Note: This article was published in the Gazette’s print edition, Aug. 11, 2013
By Rob Gray
AMES — The journey starts in “Alligator Alley.”
Iowa State assistant football coach Shane Burnham arrives in the Naples/Fort Myers area each spring, finds the first available rental car — preferably with satellite radio, definitely with cruise control — and zips up the west side of Florida, eyeing recruiting stops and a few southern-fried side trips.
“I take Interstate 75 all the way up, take the turn to Tallahassee,” said Burnham, one of the reasons the Cyclones signed more Sunshine State-based recruits in the class of 2013 (nine) than any other BCS program outside Florida. “I could probably tell you every exit, every chicken liver shack. I love chicken livers.”
Iron-rich regional fare aside, Florida’s become a vital source of talent for ISU, which seeks to forge its second above-.500 season since 2005.
A total of 24 Floridians dot the Cyclones’ roster.
Among them: Quarterback Sam Richardson (Winter Park), linebacker Jeremiah George (Clearwater), running back Shontrelle Johnson (DeLand), defensive end Willie Scott (Orlando), and promising true freshman linebacker Alton Meeks (Orlando).
Meeks originally committed to Cincinnati as a quarterback, but changed his mind — and college position — after visiting Ames.
George has been a mentor, just as Jake Knott and A.J. Klein helped develop him.
“They kind of set the standard,” Meeks, an early enrollee, said on signing day. “I never got to play with those guys, but I’m here with the guys that did play with them. And how passionate they are about it, how strongly the feel? You can just kind of feel it. They’re really passionate about Iowa State and that’s how it should be, really.”
Four of the Cyclones’ assistant coaches specialize in recruiting Florida.
Shane Burnham handles the west. His dad, ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, focuses on the interior, including Orlando. Defensive backs coach Troy Douglas and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham zero in on Jacksonville and the east coast.
It’s an all-inclusive endeavor that makes sense in a lot of ways.
Shane Burnham grew up in Tallahassee and Wally’s been a recruiting fixture in the state even before he began devising defensive schemes for Bobby Bowden at Florida State in 1985.
Douglas played in high school at one of the state’s premier programs, Jacksonville Bolles.
“We feel like we walk through that door with a lot of existing relationships where we had recruited different kids and signed kids — and kids that had good experiences,” Shane Burnham said.
By “good experiences” he doesn’t mean guarantees.
Those words describe straight talk, legitimate opportunities for growth, and solid support, Burnham said.
“Then, I think, the high school coaches see the same thing,” Burnham said. “‘Hey, so and so went up there and it was a great move for him. He’s happy and his mom and dad really like what’s happening there.’ So that starts, again, to be a force multiplier, so to speak.”
Buzz-creating wins, such as the nationally-televised upset of then-No. 2 Oklahoma State in 2011, also aid in name recognition.
“A huge shockwave off of that win,” Burnham said.
The $20.6 million upgrade in the less-than-one-year-old Bergstrom Football Complex added a “wow” factor, as well.
“Top notch,” Orlando native and freshman offensive lineman Shawn Curtis said on signing day. “Probably the best I’ve seen on any of my visits.”
The biggest challenge to recruiting Florida, Burnham said, is distance, not weather differences.
“If we can get them up here, once they see it, they feel it, they touch it — this facility has been huge,” Burnham said.
The goal becomes developing the mostly three- and two-star recruits from Florida in the class of 2013 to the productive level reached by Johnson, George and others that made the trip north before them.
Winning football games depends upon it.
“On the surface, yes, we’re going down there and getting kids we identify in the process that we’re pulling out Florida,” Burnham said. “But ask me in five years, how good was that class? That’s any kid, but we take a lot of pride in going down there.”
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