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October 25, 2012

Recruiting showdown looms in Arizona

MORE: Rivals250 | Mind of Mike

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The traffic jam is a picture of progress.

Darkness has fallen in the desert. The endless string of headlights looks like a collection of lampposts from the top deck of Sun Devil Stadium. Ten minutes into Arizona State's Thursday-night game with Oregon, the four-lane road outside the building is a standstill of bulbs. The Ducks will lead 29-7 before the last stragglers settle into seats, but that part seems peripheral.

There are more than 71,000 people on hand. It's ASU's largest crowd of the season. The most important guests occupy the first few rows adjacent to the 40-yard line.

Jalen Brown, one of the most sought-after high school players in Arizona, is in one seat. Quarterback Kyle Allen, who will join Brown near the top of the state's 2014 rankings, is in the building as well. Other in-state FBS-bound prospects occupy a chunk of the space in between. This is the frontline of an escalating conflict.

"I firmly believe that you have to build a program from the inside," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "We talk about recruiting this valley, then recruiting the state. And then we'll go out to California and Texas and other places. We are Arizona State University, so we should concentrate on Arizona's state players."

Roughly 110 miles south sits Rich Rodriguez, another first-year head coach. He has the same agenda as Graham. Most of the prized recruits that make up tonight's most important collection of spectators will be at his stadium in a few days to watch his Arizona squad dispose of Washington 52-17.

A region that gets little rain has become the stage for a perfect storm. The state's current crop of high school juniors is considered its best in years or possibly ever. And the spike in talent just happens to coincide with coaching changes that have breathed new life into the state's FBS programs.

The building buzz sounds like honking horns and a jostle for parking. The noises are the same in semi-urban Tucson as they are in metro Tempe. So is recruiting goal No. 1: Capitalize on the swell of local talent.

"It's a shame that a lot if these players have gotten away in the past, but we want to keep all of them home if it's the right guy," Rodriguez said. "We want to keep all of them here with U of A. Even if they tell us no, we'll continue to recruit those schools."

Business is already picking up. When Chans Cox, the top-ranked senior in Arizona, declared his intentions to play for the Sun Devils in Graham's fifth month as head coach, Arizona State had landed the state's top prospect for the first time in nine years and threw the fight's first haymaker.

"I wasn't considering ASU at all but once Coach Graham got here and I talked to him for the first time, he redid the schools image with me right there," Cox said. "I could tell what he was going change immediately. He was going to change the whole program."

The Cox coup is indicative of the larger strategy at work. The idea is to start here, in a state that is becoming a high school football hotbed.

Immediately after accepting the job, Graham used an almost unfathomable string of 135 public appearances in 108 days to repair his program's fractured local image. And that doesn't even include frequent visits to area high schools.

Graham had to take his own backyard by storm before he could attempt to give the Pac-12 the same treatment.

"We've seen more already than we saw the last guy the entire time he was down the road," one Phoenix-area high school assistant said of Graham. "He's already been around more in in the course of one year."

Want early returns? Just ask Cox where he would be headed if Graham never took over the Sun Devils and, in turn, his recruitment.

"Notre Dame," Cox said. "That's how much of an impact the new coaching staff had on me. That's what it came down to, Notre Dame and ASU. I just felt so comfortable with the coaching staff at ASU."

Brown's situation is different. When it comes to the in-state programs, He's heard more from U of A than ASU. Rodriguez says he spent a bulk of his first few weeks on the job strictly building relationships with Arizona high school coaches and other area "football people." His bridge-mending tour seems to be paying off as well.

"U of A has been pushing for me a lot more than ASU and showing a lot of interest," Brown said in a previous interview with Rivals.com. "Each week, I'll get a handwritten letter from them."

Rodriguez and Graham have bigger recruiting headaches than each other, though.

Poachers caravan in from Southern California, the Upper Northwest and Great Plains. You can set your watch to the raid. They've been making the pilgrimage for years and don't intend to stop now.

"The talent in Arizona is outstanding right now," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said. "It's a state that's close to ours, obviously. We've done a pretty good job of trying to canvass that state already. It helps us that (Bruin assistants) Noel Mazzone and Steve Broussard have a background in that state. It's important for us."

Since 2007, 23 of Arizona's 35 four and five-star high school prospects have gone out-of-state for college. The parade of talented football players crossing state borders is a yearly tradition at this point.

Breaking tradition isn't easy. But if ever there was a time to try...

"We've talked about it a lot as a staff," Rodriguez said. "A lot of them say they want to go where they can play on TV and play on the big state and compete for championships. We're trying to be able to sell that as well. It's a process. A lot of times, a kid thinks it's fashionable to look out of state.

"I think you have everything you need right here at home."

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