Chris Hummer of 247 recently did an interesting writeup on some states in our Union that, per NFL draft results, tends to end up producing more talent than high school recruiting services would have suggested.
Some of the usual suspects show up here, such as the state of Wisconsin which I’ve discussed repeatedly in this context. Some other states that get mentions are Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Utah, and Missouri.
Hummer gets at a lot of the various issues at play, it’s worth reading his article for the summary (in general, Hummer is a great read), and he has some numbers and stats on each state. I thought it’d be interesting to sort of encompass some of my various theories on what’s going on with states and regions that are under-scouted or underestimated.
I mention an important stat and dynamic in this old Football Study Hall post on the same topic.
Roughly 19.3% of the American population, or 60 million people, live in “rural” parts of the country. That’s a small fraction of both the population and the prospects but you’re still talking about tens of million of people.
Think about this for a second.
To reach 60 million people you’d need to combine the metro areas of New York (19.2 million), Los Angeles (13.2 million), Chicago (9.4 million), DFW (7.5 million), Houston (7.1 million), and Minneapolis-St. Paul (3.6 million).
If none of those cities were being scouted vigorously for football talent we’d expect to miss a ton of really talented players. The rural counties in our nation probably don’t produce as many players as those accumulated metro areas. There’s less organization to the football schools, some talented players will move closer to cities specifically to play in bigger programs, and there’s less development. It’s also hard to scout those areas.
If you’re 247 do you invest heavily in making sure that none of the underdeveloped, big frame kids up in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or out in Utah might have latent potential that’s clearly evident to the eye? Or do you just chalk up a few misses every year to the difficulty of the assignment?
Actually there’s another way that Hummer quotes in the article, the services are starting to allow schools like North Dakota State and Wisconsin guide them to talented players that they otherwise wouldn’t have found or given much of a look.
That touchy subject that is well documented in popular works like “the sports gene…”
…is hard to overlook when accounting for something like, “why does Utah keep punching above their weight in recruiting rankings?”
The answer probably won’t surprise many people. If you simply pull up something like 247’s top ranked players from the state of Utah in 2020, you can arrive at some easy enough conclusions. Of the four blue chip players listed there and the overall top 25, one of the blue chips and nine of the players overall have clearly Polynesian surnames.
It’s pretty well documented at this point that the tight knit, martial culture of the Polynesians and their often thick frames and dense bones has translated very nicely to the game of American football. Islanders previously dominated in sports like rugby and helped propel the New Zealand All Blacks to decades of international dominance. A prominent character in the “Invictus” story of the Nelson Mandela-supported South African Sprinbok rugby world cup win is Jonah Lomu, the 6-5, 262 pound star player of the All Blacks.
There’s increasing numbers of Polynesians in the United States and they are fairly prevalent in Utah because the Mormons have done a lot of missions to the islands and a fair number of those people are now within the the LDS Church. In the DFW metroplex there’s a large Tongan population in Euless that fills out the Euless Trinity HS football team.
If you want to take a stab at guessing who’s boosting the numbers for Utah, Nevada, and Washington besides under-scouted rural kids, the Polynesians are a good bet. They’re punching well above their weight in population.
Big guys and Missouri
You should notice that a lot of the areas that are underrated are places that, typically for demographic reasons, churn out guys that make for good linemen, tight ends, fullbacks, or linebackers. The powerfully built Polynesians and the big-framed German and Scandinavian kids of Wisconsin or Minnesota regularly blossom in college.
It’s easy to misevaluate a 6-4, 220 pound kid from northern Wisconsin that ends up 6-5, 270 after a few years in the Badger’s weight room. It’s not obvious on film which guys will end up exploding like that save perhaps for just noting which guys Wisconsin and North Dakota State sign.
An interesting exception to all of this is the state of Missouri, which hosts two metropolitan area that have generated a ton of really explosive athletes. Hummer mentions Zeke Elliott as an example, here’s another easy way to demonstrate the phenomenon.
From 2007 to 2015, Gary Pinkel’s Missouri Tigers went 81-38 with five division titles. They put 13 players into the NFL draft that originated from Missouri plus two more that were from the Kansas City suburbs on the Kansas side of the border.
Four were from the St. Louis metroplex, seven of the 15 were from the Kansas City metroplex, and the other four were from rural Missouri.
That group is pretty eclectic also. It includes skill athletes like Jeremy Maclin, a 3-star from STL, and Martin Rucker who was a 6-5, 205 pound 3-star from KC that grew into an NFL tight end. There was also a parade of defensive linemen, particularly at defensive end, that included Aldon Smith (3-star from KC), Kony Ealy (4-star from rural MO), Kansas-side KC guys Andrew Gachkar (3-star) and Shane Ray (3-star), and then Markus Golden (3-star from STL/KS JUCO).
Only three of the 15 guys were blue chip players. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who came out of STL, and then Ealy and Dorial Green-Beckham from more rural Missouri.
Why were the state’s various prospects regularly ranked fairly low? I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s a diverse state with a population just over six million, just over 700k of which are black. Hummer quotes a 247 scout as saying that Missouri was basically considered a flyover state without a lot to offer. Presumably when they moved to the SEC East and won the division a couple of times people started to realize that they had some players on their team.
Pinkel’s teams became known for having solid offensive linemen executing zone schemes in the spread offense with better flex tight end play than your typical spread squad of the era. They had some great zone-read quarterbacks like James Franklin and then guys that were more passing oriented like Chase Daniels, who comes up in my book…
…and Gabbert. On defense they had a surprising number of great edge-rushers. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was churning them out one after another and Kony Ealy and Michael Sam started for the 2013 squad that lost to Auburn in the SEC title game and came close to playing for a national championship. The following year Ohio State rode Missourian Zeke Elliott to a national championship.
So, Missouri is scouted much more extensively now and with the Tigers flailing a bit post-Pinkel lots of national recruiting programs are sweeping in. 2020’s top Missouri player list by 247 included five blue chip players and they went to five different schools, none of them went to Missouri.
A huge factor is effort
Football serves as America’s war game because it takes real communal effort and resources to recruit, equip, train, and field a football squad. The state of New York produced one blue chip prospect in 2020. Why is that?
Because New York isn’t really trying.
In the article, Hummer notes that part of the reason Washington appeared on the list as a state out-punching their rankings is that they had Chris Petersen and Mike Leach scouting and developing their state’s prospects that all grew up watching the Legion of Boom. Washington’s football culture is getting stronger again and that leads to top athletes getting channeled into the football life as youth.
New York has 20 million people, Florida has maybe 22 million, but the latter state cranks out 40 blue chips a year while New York only produces 1-2. But the New York high schools aren’t investing heavily into football and directing their young athletes into the sport. If they did, 247 would have to start scouting it more heavily and everyone would be looking to poach the state.
I theorized when PJ Fleck took over at Minnesota that the state had a ton of latent potential if he could evaluate and develop in-state players well. It’s a large state with a lot of big framed athletes that have helped fuel North Dakota State’s rise, similar to Wisconsin. They just haven’t really invested in football the same way that say, Atlanta or DFW have. Boise State is another easy example here, there’s a reason Idaho started sending guys to the NFL. Tom Osborne’s Nebraska is your strongest example.
While it may seem like we have college football figured out, this sport has a lot of twists and turns in its future for everyone to follow as different regions wax and wane in how seriously they treat the sport.