PHOTO CUTLINE: Front (L-R): #80 FR WR Travis Reynolds (Lauderdale Lakes/Boyd Anderson HS), #6 FR CB Nevin Lawson (Lauderhill/Piper HS), #3 SO CB Quinton Byrd (Miami/Miramar HS). Back (L-R): #12 FR CB/WR Rashard Stewart (Miami/Miami Jackson HS), #5 SO WR Mikhail Morgan (Port Charlotte/Port Charlotte HS), #16 FR LB Tavaris McMillian (Miami/Miami Jackson HS).
South Florida is a long way away from Logan, Utah – both in distance, and in culture. But tucked within the quaint northern Utah community of Cache Valley, several former Grapefruit state prep stars have made their collegiate home at Utah State and are thriving under the guidance of one of college football’s brightest defensive minds.
Once more, they’re doing it just months after receiving their high school diplomas.
“They are quality young men,” said Utah State head coach Gary Andersen of the six Floridians, all freshmen and sophomores, on the Utah State roster. “Every single one of them has contributed as freshman in a very positive way. That’s really unheard of.”
Utah State fans have gotten a taste of that success the last two weeks.
Two weeks ago, sophomore cornerback Quinton Byrd, a Miami native and Miramar High School product, preserved Utah State’s 27-22 win over New Mexico State by coming up with a key pass break-up in the waning seconds on NMSU’s fourth-down try.
On Nov. 13, former Piper High School standout and Lauderhill native Nevin Lawson sealed an Aggie victory over San Jose State with a last second interception in the endzone.
And some in attendance may have done a double take when looking at Lawson’s bio in their game programs, his play came as no surprise to diehard Aggie fans, who’ve watched the program quietly – but aggressively – recruit the Grapefruit State ever since the arrival of Andersen after the 2008 season.
“It’s become extremely important to this program,” Andersen said. “It’s a big, big part of our program now, and we’ll continue to grow it, and recruit Florida hard.”
Recruiting Florida is one thing. Signing and delivering south Florida prep stars to one of the nation’s most homogenous college towns is another. Nevermind that Logan has a population of just under 50,000 people.
That’s a far cry from the scenes many a south Florida football star grew up amidst, and that’s not even taking into account the most obvious geographic difference. It is, as Lawson has learned, quite cold here.
“I don’t like anything about it, but it’s part of life and you just got to go with it,” said Lawson of the cold weather. “I like the community, the school, football, I like it all. But the cold is not me.”
What on earth would drive players like Lawson, who also had a scholarship offer from the University of Miami, to a place like Logan? And how does a coaching staff built up of young, energetic, but mostly inner mountain-based coaches sell the Utah State experience to prep players from Florida?
The answer lies in a former NFL player and Louisiana native whose charismatic, father-like coaching style has shattered preconceptions and opened new doors.
Corey Raymond played for the NFL’s Giants and Lions during the mid-1990s before serving as an assistant at LSU under Les Miles. Watching a University of Utah defense dismantle Alabama in the 2008 Sugar Bowl, he jumped at the chance to join the former Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen when the latter was handed the job of rebuilding the Utah State program at the end of 2008. Described by his players as a “father figure,” Raymond has connected with the diverse group of players out of south Florida, and shown them that considering a place like Utah, especially after growing up amidst an urban background, may not be so crazy, after all.
“I just tell them about how the place of Logan is a good community,” Raymond said. “Some of the guys, they come from real rough areas, and I think they appreciate coming to Logan and coming to a safe place where their parents don’t have to worry about them.”
According to Lawson, Raymond helped him see that the opportunities available through a college experience in Logan were too good to pass up. That the players of south Florida – ever mindful of a future in the NFL – could learn under the guidance of a former pro cornerback has been an added plus.
“Coach Raymond is a good guy,” said Lawson. “He gave me my first offer out of high school and with him, the sky’s the limit.”
“He knows what he’s talking about and teaches the right technique, and he is just there when you need him,” the true freshman added.
Raymond said he hears a lot of negative recruiting against Utah State while on the trail, with other schools’ coaches spreading misinformation to potential prospects. According to Raymond, the key to dispelling the often erroneous preconceptions about the state of Utah and its predominantly white and predominantly Mormon population is through education and getting the recruits to step foot on campus.
“Recruiters will be like, ‘why do you want to come up there?’ But once the kids get up here it’s totally different. People can say something to them, but if they haven’t been here to understand it, they don’t know. This is a really good place to be.”
Count Lawson as exhibit A. He was so impressed by Utah State on his visit, even an 11th hour offer to ACC powerhouse Miami couldn’t stop him from committing. Andersen wasn’t surprised. He knows what Logan and Utah State have to offer, and he’s confident that Lawson’s case isn’t as unique as some would think.
“Utah State is a great place to be a student-athlete because you get the true college experience, on the field and off the field,” Andersen said. “Once recruits walk into the city and once they walk into the campus, they see our facilities, they see the university and they see the energy that surrounds the university. This place sells itself once they get on campus.”
Other key factors for Florida recruits involve the safety of the community and the chance to play early. Byrd, who is second on the team with three interceptions, was one of the first Floridians to commit under Andersen, said that the Florida natives on USU’s roster don’t mind the difference in culture.
“The cornerbacks that we have here that come from Florida seem to like it up here,” Byrd said. “The coaches love us too. I’m pretty sure they’re going to recruit more, and the ones that they do recruit; I’m pretty sure they’ll like it up here.”
One element of Utah State they’ve already grown to like, if not love, is the program’s up-and-coming stature. After nearly stunning Oklahoma in the season-opener, Utah State returned to a nationally televised audience on Oct. 1 and thoroughly dismantled Brigham Young. For Andersen and his staff, the atmosphere showcased in that game speaks for itself on the recruiting trail.
“It was huge, absolutely huge,” Andersen said. “You cannot put a price tag on that. It’s great for us.”
Andersen and his staff say they’ll continue to target Florida recruits over the next few seasons, with a goal to bring in “four to six” players per year. While it might seem like an impossible task for some, Raymond is confident that under-the-radar prospects looking for a chance to make an impact early and to succeed off the field will follow their eyes, and ears, to Logan.
“There are a lot of kids who get over-looked out there and stuff like that, because there are so many good athletes down there. The one thing about kids from Florida is that they’ll follow each other.”
Future plans are in order to possibly move another assistant into Florida to assist Raymond, but for the time being, Andersen is relishing the contributions of the young Floridians on his team.
“The youthful excitement that they bring everyday to practice is awesome. They carry themselves extremely well and they’re great young men to have in our program.”” Andersen said. “They’re tremendous young men and they’re tremendous athletes. I admire them for the way they handled things. They basically graduated from high school and hopped on an airplane and here they are, and we’re very excited to have them.”