College football recruiting mailbag: On demographics, talent hotbeds, NIL deals gone awry

Hello, hello, and welcome back to another recruiting mailbag. Spring games are nearing, and we all know how big of an opportunity they are for programs across the country from a recruiting standpoint. The dominoes are starting to fall, too, especially as top quarterbacks are announcing their decisions. Five-star Jadyn Davis is headed to Michigan, four-star Jake Merklinger committed to Tennessee and four-star Air Noland will announce his decision Saturday. Things are heating up. As always, thank you for your questions.

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How do you see state-to-state migration and regional demographic shifts altering the college football recruiting landscape over the next decade? — Red T. 

This is a great question to kick us off.

According to the National Association of Realtors and the U.S. Census Bureau, 26 states in 2022 had an influx of people move in, while 25 states (plus Washington, D.C.) lost residents. The five states at the top of the import list? Florida, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — aka football country. Georgia came in at No. 6.

California, on the other hand, lost a nation-high 343,230 residents. New York was next with a domestic net migration of negative-299,557.

It is no secret that the Southeast and Texas traditionally produce the most fertile recruiting hotbeds in the country, but these numbers are still fascinating from a recruiting standpoint. The more talent that Southeastern programs have in their backyards, the easier it is for those schools to stockpile top prospects and continue to widen the gap that already exists. The same could go for Texas ahead of its impending SEC move. California schools, meanwhile, could be in trouble. Lincoln Riley is already competing with Oregon to keep top prospects home, and if more California families are headed out of state, the Trojans could be looking at fewer prospects with USC loyalties. The West Coast is already losing loads of top quarterbacks to the Southeast (is Dylan Raiola next?), where college football reigns supreme.

For what it’s worth, the one state I think stands to benefit the most from this trend is North Carolina. I grew up in the western part of the state, where my middle school teachers would routinely stop class for the ACC and NCAA tournaments but would rarely acknowledge that any of the state’s Power 5 teams so much as had a football game the weekend before. Mack Brown at UNC, Dave Doeren at NC State, Mike Elko at Duke and Dave Clawson at Wake Forest have each had varying levels of success on the field and in recruiting. Now is the time to pounce and keep the next Jadyn Davis home.

What makes Brent Venables such a good recruiter? Coming off a 6-7 year, how did he pull off recruiting a top-five class in 2023? — Grayson K. 

Before shifting to my role covering recruiting for The Athletic, I covered Clemson for five seasons and had a front-row seat to Venables and the way he operates. I always thought he slid a little under the radar as a recruiter, given the flashy way the Tigers landed wide receivers under former co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott and defensive linemen under former defensive tackles coach Todd Bates. But a few things make Venables elite.

First is his passion. Anybody who watched Venables weekly at Clemson knows he had to have a personal get-back coach to keep him from picking up a flag. When he didn’t like how the scout team offense was preparing his defense for an opponent, he took over quarterback duties himself and nicknamed his alter ego “Jimmy Greenbeans.” His intensity is real — year-round — and he has the type of gritty personality that players love.

“(He’s a) super high-energy guy. I absolutely love him,” five-star quarterback Jackson Arnold said last year of their first meeting. “He could talk your head off, but everything he speaks is truth and something you need to hear every single time.”

Then there’s Venables’ ability to evaluate. When the rest of the country essentially slept on three-star prospect Isaiah Simmons in the Class of 2016 — or wanted him to play wide receiver — Venables saw the potential in Simmons as a linebacker, from the moment he walked into his high school weight room in Olathe, Kan. He also saw the bigger picture with James Skalski, a three-star linebacker in the Class of 2016 who developed into a multiyear, national championship-winning starter with first-team All-ACC honors in 2021. Nolan Turner, a former zero-star walk-on, now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When Venables does that much with under-recruited prospects, it gives him more credibility with blue-chippers.

And lastly, we can’t ignore Venables’ loyalty. He stayed at Clemson for 10 years, content to wait on the right head-coaching opportunity. It stands to reason that if he ever leaves Norman, it won’t be of his own accord. Recruiting is uncertain in the current landscape of college football — and so is the sport at large. But that type of consistency resonates with prospects and their families. It didn’t surprise me at all that he had this type of success on the recruiting trail in 2023.

What areas of the country are growing as recruiting hot spots (ignoring Texas, California, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana)? — Jesse K. 

This is a great question because there are so many possible answers. (Meet me in the comments?) But the one that jumps out to me is the DMV/Mid-Atlantic area.

USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams is from Gonzaga College High in Washington, D.C., which, along with powerhouse St. John’s, has consistently produced Power 5 and high-level Group of 5 players in recent years. Five-star athlete Nyckoles Harbor is also from the DMV area and recently signed with South Carolina out of Archbishop Carroll as arguably the biggest recruit of Shane Beamer’s career. This year’s class includes some intriguing D.C. prospects as well: Five-star edge Dylan Stewart from Friendship Collegiate Academy, has my attention, as do four-star offensive lineman Jordan Seaton of St. John’s and four-star defensive lineman DD Holmes of Gonzaga.

And don’t forget about quarterback Michael Van Buren. He’s the nation’s No. 11 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite from St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. He turned 18 on Tuesday and received personal birthday graphics from several of his suitors, including Oklahoma, Oregon and Maryland. Penn State took it a step further and made him a personalized video from the football staff, which included a cameo from James Franklin in his office and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich hitting the griddy.

What are the biggest red flags for coaches? What, for example, is a red flag in recruiting for Dabo Swinney and a red flag for Kirby Smart? — Grzegorz K. 

I believe there are two types of red flags when we look at recruits: football-specific red flags and bigger-picture character issues.

From a pure football perspective, these red flags seem easy to identify. Is a player injury-prone? Is he bigger or smaller than you thought (or hoped)? How is his footwork? What about his hands? Is he explosive? Is he consistent with film study? Will he be diligent in the weight room and with nutrition? Most of those red flags can be identified by conversations with high school coaches, extensive film evaluation and on-campus visits. There’s a reason top programs such as Ohio State and Clemson don’t like to offer quarterbacks until they see them in person. The coaches need to confirm these things with their own eyes.

Ultimately, what constitutes a red flag off the field probably varies from coach to coach. We know coaches vet talent and skills because we see it every Saturday and they talk about it the other six days of the week. But should they be doing more digging into other areas? We need to hear more about how they vet character issues, specifically, and if their methods change when off-field issues occur. Five-stars and starters typically have longer leashes. That’s unfortunately how it goes in sports. But coaches have a responsibility to help keep their campuses safe. And they shouldn’t take that lightly.

What’s the regional or national impact when NIL deals fall apart, like Jaden Rashada’s with UF boosters? Does this lead to decommitments more often than is publicly said? — Will Z. 

This is a fascinating question and one I’ve often thought about. But I’m not quite sure we have the answer to this yet since the Rashada situation is still so fresh. You have to think that other coaches will use that saga against Florida on the recruiting trail. But then again, Florida landed five-star quarterback DJ Lagway in December as the Gators’ QB of the future. So … stay tuned?

(Photo of Georgia vs. Tennessee game: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images)