Drafting the future

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Two years ago, Wilson Bell wasn't exactly thinking about the NFL. His football prowess had grown by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons, but as a junior at Blount High School in Prichard, Ala., making the game his profession seemed a stretch.

Then came the letters, the phone calls, the text messages and the promises.

By the time Bell, a three-star offensive guard, signed his letter of intent to play at Florida State last month, he'd made the NFL his top priority, and he'd heard from dozens of coaches assuring him they possessed the perfect plan to get him there. He'd endured enough speeches to parse the good ones from the bad, he said, and Florida State's offensive line coach, Rick Trickett, sold it perfectly.

"Of course other guys sold better things to me about their school, but nobody could really compare to Trickett and the names he's put in the NFL," Bell said. "And that's what I really want to do."

Trickett wasn't simply talking a big game. He had references.

Trickett told Bell about a number of his success stories, including Rodney Hudson, a fellow Mobile-area native now playing for the Kansas City Chiefs. Many of Trickett's pupils had started their college careers as works in progress, and Trickett had transformed them into NFL linemen. Bell was convinced.

The sales pitch isn't new. Trickett has been making it for years, just as dozens of Florida State coaches before him did. Since Bobby Bowden first built the program into a powerhouse in the 1980s, the Seminoles have stood toe-to-toe with the country's elite programs when it comes to producing NFL players, and that made Tallahassee a destination for top recruits.

But Trickett's pitch -- and that of any of Jimbo Fisher's assistants -- has been a tougher sell of late. It wasn't just that the program slumped through a moribund decade during Bowden's latter years; production from former Seminoles at the next level dwindled dramatically, too. In the past five NFL drafts, Florida State has had only 14 players selected -- just one more than talent-deprived Wake Forest, and less than half the number it sent to the NFL in the previous five-year span.

Of course, while professional success helps recruiting, there's a simple chicken-or-egg argument to be made. It's the best recruits that become pro prospects, too, and the Florida State system had been lacking. It was Fisher's goal to turn the tide, and the 2013 NFL draft class provides the best example yet that his plan has been an overwhelming success.

At last month's NFL scouting combine, no school in the country had more representatives than Florida State, which, including former cornerback Greg Reid -- dismissed from the program before the 2012 season -- had 10 players working out for NFL teams.

In the past five years, Florida State had just five players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. The Seminoles could match or exceed that total in 2013 alone, with at least three players -- Bjoern Werner, Xavier Rhodes and Menelik Watson -- rated as potential first-round selections.

Add in a few fringe prospects who didn't earn combine invites but still have the attention of scouts, and it's possible that Florida State could wind up with more than a dozen players signing NFL contracts this spring. That's a huge step forward for the program, Fisher said.

"We went from [one player] drafted three years ago to having beaucoup guys drafted and having as many at the combine as anybody," Fisher said.

It's not like recruits simply judge a program by the number of NFL players it has produced, but success in the professional ranks does provide something of a line of demarcation. Having the most NFL players doesn't guarantee a slew of five-star recruits, but having enough NFL players is an essential part of the process.

FSU's in-state rival Miami provides a template. In the past five years, the Hurricanes' program has been besieged by underperformance on the field, coaching changes and the threat of looming NCAA sanctions. Still, Miami has had, on average, the second-ranked recruiting classes in the conference during that span. Why? It likely starts with the fact that the Hurricanes have continued to produce NFL prospects, including 27 players drafted in the past five years, tops in the ACC and nearly double what Florida State has produced.

That resonates with recruits as much as any other factor.

"It comes into play a lot, because that's my ultimate goal, my No. 1 goal," said defensive end Blake McClain (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood), a 2014 Florida State commitment. "I want to set myself up for the future and be able to do what I love, which is playing football at the next level."

McClain isn't alone. Like with any college student, finding the right school is about finding the place that offers the best preparation for his desired career path. For players like McClain, that means the NFL.

The funny thing is, McClain didn't meet Werner, Brandon Jenkins or Cornellius Carradine, the three members of Florida State's 2013 draft class who played his position, and the coaches who recruited him -- defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and ends coach Sal Sunseri -- have been at FSU for only a few months. But those coaches have the pedigree, too. Both were assistants at Alabama under Nick Saban, and not coincidentally, the Crimson Tide have produced 11 first-round draft picks in the past five years. Only two other schools in the nation have mustered half as many.

That, of course, isn't the only reason Fisher hired his new assistants, just as the NFL isn't the only factor in a recruit's decision on where to play his college ball. Still, it's a necessary part of the sales pitch, and those sound awfully empty without the credentials to back them up.

"We're being good citizens, we're graduating, and we're putting you in the NFL. What else do you want?" Fisher said. "You're getting developed as a player, winning games, graduating from school. We sell the heck out of it."