One of the oldest strategies in football recruiting is to gain a verbal commitment from one big-time player, then have him promote your school to other key targets. In this day of cell phones, text-messaging and other convenient forms of communication, that ploy is even easier and more effective.
Florida State, the ACC's recruiting king since joining the conference in 1992, has succeeded this year in landing an early commitment from a highly regarded recruit who also has proven to be a tremendous spokesman for the program. Clemson has followed the same formula, also with great success.
PIED PIPERS: BRADHAM, BOWERS
FSU coach Bobby Bowden picked up an early pledge from Crawfordville (FL) Wakulla star Nigel Bradham, one of the nation's finest outside linebackers. Bradham committed on April 15 and has spent the two-plus months since talking up the Seminoles to a slew of other top prospects.
"I want to see Florida State get a class that can one day win a national championship, and I'm going to do everything in my power to make that happen," Bradham said. "I've been calling around and trying to get more people on board."
Clemson found its own Pied Piper in the person of Bamberg (SC) Bamberg-Ehrhardt star DaQuan Bowers, widely considered the No. 1 prospect in South Carolina and rated by several scouting services as the top strong-side defensive end prospect in the country.
Bowers was Clemson's second commitment for the 2008 class, giving coach Tommy Bowden a pledge way back in November. Bowers fell in love with the school and caught the eye of the coaching staff while attending the Tigers' schoolboy camp prior to his freshman year at Bamberg-Ehrhardt.
"I've been going to the Tommy Bowden Camp ever since the summer after my eighth-grade year, and the coaches kept telling me I would have an offer once I was a junior," Bowers said. "They kept their word, and I knew right away that Clemson was where I wanted to be."
Bamberg is located about an hour by car from the South Carolina campus in Columbia, and most folks in the small town are Gamecocks fans. Bowers went against the grain by rooting for the Tigers and said he was honored when Clemson recruiter Ron West compared him to All-American Gaines Adams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently made Adams, the Tigers' star defensive end and another product of the Palmetto State, the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft.
"Gaines Adams is my idol," Bowers said. "I've always tried to pattern my game after his, and hopefully I can be as good a ‘bandit' end for Clemson as he was."
Bowers, like Bradham, said he has been working the phones in an effort to get more top prospects to join him at his school of choice.
"I'm going to do whatever I can to make Clemson a better football program," Bowers said. "Right now, I'm talking to four or five big-time players about once a week. I just tell them that Clemson is going to be good, so come on down and be part of something special."
Getting Bowers and Bradham on board early helped Clemson and Florida State pile up 11 commitments each before the first official day (June 21) of summer. That figure led the ACC through late June, with Miami (nine), Virginia Tech (nine), Virginia (eight) and Duke (seven) not far behind. The other teams in the league had garnered only a handful of commitments each at the same stage.
SPRING GAME SPIKED SEMINOLES
Bradham and Wakulla teammate C.J. Holton both committed to Florida State after attending the annual Garnet and Gold game that closes spring practice. That was a huge recruiting event for the Seminoles, who also picked up a pledge from Jacksonville (FL) First Coast linebacker Nigel Carr that weekend.
"A bunch of us went to the spring game, and the atmosphere around the program was awesome that day," Bradham said. "Personally, I was real happy the whole day and just felt so at home. Obviously, Nigel and C.J. felt the same way. We all committed at the same time, and that really got the ball rolling."
Crawfordville is about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee by car, and most of the town's residents are diehard Florida State fans. That certainly was the case with Bradham, who lists former FSU linebacker greats Derrick Brooks, Marvin Jones and Ernie Sims as his favorite players. Holton was a rare exception, having grown up rooting for archrival Florida.
"Me and C.J. have known each other since we were little and have been close friends forever," said Bradham, noting that Florida never offered a scholarship to Holton. "We always talked about going to the same college, and Florida State offered that opportunity."
FSU has been on a roll ever since, picking up two more commitments in April, then adding three more players in May. The Seminoles, under the direction of long-time recruiting coordinator John Lilly, haven't approached 11 commitments before summer very often during Bowden's tenure.
In most previous years, FSU held the bulk of its scholarships until the last minute, then filled its recruiting class in the final weeks leading up to national signing day in early February. Coming off a disappointing 7-6 season and with a revamped coaching staff, the Seminoles apparently have become more aggressive in going after early commitments, and they have enjoyed remarkable success in terms of landing highly rated prospects.
Bowden brought in five new full-time assistants after last season, and all of them have made an immediate impact on recruiting.
Chuck Amato possessed a well-earned reputation as a strong recruiter during his first stint at Florida State, and that continued during his tenure as the head coach at N.C. State. Amato, the team's executive head coach who will work with the linebackers, was the lead recruiter for Bradham.
Lawrence Dawsey, a former All-American wide receiver at FSU, developed a strong relationship with a trio of players from First Coast while working as an assistant at South Florida. Carr and First Coast teammates Avis Commack and Jermaine Thomas followed Dawsey to FSU.
Jimbo Fisher, who spent the past seven years as the offensive coordinator at LSU, discovered Tallahassee (FL) Lincoln tight end Jabaris Little while recruiting his more highly touted teammate, cornerback T.J. Bryant.
FSU FINDING QUANTITY, QUALITY
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Florida State's early commitments is the fact that seven of the 11 are rated among the finest players at their respective positions by all of the major scouting services.
Bradham, a 6-2, 225-pounder who has run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, is by far the biggest name in the class so far. Both Rivals.com and Scout.com rate him as the top linebacker in Florida and among the top five nationally. He piled up 150 total tackles, with eight sacks and four interceptions, as a junior. He also showed his tremendous speed and athleticism by returning three of those pickoffs for touchdowns.
At the time of his commitment, Bradham had collected more than 30 scholarship offers. He had taken unofficial visits to Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn, in addition to FSU.
"Deep down, I'm a humble type of person, and I wasn't looking for all kinds of publicity and to have recruiters tell me how great I am," Bradham said. "Florida State has always been my dream school, so I figured why drag out the recruiting process?"
Now Bradham is doing his part in an attempt to make Florida State's Class of 2008 a haul of historic proportions. He routinely talks to Bryant and Virginia Beach (VA) Bayside quarterback E.J. Manuel, among other preseason prep All-Americans who remain interested in the Seminoles.
"I'm trying to influence as many people as I can," Bradham said. "I'm not trying to force Florida State down anybody's throat. I'm just telling them that we are building a special class, and they can be part of it. I am pretty sure those guys are not going to want to play against us. Coach Lilly always messes with me, that I'm such a good salesman I'm going to take his job."
Carr is another nationally rated linebacker, a 6-2, 220-pounder with 4.55-second speed in the 40. The First Coast standout, who can bench press 305 pounds and squat lift 450, enjoyed a monstrous 2006 campaign. He finished with 116 tackles and 13 sacks last fall.
"I've loved Florida State since I was a kid," Carr said. "On my way to the spring game I was thinking that I wanted to commit, so I told the coaches and got it done."
A.J. Alexander, out of Altoona (PA) High, was recruited as an athlete. He's a high school quarterback, but he projects as a running back or slot receiver at the next level. The 5-10, 165-pounder rushed for 1,088 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. He was the runner-up in the 100-yard dash at the Pennsylvania state championships and has been clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40. Penn State, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame were among the approximately 15 schools that already had offered Alexander at the time of his decision for the Seminoles.
Florida State also has landed a pair of outstanding safeties, in Wakulla's Holton and Nick Moody of Philadelphia (PA) Roman Catholic.
Holton is a big, strong, hard hitter who totaled 70 tackles and seven pass breakups in 2006. The 6-1, 195-pounder chose the Seminoles over offers from Clemson, Georgia, Miami and others.
"C.J. has linebacker size and cornerback speed," Wakulla coach Scott Klees told Warchant.com, the FSU site on the Rivals network. "He's still a bit raw technique-wise, but he has a tremendous upside."
Moody, who also attended the Garnet and Gold game and committed to the Seminoles two days later, recorded 65 tackles and five pass breakups as a junior. Not many teams threw the ball his way after the 6-1, 215-pounder snared seven interceptions as a sophomore. Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan State were among the schools that offered scholarships to Moody, who is projected to play the rover spot now occupied by rising sophomore Myron Rolle. Moody caught the coaching staff's eye while attending the FSU camp last summer.
Tampa (FL) Hillsborough tackle Moses McCray and Davenport (FL) Ridge Community linebacker Vincent Williams are two other highly touted defensive players already in the Seminoles' fold.
Williams (6-0, 225) has accumulated 200 tackles (including 48 for loss) and 25 sacks in two seasons on the Ridge varsity. Alabama, Florida and LSU had offered the 2006 Polk County defensive player of the year. Florida, Maryland and South Carolina were among the many schools pursuing McCray, a 6-2, 270-pounder who has many FSU fans worried because he has said that he still may take all five of the official visits that are permissible under NCAA rules.
TIGERS MAINTAINING MOMENTUM
Clemson's 2006 recruiting class was rated third in the conference by the ACC Sports Journal, while last season's crop was ranked fourth. Most other publications offered similarly positive reviews.
Clearly, Bowden and his staff are doing something right on the recruiting trail, and they appear to be on their way to another strong group of signees.
Landing Bowers way back in November gave the Tigers a tremendous jump-start, since he's rated the state's top overall prospect by both Scout and Rivals. The 6-4, 265-pounder consistently has run the 40-yard dash in under 4.7 seconds, and he can bench press 350 pounds and squat lift 595. He terrorized Class 1A opponents in South Carolina to the tune of 170 tackles (57 for loss) and 23 sacks over the past two seasons.
Bowers, whose cousin Chris Franklin played linebacker at Clemson (1993-94), was recruited by West. Bamberg-Ehrhardt coach Ron Duncan said several veteran recruiters have called Bowers the best defensive line recruit to come out of the Palmetto State since William "Refrigerator" Perry, who of course played for the Tigers and attained much gridiron success and off-the-field fame.
Remarkably, Blythewood (SC) High wide receiver Marquan Jones beat Bowers to the punch by committing in June 2006, after attending the Tommy Bowden Camp. A 6-0, 170-pounder with 4.45 speed, Jones had an absolutely monstrous junior season in leading Blythewood to the Class 3A state title. He finished with 92 receptions for 1,551 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Jones, whose head coach at Blythewood is Jeff Scott (son of Clemson assistant Brad Scott), authored the greatest single-game receiving performance in South Carolina high school history. He hauled in an amazing 17 catches for 376 yards and eight touchdowns in an 84-41 playoff victory over Blue Ridge.
Bowers and Jones have combined to talk up Clemson to numerous other in-state prospects. They certainly helped Bowden land Andre Ellington, the consensus top running back in South Carolina.
Ellington, out of Moncks Corner Berkeley, ran wild in 2006 with 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 5-11, 170-pounder with 4.4 speed in the 40 caught 20 passes for another 331 yards and three TDs. He already had drawn scholarship offers from Kentucky, Maryland and South Carolina.
NAPIER ADDS YOUTHFUL ENERGY
Clemson has one of the youngest recruiting coordinators in the nation in 28-year-old Billy Napier. He personally recruited three of the team's early commitments, including highly regarded Louisville (GA) Jefferson County offensive lineman A.J. Harmon.
Rivals rates Harmon as the nation's No. 1 offensive guard, while Scout has him as the No. 11 defensive tackle. Regardless of what side of the ball he winds up on, the 6-4, 305-pounder drew 18 early scholarship offers. He also had Auburn, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina in his top five.
Another notable commitment in Clemson's 2008 class is quarterback Jon Richt, son of Georgia coach Mark Richt. Jon passed for nearly 1,600 yards as a junior at Bogart (GA) Prince Avenue Christian, located just outside Athens.
Clearly, Clemson already has beaten rival South Carolina head-to-head for many of the state's top prospects, and the Tigers also have done well out of state.
Kyle Parker, a quarterback from Jacksonville (FL) Bartram Trail, was a nice pickup. The 6-0, 185-pounder completed 160 of 263 passes for 1,850 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior, while rushing for another 700 yards.
Parker has been working hard to convince another Jacksonville standout, Trinity Christian running back Jamie Harper, to join him at Clemson. Parker is one of four early commitments garnered by wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney, who has built a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the entire Southeast.
Meanwhile, Bowers has been calling and text-messaging numerous other Clemson targets, including Thomasville (GA) High defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and Laurinburg (NC) Scotland linebacker Terrell Manning.
"We've already got one of the best recruiting classes in the conference and maybe the country," Bowers said, "and it's only going to get better."
Bill Wagner, a sportswriter for the Annapolis (Md.) Capital, covers football recruiting for the ACC Sports Journal, ACCSports.com, SuperPrep magazine and other media outlets.