High School Recruiting

Will Manny Diaz’s ‘New Miami’ be enough to keep South Florida’s top players home?

Diaz: Our team isn’t far from competing for championships

The Hurricanes football coach Manny Diaz says, "Maybe it just takes me". as he speaks to the media at the University of Miami on Wednesday, February 6, 2019.
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The Hurricanes football coach Manny Diaz says, "Maybe it just takes me". as he speaks to the media at the University of Miami on Wednesday, February 6, 2019.

Sam Brooks stood on the field at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, tears welling up in his eyes, and reflected.

He ended his high school career on top, leading the Miami Northwestern Bulls to a second consecutive Class 6A state championship 14 months after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

One week later, he would sign his national letter of intent with the Miami Hurricanes, the hometown team who stayed with him throughout his road to recovery.

“The same day I tore my ACL, the UM coaches blew my phone up. They said they weren’t going to change their mind about me — they loved me, they wanted me on campus,” Brooks said. “I want to be there.”

Brooks was one of the few this year. The Northwestern linebacker/defensive end was the only player from Miami-Dade to sign with the Hurricanes this cycle and is one of just five players total between Dade and Broward who are heading to Coral Gables this year.

South Florida’s top players leaving the state to pursue their college football career is not an uncommon sight. About one-third of the state’s top 100 prospects reside in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in any given year, giving top college programs from around the country a centralized location to scope out talent.

But the 2019 cycle saw the largest departure of players from Broward and Miami-Dade counties to college programs outside of the state in recent years.

Some points to consider:

The area’s top player has signed to play college football out of state each of the last five years. The last top prospect from South Florida to stay in state: Miami Central’s Dalvin Cook, who signed with Florida State in 2014.

Of the 111 players from the two counties who were ranked among the top 500 players nationally for their given class over the past five years, 58 chose an out-of-state school (52.3 percent). For the 2019 recruiting class, 10 of the area’s 17 players who fit the category left (58.8 percent).

Of the 171 area players ranked among the top 100 players in Florida in their given year, 99 left the state for college (58.2 percent). For the 2019 recruiting class, 21 of 31 — an astonishing 67.7 percent — signed outside of Florida.

Seven of the top 10 prospects from the area this cycle signed with non-Florida colleges. It was almost eight before Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons defensive lineman Khris Bogle flipped from Alabama to Florida on National Signing Day. The other two — Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna’s Keontra Smith and Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas’ Avery Huff — signed with Miami.

Obviously, the Hurricanes — and the rest of Florida’s colleges, for that matter — can’t keep every top prospect from the area. Each school only has so many spots available each year, and some players want the opportunity to leave South Florida as they prepare for a potential NFL career.

But UM is already making an early push to reset the trend under first-year head coach Manny Diaz.

“Maybe it just takes me,” Diaz said on National Signing Day.

He’s off to a solid start.

After a lackluster outing on the recruiting trail that was salvaged by immense success with the transfer portal, the Hurricanes are once again getting back to their roots with the 2020 and 2021 classes.

While verbal commitments are non-binding, the Hurricanes have pledges from 18 players combined over the next two years. Fourteen of those players are from Miami-Dade or Broward.

Included among that group are Dade’s top prospects for each of the next two years in Class of 2020 running back Don Chaney from Miami Belen Jesuit (ranked No. 44 nationally) and Class of 2021 defensive end Donell Harris from Miami Booker T. Washington (ranked No. 14 nationally). The 2020 class, ranked third in the country as of Friday morning, consists of nine commits — all of whom are ranked in the top 100 in Florida and the top 500 nationally.

With his unwavering energy, social media savvy and branding of “The New Miami,” Diaz has started his tenure on the right foot. The focus now is keeping that momentum.

“Everybody likes winning and everybody likes playing,” Diaz said. “So you have a chance where you can sell ‘Hey, listen. Playing time. New staff. Fresh start. New ideas. Come in here and compete and let’s see what happens.’”

But Diaz will still have to battle in his own backyard with some of the country’s best.

During the past five years, 42 out-of-state Football Bowl Subdivision schools have signed at least one South Florida player who was ranked among the top-100 prospects in the state.

There are the usual suspects.

The Georgia Bulldogs had the most in that span with 10 — tied with Florida State and behind only UM (33) and UF (19) overall. UGA’s signings included two of the area’s top-10 players this year in Miami Southridge cornerback Tyrique Stevenson and Davie University School running back Kenny McIntosh, both of whom were UM targets.

Alabama was close behind the Bulldogs with nine South Florida signings in that span. This includes Broward County’s top prospect each of the last three years in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Jordan Battle in 2019, Plantation American Heritage’s Patrick Surtain Jr. in 2018 and Deerfield Beach’s Jerry Jeudy in 2017.

”There’s great high school football here,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We’re going to continue to try to get some more good players from here because we’ve had success in the past.”

And while defending national champion Clemson has historically been relatively quiet in the area, the Tigers signed Miami-Dade’s top prospect this cycle in South Dade wide receiver Frank Ladson.

Others on paper might surprise you.

Five other schools — Ohio State, South Carolina, Louisville, Auburn and Kentucky — each had at least five South Florida signings in that span.

Pittsburgh and Indiana each signed four area players in 2019, with both schools bringing in at least one South Florida player ranked among the state’s top 100.

For Pittsburgh, that was St. Thomas Aquinas running back Daniel Carter (No. 77 in Florida) leading a South Florida haul that also included Northwestern’s Calijah Kancey and Leslie Smith as well as Cardinal Gibbons’ Vincent Davis.

For Indiana, it was University School’s Josh Sanguinetti (No. 51) and Coconut Creek’s Tiawan Mullen (No. 66) along with Miami Columbus’ Gary Cooper and Jeramy Passmore.

Kentucky has signed 15 players overall from South Florida during the past three years, including six apiece in 2017 and 2018.

But Diaz is confident that if the Hurricanes are heading in the right direction, both with recruiting and with the team he has on hand. A strong start to the 2019 season, which includes a neutral-site season opener against Florida in Orlando, would continue to set the tone.

“The belief is we’re a lot closer to the team that was in Charlotte in December of ‘17 [for the ACC Championship Game] as opposed to the team that was in New York in December of ‘18 [for the 35-3 Pinstripe Bowl loss to Wisconsin],” Diaz said. “We’re not very far away.”

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Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.