Why Alabama Must Get Creative to Maintain Its Recruiting Dominance in the South

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistFebruary 3, 2017

Strange but true: Alabama's Nick Saban landed as many recruits from Georgia as Hawaii this year.
Strange but true: Alabama's Nick Saban landed as many recruits from Georgia as Hawaii this year.Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One.

That's the number of recruits the University of Alabama football program signed from the state of Georgia on national signing day this week. After doing likewise in 2016, the Crimson Tide are facing a surprising trend.

"It feels like home" was often heard around the team, as former defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said before Alabama played at the Georgia Dome in the 2016 SEC Championship Game, and then again for the Peach Bowl playoff semifinal.

But even though head coach Nick Saban may have hit a new apex with his latest recruiting class, the talent pipeline from Georgia to Tuscaloosa has slowed to a trickle.

It's due in part to former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart's departure from the Crimson Tide. He grew up in Georgia, played football for the Bulldogs and is now their head coach. That's tough to replace.

Similarly, former Saban assistants Jimbo Fisher and Jim McElwain are now head coaches in another talent-rich state that Alabama likes to recruit, Florida. They want the same kind of players as their former boss and are eager to replicate his success.

"They have always taken the approach that we're going to build our team from the inside out," ESPN recruiting expert and college football analyst Tom Luginbill said about Alabama.

"The up-front guys is what separates the good from the great."

Yes, Alabama won yet another recruiting title in impressive, intimidating fashion by adding 12 players who were dubbed 5-star talents by the major recruiting services. However, it had to go looking in different places for its key players of tomorrow—and not just with running back Najee Harris and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who hail from California and Hawaii, respectively.

Part of that is just the normal ebb and flow of recruiting, which nowadays remains fluid year-round. It's also Saban's utilization of his coaching staff, as each assistant has territory he's worked and is familiar with—similar to how an offensive and defensive scheme reflect and maximize the talent of the players.

Before taking jobs with Pac-12 schools, assistant coaches Mario Cristobal and Billy Napier helped Alabama land 16 players (not all of whom are on the roster yet), from three pivotal states: Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Cristobal had especially strong ties in South Florida, where he played at Miami and was the head coach at Florida International (2007-12), while the other states were primary recruiting territory for Napier.

Consequently, it could be awhile before Alabama has that kind of success in those places again. The replacements won't have the same relationships and connections, and moreover, the school benefited from the coaching uncertainty and turmoil elsewhere, particularly at LSU and Texas.

"I told the coaches everywhere I went on a recruiting visit—it's not about any hometown or home state," said junior college transfer Isaiah Buggs, a defensive lineman originally from Ruston, Louisiana. "It's about where I see myself fitting in and playing right away. And it's about the coaches. If the coaches were stable, they had a good chance of getting me."

Buggs was referring to LSU, which fired Les Miles in September and didn't make Ed Orgeron the permanent coach until late November. According to Scout.com, the Tigers still finished with the No. 7 class in the nation, but Orgeron is nevertheless taking heat for losing even more local players to Saban than his predecessor.

Alabama landed three of the top four players from Louisiana and six overall if you include prize linebacker Dylan Moses, who left Baton Rouge a year previous to play his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida.

Buggs, Moses and wide receiver Devonta Smith were all tabbed 5-star talents. Defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis and linebacker Chris Allen were right behind them.

In contrast, LSU signed 12 of its top 14 in-state players last year and each of the top five in 2015.

A return to that may be Orgeron's top priority. When asked about it during his signing day press conference, Orgeron could only say, "We have work to do." More reflective of the mood surrounding the program was columnist Glenn Guilbeau of The Advertiser subsequently writing: "Louisiana needs to build a wall around its state to keep its elite players inside. And make Saban pay for it."

It might be too late. Not only has Alabama defeated its Cajun Country rival six straight times, dating back to the 2011 season's national championship game, but it also lured away the likes of Cam Robinson, Eddie Lacy, Tim Williams…

A recruiting wall, though, is exactly what Alabama's competition in those states wants.

In terms of geography, Alabama views recruiting in three tiers: in-state, anywhere within a five-hour drive of Tuscaloosa, and then anything beyond.

"We would like to recruit as many guys as we can from our state," Saban said. "We've had a lot of great ones."

However, if Alabama had solely recruited in-state this year—which is both unrealistic and essentially impossible—its class wouldn't have been anywhere near as good as it was. So the tricky point is figuring out where to draw the line, which largely depends on the talent level.

"The key is, keep the right ones at home," said Luginbill, who also called Saban's success in recruiting with the Crimson Tide "unprecedented."

Alabama appeared to do just that, signing six of the state's best seven prospects. 

For the next tier, the radius includes high-profile cities like Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, plus the talent-rich I-10 corridor that extends along the Florida Panhandle and through New Orleans.

Former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is already a recruiting thorn in Alabama's side.
Former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is already a recruiting thorn in Alabama's side.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Going back to Georgia, in 2012 Alabama plucked Geno Smith, Dillon Lee, Brandon Greene, Kenyan Drake, Tomlinson, Dakota Ball, Kurt Freitag and Adam Griffith all out of the Peach State. It's also where it found Chance Warmack in 2009, along with Adrian Hubbard, Brian Vogler, Blake Sims and Austin Shepherd a year later.

In 2016, the only addition was tight end Miller Forristall. This year, it's safety Xavier McKinney

Granted, the top two prospects, quarterback Davis Mills (Stanford) and defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon (Michigan), still left the state, but Smart did a terrific job of limiting the departures. Of the state's top 25 prospects, 15 are now Bulldogs, which is why Georgia finished second in the team rankings.  

Saban's not about to concede anything, and Smart hasn't won anything yet, but Georgia just became much tougher to recruit for the Tide. Meanwhile, the Sunshine State has turned into a recruiting battleground with all of its big-name coaches. Tom Herman will start building relationships in Texas, and Orgeron has a strong recruiting reputation plus the advantage of being in his home state.

As long as Alabama continues to challenge for national championships and send scores of players to the NFL, it'll land top prospects from all over the South.

They just might not be from some of its usual recruiting sources.

           

Recruiting rankings are courtesy of Scout.comQuotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.