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Four years ago, Lorenzo Ward tried to recruit Kenny Ladler out of Stephenson High east of Atlanta.
Ward’s instincts were good. Ladler was a two-star prospect who didn’t measure 6-feet tall; his other scholarship offers were coming from the Vanderbilts, East Carolinas and Toledos of the world, but he would go on to become one of the best defensive backs in the SEC.
The bad news for Ward and South Carolina is Ladler starred at Vanderbilt, where he was named first-team All-SEC this season. The good news? That’s one of the last recruiting battles Ward has lost at Stephenson or anywhere in metro Atlanta, which has become his home away from home.
“It’s just a place everybody knows him,” Lithonia High coach Marcus Jelks said. “It’s like he’s at home here.”
In some ways, he is. Ward, 46, was born in Greensboro, Ala., but his mother Georgia Ware has lived in the Atlanta area for more than 40 years. She currently lives in Decatur, which is smack in the middle of Ward’s most fertile recruiting territory. Ward regularly visited his mother while in college at Alabama, and his familiarity with the city is one reason Chattanooga coach Buddy Green installed Ward as his Atlanta recruiter 20 years ago when he gave Ward his first job.
Ward has since recruited the area for Virginia Tech, Arkansas and now South Carolina. All those years walking the same paths, wearing a groove through hallways from St. Pius X to Southwest Dekalb now are paying off for the Gamecocks.
Ward has recruited 15 Atlanta-area prospects to sign with South Carolina in the past four years, and two more are expected to join the team Wednesday — linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams out of Cedar Grove High and athlete Terry Googer out of Woodward Academy.
In 2012, Ward signed nine players out of Atlanta, including running back Mike Davis, safety Chaz Elder and linebacker T.J. Holloman, all of whom started for the Gamecocks in 2013.
“He killed it in 2012,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. “That’s when he cemented his reputation as a guy who can recruit Atlanta. Signing Mike Davis, a guy who could be a Heisman Trophy contender next season, really made an impression.”
Davis came from Stephenson, just as three current members of South Carolina’s secondary — Ali Groves, Kyle Fleetwood and Kadetrix Marcus — did. Two more Stephenson products have made verbal commitments for the Class of 2015, but Ward wasn’t always so successful at the school.
Before Ladler got away, Ward recruited Stephenson’s Kelvin Sheppard, Jermaine Cunningham and Marcus Ball for Virginia Tech. None became a Hokie, but Ward remained undeterred.
“One thing about Stephenson is we are going to always have kids,” Stephenson recruiting coordinator and linebacker coach Corey Johnson said. “The guys that take it personal are the guys that are going to miss out on the future kids. These are individual battles that you fight that just because you lose, doesn’t mean you can’t win the war.”
Persistence is a recruiting lesson Ward learned from Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, he said. You visit schools in your recruiting area whether they have a prospect you want or not and you keep going no matter what.
“Some college coaches think the (Atlanta high school) coaches push their kids to me so they go off on the coaches, but it’s not true,” Ward said. “There are a lot of schools that I went to for three or four or five years before I ever got a player. I have been recruiting Woodward Academy for years. This is the first year I have gotten a kid from there. Sometimes it takes time.”
When Elder first met Ward, he was set on going to Georgia, Banneker High head coach Ryan Andrews said.
“Everyone thought Chaz was a UGA lock,” Andrews said. “South Carolina was down the list, and coach Ward came in and told him, ‘That’s cool I don’t want to be on top of the list right now. As long as I am at the top of the list on signing day.’ ”
Ward then went to work on Elder like he does all of his targets, by finding their recruiting confidante and earning that person’s trust.
“He learns who is going to help make the decision,” Andrews said. “He focuses on the kid, but he focuses on the people who are going to help make the decision also. If it’s the coach, he builds a relationship with that coach. If it’s the mom, he builds a relationship with that mom. He’s real big on relationships.”
Penn State coach James Franklin recently raised eyebrows when he said high school players making a verbal commitment are more loyal to a coach than to a school, but Franklin was right, Andrews said.
“I think coach Ward does a better job of selling Lorenzo Ward than most coaches do,” Andrews said. “He never truly sells Columbia, S.C. He doesn’t sell the University of South Carolina for that matter at first. He builds a relationship with the kids before he starts recruiting. He understands the language you have to speak with those kids. With most of our kids, it’s more about relationships.”
That is something Ward has understood intuitively since 1994, when Chattanooga’s Green told him to drive down I-75 and bring back some football players.
“I think the biggest thing for the inner city kids and especially for the coaches is they want a father figure for most of these young men,” Ward said. “They have to feel comfortable sending their kids to your place. I think that’s something you just have to know when you are dealing with inner city kids and coaches.”
Successful recruiters often become synonymous with their areas of emphasis, and Farrell points to Marshall coach Doc Holliday and Texas coach Charlie Strong, both of whom were famous for their recruiting success in South Florida, as coaches who used that as a stepping stone to a head coaching job.
There is no secret to it, Ward promises.
“All it takes is time and effort,” he said.
It’s the time that wins out in the end, Lithonia High’s Jelks said.
“Those (players) continuously see you coming in the building, it feels like they know you,” Jelks said. “The kids kind of look at him as he is a role model, father-figure type guy to them. If you come in the area and you are consistent and those kids see you year in and year out, they get real familiar with you so it feels like they are going to a place where they know someone.
“It’s like he’s one of our own.”
Ward has come to know Atlanta like a native, maybe better. Two years ago, he took coach Steve Spurrier on a whirlwind recruiting trip that stopped at eight high schools in four hours, and Spurrier was amazed with how Ward navigated the city.
“I know Atlanta like the back of my hand,” Ward said. “I know all the side roads, all the back roads. I know which direction to go in the morning, which direction to go in the afternoon. You have to know those things to get around the city.”
“It’s almost like this is his hometown,” Stephenson High’s Johnson said.
Ward spends less time in Atlanta since being promoted to defensive coordinator two seasons ago. As a position coach, Ward would drive to Atlanta every Thursday night of the football season following the Gamecocks practice and not return until Friday or Saturday, depending on where and when South Carolina’s game that week was.
This year, his only visits during the season were on the two bye weekends. No matter, Banneker’s Andrews said.
“Coach Ward comes with a purpose,” Andrews said. “He does it better when he’s around.”
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