depth at a bigger school were treated like impact players at Campbell, and getting on the field became a prime selling point.
"We can play anywhere, but maybe we go somewhere and sit a couple years behind so many guys because of COVID, guys who've been in college five, six, seven years," said Paul Hutson III, a D-lineman from IMG Academy in Florida, who enrolled at Campbell in January. "Or we can go somewhere a little smaller and be able to step into a role of playing early."
Still, there's more to closing the deal. Coaches talk up Campbell's facilities -- a far cry from Clemson or Alabama, but still a nice improvement from the high school gyms and meeting rooms most players are used to. Minter's office, in a corner of the Campbell Field House, has photos of his playing days with the Carolina Panthers and a well-worn black couch that feels like it was ergonomically designed to help sell a recruit.
"All I tell my guys is, get them to me, in this office," Minter said, "and we'll get them to sign."
Minter's guys bring their own cache, too. Along with the head coach, Campbell has three other former NFL coaches on staff: Quarterbacks coach Pat White, who starred at West Virginia; DBs coach Reggie Howard, who intercepted a pass from Tom Brady in the Super Bowl; and running backs coach Dee Brown, who played alongside Donovan McNabb at Syracuse. If a recruit's goal is to play in the NFL, who better to show them the blueprint than coaches who've already done it?
From there, Minter said, there was something of a domino effect. Weldon committed to Campbell in October 2021, then started working to spread the word. A Florida native, Weldon got in contact with a number of other Florida recruits, including Hutson. In Virginia, three-star linebacker Deshaun Williams pitched a few friends on Campbell, too. Playing at Campbell could feel like a family affair.
"It was a bunch of guys I grew up playing ball with," Williams said, "and it made it a lot easier to know that, when we play, and we're getting into the competitive nature of the game, we'll be trying to get the best out of each other."
By December's early signing day, nearly everyone was on board, and Minter's dream of stocking an elite FCS recruiting class with FBS-caliber players was complete.
MINTER ADMITS COACH Prime helped change the game. By luring top-tier talent to FCS Jackson State, Sanders made something that once seemed ridiculous now appear to be an entirely reasonable option. That's about as far as Minter is willing to go, however.
Truth is, much of Campbell's class was already secured when superstar Travis Hunter flipped from Florida State to Jackson State in December, and Minter refused to utter Sanders' name during any of his recruiting pitches.
"We didn't use it as a marketing tool because we wanted Campbell to be No. 1," Minter said. Minter got his wish -- at least among high school recruits -- and Campbell will open the 2022 season with one of the Big South's most talent-rich rosters. But this, Minter said, is just the start of the journey.
For one, there's the looming possibility that the transfer portal -- an advantage as Campbell compiled its high school signing class -- could become an enemy. If Hutson, Williams, Weldon and others play well, those same schools that ignored them as recruits could come calling again in a year or two. It's a risk Campbell's staff is willing to take.
"We think we've got something to offer these kids that's going to keep them," Harris said. "We can invest in them. Buildings, places -- those things are great. But we think the people we have will make the difference, and in recruiting, we picked the kids who saw those things. We feel this class has a chance to stick together and do something special."
That, in some ways, was the common thread that bound this class together. Yes, guys like Weldon and Hutson were overlooked by some bigger schools, but they weren't upset by it. There's something alluring about being a pioneer, Hutson said. At Campbell, he's breaking new ground, doing something different, blazing a path he thinks others might want to follow, too. He sees that same spirit in the DNA of so many guys in this class. They're not at Campbell as a last resort. They're here to start something.
And that will be the ultimate arbiter, Minter said. For now, Campbell's story is a curiosity more than a trend. But the seeds are planted, and if the story ends the way Minter and his staff believe it can, then maybe others will follow the same script.
"What you've got to do now is to win," Minter said. "When you win, everybody's listening. Then other people are going to say, we've got to do what they just did. And that's how it becomes sustainable. You've got to win."