One sentiment holds universal truth from junior college football all the way up to the Division I ranks: Winning helps recruiting. Todd Monken has seen the benefit wins provide firsthand. In his third year as the head coach at Southern Miss, Monken finally has a better product to sell to prospects.
A lot has changed regarding Southern Miss’ scope on recruiting since Monken took over a program that was winless during the 2012 season. The Golden Eagles are bowl eligible for the first time in four seasons after defeating UTEP 34-13 on Saturday.
For current prospects, that’s proof of the rebuilding efforts discussed so much throughout the recruiting process taking shape.
“(Monken) told me I’m going to be a part of something great,” recent Southern Miss commit Jacques Turner said. “I believe it. It really means something now.”
His program’s turnaround provides an important selling point for Monken, who wants the Golden Eagles to be looked at as more than just an option on a player’s offer sheet.
“I think Southern Miss is a special place,” Monken said. “It should be a destination place, not a fall back. Winning is a big part of it, I can’t stress that enough. It’s one thing to talk about the progress and what a great place it is but you’ve got to be able to show them, and we’ve been able to do that so far.”
Southern Miss has 14 commitments locked up in its 2016 class. Half of those pledges are from Mississippi, with the Golden Eagles’ most recent commitment coming from Turner, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound defensive end, last week.
Monken considers anywhere within a five-hour radius of Hattiesburg part of Southern Miss’ home base, which is why all but one of the other seven commitments in 2016 hail from Louisiana and Alabama. The coach has signed three recruiting classes since he arrived in Dec. 2012 with each of those classes reaching double figures of Mississippi-bred players (11 in 2013 and 10 in 2014 and 2015).
But despite its ability to evaluate and land handfuls of in-state talent, Southern Miss has often been criticized about its ability to recruit Mississippi.
Those concerns don’t fall on deaf ears.
“Nothing is going to bother you more as a head coach than if you find out high school coaches feel like you’re not doing as good of a job recruiting your state,” Monken said. “That doesn’t mean who you take. That’s up to us. They can’t talk us into taking somebody, but we want to feel like we do it as well as anybody and if we don’t, we need to hear about it and we need to know why. What aren’t we doing? We certainly want to make sure every that we know every player in our state and within a five-hour radius that we consider our home base as well as anybody.”
Entering his third full recruiting cycle, Monken feels like he and his staff have a better handle on the landscape of in-state recruiting. That’s backed by his ability to win recruiting battles.
Three-star Crystal Springs wide receiver Jeriko Morris had a trio of in-state offers, including Ole Miss and Mississippi State, and chose the Golden Eagles in August. Southern Miss also beat out red-hot Memphis for Bassfield linebacker Racheem Booth.
When it comes to prospects deemed to be a long shot for the Golden Eagles by some, Monken hasn’t backed off his efforts.
Southern Miss was one of the first offers for four-star Noxubee County defensive end Jeffery Simmons, whose brother Dylan Bradley plays for the Golden Eagles. Players who already have ties to the Southern Miss program are an especially big priority for Monken.
“There’s no guarantee you’re going to get those guys, but you’re always trying to find a reason why and play off those ties,” Monken said. “We try to find whatever in-road gets them to have an interest to continue their career and education at Southern Miss.”
Southern Miss made early progress with Turner. The Golden Eagles started recruiting the D’Iberville DL at the end of his sophomore year and had him high on their board of top defensive line recruits. He chose USM over other nearby schools including Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy and South Alabama.
“They wanted me to stay in state really bad,” Turner said. “They said I can make it to the NFL from anywhere so why not do it here?”
With two in-state Southeastern Conference schools seeming to have its first choice of top Mississippi talent, Southern Miss hasn’t truly gone head-to-head with Ole Miss or Mississippi State for a top recruit in recent years.
A recent advantage has emerged, though, and helps keep Southern Miss competitive for players with playing aspirations that extend beyond college.
“Everyone wants the same type of player — big, physical, athletic,” Monken said. “What’s changed over the last few years is the emphasis put on Power 5 and the SEC. You’ll see kids say on Twitter ‘SEC bound.’ They don’t even care where they go. They just want to play in that league. They think that’s the best way to the NFL, which is no true. We’ve have a guy drafted each of the last four years and in the top 3-4 rounds, which is a as good as the top 20 teams in the country.
“Are we in the SEC? No. Is our stadium going to hold 80,000-90,000? No, but what does that have to do with how we treat our players? Can we do everything we can to create the best version of our players? It has to nothing to do with league. It has nothing to do with status. It has to do with the people and the commitment your school and your athletic director have to it (football program) and ours do.”
Southern Miss has room for roughly 20 players in this year’s signing class. A year removed from signing 10 players from the JUCO rankings in 2015, the Golden Eagles are closing in on another class that could reach double digits of Mississippians.
All of which Monken attributes to his staff’s improved ability to recruit in-state.
“I prefer that we never have to go anywhere outside of our state,” he said. “Is that realistic? No. But between the junior colleges and the high schools and the quality of coaching in this state, it’s still about choosing the right players. Sometimes you know more about local players that you find yourself looking further away. It’s like that old saying that the girls at the other school look cuter. No, you know more about the girls at your own school. Sometimes you get bit that way. … Bottom line is we’d love to get as many as we can from this state and stay within a five-hour radius.”
Contact Courtney Cronin at (601) 961-7091 or email@example.com. Follow @CourtneyRCronin on Twitter.