INDIANAPOLIS – There is no more fertile ground for recruiting football players than Florida, which is why legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger made it a priority in the early 1980s to mine the state for the University of Miami.
Now, after a bit of a lull, the Florida schools are back on the rise in the eyes of NFL scouts and the fact that there are 27 players here in Indianapolis from there is confirmation. Florida State University leads the pack with nine, which makes sense for the Seminoles coming off of their third national championship. The University of Florida is right behind with eight, followed by the Hurricanes with five, which indicates a return to the balance of power that the NFL had grown accustomed to.
“When you talk about recruiting you’ve got to talk about South Florida and Miami does a great job of recruiting South Florida, as well as the other big two schools that’s out there,” said Hurricanes quarterback Stephen Morris, who had a stronger junior season but is out to prove he his recovered from an ankle injury. “Everyone wants to get kids from Florida. So those programs, all three of them are going to be back on the rise, especially Florida State coming off of the national championship and Miami coming off the best season we had in over a decade. So we’ll continue to grow.”
In the past the Big Three schools would get all of the attention from the Sunshine State, but the emergence of strong programs at the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida has added more options for teams to scout. There are two players each from both of those schools, with UCF quarterback Blake Bortles expected to be taken high in the first round of May’s NFL Draft. Florida Atlantic University and Florida International also have gotten better producing quality talent recently, with FAU sending one player to Indianapolis this year.
Morris and the four other Hurricanes, along with the top Seminoles like wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, running backs James Wilder and Devonta Freeman, center Bryan Stork and defensive stalwarts Telvin Smith and Terrence Brooks are taking pride in returning their schools to prominence. But Bortles and UCF running back Storm Johnson served notice that their program is on the upswing by winning 12 games last season in their first year in the American Athletic Conference.
“It’s been a great journey. The guys that were there before myself and the teammates that I played with these past couple seasons have done a great job of laying the foundation at UCF,” Bortles said. “Coach (George) O’Leary’s done a phenomenal job there in getting that program ready, so going 12-1 and winning a BCS game (52-42 over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl) was huge. I know they’re on the path to keep that kind of success up.”
FSU, UF and UM still serve as the blueprint for sustained success and the Seminoles last year allowed head coach Jimbo Fisher to finally start to emerge from the shadow of Bobby Bowden. Their thrilling come-from-behind victory over Auburn in the BCS National Championship game was the coronation for players like Benjamin who are expected to make an immediate impact at the next level.
Not only is Benjamin an imposing physical specimen at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds but his big-play ability was evident throughout the season. He credits his experience in Tallahassee and the coaching he got with preparing him for this process and his confidence is representative of that elevated status FSU has once again achieved.
“It’s a high caliber program,” Benjamin said. “We had fun there with my fellow teammates. Florida State is supposed to be on top and coming into the league there’s going to be a lot of talent, so that’s what you really want.”
Wilder is the son of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back James Wilder, Sr., and he has the added advantage of coming from good stock. He is looking to make his own mark in the NFL, but he is taking with him the enjoyment of having helped FSU get back to the top.
“That’s what everybody always says on the outside, ‘bring Florida State back, bring Florida State back,” and we all know where Florida State once was. They were that dominant team,” said Wilder, who at 6-3 and 232 pounds is one of the bigger running backs in this draft. “So us having great number one recruiting classes three years in a row and just having another great one coming in, that just sets the tone of where Florida State is going right now. I definitely take pride in that and I’ve been here wearing my Florida State national championship hat everywhere I go.”
A combined 11 national championships have been won by the Big Three – five by Miami and three each by Florida and FSU – and the number of players drafted out of those schools over the years is astronomical. Add in the players coming out of UCF, USF, FAU and FIU and it’s safe to say the Sunshine State continues to put its stamp on the NFL.
Morris believes it’s the sign of a new beginning and acknowledged that getting touch with his alma mater’s storied past only reinforced that notion to him during his time on the field. That’s when he got to see Hall-of-Famers Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp, among others, standing on the sideline.
“It was just extra motivation for us,” Morris said. “It really helps you understand who you play for, especially everything that they’ve been through and all the legacies that they built. It kind of makes you want to build your own legacy and I think under Coach (Al) Golden it’s definitely going that way. It’s definitely going in that direction, so I’m excited to finally watch them and it’ll all be good.”
As expected, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam drew by far the largest throng of media for his press conference. If drafted in May or signed as an undrafted free agent, Sam would become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL and he handled the onslaught of questions professionally. Sam emphasized that his focus is on making an NFL roster on his football merits and smiled with relief when he was finally asked a football question. … Miami punter Pat O’Donnell turned plenty of heads with his speed in the 40-yard dash today, running an unofficial 4.53 seconds on his first attempt and a 4.62 on his second and his official time was 4.64. He also cranked out 23 repetitions of 225 pounds in the bench press, displaying an uncanny athleticism and strength for a position that’s not considered to be a skilled one. … Another example of the evolution of the tight end position was on display in the 40-yard dash as prospects were turning in times normally associated with wide receivers and defensive backs. Tennessee State’s A.C. Leonard ran a blazing 4.43 seconds and Oregon’s Colt Lyerla was not far behind at 4.47. Trey Burton of Florida turned in a 4.50. … Meanwhile, of the offensive linemen that stayed under five seconds, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan stood out with a 4.87, followed by Auburn’s Greg Robinson at 4.92 and LSU’s Trai Turner at 4.93. … Other than the measurables, the other interesting thing that always comes out of the Combine is what the most unique questions that were asked in the interviews. University of Miami quarterback Stephen Morris was prepared should he be asked if he was a dog what kind of dog would he be? “I’d say I’d be an American bulldog terrier,” he said. “I just bought that dog for my sister so that’s the only dog I can think of right now.”