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No. 16 Miami: For Hurricanes, recruiting local talent is one thing, developing it another

Barry Jackson
Miami Herald
Miami coach Manny Diaz congratulates quarterback D'Eriq King after a touchdown pass last December against Duke. Diaz is concentrating his recruiting efforts in the fertile Miami area of South Florida. King, who could be drafted next spring, came by way of transfer.

MIAMI — When Greg Rousseau was selected 30th overall by the Buffalo Bills in April's NFL draft (12 spots after fellow Miami Hurricanes standout Jaelan Phillips was picked by the Dolphins), it ended the longest stretch that UM had gone, since the program's turnaround in the 1980s, without producing a first- or second-round draft choice who played high school football in South Florida.

The Canes did not have one since former Miami Northwestern High School cornerback Artie Burns went 25th overall to Pittsburgh in 2016; New Jersey native David Njoku went 29th to Cleveland a year later and was the most recent Canes first-round pick until Phillips and Rousseau.

And that speaks to one of the problems that has kept Miami from becoming a championship contender again: Not enough Miami-Dade/Broward/Palm Beach players have become elite college players, or the type of talents that warrant consideration during the first two days of the NFL draft.

It's important to reiterate how important it is for Miami to change this reality. If it doesn't change, the 15-year malaise likely will continue.

Consider this: For the classes of 2015 through 2019, 247Sports ranked the top 250 players in Florida each of those years. Of the players from the tri-county area, UM snagged 44 of those players; a 45th — ex-Miami Southridge cornerback Tyrique Stevenson — joined Miami as a transfer from Georgia.

Of those 44, do you know how many have become elite college players?

Three: Rousseau, wide receiver Ahmmon Richards (before his neck injury) and safety Jaquan Johnson.

About 10 others, give or take a few, became very good college players: Joe Jackson, Jon Garvin, Mark Walton, Mike Harley, Sheldrick Redwine, Travis Homer, RJ McIntosh, Trajan Bandy and Cam'Ron Harris.

And while all of those players should be praised for their college careers, none of those was — or is — considered a top three-round NFL talent, the type of players who make teams national champions.

Cornerback Malek Young likely would have joined that "very good college player" group if a neck injury had not ended his career after two years. And cornerbacks Al Blades and Te'Cory Couch and defensive tackle Nesta Silvera, among others, have a chance to be regarded as very good college players if they play really well in 2021, though none are projected as high NFL picks.

"Ultimately, the way we played the majority of last fall (showed that) this can be a place if you stay home that you can be developed and we can compete for great things in South Florida," Miami coach Manny Diaz said. Of the 21 players that the Hurricanes signed in 2021, 15 came from the Miami/South Florida area.

Here's the problem: Of those 44 players, eight were either busts or transferred. And several others haven't quite lived up to expectations.

Jon Ford, considered a first-round talent by a former UM defensive line coach, has had a nondescript career and is a marginal NFL prospect. Kai-Leon Herbert, rated by Rivals as the 25th-best offensive tackle in the 2017 class, opted out last year but couldn't get on the field when he was available.

Navaughn Donaldson has had a solid career but not quite what was expected when Rivals rated him the No. 6 tackle in the 2017 class. He's considered a fringe NFL prospect, according to a longtime scout.

Mark Pope, a five-star prospect and rated the fifth-best receiver in 2018, continues to be plagued by drops and inconsistency. Silvera, the No. 9 tackle in the 2018 class, has been impactful at times, disappointing at others. Gurvan Hall, the No. 17 safety in the 2018 class, has not become the impact player that some at UM expected.

In many cases, this UM staff — and this is ultimately a Manny Diaz decision — would prefer to get the fifth-, ninth- and 10th-best players from South Florida than the best player from somewhere else. That's one reason 15 of the 21 players in the Canes' 2021 class were from the tri-county area.

By comparison, only nine of 23 players signed in UM's great 1999 class played high school football in South Florida. Ken Dorsey (California), Bryant McKinnie (Pennsylvania) and Clinton Portis (Gainesville) were among those recruited from elsewhere; Andre Johnson and Vernon Carey were elite local recruits.

The issue is not enough of these Dade/Broward/Palm Beach players have been good enough or productive enough to raise the program to top-10 status in the past decade.

Keep in mind that UM's best players in 2020 — D'Eriq King, Phillips, Brevin Jordan and Quincy Roche — went to high school outside South Florida, with all of those transfers except Jordan. Perhaps that changes with five-star safety James Williams and defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, the two South Florida gems from UM's 2021 class.

"Great talents," Diaz said of those two in a conversation with Rivals. "In both cases, almost a four-year effort in recruiting for both young men. Relentless efforts from our staff fostering relationships. Ultimately, the way we played the majority of last fall (showed that) this can be a place if you stay home that you can be developed and we can compete for great things in South Florida."

But it's difficult to envision UM returning to elite status if more of the elite NFL prospects from South Florida don't stay home.

Remember that Rousseau rose to that status as an undervalued three-star recruit. The top-rated South Florida players in the 2015, '16 and '17 classes — Calvin Ridley, Nick Bosa and Jerry Jeudy — went elsewhere (two to Alabama, one to Ohio State) and became first-round picks.

What needs to happen, Diaz said, is the top local players "need to see someone who made that decision to stay home to know it's OK to do that. We have some on our team — Don Chaney Jr., Jaylon Knighton" and now a very strong 2021 class headlined by Taylor and Williams.

There's no doubt UM's local recruiting has improved with Diaz as head coach. The key now is hoping that more become Rousseaus — elite college players and top NFL prospects. That's the difference between being the nation's 22nd ranked team (UM's final spot in January's AP poll) or something significantly better than that.

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say