For a college recruiter, how big a deal is playing an elite-level bowl game in Miami?
In the aftermath of its victory over Clemson in the 2011 Orange Bowl, West Virginia - a team already heavily powered by south Floridians - signed nine players from the greater Miami area.
There's more than nice weather that draws the college crowd to the Sunshine State.
The 'State of Miami,' as University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger dubbed it back in the early eighties, is a world in itself in terms of college-ready football talent.
In a state that produces more FBS signees than any in the nation except Texas, south Florida - from Tampa to Key West - reigns supreme.
Eight south Floridians are making homecomings this week for the Orange Bowl, including some of Clemson and Ohio State's top players.
Kearse anxious to get on Orange Bowl field
Tiger receiving star Sammy Watkins and freshman safety Jayron Kearse are from Fort Myers, redshirting defensive back Adrian Baker is from Hallandale, and Mackensie Alexander - Clemson's highest-rated signee since Da'Quan Bowers in 2008 - is from Immokalee.
Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier grew up in Pompano Beach, running back Carlos Hyde and tight end Jeff Heuerman in Naples, and defensive end Joey Bosa in Fort Lauderdale.
For as long as Dabo Swinney has been at Clemson, the Tigers have been heavily mining south Florida. In 2011, in addition to Watkins, Clemson signed five-star running back Mike Bellamy as part of a sweep of the state's top-rated players. In 2009, C.J. Spiller - from Union County in north Florida - was joined by Miami's Chris Chancellor, West Palm Beach's Jacoby Ford and Hollywood's Tarik Rollins. A year earlier, Arcadia's Chris Clemons signed with the Tigers.
These days, television provides nationwide exposure to the nation's top programs. But coaches will tell you that being on TV plays a distant second-fiddle to first-hand, in-person exposure.
Getting Scott Shafer's football team to Miami is one of the prime motivations for Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross's push to expand the ACC schedule to nine games and possibly realign the conference's divisions. As a member of the ACC's Atlantic Division, the current set-up affords Syracuse just one trip to talent-rich Miami between now and at least 2024.
"The thought of a student-athlete returning to his home area to play in front of his family is minimized in one division and maximized in the other," Gross said.
Clemson faces the same situation as Syracuse, which adds value to the Orange Bowl as a post-season destination.
For Ohio State, the Orange Bowl affords a rare opportunity to bring the storied Buckeye program to south Florida. OSU wanted a shot at the national championship, for certain, but when the Buckeyes landed in the Orange Bowl after losing the Big Ten championship game to Michigan State, coach Urban Meyer was quick to see a silver lining as he shifted into recruiting mode.
A top priority for the Buckeyes' 2015 recruiting class is quarterback Torrance Gibson of Plantation's Heritage High.
With distance making unofficial, introductory visits to Columbus difficult, Meyer and his staff will take full advantage of their opportunity to bring Ohio State to Gibson.
“I'm going to go to a bowl practice when they are down here,” Gibson told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I have built a great relationship with Ohio State coaches, and I talk to Urban Meyer, Tom Herman and Mark Pantoni a lot. They are really cool coaches and I can’t wait to see them when they are down here.”
Also on Ohio State's recruiting list for 2015 are linebacker Sh'mar Kirby-Lane of Hallandale, wide receiver Davante Peete of Pompano Beach, and defensive back Kaleel Gaines of Frostproof.
For 2016, both Clemson and Ohio State are recruiting wide receiver Nate Craig of Dade City and quarterback Xavier Gaines of Frostproof, while the Buckeyes have an offer out to defensive end Nicholas Bosa of Fort Lauderdale.
Clemson has offers out to nearly a dozen players from south Florida for 2015, including linebacker Dominic Sheppard, wide receiver Da'Vante Phillips, defensive back Calvin Brewton of Miami; Gibson and defensive back Tavarus McFadden from Plantation; defensive back Kendrell McFadden from Hollywood; defensive back Tyrek Cole of Miramar; wide receiver/defensive back Jordan Conkrite of Palmetto Bay; and defensive end Byron Cowart of Seffner in central Florida.
Last year, 322 Floridians signed with FBS schools, narrowly second to Texas' 341. The total is nearly 100 more than third-place California, and there's plenty of talent to stock in-state powers Florida and Florida State, as well as up-and-comers Central Florida and South Florida.
Miami, whose front-door recruiting focus put Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Collier, Hendry and Lee Counties on the map three decades ago, is re-emerging under coach Al Golden as the school to beat for south Florida's top talent.
While former coach Randy Shannon burned bridges with local high school coaches, according to the Miami Herald's Manny Navarro, Golden arrived with the intention of reclaiming the 'State of Miami' for the Hurricanes. Of Miami's 24 verbal commitments for 2014, 14 are from the immediate Miami area, including nine from Dade County alone.
Gibson is player with options both near and far, with offers from Ohio State and Clemson, as well as Miami, Florida State and UCF.
“I’m going to the game,” Gibson said of the Orange Bowl. “Seeing Ohio State in person will help a lot. I just want to see how they run their practices, how the coaches are with the players and I just want to see the overall relationships the players have with their coaches."
Meanwhile, Clemson's Watkins relishes the opportunity to play back near home in what will likely be his final college game.
“We’re down here for the biggest game of the year and it’s a great opportunity to be here and play in the Orange Bowl and be in Miami and play Ohio State," said Watkins. "I definitely want to take advantage of the opportunity that I have with this team and with this program.”