MOBILE, Ala. -- Nearly in the middle of the Florida and Mississippi borders is Mobile, Ala., a port city whose founding can be traced back to French settlers in the early 1700s. Its roots, in other words, run deep. As does the richness of its soil, both in the figurative and literal sense. Football players are born here. Today, the seaside territory of South Alabama and its epicenter, Mobile, represent the key to the recruiting success of many of the top programs in the country.
The Crimson Tide wouldn't have won consecutive championships without holding sway over the region. Though the area lies well below sea level, South Alabama represents the territorial high ground for Nick Saban and the University of Alabama.
When Saban arrived at Alabama in 2006, he came in with a plan to first win back Mobile, then the state, and then the country. Looking up and down the roster he inherited from Mike Shula, Saban was struck by the lack of players from South Alabama.
In his first year at UA, Saban sent his best recruiter, assistant coach Lance Thompson, to the area. Thompson helped gain the commitments of three of the top prospects in the region: Foley High star wideout Julio Jones, St. Paul's stud safety Mark Barron and Vigor High super athlete B.J. Scott. Jones and Barron would become All-Americans at Alabama before being taken in first round of the NFL draft. Even Scott, who wound up transferring back home to the University of South Alabama, was signed by the Chicago Bears in late April.
Fast-forward to the present and all three of Alabama's most valuable players -- quarterback AJ McCarron, linebacker C.J. Mosley and running back T.J. Yeldon -- are all from within earshot of Mobile. Right tackle D.J. Fluker of Foley would have been a senior this season had he not entered the NFL draft in April.
"When we came to Alabama we only had one player, Wallace Gilberry, from this area on our team," Saban said at a speaking engagement in the area last week. "Now we have anywhere from 13-15 (players) pretty consistently. We've had, I think, three first-round draft picks from this area, and probably a couple more guys on the team who could be first-round draft picks in the future.
"There's great (high school) programs here and we certainly want to do a great job in our state in terms of recruiting and it just seems that historically there's been a lot of great players from this area. We certainly feel fortunate that we've been able to get some of those players to come to Alabama and it's made a huge difference in the success of our program."
After the top prospect from Mobile signed with Arkansas in 2006 and then Auburn in 2007, the tables turned. Alabama took over and signed the highest-rated recruit from the city all but one time from 2008-11.
But what's happened in the years since shows how other schools have taken notice. Chris Casher, the top prospect from the city in 2012, signed with Florida State. And Jason Smith, a four-star athlete from McGill-Toolen High, signed with Auburn this February.
Alabama's grip on South Alabama hasn't loosened, but the pull from programs like FSU, Auburn and others has grown stronger, thanks mainly to shifts in the recruiters charged with scouting the area in the past six months. Dameyune Craig, who made a name for himself as a recruiter on the FSU staff, was hired by Auburn’s new head coach Gus Malzahn in January; Jeremy Pruitt, who made a name for himself as an assistant coach at Alabama, took the defensive coordinator job for the Seminoles in December; and Thompson, who returned to Alabama last year after a stint at Tennessee, shifted his territory back to where he started in Mobile. The trio is some of the best in the business, and they're all spending much of their time in the same area.
"They’re all great guys," Vigor High coach Ashley Johnson said. "...They’re great with the kids, interacting with them when they’re able to interact with them. They really, really learn them. They don’t forget a name, a face. They are really good at what they do."
ESPN 150 defensive end Justin Thornton stars at Vigor and has been recruited heavily by all three schools since before his junior season. The four-star prospect recently committed to Auburn, thanks in large part to the connection Craig was able to form.
"When Justin Thornton’s mom just had a baby, Dameyune Craig’s buzzing me. ‘Tell Justin I’m excited,'" said Johnson, marveling at how quickly the coach acted on the news. "They are up and on the know. I don’t know when they sleep."
Tre' Williams, a four-star linebacker at St. Paul's Episcopal, is committed to Auburn but has had a relationship with Craig, Pruitt and Thompson since his recruiting process began. He said Pruitt recruited him hard when he was at UA, but has backed off since moving to Tallahassee. And while he's firm in his pledge to Auburn, that hasn't meant Thompson has backed off selling Alabama.
"He just moved into Alabama," Williams said, "and he came down to see me as soon as he got the job because they told him about me. He really couldn’t talk to me, but it just showed a lot that he came down to show his face and let me know that, ‘Hey, I’m going to recruit you.’ "
St. Paul's coach Steve Mask called all three recruiters "veterans" of the area.
"They know what they’re looking for here,” he said. “They’ve built good relationships with the coaches down here. If you go back and look at all three of their pedigrees, they’ve all signed prominent players."
Said Sessions, who won the McGill-Toolen job over former UA coach Ray Perkins: "Around Mobile there’s just a wealth of talent. There’s guys when you look around the NFL rosters, and really if you look around at most SEC rosters now, you see some guys that are impact guys that have come out of Mobile. ... Most of your SEC schools have had really successful runs coming in here and getting a guy, and those guys being able to play."
Pruitt is doing his best to bring some of that action to the ACC. His upside, Sessions said, is his background, and not just his time at Alabama.
"Jeremy’s ties to me were more he was one of us," Sessions said, citing Pruitt's years of experience as an assistant in charge of recruiting at Hoover High just outside Birmingham. "I coached against Jeremy when he was a high school. We would see him a 7-on-7s, and you’d get to know each other at the high school coaches conventions and those types of events. He knows most of the people."
Where Pruitt has coaching ties and Thompson has history in the area, Craig has all of the above. Craig went to school at Blount High, starred as quarterback at Auburn in the 1990s and even served as wide receivers coach at South Alabama in 2008 before taking the job with FSU. Now back at his alma mater, Criag said his primary job recruiting for Auburn is to "not mess it up."
"Being able to grow up in it as a fan, being recruited as a high school player to play in the game, and to now coach, I've seen every aspect of it,” Craig said. “So I definitely bring a different angle than a lot of coaches that come down here and recruit this area."
Craig said he's proud to be from Mobile and to be able to continue having relationships in the area. One area coach said Craig's exploits as a player are still talked about, which translates with recruits.
But Craig needs more than a name in Mobile.
"When I was at Florida State, we targeted Mobile as a place that we needed to recruit," he said. "You have a lot of high-profile kids that went on to college and be successful. This is a fertile ground for athletes and it's a place that not only myself, but now you see a lot of different colleges come in and recruit."
In the end, it’s still about the talent.
"It says volumes," Mask said, "that each head coach recognizes that if you go back and look over the history of the state the last couple years, Mobile has been real fertile for all three schools. They all recognize that some of the best football in the state is being played in Mobile."