DeKALB – Northern Illinois sophomore linebacker Jamaal Bass played his prep ball at Miramar High School in South Florida.
About a half-hour north of Miami, Bass competed in one of the biggest football hotbeds in the entire country.
He said there were at least 20 Division I coaches at each of his prep games. When his Miramar team played against programs such as powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, there was even more attention.
Ten players from Bass’ 2009 FHSAA Class 6A state championship team went on to play Division I football. The team’s starting quarterback, Geno Smith, is a Heisman Trophy contender at West Virginia. Other teammates include Mountaineers wide receiver Stedman Bailey, Miami cornerback Tracy Howard and Hurricanes quarterback Ryan Williams.
In Bass’ words, Miramar was loaded. As were many of the schools he went up against.
“It was crazy,” he said. “Every game, I was playing against five Division I athletes.”
Huskies running back Akeem Daniels hails from Kissimmee, a city in central Florida about a half-hour south of Orlando. Daniels said he had four teammates go on to play Division I ball. There wasn’t a shortage of collegiate coaches coming down to see his program, either.
“It’s amazing. It’s basically kind of like playing college football in high school,” Daniels said. “There’s a few guys that are real big and what not, but I’m pretty sure everybody knows that the south and Florida’s known for their speed and whatnot. The speed down there’s pretty intense.”
Illinois is always going to be the Huskies’ biggest recruiting base, being that the school is right outside the Chicagoland area. Forty-eight players on NIU’s roster hail from Illinois. Twelve Huskies are from neighboring Wisconsin.
Eleven NIU players hail from Florida cities such as Miami, Vero Beach, Coconut Beach and Fort Walton Beach.
There’s a reason schools such as Florida, Florida State and Miami have been traditional powers, winning a combined 10 national titles since 1983, the year of the Hurricanes’ first crown. South Florida and Central Florida have put together solid programs as well.
NIU co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen recruits the Orlando area for the Huskies, and he visits there for a full week during the spring, when schools in the state are allowed to practice. Linebackers coach Kevin Kane covers the area north of Miami up to Vero Beach. Two current true freshmen, cornerback Charles Ivory and wide receiver Charlie Miller, are Vero Beach products.
Quarterbacks coach Bob Cole recruits the Florida panhandle, as well as the Mobile, Ala., area, which has brought safety Jimmie Ward and cornerback Marlon Moore to NIU.
Nielsen said NIU isn’t yet into the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. There’s been talk about putting another coach down there or expanding one of the current areas. He said it depends on how they do in the state and how strong a particular class is.
Florida has the population base, with metro areas such as Miami, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Orlando. It’s just one reason the state pumps out so much talent each year. Florida teams also are able to practice in the spring, which isn’t the case in Illinois.
Players are able to get extra time in pads while getting more coaching and experience.
“That’s big. I actually thought spring football was everywhere,” Bass said. “When I came here and I found out that these guys didn’t have spring ball, I was like ‘wow.’ I was kind of shocked. I guess that’s a big advantage. There’s football 365 [days a year] down there.”
When it’s all said and done, even with the talent that stays in-state, there’s a lot more left for teams such as NIU.
“Population, obviously there’s a lot of people down there,” said Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, who recruited in Florida when he was an assistant at Wisconsin. “So when you have all those kids that play football year-round for a long period of time, tradition of the game, how long they’ve played it, how much more they’re coached, you get a chance to have a lot more athletes in one place.”