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October 18, 2012

For South Florida recruits, all eyes on FSU-Miami

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At Booker T. Washington High, a perennial state football power sandwiched to the East by downtown Miami skyscrapers and to the West by Little Havana, head coach Tim "Ice" Harris opened the practice week Monday with his usual team meeting. The topic? Not a 39-0 win over Miami Jackson or prep for the next opponent. It was FSU and Miami.

"When these two teams get together, nothing else gets in front of that," Harris said. He's familiar with what the game means; not only did Harris' son Brandon play at Miami, he has been a bystander the in's and out's of recruiting - including FSU-Miami battles - for the droves of prep stars Booker T. Washington has produced.

"For kids down here, there's nothing bigger than the Florida State-Miami game," Harris said. "It's something that everybody is looking forward to. Everybody is all set for Saturday."

While the swaying power of individual victories for FSU or Miami in the recruiting realm and their corresponding impact on recruits can be debated, this we know: The rivalry still captures the attention of the players in Southeast Florida. And since head coach Jimbo Fisher took over as head coach - he's 2-0 against the 'Canes - the Seminoles have caught attention down there, too.

The attention doesn't necessarily derive from recent successes. Florida State and Miami haven't faced off as top 10 teams since 2004, when this batch of high school seniors was in fifth grade. They're too young too remember Ed and Ray as 'Canes, way too young to idolize Deion and Charlie. Still, it's the hometown team and its biggest rival. Still, the game carries weight.

For Miami, it's an opportunity to get players on the bandwagon of resurgence. Dozens of 2013 and 2014 prospects will be in attendance, including at least 17 who are being courted by Florida State and Miami.

"I think it is always going to be big," Miami coach Al Golden said. "We'll have all of our top players and many high school coaches in attendance. So from that standpoint it's great."

For Florida State, it's an opportunity for a three-and-a-half hour infomercial in enemy territory, a chance to flex muscle in front of one of the country's top regions for college talent. That chance isn't lost on Fisher, whose program has won five of the past seven in the series.

"It's great because it's one of the top areas in America," Fisher said. "Everybody in America comes to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, South Florida to recruit. It's one of the cities that everyone makes a stop in."

Regaining South Florida footing

Through a period of mediocrity, trips like this didn't prove to mean much off the field for FSU. Miami won six straight games in the series from 2000 to 2004. Florida State won close games at Miami in 2006 and 2008 while the Hurricanes beat FSU in Tallahassee in 2007 and 2009.

Thanks mostly to losing its strong presence in Southeast Florida with an outdated recruiting infrastructure and more losses than usual, Florida State saw little bounce from those road performances.

Once a source of fuel for dynasty years, FSU signed just 16 players from Southeast Florida from 2002-08, a span of seven recruiting classes. Only Jacky Claude, Antone Smith, Patrick Robinson, Andrew Datko and Beau Reliford became multi-year starters. Robinson (first round, 2010) and Datko (seventh round, 2012) were the only ones drafted by an NFL team. None of those 16 signees ever earned first-team All-ACC honors.

When Fisher, a renowned recruiter, took over as head coach, one of his top priorities was to regain footing in the region. It started with Fisher himself, who recruited Southeast Florida as an assistant for Auburn and LSU dating back almost two decades.

For the Miami area in particular, Fisher brought in James Coley, a native son and former quarterback at Miami Senior High who has deep roots in the prep community.

"I think Coley has had a strong impact being from South Florida, then Coach Fisher has had an impact in terms what he has done with the athletes he has worked with throughout his football career," said Harris, who helped coach Coley as a signal caller at Miami Senior. "Coley is a strong guy down here, and especially for me, I know if he gets a kid from South Florida he's going to take care of him and push him to do the right thing."

For Fort Lauderdale, Fisher has running backs coach Eddie Gran, who has been working the area since the early 1990s. Both defensive coordinator Mark Stoops and defensive ends coach D.J. Eliot have coached in South Florida - Stoops as a DB's coach at UM from 2001-03 and Eliot as a Miami GA in 2002.

"We have a lot of connections there," Fisher said on Signing Day in 2011. "There are a lot of guys in South Florida that know the area. It's a very competitive area with great coaching and great players. We are going to concentrate where the players are."

Joyner's impact

Fisher put the pieces in place to reconnect FSU to the South Florida recruiting base, and that effort was rewarded within the year. Florida State fended off every major football program to get Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas star and USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year Lamarcus Joyner.

The coup was important for a Florida State defense that was abysmal in 2009, finishing No. 107th nationally. Landing Joyner, the nation's top-ranked prep cornerback, would have helped any major program, but it carried much weight for FSU because of what Joyner's commitment symbolized; The Seminoles would be a factor in South Florida again.

"Getting him carries a lot of clout within that city, that we had finally re-established ourselves down there after a little absence," Fisher said. "Joyner was a big guy to get, there's no doubt. A very important guy for us."

While Joyner grew up playing football with kids who would want to stay home no matter the scholarship offer, football was his way out. He grew up in Liberty City, located Northwest of Miami, one of the roughest and most crime-riddled neighborhoods in the region. Current FSU players like Devonta Freeman and Xavier Rhodes have echoed new environment as a key reason to head out of town.

Joyner picked FSU over Ohio State, Alabama, Miami, Georgia, USC, Ohio State and Notre Dame.

"Some kids, no matter how bad the (football team) is, Miami, that's all they know and they don't want to depart from it," Joyner said. "I was the type of kid, I wanted to get out. I wanted to see new things. Different parts of the world. And they weren't doing too good anyway, so I'm like 'Hey, I want to go to Florida State and help build a program.'

"If I would have stayed down in Miami, I wouldn't have felt like I accomplished anything."

Joyner has accomplished plenty in college. He was moved to safety before his sophomore season in 2011, and in 20 games as a full-time starter, Joyner has 55 tackles, five interceptions and six pass breakups. He has been impactful on special teams, too, averaging 30.3 yards per return since the start of 2011.

And from a recruiting standpoint, the floodgates opened in South Florida.

Fisher and Co. signed 10 Southeast Florida players in the Class of 2011, twice as many as the hometown Hurricanes. FSU's one-year take seems bountiful already - it includes starters Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and five more players who are either significant contributors or have already started in multiple games.

Florida State didn't land a Miami area player in a 2012 class that uncommonly constructed with top-tier out-of-state talent. FSU pulled in three players from Alabama, two from Texas, two from California and two from the Washington, DC area. All three of its five-star recruits came outside the state of Florida.

Currently FSU has verbal commitments from three Southeast Florida players for 2013. Several more are considering the Seminoles including Booker T. Washington five-star linebacker Matthew Thomas, one of the nation's top uncommitted prospects. He is considering both Miami and FSU currently and will be at the game on Saturday night.

Saturday impact

So when it comes to tapping into the region's talent, how much could one win help Florida State or Miami?

The answer usually lies with the individual recruit.

Several of FSU's current players from the area who had offers from both schools said it was a secondary factor, and any evidence of a correlation between rivalry domination and success on the recruiting trail is circumstantial. There's no way to link the two, but it could be agured that Miami's six-game win streak help flatten the Seminoles' recruiting efforts while FSU's current run, winning five of seven, has aided the resurgence in the area.

Also, Florida State's huge 2011 crop came right after it beat Miami by four touchdowns at Sun Life Stadium.

"I think the outcome matters. I'm sure (the schools) use it for recruiting purposes. To say that you're on the winning side is important," Miami Norland High coach Daryle Heidelburg said. "I think the score does matter, that's why I think you can throw out the records and things like that when's it's time to for the teams to play. It's still the biggest rivalry."

Greene, a former St. Thomas Aquinas High standout, said the status of the series factored little in his decision.

"It plays a small role, but not too much," he said. "That decision is just based on what you want out of it and where you're comfortable at and where you're the most needed."

FSU receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who played at Belle Glade High, says its less about one game and more about the trend.

"Yeah you pay attention to it," Benjamin said. "Everybody is going to try to pick the team that keeps winning the in-state games, so I mean you don't want to go to a losing team that loses to other Florida teams every year. You pay attention to it. I think that's a big factor."

So will minds be changed on Saturday? Will Miami be able to sell resurgence? Will FSU's reestablished presence continue to grow down south? That's unclear.

But one's thing's for sure: Records be darned, the region will be watching to see what happens.



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