There are at least six good reasons why top college football programs recruit the Tidewater area of Virginia. Let’s try Bruce Smith, Michael Vick, Percy Harvin, Lawrence Taylor, DeAngelo Hall and Plaxico Burress. Should we keep counting? OK, let’s try Tajh Boyd, Ronald Curry, Jerod Mayo, Kam Chancellor, Dré Bly and E.J. Manuel.
Those are just a handful of the galaxy of stars who learned to play football in the Tidewater area — also known as ‘the 757’ for the region’s area code — which is one of the country’s most fertile recruiting grounds.
If you like athletes, grab a map and head this way. Most assistant coaches can tell you where to start.
“You name a top-25 program, they are there,” Virginia Tech running backs and associate head coach Shane Beamer says. “Everyone comes to Virginia to recruit now. It used to be probably Virginia, Virginia Tech, Penn State, North Carolina. Now you have Michigan and Ohio State hitting it hard, Florida, FSU.”
The 2014 recruiting class included three Tidewater players in the 247Sports Top 100, impressive for an eastern sliver of Commonwealth land with a population of about 1.7 million in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Hampton.
That’s not counting Richmond, which is about 100 miles northwest of Virginia Beach and produces serious star power.
There are several reasons for the large pool of talent. The 757 is considered a growing area for families, including military transplants. Football is year-round between fall Fridays and 7-on-7 travel teams. Teenagers grow up wanting to play football, because they look up to the Tidewater stars that came before them.
“They are dedicated to their football,” Virginia coach Mike London says. “The demographics, the student population of that particular area — there are schools that are still being built. The population continues to grow.”
Tidewater players are a passionate bunch, coaches say, so you can’t fake your way into players’ good graces.
They will catch on quickly. The families value loyalty.
“You have to be active recruiters there. You have to build relationships. You can’t just come in and look at one player and leave,” says Virginia Tech tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator Bryan Stinespring, “I’ll go in there three weeks at a time. I might as well have a locker room in those schools. A 757 game on a Friday is standard procedure.”
Several top programs hit the 757 hard, but not everyone has success. Here are four schools that generally do.
The Cavs try to sign several 757 players every year, and they use the background of their coaches to get it done. London went to Tabb High School in nearby Yorktown. Four of his staffers have deep Tidewater ties.
This year, London scored his biggest recruiting coup with Chesapeake defensive tackle Andrew Brown and Virginia Beach safety Quin Blanding. Both are five-star, top-12 national players. And both played for the Thoroughbreds, the area’s traveling 7-on-7 team with which London’s staff has a good relationship.
Some critics have wondered aloud how UVa pulled a top-30 national recruiting class despite going 0–8 in ACC play last year. With hard work, London says. NCAA rules permit 7-on-7 camps as a recruiting tool. London says the teams travel to different campuses, and evaluations are allowed.
“Quin Blanding and his mother — they chose UVa because it fit what (he) wanted, not because somebody else was saying where he needed to go,” London says.
The Cavs’ impressive 757 haul also includes top-150 receiver Jamil Kamara and quarterback Corwin Cutler.
Virginia Tech will always be a presence in the 757 because of Frank Beamer’s clout and the Hokies’ sustained success. From Smith to Vick to Chancellor, Virginia Tech’s résumé with Tidewater talent is extensive.
But Tech’s relationship with the Thoroughbreds, who produce several high-profile players, is considered shaky. According to a source, a Thoroughbred coach has held a grudge because the Hokies didn’t take one of his quarterbacks a few classes ago due to the player’s sub-par grades.
But Tech still has the trust of high school coaches around the state.
Shane Beamer says each year that the Hokies try to sign four-to-six Tidewater players, four-to-six from the Richmond area and four-to-six from Northern Virginia. “We don’t try to do anything differently — we hit the Tidewater area hard, and we always have,” Beamer says.
Tech did not sign 2014’s top 757 stars but did get two potential impact players in defensive tackle Ricky Walker and running back Marshawn Williams. The Hokies are also in on several Tidewater players for 2015.
The Tidewater region has been a sneaky good recruiting spot for the Vols, dating back to the signing of eventual first-round draft pick Todd Kelly in the late ’80s. Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo chose Tennessee over NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech. NFL receiver Justin Hunter eschewed offers from several major schools in favor of the Vols.
Second-year coach Butch Jones didn’t sign any Tidewater high school players in 2014, but he did get junior college star Von Pearson, a Newport News native with loads of potential.
“Our new staff, we’ve made a commitment to make Virginia Beach a priority in recruiting,” Jones says. “We’ve been there pretty hard this past year.”
Tennessee recruited at least 12 different states last year — including 10 in-state players — but Jones considers the Tidewater a “no-brainer. It’s based on the proximity to us and the success we’ve had,” he says.
Florida State could stay in its home state and produce top-10 classes every year, but the Seminoles have had modest success in the 757.
Top-100 defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi was the third-ranked Tidewater player in 2014. FSU is considered to be one of the favorites for 2015 defensive end Josh Sweat out of Chesapeake. The Noles will also have two other Virginia natives on their 2014 roster — center Alec Eberle from Mechanicsville (near Richmond) and inside linebacker E.J. Levenberry from Woodbridge (near the D.C. area).
Florida State recruiting coordinator Tim Brewster says that two assistants have Tidewater responsibilities.
“Great area for Noles,” Brewster says.
In-state talent will always dominate FSU’s classes, and with good reason. Fifteen of FSU’s 29 signees are from the Sunshine State. But Brewster plans to focus on at least one or two top Tidewater prospects annually.
Other 757 Interlopers —
The Tar Heels didn’t score big in Virginia Beach last year, but they always hit Virginia hard, which means they’ll have more chances at a home-run 757 player.
UNC signed five of Virginia’s top-50 players last year. “We include Virginia as an in-state area for us,” says UNC coach Larry Fedora, who assigns assistant Keith Gilmore to the state. “We don’t just cherry-pick it.”
Ohio State won’t spend considerable time in Virginia, but it has the clout to pluck a few stars — like it did with weak-side defensive end Jalyn Holmes out of Norfolk. This Urban Meyer stealth special was similar to the Buckeyes descending on Atlanta to get linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State doesn’t have any 757 home runs of late (quarterback Christian Hackenberg is from the middle of the state), but word is that James Franklin has been pushing the area while he attacks the entire Northeast region.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.