Beyond the Scoreboard: Why aren’t colleges recruiting mountain football players?

Beyond the Scoreboard: Why aren’t colleges recruiting mountain football players?(Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Frustration is the word used over and over by several different WNC high-school football coaches looking to put their talented players onto college rosters.

It is recruiting season for college teams, the time to replenish with new players who can help win games.

For local high-school coaches, it is an aggravating time of trying to convince recruiters their players have what it takes.

But a perception persists that “mountain” football suggests a certain type - a rugged, give it their all toughness that makes for a great high-school player but is not athletic enough to play in the faster world of college.

“It’s like (colleges) have a picture of what a player is supposed to look like to play a particular position,” said Reynolds coach Shane Laws.

“He’s supposed to be this big, and supposed to be this tall, and supposed to be this fast. And what he does on tape doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit that profile.”

In precedent-setting 2017 season for high school football, players like Trey Robinson at Mountain Heritage (12,913 yards of total offense), Ben Young at Mitchell (11,235 total yards) and Hendersonville’s Tykel Landrum (253 receptions for 4,558 yards) set career records that may never be equaled.

But none fits the profile Laws describes, and none has a solid offer from a college just one month before the national signing day (Feb. 8).

“It’s a little frustrating, but at the end of the day I just want to go to college, whether it’s through football or academics,” said Young, who has talked to Division II Wingate and some Division III schools that don’t give athletic scholarships.

“I feel like I could compete if somebody gave me a chance, maybe as a walk-on. Sometimes mountain football gets overlooked, but there are a lot of good athletes out there.”

“I know it’s frustrating for Trey,” said his father and high-school coach, Joey Robinson.

“He led the state in rushing (3,126 yards), was fourth in the country, had an unbelievable career and he’s a 4.5 (grade-point average) student. He’s like, ‘What else do I have to do’ ’’?

It is a conversation most coaches don’t like to talk about, but the reality may be as plain and simple as black and white.

Most WNC high school players are white, most college players are African American, and the perception – or the reality – that black athletes are quicker and faster and stronger is a factor in who colleges recruit.

“You have to be careful about what you say and start stirring things up, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Robinson.

“We played a Whiteville team (a 52-44 win in the playoffs) that had a kid who had offers from Maryland and Wake. They had a linebacker who was an ESPN Top 300 player, they had athletes that are getting offers from everywhere.

“Trey rushed for 271 yards and had 15 tackles against that type of team. How athletic do you have to be?”

Robinson scored seven touchdowns and all 52 points against Whiteville.

Laws believes the “mountain football” stereotype extends to all races of players.

“There are a lot of good athletes in the Asheville area – it’s not like we are stuck out in the middle of the woods somewhere,” said Laws.

“We have a very diverse population with a lot of different type athletes. But it’s still hard to get coaches to look at our guys.

“There are a lot of kids in this area that are really good football players, but they aren’t the right size or don’t run a 4.4 (40-yard dash). But they could do well if they got the chance.

“The recruiting part of this job is very frustrating.”

In his four years at Mitchell, coach Travise Pitman is 47-11, WNC’s best record in that span.

He believes he has coached eight to 10 players who could compete in college.

So far, none has signed a scholarship, though he’s had three kids walk on at Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina.

“It’s pretty amazing. You would think colleges would want kids who are winners, but if they aren’t 6-2, 220 and run a 4.4, they don’t get a look,” said Pitman.

“They think they can take that athlete and mold them into a winner. My kids want to play college football, and I don’t have an answer for them. Or for their parents.

“You’ve put all this work in, do great things, and you don’t get rewarded. That bothers me a lot.”

Laws has had some players go to big-time programs – Ben Councell played linebacker at Notre Dame, Rico Dawdle is a starting running back for South Carolina.

He may have as many as five or six kids sign off his 14-2 team that reached the 3A state title game – tight end Talon James has already signed with Richmond.

But he has seen many others, on his team and opponents, who didn’t get a chance.

“When you look at the success some of the schools in our area had, especially in the playoffs against teams from bigger cities, you don’t understand why these kids aren’t getting recruited,” Laws said.

“I don’t get it. It’s just hard to get our players out there. It’s real frustrating to see school an hour or two from here that drives past us to sign kids elsewhere.

“Those kids go to that school because they have to, while our kids want to go there and would love to have that chance.”

David Gentry has coached high-school football for 47 years, with 393 wins and seven state titles, and he just finished a stint as the winning coach for the North Carolina team in the Shrine Bowl.

He had access to some of best talent in the state, and he said there was a reason for having five WNC players on the roster.

“We have good football players around here, and I wanted people to know that,” he said. “Tykel (Landrum) was as good as anybody down there, and he showed it in the game.

“But he isn’t getting offers. Look at (Trey Robinson). He may not be a college quarterback, but he is a football player and a winner who can play linebacker or fullback.

“There is that perception about football in the mountains, has been for a long time. It’s frustrating.”