Prep football: Out of state schools finding recruiting gold in Utah
Recruiting • Utah, BYU, USU now have battle on their hands to retain best players
Published: July 23, 2014 11:03AM
Updated: July 19, 2014 11:33PM
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Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Brighton running back Osa Masina tries to sweep around the end during first half action in the 5A championship football game against Bingham at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah Friday, November 22, 2013.

Only a few years ago, the holiday break never provided much of a respite for high school football coaches.

Armed with the raw tape from that season’s games, Highland’s Brody Benson was one of those coaches who spent hours splicing together highlight reels for each of his players who was hoping to get to college. Then he would copy the tapes, mail them out, and hope some college assistant had time to see them and maybe look into making a scholarship available.

“The time spent on those tapes was ridiculous,” he recalls. “That was my whole Christmas vacation. Now it’s pretty dang easy to go on your computer and click a few buttons and send film to 50 college coaches.”

Football recruiting is both less arduous today, and it exists in a much smaller world. The days of mailed-in videos are over: Out-of-state college coaches come to the recruits, and more and more, the top prep talent is leaving Utah to pursue their college careers.

Taking a mid-summer peek in the Rivals top five 2015 recruits, three of them — Herriman offensive lineman Andre James, Jordan quarterback Austin Kafentzis and East linebacker Christian Folau — are committed to UCLA, Wisconsin and Stanford, respectively. Brighton linebacker Osa Masina and Salem Hills linebacker Porter Gustin round out the top five, with both having college wish-lists that exclude in-state schools.

It hasn’t always been this way. In 2010, only one of Rivals’ top 10 Utah prospects signed to play out of state. That number has increased every year since, with four signing out of state last year. Several programs, in fact, have circled this area, with Stanford, Wisconsin and Michigan among those that have bagged big recruits in the last few years.

The door out of Utah is more open than ever. And more recruits are going through it.

“We’re looking to explore more, and I think that’s mainly it,” James said. “Every kid is different, and some want to stay here. But the guys I’ve talked to, I think we just think it’s something cool.”

Utah, BYU and Utah State still take the lion’s share of recruits here, and the Utes did sign the top overall in-state prospect in Brighton lineman Jackson Barton in 2014. But if Utah once flew under the radar in terms of producing high school football talent, the lid has come off.

A study of recruits from 2008 to 2013 by SB Nation revealed that Utah is ranked 11th in producing Division I football players per capita, roughly on par with states such as Oklahoma and South Carolina. That has had a magnetic effect: Assistants and head coaches from outside the state have made Utah high schools into must-see stops on the recruiting trail.

One of the first big recruits Brighton coach Ryan Bullett remembers is Ricky Heimuli, a defensive lineman who signed with Oregon in 2010. Ever since, the Bengals have played host to a small army of recruiters. Bullett estimated 30 or more stopped by the school during the first week of the spring recruiting period this year.

“I’ve had [Stanford’s] David Shaw, [Michigan’s] Brady Hoke and [Wisconsin’s] Gary Andersen come by our school, plus all the in-state head coaches,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy. It’s pretty strange to tell Oregon and Oklahoma at a certain point, ‘Stop recruiting Osa, he’s not signing with you.’”

Technology has made it easier for coaches to identify recruits and maintain relationships with them. They get highlight tapes e-mailed through Hudl. They can keep up communication through texting and Twitter. Many out-of-state assistants can be just as present in recruits’ lives as in-state ones.

But what’s underappreciated is how much information recruits now have access to. If they can’t travel to faraway campuses, they can Google for pictures of weight rooms and practice facilites. They can look up coaching credentials and search videos of what a practice might look like.

“When I was in school, we didn’t know what the stadiums at Wisconsin or Michigan looked like — maybe you could see it on a postcard,” said Bullett, who played for the Utes. “Now those kids can see everything. They get tours of all the stuff a school can offer.”

High-level recruiting camps such as The Opening and All-Poly are good forums for coaches and analysts to grade talent, but it also operates as a place for the recruits to swap notes: Who is recruiting you? What do you know about this coach? What do you know about this program?

Locally, a lot of the top recruits keep close ties. Masina, for example, is good friends with Utah commit Cody Barton (Brighton), undecided Corner Canyon lineman Branden Bowen and has had conversations with James and Gustin. Recruiting is a pretty hot topic among them.

“We all hang out, we all talk about which schools we like,” Masina said. “Some of us are trying to plan official visits together.”

Putting it all together, it’s a tougher task for the Utes, the Cougars and the Aggies to put a fence around the state. Utah recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley said it’s both harder to keep late-bloomers a secret, or uncover a “diamond in the rough” that no one else has.

The Utes still feel like their recruiting pitch is a strong one: They’re a Pac-12 program, the university has spent a lot of money on upgrading facilities, and they offer the hometown pride aspect that out-of-state schools cannot. But there are more competing pitches now than ever before.

“Every kid is different, and some kids just want to leave the state,” Scalley said. “A lot of that is we have a lot of good football players in Utah. Just imagine what the in-state schools could do if they could keep those players here.”

It’s not mean to be an indictment, Masina said. Although his final five are Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Michigan and Wisconsin, his brother, Uaea Masina, is a linebacker at the U., and Masina acknowledges it was hard to leave off the school he’s cheered for most of his life.

It’s just that out-of-state schools are the best fit for him, he said. And in the current market, he has all the options he could want.

“I grew up a Utah boy, but it’s just the situation out-of-state is right for me,” Masina said. “You’re not going to get those opportunities a lot in life, and it’s something I’m excited about doing.”

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

Out of state fates

To the top football prospects in Utah, out-of-state schools have become a more viable option. A list of recruits in the Rivals in-state top 10 who have signed out of state:

2011 • Desmond Collins, Highland (Oregon State)

2012 • Brandon Fanaika, Pleasant Grove (Stanford); Jared Afalava, Bingham (Nebraska)

2013 • Cooper Bateman, Cottonwood (Alabama); Logan Stott, Pine View (Arizona); Sean Barton, Woods Cross (Stanford)

2014 • Dalton Schultz, Bingham (Stanford); Kenyon Frison, Granger (Oklahoma); Bryan Mone, Highland (Michigan); Ula Tolutau, East (Wisconsin)