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March 12, 2012
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen knows all about the long list of Mississippi high school players who achieved NFL greatness. He also is all too cognizant of the fact that nearly all of them played college football somewhere other than Mississippi State.
Mullen has spent much of his tenure in Starkville making sure the next great Mississippi-bred star doesn't leave the state for college.
"We've got to do a great job of evaluating them so we don't miss on Jerry Rice," Mullen said. "We don't miss on Brett Favre or Steve McNair. We don't miss on Walter Payton, which has all happened in the past. Those are guys from Mississippi who have gone on to have huge careers. I'd love to go into our football hall of fame and see all those names as former players here."
Mullen's mission is evident from a look at the Bulldogs' recent signing classes, though Mississippi State's fondness for in-state recruits actually preceded his arrival in 2009.
More than two-thirds of the players to sign with Mississippi State over its last five recruiting classes came from the state of Mississippi. If you don't count schools from the talent-laden states of California, Florida and Texas, only Virginia Tech has signed a higher percentage of in-state recruits than Mississippi State over the last five years. And that's only if you include D.C. players as in-state prospects for Virginia Tech.
That discrepancy isn't lost on Madison (Miss.) Central High's Bobby Hall, who has coached Mississippi high schools and junior colleges for 32 years. Hall believes Mississippi State's emphasis on in-state players - and Ole Miss' lack thereof - explains why the Bulldogs have won the last three Egg Bowls between the two teams.
Mississippi State beat Ole Miss 31-3 last season while starting eight players on offense and eight more on defense from the state of Mississippi. Ole Miss started three home-state players on offense and four on defense for that game.
"The staff that was at Ole Miss did not understand the importance of signing Mississippi kids," Hall said. "In turn, the staff at Mississippi State does. That's one reason why Mississippi State is beating Ole Miss in that game right now, because they're playing that game with Mississippi kids.
"You can't tell me - when they play that State-Ole Miss game - that a kid from Georgia, Florida, Alabama or Texas cares as much about that game as a kid from Mississippi does. I'm just not going to buy that. Look, we're small-town America, OK? These kids who grow up here, when they go to the barber shop and they go downtown to the drug store and they hear talk about Mississippi State-Ole Miss and they hear that all their lives, it matters to them.''
There clearly is plenty of talent to be found in this state. Mississippi had 33 players on NFL rosters at the start of the 2011 season. Louisiana was the only state with a higher number of NFL players per capita.
"It's in that second tier," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "Florida, Texas and California are the first tier. And then the second tier is Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio and Mississippi would be in that group. It's a good state. The biggest issue has always been academics. There's been a lot of kids who have trouble qualifying or might not get the academics that a lot of schools want from a recruit."
The wide gap in in-state players between Mississippi State and Ole Miss dates to the early years of former Rebels coach Houston Nutt's regime. Ole Miss signed just six players each from the state of Mississippi in 2008 and 2009, whereas Mississippi State has added at least 16 in-state players each of the last five years.
Nutt focused more on in-state talent later in his tenure. Ole Miss signed each of the state's top five prospects in 2011, including five-star linebacker C.J. Johnson of Philadelphia High, Rivals100 receiver Nickolas Brassell of Batesville South Panola and four-star receiver Donte Moncrief of Raleigh High. Moncrief and Brassell were Ole Miss' two leading receivers as true freshmen last season, while Johnson's four tackles for loss tied him for fifth place on the team.
Ole Miss also signed the state's top 2012 prospect and the nation's No. 51 overall recruit last month in Aberdeen High defensive end Channing Ward, who committed to the Rebels after Nutt was fired and replaced by former Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze.
"Our goal is to win the state, no question about that," said Maurice Harris, Ole Miss' tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator for offense. "From a recruiting standpoint, there's always been talent in the state of Mississippi. There's talent this year. And our goal's definitely to win the state."
Mississippi high school coaches expect even more competition for the state's top talent now that Ole Miss and Southern Mississippi have made coaching changes. The new coaches at both schools have Mississippi roots.
Freeze is a Mississippi native who served as Ole Miss' recruiting coordinator in 2006 and 2007. Southern Mississippi's Ellis Johnson, who took over the program after Larry Fedora left for North Carolina, previously worked as a defensive coordinator at Southern Miss and Mississippi State.
"Coach Fedora and them were a great staff, but I think this staff here probably knows the area a little better and maybe knows Mississippi a little better," Oak Grove High coach Neville Barr said. "I think they'll do a great job in Southern Miss and throughout Mississippi. ... I think Ole Miss knows what they've got to do too. There's a lot of talent in Mississippi, and I think Ole Miss will recruit it hard too. I think it's going to pick up, with all three schools really recruiting hard for Mississippi athletes."
Hall said the change in approach at Ole Miss is apparent.
"It's done a 180," Hall said. "You can already see. It's going to be on now between Mullen and Hugh Freeze."
Mississippi's three Rivals250 prospects for 2013 - South Panola safety Antonio Conner (No. 38), Rosedale West Bolivar running back Kailo Moore (No. 74) and South Panola offensive tackle Deon Mix (No. 121) remain uncommitted. Moore decommitted from Ole Miss after Nutt's firing but reportedly continues to favor the Rebels.
"I just want to get to know the coaches more, get to know the players on the team, see what they expect from me in 2013," Moore told RebelGrove.com last month. "I think I'm going to just go through the process, but if I get to know these coaches a little more like I know the coaches from the previous year, it'll be an early commitment then."
Simple geography could prevent Ole Miss from ever having quite as many Mississippi players as Mississippi State. Keep in mind that Ole Miss' campus is just a 90-minute drive from Memphis, Tenn. Freeze previously worked at Memphis (Tenn.) Briarcrest Christian, where he coached former Ole Miss stars Michael Oher and Greg Hardy.
Ole Miss naturally will pursue Memphis prospects often to capitalize on its proximity to that talent-rich area. Mississippi State's campus is about a three-hour drive from Memphis.
"There's no question about that," Harris said. "We do consider Memphis an in-state source for us."
The key to this competition is whether these new staffs at Ole Miss and Southern Miss can match the evaluation skills of Mullen's crew.
Mullen believes that Mississippi is an unusual state in that the talent is spread across many schools.
There are elite programs that produce elite players. South Panola topped the final RivalsHigh national poll in 2010 and has two of the state's three Rivals250 prospects for 2013. But Mississippi generally doesn't have as many high school transfers as other talent-laden states, which means plenty of talented prospects can be found in smaller programs.
"The one thing that's pretty unique here is in a lot of states, there are great players but a lot of them go to the primo schools, where you know this school is always going to have a player," Mullen said. "That's the type of mentality you can take in other states. Or kids will move to certain areas just to go to a school, so they can play at this big-name school. It's really not that way here. We have players from 1A schools, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A and the academies. We have players from every different school classification on our team."
Mullen cited Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks as an example. Banks signed with Mississippi State after playing baseball, football and basketball at Maben East Webster, which has about 400 students from grades seven through 12. The school was small enough that Banks played varsity football as an eighth-grader.
"He's going to be a four-year starter for us," Mullen said. "They're a tiny 1A school. You don't find that around the country. Usually the good players aren't staying in their little small schools in their hometowns. They go to a high-profile school. Here in Mississippi, kids stay in their hometown."
More and more often, they're also staying in their home state for college.