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February 12, 2013
Every couple of years, a new football coach takes a job in North Carolina and proclaims that his first priority is to build a fence around the state. Nobody can argue that the area produces more than its fair share of gridiron talent - the state ranked 10th in 2013 with 73 FBS signees, but produced Division I players at the same rate of Texas, widely recognized as one of the top two talent-producing states in the country, with one in every 485 prep players inking scholarship papers on National Signing Day.
North Carolina has served as a recruiting hotbed for out-of-state powerhouses, especially SEC schools in the past couple of years, and the only program to sign more than half of the state's top 10 players in the same class since 2003 is North Carolina in 2009, when they inked seven. The Tar Heels finished with a haul ranked as the ninth-best in the country that February. (Ironically that touted UNC class would be a bust four years later.)
Only four times in the last 11 years has one program signed at least four of the state's top 10 players, and the Heels have been the beneficiaries on three of those occurrences.
NC State has landed just three top 10 in-state players since 2010, all of which came in that year's class, and 13 such players since 2003, which is as far back as the Rivals.com database goes in terms of the final state rankings. In that same time period, North Carolina has locked up 28 such athletes, while Clemson has signed 13, South Carolina 12 and Florida, Georgia and Notre Dame, have each taken six from the state.
Don't expect that trend to continue with NC State's new staff of young, energetic go-getters, who are intent on building a championship program with a nucleus of the state's top prospects.
"Our focus here will be to keep the top players in-state," recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen said on National Signing Day. "You can recruit North Carolina, in my opinion, and have a great class, one of the top 10 recruiting classes in the country if all of those guys come to one place. The football here is fantastic. There are really good high school coaches, especially the guys I have been around, in terms of personalities and also their coaching abilities. This is a great football state, so I'm very encouraged about this state and the players that they produce."
The results tend to reflect Nielsen's thoughts. Any one recruiting class that has included at least three of the North Carolina's top 10 players has been ranked at least 34th nationally with an average ranking of No. 17.8 in the land, and any one group with at least four of the state's best has been ranked in the nation's top 16 with just one exception (North Carolina's 30th ranked class in 2006). In more than half of the instances, signing three of the state's top 10 prospects ensured a class listed among the 20 finest in the country.
That is why building relationships with in-state coaches was one of the staff's major focuses as soon as they took the job, even if it didn't pay immediate dividends in the class of 2013. Only one of the 11 prep commits that the new coaches secured after taking the job in Raleigh hails from North Carolina, but part of that was already having prior relationships in other parts of the country, and taking advantage of those in places like Florida (five prep signees and two transfers from other four-year Universities) and Michigan (two prep signees ranked in the state's top 15 prospects).
"There was a good reception [in North Carolina]," Nielsen noted. "I think a lot of the success we had at Northern Illinois really helped us. When you graduate 90 percent of your players, win two straight [conference] championships and play in a BCS game, that's pretty good.
"We went down to Florida with the relationships that we had with the coaches down there because we recruited down there at Northern. We got a couple of guys thanks to Coach [Eddie] Faulkner from the Midwest that we knew. I had watched [Michigan defensive tackle] Kenton Gibbs before when I was at Northern, we had watched [Michigan safety] Joshua Jones before, so we knew those guys and we relied on [previous] relationships."
"When you're working on a short window like we were, you've got to go to where your relationships are because you can't just walk into a place not knowing anybody and think you're going to get a kid," head coach Dave Doeren admitted. "I recruited Florida for seven years as a position coach, so I had a lot of ties down there and I relied on those.
"Coach [Richard] McNutt and Coach Nielsen had been down there a lot for me at Northern. Coach [Dave] Huxtable worked at Central Florida for a long time and had a lot of ties down there, as well, so we were able to pull on all of those different coaches' experiences and get some guys."
The class' nine in-state additions were a nice start for Doeren and company, but he expects that number to rise in the coming years. Only two signees were ranked among the state's top 25 by Rivals.com — cornerback Jack Tocho at No. 22 and athlete Johnathan Alston at No. 24 — but that is also a number the coaches expect to increase as the staff has more time to build relationships.
"We were able to get nine in-state players," Doeren said. "I'd like to see that number obviously get higher, and it will."
During his National Signing Day press conference, Doeren noted that much of the day was spent with him and his staff working the phones and talking to the top targets for the class of 2014. The Wolfpack has already hosted some of the top underclassmen in the state on unofficial visits and extended numerous offers, but they couldn't really focus on the underclassmen until their first recruiting class, cobbled together in a short six weeks, was in the books.
Moving on to the top juniors from North Carolina begins this Saturday with NC State's underclassman day in Raleigh.
"Our relationship will be 12 months and we're starting those relationships with sophomores, as well," Doeren noted. "They're calling us and they want to come up and see our underclassmen recruiting days that we're going to have, our camps that we're going to have. It will be a lot different [from the 2013 class]; they'll know me, they'll know my kids, they'll know my wife, they'll know everybody on our campus. They'll know our academic people by name and they'll be here on game day, so they'll get to meet all of these different people.
"It won't be, 'hey, what kind of offense do you run?' 'What do you guys do on defense?' 'Where did you come from again?' They're going to know everything. Those are a lot of the questions I was answering, and it was tough. It's hard to answer some of those questions because you play with what you had at the schools you were at, but that was the fun part of selling our vision of this program. Coach [Matt] Canada has done so many different, great things in his offense, and same with Coach Hux and his defense. You're trying to talk about it, but now we're be able to show it, 'here's the video of what we do.'
"We look forward to selling it for 12 months instead of six weeks."
Doeren and his staff don't have the advantage of long-standing relationships with North Carolina players and coaches, but they are hoping to build a network similar to the far-reaching one they currently boast in Florida.
The class of 2014 in the state features a stellar crop of top talent, including 11 players who were listed in the Rivals' 250 — all of which were ranked in the top 200 — and two additional four-star recruits. The 13 highly ranked recruits ties for the largest number of four- and five-star athletes in North Carolina's history (the Rivals.com database dates back to 2003) with the class of 2007, which included a pair of five-stars and 11 four-stars.
Both South Carolina (four) and Clemson (three) signed at least three top-10 players in the state that year and ended with recruiting classes ranked among the nation's top 16. Keeping some of the state's top talent home would yield NC State similar results in the class of 2014.
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