Sunshine State Stars: Florida players impacting USU’s football team

<strong>LOGAN—</strong>There has been a trend building for the past few seasons on the Utah State University football team.

Certainly the win total and competitive play has increased during the tenure of Aggie head coach <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Gary Andersen</a>. However, the team has seen another increase – one in the number of players from the state of Florida on the roster.

“It definitely excites me, the more players we get from Florida, the better. We have, in my opinion, the best athletes in the state of Florida, so that just helps the team out,” senior DB <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Quinton Byrd</a> said. “I believe that the coaches, when they recruit us, they expect us to play right away. Where we’re from, most of us play offense and defense, so we can help out on both sides of the ball.”

Byrd was the first player from Florida on the current roster to commit to the Aggies, and played as a true freshman. Now a senior, he has been a role model in helping other players from the Sunshine State adjust to life in Cache Valley.

“(Quinton) was saying, ‘I started this Florida pipeline, I was the first person from Florida. If I would never have done good, they would never have come back for you all,’” said sophomore linebacker <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Tavaris McMillian</a> who is also Byrd’s roommate. “We’re definitely starting a pipeline, so that’s a good thing.”

When people think of Utah State University football players, along with a healthy dose of Utah kids, players from California and Texas are what usually comes to mind. Certainly there is a smattering of athletes from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and surrounding states, but with roughly 2,532 miles between Logan, Utah and Miami, a Florida connection is not the most likely.

Now with seven players from Florida on the roster – the third highest of any state on the team (Utah and California lead the way) – the pipeline is undeniable.

“A lot of programs are going down to Florida for the speed. You kind of get, I hate to say it, but you get more bang for your buck down there,” said USU cornerbacks coach <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Kendrick Shaver</a> who recruits the Miami-Dade area. “I think last year we looked at the numbers and over 300 kids got Division I scholarships, so going there, you get more bang for your buck. They’ve just got a lot more Division I players than a lot of states do.”

Establishing a recruiting footprint in Florida certainly hasn’t been easy though.

“At first, to be honest, I didn’t even think it was D-I. When I heard Utah State, I was like, ‘What is that, D-II, D-IAA, what is that?’ I didn’t even really know,” said McMillian, a Miami native.

“That was the hardest challenge initially was just where’s Utah State, let alone where’s Logan,” Andersen said. “There’s not a lot of people walking around in Florida that have an idea of where Logan is – which is a good thing, we want to be one of the best kept secrets in the world.”

With the help of solid recruiting, coaching connections, and success stories from current Florida players on the roster though, that secret is starting to get out.

“(Junior receiver) <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Travis Reynolds</a> committed my freshman year, and he was a senior – he came here – I recognized them (USU) after he committed,” freshman wideout <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Bruce “JoJo” Natson</a> said. “I started looking into the program then, and then after that almost upset of Auburn and the bowl game, that kind of triggered me there.”

“The Auburn game really did do us justice. They replayed it not too long ago on ESPN, so a lot of kids saw it, and to be honest with you, we use a lot of the media,” Shaver said. “Plus, we’ve got these kids from Florida on the team already. Those guys are our best recruiters, so we’re going to use those guys.”

Despite the success of the initial campaign into Florida’s fertile recruiting grounds, there certainly are challenges in convincing players to come to Utah – or at least adjustments players have to be ready for.

“You’ve got to set the expectations first and be honest with them. The biggest thing is you get to the parents and let the parents know … we stay in the valley, one of the safest places in the country, the school, the parents eat it up,” Shaver said. “Right now, their kids can come out here and concentrate on football and academics – no distractions. A lot of those kids are looking for that, because they’re in there in the city of Miami and it’s a hustle and bustle. They’re looking to get away from that, they’re looking for something different, and this is the place.”

To that end, the Aggie coaches have certainly found the type of players they’re looking for.

“It’s a very slow city,” sophomore receiver <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Rashard Stewart</a> said. “Me being in Miami, it’s fast, a bunch of tourists and things like that. Utah just slows everything down and makes you grow up as a man, where you can focus on football or whatever you want to do, you can focus on it better than you could in Miami … Utah is the best place to come if you want to focus on football.”

Junior cornerback <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Nevin Lawson</a> agreed.

“I just like that it’s a calm, relaxed environment. You can focus on the things that you need to focus on, as far school and football,” he said. “The people around here are very friendly, and it’s just a great community to be in – especially in Cache Valley. The only thing I miss in Florida is my family, to be honest, but that’s it.”

Now with so much success, the Aggies will be hitting the state of Florida even harder. Andersen said two recruiters will now be traveling to the Sunshine State, and successful recruiting there has also moved up on the priority list. Shaver did not put a number on how big the Aggie coaches would like the Florida pool to grow, but hinted at expanding it well into double digits.

“I think we’ve really bridged that gap with information,” Andersen said. “Kids have come here, they’ve had success, they’ve graduated, they’ve played well on the field – socially, academically, and athletically they’ve become better in all three areas. That goes back and that become contagious through parents, grandparents, friends of the family, coaches, and it spreads throughout the league and it’s big for us.”

<em>Teammate photo provided by Bruce “JoJo” Natson, other photos by Timothy R. Olsen </em>

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