LINCOLN — Old National Park. On a youth league field in Fulton County, Georgia. The football dream started there for Myles Farmer in the purple and gold uniforms of the Knights.
Farmer played quarterback while growing up in Atlanta. He grew out of that position, and he’s a big safety now — with the frame to become an outside linebacker — headed to Nebraska on a scholarship. But Farmer holds on tight to those memories of football in the South where, yes, it does seem to mean a little more at times. NU, expanding its recruiting reach throughout the South, certainly seems to think so.
“Iron sharpens iron.” That’s how Farmer describes football in the Atlanta area. A whole community invested. A culture that endures. Great player after great player smacking pads as kids.
“On Saturday, on game day, the park that you play in, it’s packed out,” Farmer said. “Parents, family, everybody comes to see you play.”
And given the sheer growth of Atlanta’s population — and of many cities in the South — there is going to be more prospects to recruit. The U.S. Census puts Atlanta’s metropolitan population at 5.9 million. The region gained 89,013 residents in 2017 — the third-fastest growth rate among American metro areas.
Nebraska in particular has embraced recruiting the city, signing two in the 2018 recruiting class and three, so far, in the 2019 class. NU could add another player from Atlanta and perhaps another Georgian, to boot.
But NU hasn’t limited its efforts to the Peach State. It signed offensive tackle Jimmy Fritzsche from Greenville, South Carolina; outside linebacker Jamin Graham from Attalla, Alabama; Wandale Robinson from Frankfort, Kentucky; and Jackson Hannah from Nashville, Tennessee. The Huskers remain active in all parts of Florida, even though no Floridians have signed thus far in the 2019 cycle. Just this weekend, NU hosted DJ James, a Mississippi State recruit from Spanish Fort, Alabama.
Nebraska signees by region: Nebraska recruits nationally, but its emphasis in the SEC footprint has grown under Scott Frost, while its effort in the Big Ten footprint has been mild for years.
Year Big Ten In-state SEC Calif. and Texas
2019 3 5 8 1
2018 1 1 12 3
2017 3 3 4 7
2016 6 2 5 4
2015 0 2 9 4
2014 2 3 11 4
Nebraska tight ends coach Sean Beckton, a key connection in Atlanta and throughout the SEC footprint for coach Scott Frost, understands the area as well as any NU coach ever has. He recruits there. He seems to have a connection with half of the coaches in the region. He knows high school coaches get paid more money in Gwinnett County, Georgia, than those in Fulton County. His philosophy, laid out several times but most pointedly last spring, is to build a big list of prospects in the South and “go after ’em all.”
“And then if Florida, Georgia comes in there and guys commit, you keep an eye on it, but you move on to the next guy,” Beckton said. “We have a huge list of kids, and we have a pecking order, and if some of those kids commit on the list, we move down.”
Case in point: When Nebraska thought it had lost Robinson to Kentucky, it went down its list to Savannah, Georgia, receiver Winston Wright. When Robinson ditched the Wildcats to go with Nebraska, Wright stuck with his original commitment to West Virginia. But Nebraska’s southern recruiting bench is deep — and wisely so, according to one recruiting analyst in the region.
“I tell Big Ten coaches all the time: You can get a high school backup down here who’d be all-state in the Midwest,” Rivals Southeast recruiting analyst Woody Wommack said.
Wommack lives in Atlanta and can quickly rattle off stories of players who left for success in the Big Ten. Minnesota’s two best running backs in recent years, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, hail from Georgia. The Gophers, along with Indiana, have been the Big Ten’s most aggressive recruiters in Georgia over the last eight cycles. But schools like Nebraska and Michigan are coming on fast.
“Georgia’s recruiting nationally, so they can’t take them all, and some guys slip by them,” Wommack said. “Atlanta feeds the whole SEC and now you’ve got the Big Ten, Oklahoma, Texas is spreading its wings.”
Big Ten's Georgia top 150 signees: The Big Ten has expanded its recruiting efforts in Georgia. The table shows players in the state’s top 150, according to the 247Sports composite, who have been signed by league teams
“You have more people, and you have a lot of former NFL players settle down here in Atlanta, so you have the infrastructure to help kids from a young age, whether it be training or mentorship. People assume that anyone who helps these kids is some kind of shady uncle, but a lot of them are professional athletes who made a lot of money, who love football and who want to stay close to the game.”
Atlanta is popular — and produces good players — because of community investment at the youth and high school levels, Wommack said.
It’s the kind of tight bond that can keep players close to home. That’s why programs from outside the region need to have success with initial recruits, Wommack said, to open the door for more.
For example, Nebraska safety Aaron Williams, out of Atlanta’s Carver High, started parts of all four seasons. Inside linebacker Mohamed Barry out of Grayson, Georgia, who led NU in tackles in 2018 and is likely to be a captain in 2019, is a big cheerleader for Georgians playing in Lincoln. And Beckton’s reputation — he recruited Atlanta for Central Florida — helps, as well.
So when Farmer rolled up to Lincoln for the frigid cold win over Michigan State, he already knew Nebraska’s roster had a strong SEC flavor to it. He was naturally concerned NU was too far from home, but the combination of coaches, players and his parents hearing the presentation put on by Nebraska’s academic advisers convinced him to commit on the spot. He didn’t mind the snow, either, turning down schools like Virginia Tech, Louisville and Mississippi to pick the Huskers.
He grew up in Nashville, though.
“I was a hard-core Tennessee fan,” Hannah said. “I bled orange.”
The Volunteers’ new coach, Jeremy Pruitt, didn’t express interest. And once Hannah’s favorite childhood team slow-played him, the door opened up for lots of schools even outside the SEC. Nebraska shot to the top because of its strong interest from Frost and inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud, given the Nashville recruiting area because he played linebacker for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
“I told Coach Frost that, ‘If we ever play Tennessee, you’ve got to let me go (hit) somebody,’ ’’ Hannah said. “And he said, ‘That’s a deal.’ They never gave me a shot. Alabama did and Tennessee didn’t. Who knows?
“Georgia and South Carolina were hot on my tail but Tennessee never gave me a call. Everything happens for a reason. I never would have gotten to play for Nebraska.”
In many cases, Nebraska’s ability to land a prospect from the SEC footprint was tied to a top in-state school either not offering or dragging out the recruiting process on a prospect.
Fritzsche eventually landed an offer from national champion Clemson, but it came five days before the early signing period. He stuck with the deeper relationship he had at Nebraska.
In December, Frost said several programs were ready to offer Ronald Thompkins, the running back from Grayson High in Loganville, Georgia, but NU’s commitment to Thompkins after he injured his knee kept the prospect loyal. Wommack said Quinton Newsome, a safety out of North Gwinnett High, likely would have attracted more attention in January had he not signed in December. Graham, the Alabaman, didn’t get an offer from Auburn or Alabama. In the 2018 cycle, outside linebacker Caleb Tannor, out of Miller Grove High in Stone Mountain, Georgia, decommitted from Georgia — which may have cooled on him — then signed with Nebraska over Florida and other suitors. He appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman.
Wommack said Nebraska’s strategy — and other Big Ten programs that choose to follow it — is wise. Frost’s former program, Central Florida, already has, and it’s paid dividends.
“The reason they’re so good is because their roster is a bunch of Florida and Georgia players — the entire team,” Wommack said. “It’s not like they’re a bunch of fifth-year seniors at UCF. They’re guys who probably should have gone to other places and didn’t get evaluated properly by a coaching staff.”
In the case of Westlake High’s 6-foot-3, 195-pound Farmer, Frost said on his radio show he saw a player who was a classic underrated prospect who could play multiple positions.
Farmer knows he’ll bring the passion. He’s been around it for years. That’s how it is in Atlanta.
“Frost likes the way I play — he likes how I can come down and hit,” Farmer said. “He likes my swag on the field, my poise on the field. If you stick with that attitude, everybody around you is going to play better, they’re going to be hyped about the game.”