Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom had to make an adjustment in his recruiting strategy after returning to college football from a lengthy NFL career. Those adjustments, along with optimism about last year's 8-5 season, has the Bulldogs hot on the recruiting trail.
Mississippi State currently has 14 public verbal commitments, including in-state ESPN150 Watch List prospects Jonathan Banks, Fletcher Cox and Cameron Lawrence. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Banks, from East Webster High, is an athlete who could play on either side of the ball in college but most likely projects as a safety. Cox is one of the top defensive end prospects in the Southeast. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder from Yazoo City High had 11 sacks last season. Lawrence, from Senatobia, is an explosive quarterback/athlete who could play a number of positions.
The state of Mississippi, through its high school or junior college football programs, produces plenty of talent annually as it ranks among the best states in the country for producing NFL players per capita. Croom inherited a challenge on that front when he took the MSU job prior to the 2004 season.
He had to sell a program on probation that had bottomed out under Jackie Sherrill. In-state rival Ole Miss also hired one of the country's most dynamic recruiters in Ed Orgeron during that time, so adjustments had to be made. The Bulldogs simply had to get on players earlier.
"When I came back, I was one of those guys that wanted to wait until a guy's senior year to offer a scholarship," Croom said. "If you wait that long, you won't get him. I actually got a letter the other day from a ninth-grader wanting to know if I wanted to offer him a scholarship. This fall, we will be working on not only this year or next year. Believe it or not, I was working on a 2010 depth chart last night.
"It's a lot like the NFL. The NFL looks at guys' salary contracts and who is going to become a free agent. We have to look at who is going to graduate, positions we're going to be deficient, how many guys we're going to be able to sign. This year we're going probably sign 25 guys. Next year we'll probably only be able to sign 16, 17 guys. We'll have to be sharp on our evaluations to make sure all 16 of those scholarships count. It's just the trend right now, the way things are going."
Getting out in front has paid big dividends. Banks, Lawrence and Cox all committed during their junior year.
"One of the things that has helped is the stability of our staff," Croom said. "Being able to know where guys are."
Nearly every school in the country knows where to find Under Armour All-American running back Montrell Conner of Monroe (La.) Ouachita Parish. With that, the Bulldogs are in excellent shape to potentially land the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder, who would be a perfect replacement for All-SEC candidate Anthony Dixon in a couple of years.
" With a dozen commitments and only 14-16 scholarships available, Georgia only has a handful of spots left in its 2009 class. The Bulldogs, however, are high on quality. All 12 of the players committed to UGA at the moment are ESPN150 Watch List selections, three (running back Washaun Ealey, linebacker Dexter Moody and offensive lineman Dallas Lee) are Under Armour All-Americans.
" Auburn should be considered the frontrunner for ESPN150 Watch List offensive lineman Johnnie Farms of Perry (Ga.). The Tigers are in the best position after some other schools filled up at his position during the summer.
" Clemson is in great shape for ESPN150 Watch List linebacker Corico Hawkins of Miledgeville (Ga.) Baldwin. The Tigers have had success recruiting linebackers from that school before as former standout Leroy Hill, now with the Seattle Seahawks, is a Baldwin alum.
" Look out for Stanford in the recruitment of Under Armour All-American wide receiver Jamal Patterson of McDonough (Ga.) Henry County. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder likes the academic prestige of the school and the Cardinal has made a habit of plucking talent out of the South. Stanford signed Under Armour All-American defensive end Chase Thomas out of Marietta (Ga.) Walton during the 2008 recruiting cycle and plucked linebacker Jonathan Frink out of Oxford (Miss.) high school in the Class of 2007.