Most of the country’s elite high school football talent is concentrated in a U shape of states, running down both coasts, through Florida, Texas and California. When Jerry Kill took over the Gophers five years ago, his staff mapped a strategic plan for reeling in distant recruits.
What advantage did the Twin Cities have over Madison, Iowa City, Lincoln and other nearby college towns? For one, Minneapolis and St. Paul have a Delta Air Lines hub. And there’s another one in Atlanta, a hot-spot for football talent, with reasonably priced, 150-minute flights linking the two airports. That not only helps coaches expedite the recruiting trail, it’s a major selling point for recruits and their families.
As the Gophers prepare to open Big Ten play at No. 16 Northwestern on Saturday, they can thank this aerial link to Georgia for the new ground attack they have established, with freshmen Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.
Northwestern has the nation’s third-ranked scoring defense (8.8 points per game), and a big key for the Gophers will be this Georgia tandem’s effectiveness. Last week, Brooks burst onto the scene against Ohio with 82 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Smith added 94 yards rushing and 58 receiving.
Three other Georgia natives played critical roles. Linebacker Jonathan Celestin led the Gophers with eight tackles. Jalen Myrick chased down an Ohio kickoff returner in the final minute. And Duke McGhee finished the game by knocking down a Hail Mary pass at the goal line. This all happened in Minnesota, but it felt like Georgia North.
How did the Gophers find these peaches?
“Well, you just go hunting,” Kill said. “We work hard at it.”
More than Atlanta
In 2014, five Minnesota high school seniors received scholarships to play at the highest level of college football, in the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I. This year, that number grew to 13. Those same numbers for Georgia also swelled during that time frame — from 188 to 248.
“When I first started recruiting Georgia, it was under-recruited,” Gophers receivers coach Brian Anderson said. “But now I think every Big Ten school’s down there with the SEC, ACC and Conference USA. There’s enough kids to go around for everybody, but you’ve just got to find the right ones.”
The key for the Gophers has been deplaning in Atlanta and fighting its often-brutal traffic, aiming for the metro outskirts and beyond.
“A lot of teams will just fly in to Atlanta, recruit the city and then fly out,” Anderson said. “For us, you’ve got to go to the small counties, up in the mountains. You’ve got to go south of the airport. You’ve got to dig a little bit because all those small counties have good players.”
This staff gave the Gophers a new foothold into Georgia with the 2013 recruiting class, which brought Myrick (from Savannah), McGhee (from Ellenwood) and Donovahn Jones (from Dutchtown). The Gophers dismissed Jones from the team in December, but his high school coach tipped off Anderson about a running back from a school about 20 minutes south of the Atlanta airport, called Mundy’s Mill.
That’s how Anderson found Smith, whose father, Patrick, is the school’s athletic director and former offensive coordinator. At the time, Smith had interest from Georgia, Virginia Tech and Auburn. When Smith tore a knee ligament his junior year, the other colleges backed off, but Anderson kept in touch with the family.
“He started having a blockbuster senior year,” Anderson said. “I went in during our bye week, watched him practice, and I was like, ‘It’s a no-brainer. This kid is the real deal.’ He’s got that make-you-miss. He’s a strong kid — he benches over 350 pounds, so you don’t worry about his size.”
Off the beaten path
The 5-11, 200-pound Smith redshirted last year, when senior David Cobb was setting a Gophers single-season rushing record with 1,626 yards.
Meanwhile, Brooks was tearing up the competition at Pickens High School. For most recruiters, Pickens County is off the beaten path, about an hour north of Atlanta, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Anderson credits graduate assistant Cory Hanson for studying Brooks’ video and realizing this was worth the trip. When Anderson went, he heard about Brooks upstaging Nick Chubb in their two head-to-head meetings. Chubb, who played at Cedartown High School, has since blossomed into a sophomore Heisman candidate at Georgia.
The 6-foot, 206-pound Brooks wound up getting just one other Power Five conference offer, from Georgia Tech, but Pickens coach Chris Parker said that’s misleading. After all, Brooks shut down his recruiting after visiting Minnesota last September.
“I feel what Minnesota’s staff did is they actually watched the tape,” Parker said. “They didn’t worry about, ‘Did he have this offer or that offer?’ — which is what a lot of people do in recruiting.”
Brooks said Pickens ran a similar offense to the Gophers, and he wasn’t a fan of Georgia Tech’s triple option attack.
“Coming up here [on the visit], meeting all the coaches, you could tell they’re good guys,” Brooks said. “They’ve got that thing online where it says they’ve been together [a combined 141] years. Knowing they’ve got that connection, I feel like my talent was going to fit this offense the best.”
Smith said he felt “an instant connection” to Brooks when the two met in September 2014. They describe themselves as good friends who aren’t afraid to compete and push one another in practice.
Kill could hardly contain his excitement for both Georgia natives during training camp. The Gophers started the season with senior Rodrick Williams as the starting tailback, but Smith had the job by Week 2.
As the son of a coach, Smith impresses Gophers coaches with his well-rounded game, from his rushing ability to his pass-blocking to receiving. But as the 10-7 victory over Kent State in Week 3 showed, a running game relying solely on Smith might not be enough.
Last week, Brooks came off the bench with runs of 8, 23 and 40 yards, electrifying the crowd. The third one was a touchdown, and the mountain man looked like a skier on moguls, crisscrossing past defenders, then gliding full speed to the end-zone chalet.
“That was one of the most impressive runs I’ve ever seen at this level,” Anderson said. “He made two jump cuts, and his shoulders were going vertical, and then it was over. For a young kid to come in and have runs like that at this level is pretty special.”
And to have two freshmen doing it — even better.