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March 26, 2012

Can SEC schools pull top talent from California?

MORE: Class of 2013 Rivals100 - Rivals250

Whenever SEC schools went after top West Coast high school prospects last year, it constituted nothing more than California dreaming.

Although SEC programs have landed plenty of recruits from California junior colleges in recent years, they haven't had as much luck with high school players from that state.

The only 2012 California recruit to sign with an SEC program directly out of high school was Long Beach Poly defensive end Alonzo Williams, who signed with future conference member Texas A&M. And it's worth noting that Williams was actually living in Louisiana when he committed to Texas A&M seven months before the Aggies announced they were leaving the Big 12.

The lack of recent success hasn't stopped the SEC schools from trying. Rather than shying away from California prospects, SEC schools actually seem to be stepping up their pursuit.

"The thing that I've noticed [in the past] is SEC schools tend to come in later to California kids - probably after the spring, maybe during the summer or even into the fall," Rivals.com West recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said. "But there have been a bunch of kids this year that have early SEC offers. I don't know if that's just the recruiting process moving up and becoming faster and earlier, or if they've just liked a bunch of kids on the West Coast earlier this year.''

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Vista Murrieta safety Su'a Cravens and Concord De La Salle linebacker Michael Hutchings have received plenty of SEC offers. They're top-20 prospects sought by just about every program in the country.

But plenty of other California recruits also have garnered attention from multiple SEC programs.

For example, Alabama and Georgia have offered Placer High defensive end Eddie Vanderdoes (the nation's No. 21 recruit). Mission Viejo High safety Max Redfield (No. 30) has offers from Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas A&M have offered Mission Hills Bishop Alemany receiver Steven Mitchell (No. 52). Redlands East Valley defensive end Kylie Fitts (No. 81) has an offer list that includes Auburn, Georgia, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. Missouri, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt have offered Upland High defensive end Joe Mathis (No. 93).

Even Arkansas - a school that hasn't signed a player directly out of a California high school since 1998 - recently offered Rivals250 running back Khalfani Muhammad and three-star quarterback Kelly Hilinski, both of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame. Arkansas has signed eight California junior college prospects over the last four years, but getting a couple of high school kids from there would represent a major shift.

In at least some of these cases, the interest could be mutual.

When Rivals250 quarterback Hayden Rettig of Los Angeles Cathedral visited Auburn last month, he wasn't merely making the trip for the chance to see a different part of the country. Auburn signed California junior college prospects Joel Bonomolo and Roszell Gayden in 2010, but the Tigers haven't landed a player directly from a California high school since San Diego Madison tight end Charles Mullen made the move in 2004.

Rettig, who has offers from both Auburn and Vanderbilt, says the distance from home wouldn't necessarily deter him from signing with an SEC school.

Here's a look at the last time each of the current and future SEC programs has signed a California recruit directly out of high school:
2011: La Mirada High C Isaac Luatua
1998: Rancho Cucamonga DT Jermaine Brooks
2004: San Diego Madison TE Charles Mullen
2010: Moreno Valley Rancho Verde DE Ronald Powell and Palmdale High safety Joshua Shaw
2006: Oakland McClymonds TE NaDerris Ward
2011: Van Nuys Birmingham QB Maxwell Smith
2004: Stockton Edison WR Lavelle Hawkins
2006: La Puente Bishop Amat LB Jonathan Cornell and Valencia High QB Michael Herrick
2005: Venice High LB Jimmy Miller
2005: Poway High TE Jon Gissinger
1984: La Palma John F. Kennedy QB Ron Rabune
2010: Kingsburg High QB Tyler Bray and Bakersfield Frontier P Matt Darr
2012: Long Beach Poly DE Alonzo Williams
2011: Westlake Village Oaks Christian TE Dillon van der Wal
"It's a great place to be," Rettig said of the SEC. "It's as close as you can get to the NFL pretty much."

Vanderdoes admitted the recent offer from Alabama caught his attention. Although Vanderdoes hasn't started to narrow down his choices yet, he plans to listen to what the reigning national champions have to say.

"It's definitely a place I'm heavily considering," Vanderdoes said. "It's a great program. They've put a lot of guys in the league - in the first round and second round. The distance factor is not a problem for me. I want to go where it's best for me. I don't want to stay close to home if I've got a better option somewhere else."

But just how interested are most of these prospects? And, in some cases, how badly do the schools actually want these guys?

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell noted the larger number of SEC offers to California prospects may reflect the recent NCAA rule changes as much as any increased interest in West Coast players.

The NCAA passed legislation two years ago preventing colleges from making written offers to prospects before Aug. 1 prior to their senior years. The previous starting date had been Sept. 1 of their junior years.

That has led to an increase in the number of verbal offers schools have made to juniors. In some cases, just because a player has received a verbal offer, it doesn't necessarily mean the school is ready to accept a commitment from him.

"There's nothing to lose with a verbal offer because there's nothing binding about it," Farrell said. "So I think you're starting to see more verbal offers anywhere from anyone in any region. There are kids out there with 25 offers who back in the written-offer days [when juniors could receive written offers], wouldn't have anywhere close to that."

Even in cases where the SEC school has legitimate interest in a California prospect, getting him to leave the state often is a long shot.

Florida fared surprisingly well with California players in 2010. It signed the nation's No. 1 prospect (Moreno Valley Rancho Verde defensive end Ronald Powell) and the nation's No. 28 recruit (Palmdale High cornerback Joshua Shaw) out of California that year, though only Powell remains with the Gators. Shaw transferred back to USC, citing a need to be closer to home for family reasons.

Tennessee, perhaps the SEC school which has done best in California, signed Kingsburg High's Tyler Bray in 2010. He now is the Volunteers' starting quarterback, continuing a California-to-Tennessee pipeline that also has included Arian Foster, Casey Clausen, Kevin Burnett and Donte Stallworth among others.

The conference landed three more California prep players in 2011, but Texas A&M's Williams marked the only 2012 California high schooler to sign with the SEC.

"My impression is that kids from California - almost all of them - will flirt with SEC schools and Big Ten schools and take visits, but they'll generally stay in the Pac-12," Gorney said.

Farrell agrees with that notion. He said it's often easier for a Pac-12 school to sign a guy from the East Coast than for a West Coast kid to leave for SEC country.

"The SEC for the most part is three time zones away," Farrell said. "It's thousands of miles away from home. It takes a lot of effort to convince a kid to come from the West Coast, even though you're in the SEC and even though you're in the best conference in the country.

"The one advantage West Coast schools have in recruiting kids is the weather. With these kids from New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania, [the West Coast weather] is almost like an attraction. The Southeast is so humid. There are just a lot of factors that go into it. It takes a tremendous amount of effort, and I'm not sure a lot of schools want to waste their resources on that."

But at least for the time being, 2013 California prospects are keeping their options open.

Redfield lists Oregon, USC and Notre Dame as his slight leaders at this point, but he isn't closing the door on any SEC programs. Redfield lived in Connecticut before moving to California as a fourth-grader, so leaving the West Coast wouldn't represent that much of a culture shock.

"My mom would probably prefer I stay closer just so she could go to all the games," Redfield said. "But my dad's still in Connecticut. They don't really have that much of an input about location. They just want me to go to the best school for me."

The family history of Rettig indicates he might be willing to play away from home. He's the younger brother of Chase Rettig, who made a coast-to-coast move by leaving Los Angeles to sign with Boston College.

He insists a program's location doesn't matter as much as its attitude.

"I want to be at a place where the people want to win just as much as I do," Rettig said.

He still has many more months to determine whether he's found that place in Pac-12 territory or in the South.

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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