ROCK HILL | Ask any member of South Pointe's defense what their job is on each play and without hesitation they'll respond, "To Hunt." The coaching staff has taught them to identify, stalk and close on their prey.
It's a fitting methodology, because this city has become perhaps the ultimate hunting ground for college coaches in the state of South Carolina. Rock Hill's three high schools, South Pointe, Northwestern and Rock Hill, routinely produce as much or more talent than any grouping of schools in the state.
"It's in the water," said South Pointe defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's No. 1 senior prospect. "Everybody says it's in the water. It starts in small fry. It's like an Alabama town. It's that big. Everybody is focused on football and nothing else really."
Rock Hill Herald assistant sports editor Barry Byers dubbed this Charlotte bedroom community "Football City, USA" in 2008, when South Pointe beat Northwestern in the Class AAAA, Division II title game and Rock Hill advanced to the state semifinals.
At one point all of them were ranked in the state's top-10 poll. Outside of Rock Hill's semifinal loss to Sumter, all of the teams' losses that year were to each other.
Although Rock Hill is struggling this season, little has changed since. South Pointe (Class AAA) and Northwestern (Class AAAA, Division II) are favorites to win state championships in their classifications, and when the season is over, the annual exodus of talent will begin again.
Everybody knows about Clowney and his rare blend of size and speed, but he certainly isn't the only elite prospect the city will produce in this recruiting class. The three high schools could send 15 players into the Division I ranks next season, including seven or more to schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"The city of Rock Hill just has great football players," said South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll, an assistant at Northwestern for more than two decades. "There is a lot of God-given talent in this town. Football is important around here from the pee wee leagues all the way to high school. ... There is a big emphasis on it and people come out and support it. Everybody wants to be a part of it."
That commitment starts at age seven in the small fry leagues up through middle school and then to high school. Each of the youth teams in the city have their own booster clubs, which provide quality equipment to every kid, including those who couldn't afford it otherwise. Football in this city is truly a team effort, and no child gets left behind.
None of the youth teams cut players and rules require that every team member play in each game, youth football coordinator Russell Smith said. But that doesn't mean the city's teams are sacrificing wins. At least five Rock Hill youth teams have won state championships in the last decade and the city routinely has a title game participant at least every other year.
"Coaching is one of the biggest advantages we have," Smith said. "We've got a lot of coaches that have been coaching for 20-plus years. They didn't get out when their kids did. They stayed in the programs for multiple years. That helps tremendously, and we get them in pads at seven- and eight-years-old. It's full contact with 60-yard fields, but it's almost regulation football."
Rock Hill doesn't enjoy the same continuity that has helped build some of the state's other perennial prep powers. At Byrnes, Bobby Bentley reworked youth and middle school football in the town of Duncan so that all the teams were running the same schemes as the high school. It resulted in one of the most dominant runs in state history.
However, it's impossible to do that in Rock Hill, because none of the middle schools feed entirely into one high school. So, it's possible for certain children to be youth and middle school teammates and then attend different high schools. It's also possible they could become teammates for the first time as high school freshmen.
That makes coaching that much more difficult for Carroll, Northwestern's Jimmy Wallace and Rock Hill's Joe Montgomery. (Can you imagine the advantages if Northwestern's future players were running the program's patented Air Raid offense from their adolescence?)
But they have all have won state championships as head coaches — Montgomery won twice at Gaffney — and they've assembled quality staffs thanks to the commitment of the administrators at Rock Hill School District Three. Each school has a bevy of assistants, with many of the former greats returning home to pass on their football knowledge.
"The coaching staffs put a lot into it," said Cleveland Browns tight end Ben Watson, formerly a star at Northwestern. "I think a lot of the things we were doing in high school a lot of players don't do until college. We were watching film, our weight program was second to none and the facilities were great. All of that stuff fosters the talent you see in Rock Hill."
There has been loads of talent matriculate through the city's three high schools in the last three decades. Players like Gerald Dixon, Jeff Burris, Chris Hope, Derek Ross, Ko Simpson, Jonathan Joseph and Watson have had NFL success. There were others that played in the league, too.
There have been many more Rock Hill natives that starred for SEC and ACC college teams. Three current South Carolina players, Stephon Gilmore, Devonte Holloman and Tori Gurley, played at either South Pointe, Northwestern or Rock Hill. Others, like Jared Shaw (Fort Mill), Marty Markett (York) and Spencer Lanning (York), played at nearby high schools.
There could be more joining them next year. Clowney, Northwestern defensive end Roderick Byers and the two Gerald Dixons — one plays at South Pointe and the other at Northwestern — all have offers from USC and loads of other schools, while South Pointe kicker Landon Ard has drawn the interest of USC.
If they end up at USC, they'll meet Northwestern quarterback Justin Worley on a yearly basis. The record-setting signal caller has committed to Tennessee.
Depending on how their senior seasons finish up, there could be a few other players from Rock Hill that continue their careers at major colleges. If history is any indication, there will certainly be a load of others that sign with FCS, Division II and junior college schools.
More than 20 players from the three high schools signed last February, and the number was even greater in 2009 after South Pointe sent an astonishing 17 players into the college ranks. That, coupled with the success of the three high schools, has been an incredible recruiting tool for youth football teams in the city.
"I think that definitely gives kids motivation, because they see so many guys before them [signing with colleges]," said N.C. State tight end Asa Watson, Ben Watson's younger brother and a former Rock Hill star. "You realize that could be you, too. That gives all the kids of Rock Hill a sense of hope, I guess."
For now, the city is just hoping for championships. After Northwestern suffered its second straight Class AAAA, Division II title game loss in 2009, the city was shut out. Byers doesn't believe that'll happen two years in a row.
"There is an attitude here," said Byers, who has covered prep football in Rock Hill for more than three decades. "There is an attitude that this is a football town and we're going to play football. Until recently our baseball programs have struggled. Basketball is almost nonexistent. But I'd put these [football] programs up against anybody."