The New York/New Jersey Nike Football Training Camp drew many of the area's premier college football prospects to Jets headquarters in Florham Park, N.J. on Sunday. Most of the participants were born and raised in a region that was once known for Big East football and is now rapidly developing a Big Ten feel.
However, the NFTC athletes were largely in agreement on which conference has reigned supreme throughout much of their youth.
"Obviously the SEC, I think, is the strongest conference in college football," coveted Connecticut tight end Chris Clark said.
His sentiments were echoed by the majority of participants who spoke with Bleacher Report before and after hours of drills and one-on-one showdowns. Though many of them have yet to set foot on an SEC campus, they've grown up in an age defined by the conference's immense success and exposure.
Historic programs, national championships, Heisman Trophy winners and star coaches have helped the SEC secure expansive television deals during the past decade. The conference brand resonates strongly, even 1,000 miles northeast of Tuscaloosa.
"The SEC is very intriguing," Brooklyn athlete Deonte Roberts said. "It's always on TV, so you're always watching the teams and hearing about the conference. Basically, it's a lot of schools that you grow up watching. They have the star players that you like."
When you realize most of these recruits are between the ages of 15 and 17, it's easy to understand why the SEC looms larger in their minds than nearby conference clusters like the Big Ten and ACC. The conference has flexed its muscles in several regards since their earliest stages of college football fandom.
SEC squads claimed seven of the final eight BCS National Championships. Those teams were led by a slew of captivating star players, including four Heisman Trophy winners and three No. 1 overall NFL draft selections.
If you're searching for a national recruiting trend, look no further than the fact that five SEC programs currently rate among the nation's top seven in 247Sports' composite 2015 class rankings. A conference member has finished No. 1 on signing day every year since 2008, including four consecutive top-ranked classes for Alabama.
"You definitely hold the SEC to a higher standard," New Jersey linebacker Jordan Fox said. "It's the toughest conference in college football. You play with the big dogs down south."
Fox, who holds a Georgia offer, was one of several NFTC attendees with opportunities in the SEC.
His high school teammate, Minkah Fitzpatrick, is a 5-star cornerback who committed to Alabama earlier this month. Sophomore defensive tackle Rashan Gary (Scotch Plains, N.J.) dominated the trenches Sunday and already holds offers from Florida, South Carolina and Alabama.
Impressive 2016 quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (Oradell, N.J.) believes he may find a fit in the SEC, despite significant interest from several Big Ten teams.
"Other than a couple schools up north, I want to be down south," the 4-star prospect said. "I've always loved SEC style football. It's very fast-paced. Everybody is fast and physical."
Guarantano, rated No. 3 nationally among sophomore pro-style passers in 247Sports' composite rankings, received an offer from Tennessee two weeks ago. With continued development, he's sure to garner interest from the Volunteers' conference rivals.
Kareem Ali, a 3-star cornerback from southern New Jersey, views Florida as one of his favorites. Maryland, Louisville, North Carolina and West Virginia are also in the picture but he admits the Gators' role in the SEC is a strong selling point.
"You want to see if you can compete against the best," Ali said. "I think I can. I'm going to sit back and wait a little bit to see what happens with Florida and Coach (Will) Muschamp this season, but I'm definitely interested."
Clark, a 4-star tight end who recently decommitted from North Carolina, appears to be focusing on Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan at the moment. Still, offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss and Florida have forced him to keep an eye on the SEC during his recruitment process.
When it comes to conference hype, Clark said it's largely legitimate when dissecting the SEC.
You're going to play against the best players if you decide to play in that conference. The facilities are really nice but everyone has good facilities. When people say the SEC has better ones, that's not really true. But the competition—I think you're going to find the best in the SEC, going up against Texas A&M, Alabama and all those schools.
So how long can the SEC maintain its nationwide appeal?
We're on the verge of witnessing a big change among college football's hierarchy, according to 4-star offensive tackle Ryan Bates (Warminster, Pa.).
"It's not going to be the SEC anymore. It's going to be the Big Ten," he said.
"Penn State. Big Ten Championships and National Championships."
Bates has been committed to play for the Nittany Lions since February and clearly likes the upcoming outlook in Happy Valley.
Philadelphia standout John Reid also wondered if the SEC can hold off other conferences for much longer, though he was significantly more conservative with his reasoning.
"There's a lot of teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12 coming after them," the 4-star prospect said. "Just because a team is from the SEC doesn't mean I have to favor them, but you have to respect the conference."
Respect is probably the most appropriate word to sum up SEC-related opinions in the Northeast. It's exactly what NFTC participants kept conveying for the faraway conference on Sunday.
"SEC football is very, very, very competitive," Reid said. "That's a big thing. Plus, it's produced so many (NFL draft picks). The conference has proven it's pretty much the amateur level of pro football."
*All quotes obtained firsthand by B/R recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted.
*Recruit information and star ratings courtesy of 247Sports.
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