GARDEN CITY, Kan. -- In February, 167 junior college football players signed with schools that are part of the five power conferences, a 37 percent spike from 2008. Even traditional powers that have eschewed juco players in the past, like Penn State, Texas and Alabama, got in on the action.
The increase is part of a recruiting revolution that has seen the value of junior college players grow like never before. "We had Georgia, Alabama, USC, Washington, and about every top-40 school in the country coming through our place in the spring," Garden City (Kan.) Community College coach Matt Miller said. "That speaks volumes that everybody is trying to get some special players out of the junior college ranks. The stigma of the junior college player is a lot more positive now than it once was viewed as by colleges."
Players are at places like Georgia Military College, East Mississippi Community College or Tyler (Texas) Junior College for a reason. They failed to reach NCAA qualifying standards out of high school, ran into trouble off the field, transferred from another school in hopes of landing more playing time down the road or were lightly recruited out of high school but believe they have Division I talent.
Regardless of the reason, even as recently as five years ago many juco players were viewed as toxic by recruiters at the top programs in the country. One FBS assistant who didn't want to be named said his head coach used to tell him that juco recruits are "nothing but thugs, criminals or dummies," but that same coach was sent out on the road to visit every Kansas junior college this past spring. So what has changed? Recruiters and juco coaches across the country point to two people: Bill Snyder and Cam Newton.
Kansas State is located in the backyard of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Football Conference, home to many of the nation's premier juco programs. When Snyder arrived in 1989, he immediately turned to the likes of Butler Community College, Hutchinson Community College and Garden City to supplement a lackluster in-state high school recruiting base. The plan worked. Snyder's Wildcats came within a game of playing for the national championship in 1998, won a Big 12 championship in 2003 and were ranked No. 1 in the BCS poll late into the 2012 season. Under Snyder, there were a number of individual success stories as well, none more so than quarterback Michael Bishop. After a perfect 24-0 record at Blinn (Texas) Junior College and two national championships, Bishop transferred to K-State, where he shattered school records and finished second in the 1998 Heisman Trophy voting.
Miller has seen firsthand "The Snyder Plan" in action. Before taking over at Garden City in January, he was a K-State assistant for 10 years. Since arriving at Garden City, he's talked to many of the college coaches on recruiting tours. "They truly have told me they're going to use Bill Snyder's Kansas State model to turn their program around," Miller said. "They've told me 'We want to get five, 10 good junior college prospects in this recruiting class,' and I'm talking about schools from the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, ACC. They're all coming in and all wanting to try to follow that blueprint that Bill Snyder built at Kansas State.
"Any why wouldn't you? The guy has been one of the greatest head coaches in college football history, and he's shown it can work with junior college players. If you're a program that's not in Texas, California or Florida, it absolutely makes sense to take a long look at recruiting junior college players."
When Cam Newton ended up at Blinn College in January of 2009, he was already a household name. As a former five-star recruit who split time at Florida with Tim Tebow, coaches already knew he was uniquely gifted.
However, some schools shied away from recruiting him at Blinn because of off-the-field troubles he ran into while in Gainesville, Fla. That didn't stop everybody; Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Auburn emerged as his three finalists. He signed with the Tigers, and the rest is history. A number of coaches credit Newton making the most of his second chance -- including leading Auburn to the 2010 national championship, winning the Heisman Trophy and being selected first overall in the 2011 NFL draft -- with opening their eyes to the potential of recruiting juco prospects.
"Cam Newton's situation changed the whole ballgame for junior college players," Hutchinson coach Rion Rhoades said. "There's been enough success with guys like Cam Newton that those places have to feel good about taking a chance. If they've done their background check, they think he's a good kid and verify that he's good enough as a player, then they're more willing to recruit JC kids than ever before."
That's true, especially in the SEC. In 2008, only 15 juco players signed with SEC schools, but that number climbed to 25 in 2010, 25 in 2011, 20 in 2012 and then a whopping 45 in 2013. Included in those numbers are household names like LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and former Tennessee receiver and first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson.
Butler coach Troy Morrell has won three national championships and led his team to seven championship games in his 14 years. He's sent more than 130 players to the next level, and he personally has seen the importance of the junior college player grow and doesn't anticipate it going away anytime soon.
"I think junior colleges are doing a better job of preparing kids to make that leap," Morrell said. "That stereotype and that stigma is out there, but so many recruiters never knew how it really worked as far as what these kids do every day. We all have structure. We all have talent. And more and more schools have figured out 'Wow, JC football is nothing I ever imagined it would be.' Their eyes really get opened up and their appetites are whetted now."