The announcement that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is planning to copy Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s southern satellite camps with a camp of his own leads to a pretty obvious question: What’s wrong with the talent in Big Ten Country?
The purpose of these satellite camps is to increase the visibility of a coach and his program to elite recruits in a region that otherwise might be unfamiliar to them. The coaches spend their time working on drills and instructing proper technique during the day, and making as much time as possible for getting to know prospects during the camp’s off-hours. It’s a creative strategy, but there’s a problem with it.
For years the Big Ten has tried to promote itself as a conference on par with the SEC, but that comparison rings hollow if the Big Ten’s success — limited though it has been — requires a healthy dose of talent from the SEC’s backyard.
The South is attractive as a recruiting hotspot for coaches like Meyer and Harbaugh because it’s obviously a region loaded with talent, and Meyer’s home state of Ohio — like many midwestern states — is typically lacking the kind of dynamic athleticism known as “SEC speed.” For instance, according to 247sports, Ohio State’s 2017 recruiting class currently features four prospects that play high school football in an SEC state, and all four of those players — three defensive backs from Florida and a running back from Texas — play positions that require speed and athleticism.
Those qualities are just harder to find in the states where Big Ten schools are located, and what Meyer and Harbaugh know is that if they can’t compete for the southern athletes on the recruiting trail then then their chances of consistently competing against southern teams for championships greatly diminishes.
This was never more true than in last year’s College Football Playoff where Big Ten champion Michigan State squared off against SEC champion Alabama. The profile for these two programs couldn’t be more opposite. Alabama is perennially ranked as the No. 1 recruiting program in the country — relying mostly on prospects from its own state and others from within the SEC footprint. On the other hand, the Spartans typically expect a more modest performance on Signing Day. The program’s last three recruiting classes were ranked 22nd, 25th, and 35th respectively according to 247sports and the majority of the signees were players from midwestern states.
Alabama won the game 38-0.
Meyer, Harbaugh, and maybe soon some other Big Ten coaches, want to avoid a similar fate, so they journey below the Mason-Dixon line in the summer to try to steal away some of the region’s top recruits. Of course, the Big Ten coaches wouldn’t articulate their situation in quite the same way, and they certainly wouldn’t admit that southern satellite camps are necessitated by limited talent in their region. In fact, they won’t say much about these camps at all. Harbaugh won’t even acknowledge the purpose of the satellite camps is for recruiting. He told USA Today last summer his presence at the offseason events was about “sharing a love of football.” Meyer has taken a different tact. He admits their purpose is for recruiting, but not sure how well they’ll work. He told Cleveland.com last April that his program ”might try one.” The casual words aside, it’s the actions that speak loudest here, and — with camps for the two schools already scheduled, and potentially more on the way — the message is clear.
The Big Ten isn’t attempting to equal the SEC as much as it’s attempting to imitate it.
However, don’t try to tell an SEC coach that this imitation is a form of flattery. They are predictably irate about having to share their fertile recruiting soil with outsiders. Many SEC coaches have gone so far as to suggest the satellite camps should be banned. And why wouldn’t they?
After all, there’s very little value in coaches from the South returning the favor by invading the Midwest with their own barrage of satellite camps. Most Big Ten states just don’t produce enough talent each year to justify the cost of the airfare, and many midwestern states are even seeing a significant decline in the number of players participating in the sport.
According to Sports Illustrated the number of high school football players in the state of Ohio has decreased by 12,797 since 2008 — while the state of Alabama has added 9,185 players over that same span.
The undeniable fact is football is becoming more and more of a southern sport, and coaches like Meyer and Harbaugh hope that they can somehow field a southern team without actually being in the South. It won’t be an easy trick to pull off, but it might be the only hope they have.