Tigers eye impact on recruiting

West Virginia QB Geno Smith passed for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns this season.

Jeff Gentner

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith grew up so close to Sun Life Stadium, the site of tonight's Orange Bowl game between the Clemson Tigers and Smith's Mountaineers, he could watch the stadium's Jumbotron from his South Florida home.

Like many prep stars from the South Florida -- perhaps the richest recruiting ground in the country -- Smith had to go out of state to play Division I football. Smith is one of eight players from the Miami area on West Virginia's two-deep depth chart.

"I grew up close to the stadium, and it is kind of ironic," Smith said. "I never imagined it happening like this. It is kind of a storybook game for me."

West Virginia and Clemson are among dozens of football programs from outside of Florida that have come here to sign prospects to supplement their rosters over the last two decades. More people live in the greater Miami area (5.5 million population) than either South Carolina or West Virginia.

The last time Clemson played in the Orange Bowl, the Tigers beat Nebraska to capture the 1981 national championship. Getting back to the Orange Bowl is significant for recruiting purposes.

Since Dabo Swinney took over as head coach, Clemson has signed just five Floridians. None of those were from Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties, which comprise the South Florida region. Clemson hasn't signed a Miami-area prospect since Tarik Rollins in 2008. One of the last significant South Floridians on the Tigers' roster was receiver Jacoby Ford. Star receiver Sammy Watkins and suspended running back Mike Bellamy hail from the gulf side of Florida in the Fort Myers area.

"To set up camp for (a week) and have that paw just cover the town, have the paw hanging over bridges on buses, it's really neat. It has a tremendous impact on recruiting," Swinney said. "We've had a lot of success recruiting Florida and hopefully we'll be able to attract a few more from the South Florida area."

According to a Sports Illustrated study, 196 Division I recruits per year came from Florida from 2004 to 2009, and nearly half of those players hailed from South Florida. The state of South Carolina had 169 Division I recruits during the five-year period.

But for out-of-state ACC programs, Florida recruiting has declined in recent years as other in-state football programs like South Florida and Central Florida have emerged. Also, Big East schools like West Virginia and Rutgers have become recruiting competition in the region.

Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said South Florida has become over- recruited. Steele is assigned to the region and has recruited the area since 1983.

"I can actually drive to every high school in Dade and Broward County pretty much without a GPS and I can find my hotel without a GPS, so I know what I'm doing," Steele said.

"I've always just kind of thought that there's a lot of talent here, and you've got to find the guys that fit your program."

But at Clemson, Steele has been unable to recruit the area as thoroughly as when he was a linebackers coach at Florida State.

"What's really changed in recruiting now, particularly if you're a coordinator … you can only have seven (coaches) on the road at a time, someone has got to stay home," Steele said. "Well, guess who gets to stay home? The coordinators. So it does affect your recruiting."

The nationally televised game is important to Clemson and West Virginia.

"There are hundreds of schools that recruit down here for a reason," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Not only from a South Florida standpoint, but from a national standpoint, the magnitude of the game … we all understand there are going to be a lot of eyes on it."