For years, the prime destinations for college recruiters looking for South Carolina’s top football talent were schools in the areas around Greenville, Spartanburg and Rock Hill.
But over the next few years, the Midlands will be an increasingly fruitful area for high school talent. More than a dozen highly rated athletes in the next three recruiting classes are from the Midlands.
“The football talent in the Midlands is definitely rising, and there are a lot of players coming up that could play at the next level,” said Emerson Phillips, play-by-play announcer for the high school game of the week on WNKT-FM 107.5.
Over the past decade, the Columbia area has seen superstars – but only one or two at a time. Last year, Spring Valley linebacker Christian Miller, who signed with Alabama, was the top recruit in the state. Only a handful of other area athletes signed Division I scholarships alongside him in February.
But 2015 will be different.
Among this year’s rising seniors to have three-star ratings from Rivals.com are Dutch Fork’s Matt Colburn, Swansea’s Jonathan Sutton, Blythewood’s Hassan Belton, Pelion’s Freddie Phillips and A.C. Flora’s Rion Davis and Denzel Johnson.
Colburn (Louisville) and Sutton (North Carolina) already have committed to Division I programs, while the others have interest or offers from six or more major programs.
Paul McKiever, a defensive tackle for Batesburg-Leesville, is one of the area’s five two-star rated prospects, and he has six scholarship offers, including Marshall and Wake Forest.
The future could be brighter.
Four-star prospects Stephen Davis Jr., a Dutch Fork athlete with NFL lineage, and Lower Richland’s Larry Collins are the cream of the 2016 crop. Many more athletes are being recruited and could see their stock rise over the next two seasons.
“Part of the reason for the improvement in talent level is due to the increased interest in football, and it’s got a lot to do with the new coaches in the area,” Phillips said.
Irmo coach Reggie Kennedy agreed.
“We’re getting a great group of coaches here in the Midlands that are really working hard, and it’s spilling over to the classroom, as well,” he said. Kennedy has criss-crossed the Midlands in his career, Kennedy coached three players at Sumter in 2013 who are among the state’s top 2016 recruits.
Coaches such as Tom Knotts at Dutch Fork and Miles Aldridge, who was at Spring Valley for the past four seasons, have helped raise the level of competition among local programs. In doing so, they have raised the standards for area players.
“Lower Richland is on the rise, and coach Daryl Page has a lot to do with that,” Phillips said. “Midlands players are becoming more competitive as Midlands teams are getting more competitive.”
Knotts said his knowledge of South Carolina football did not extend into the Midlands before he took the job at Dutch Fork five years ago.
“I’m not familiar with the players that were here before I was, but I know that guys like me and Miles Aldridge, we just came in wanting to work hard and develop the talent we had,” Knotts said.
But it isn’t all about what happens on the field.
“The Midlands is a very diverse area, and the kids here are so diverse,” said David Bennett, River Bluff’s coach and athletics director. The former Coastal Carolina coach said local athletes’ stock is rising in part because college coaches are looking for more well-rounded young men.
“Especially with the academic standards rising, I’ve had some of my friends that are college coaches tell me that they want to recruit top athletes who are better students,” Bennett said. “And that favors this area because, the student-athletes here really are students first.”
And now, they are student-athletes with a better chance of reaching the next level.