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CECIL HURT: In-state recruiting tough to gauge
January 23, 2005

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It’s time for the Sweet 16 again. Actually, it’s past time, but my recent three-week stint on the disabled list pushed The Tuscaloosa News’ annual list of the state of Alabama’s top prep football prospects from its usual Christmas date into the latter part of January.

That means that instead of serving as a sort of guide to upcoming visits and announcements, it will be viewed as something else this year. It’s not intended to be a scorecard, but that’s how people will view it. Sports fans (myself included) tend to do that. They like objective results like the kind you see on a scoreboard at the end of the game, and they like to see such results even in a highly subjective undertaking like football recruiting.

So, looking at it strictly from the viewpoint of a calculator, the following conclusions can be drawn. Auburn had a good year in-state, grabbing the top two prospects, three of the top five, six of the top 10, seven of the Sweet 16 as compared to five for Alabama, with a couple of prospects still pending. That’s not usually the way the state breaks down, but it shouldn’t be a big surprise, either. Nothing is as appealing as winning, and Auburn won every game it played this past season. That gives any program an aura of stability, which is also attractive. So in one narrow sense, it would be fair to proclaim that Auburn “won" this year’s in-state battle.

But is that statement an absolute? Is the fact that Alabama’s class includes only eight high school seniors from Alabama (nine, if one includes Chris Keys and 12 if one includes three re-signed players from 2004) indicative that Alabama is losing its grip in the state? Or does it reflect a variety of factors that stem from the fact that not all Sweet 16s are created equal.

Clearly, some years have more impact than others, and some recruits have more impact than others. Carnell Williams (or a healthy Brodie Croyle) can serve as prime examples. There may be players in this year’s class that have an equal impact, but the position breakdown of this year’s top players doesn’t suggest that.

For instance, Alabama wanted to bring in quarterbacks this year. No one who watched the Tide’s season has to wonder at that staff decision. Brodie Croyle will be a senior. Spencer Pennington has decided to play baseball. Marc Guillon will be back but may or may not represent the future.

In this particular year, however, it would have been easier to find a Sasquatch in Alabama than to locate a big, strong-armed high school quarterback. (That, like a lot of other things, will be different next season.) So Mike Shula did what he had to do. He went out of state and got a commitment from the best quarterback in Mississippi and one of the better quarterbacks in California. Does that represent in-state slippage or good recruiting?

The running back situation was similar. Alabama targeted one in-state back (Ali Sharrief) and got his commitment, but it needed more. So Shula branched out. Alabama has two commitments from backs in Florida, and is working to get at least one more, if possible.

The fact is, when Shula was hired, one positive factor in his favor was the strong possibility that his youthful charisma, energy and his familiar name would help Alabama to rebuild out-of-state recruiting that pretty much went up in smoke as part of the Tide’s lengthy NCAA conflagration. The idea was that Alabama wanted to be able to get top prospects from Florida and Georgia and Mississippi and even California once more. That doesn’t mean abandoning in-state recruiting. It does mean being able to fill needs from outside the state when necessary.

That doesn’t mean that Auburn didn’t win some head-to-head battles. Alabama spent plenty of time working on Tommy Trott and Jerraud Powers (and Tennessee-bound Wes Brown) and didn’t get their commitments. Furthermore, whatever causes Alabama to be a decided underdog in recruiting players like Antonio Coleman and Gabe McKenzie simply because “they are from Mobile" needs to be identified and corrected.

As noted earlier, things will be different in the state next year. Indications are that it will be a banner year for talent, one that, like 2001, might alter the course of one of the in-state programs. This year, it seems, might not be one of those years, although there are certainly players on this year’s list with enough ability to be All-Americans some day.

This wasn’t Alabama’s year to sweep the state, for a lot of reasons. Perhaps that means a great deal, perhaps not -- but it might mean that the Crimson Tide staff managed to accomplish its recruiting goals in a more broad-based fashion. And that might not be a bad thing at all.
01-24-2005 10:45 AM
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