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California’s running low on big dudes, but why?

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If this is truly a long-term trend, it could help explain some of the Pac-12’s struggles on the field.

USC defensive linemen vs. Alabama Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

For most of the last decade, I have hit the recruiting camp circuit each year to see the next crop of elite football players compete with each other. This year, I hit Miami, Orlando, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

And when I got to LA, there was something missing: the beef. Specifically, on the defensive line. The elite big men who make life hell for the opposing offensive linemen just weren’t at the recruiting events I saw.

So I asked around, to make sure there weren’t any who should have been at the camps, but simply didn’t show. Nope.

But it was still spring. Perhaps some would emerge and rise up the rankings as the season went on?

That has not happened this year. As of this writing, the 2020 class has no four- or five-star defensive linemen in California who weigh 275 pounds or more.

I wondered if 2019 was a unique phenomenon or a trend. If the latter, it’s a serious issue for the Pac-12, because California supplies such a large percentage of the league’s recruits.

Well, is it a trend? It could be.

Over the last decade, California has produced an average of two four- and five-star interior defensive line types (275+ pounds). But looking at a four-year rolling average does show a downward progression.

  • 2011-14: 2.75
  • 2012-15: 3.25
  • 2013-16: 2.75
  • 2014-17: 2.25
  • 2015-18: 1.75
  • 2016-19: 1.00
  • 2017-20: 0.75

It does seem that the dynamics of this position in California have changed over the last decade.

California’s numbers over the last handful of years are rather concerning. It seems safe to say that this is at least a short-term concern, even if there is not enough to declare it a long-term issue.

If big California high school defensive linemen are disappearing, where did they go? I spoke to players, high school coaches, and college coaches to find out.

“High schools play so much spread that the big guys are playing offense.”

Joel “Bubba” Gonzales coached high school in California for about a decade before becoming the head coach of Orange Coast College.

“There’s less emphasis on getting big on defense,” Gonzales said. “The old big defensive linemen? They’re now O linemen. The big linebackers are now playing D line. We are moving more athletic people into these positions.”

Players and coaches said this. The theory is that you need smaller defensive linemen who are in better shape to rush the passer and avoid getting gassed against fast-moving offenses. Facing this type of attack, huge defensive linemen are indeed probably better suited to switch to offense.

There’s not really a perfect way to test this theory. We don’t have broad records of players switching from defense to offense, there’s no way to know which position many players would have played in a different scenario, and there is no way to control for the amount of spread offense and tempo.

But the gap between the most recent rolling four-year averages of four/five-star 275-pound OL and 275-pound four/five-star DL is double what it was before. Think about this in the following way: What percentage of the state’s elite big men play defense? As the chart shows, that ratio is falling steadily.

The data seems to back up this coach theory in some way. Some players who, in previous years, would have been rated highly as interior defensive linemen now might be playing on the other side of the football.

But I can’t get fully on board. What about a state like Texas, which plays a ton of spread/tempo offense, yet is not experiencing similar struggles?

“It’s the home prices and taxes.”

This idea came up a lot. California has awesome weather, and everyone wants to live there. But the housing prices are outrageous and the taxes even more so. A lot of families are having to move further out, including into the desert and the Inland Empire (IE) to find cheaper housing and taxes.

“Carson, Compton, Long Beach. Those areas used to be huge [for talent],” said Jesse Sapolu, founder of the Polynesian Bowl and the Sapolu Men In The Trenches Linemen Academy. Sapolu played 15 seasons as an offensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers, winning four Super Bowls and making the Pro Bowl twice.

“A lot of families are moving to Utah, some moving to Vegas. Trust me, it’s crossed my mind to go to Vegas.”

“You had people moving to some of these places where the cost of living is cheaper. California is an expensive place,” Gonzales said.

But those areas are still in California, so they would be reflected in the state’s numbers. When I pointed this out, several coaches told me that some families are not stopping at the inland Empire but are continuing to Nevada and Arizona.

This could explain some the interior defensive line talent drain. Anecdotally, this makes a lot of sense. And the data shows more people are leaving California than are moving to it. Specifically, they are moving to Texas, Nevada, and Arizona, especially low-income families.

But digging into the numbers, it seems unlikely to be the main cause of California’s dip at this specific position. In the last four years, Nevada has had two blue-chip DL (total) while Arizona has had one, a four-year average of 0.5 and 0.25, respectively. Additionally, those players were not originally from California, as far as I can tell.

So while it makes sense that families moving out of the state for cheaper home prices and taxes would impact the state’s high school talent, it does not appear to have done so in this specific analysis, at least not to the point where we can identify elite interior defensive linemen in other states whose families moved out of California.

“California is healthier. We have fewer fat dudes.”

This one is self-explanatory. California is known as a pretty healthy state. It has one of the lowest obesity rates in the nation, far lower than the states putting out a lot of elite linemen. And its obesity rate has been rising at a lesser rate over the last 30 years than those states.

There’s evidence that California’s school lunch programs are likely healthier than those of some states that produce big linemen, and the state does more to educate its citizens about nutritional choices than most.

“Especially here in California. Everyone is health-conscious,” said Gonzales. “Everyone’s vegan and organic. These kids are so much more aware of what they are putting into their bodies. Part of it is parents educating themselves and then educating their kids. Coaches aren’t just coaches anymore — we’re strength coaches, nutritionists, etc.”

In broad terms, this is a very good thing. Only for the specific purpose of interior defensive linemen production could it be seen as a negative.

Still, it begs a question. Those California players who — in other states or other lifetimes — would have become much bigger: what football positions are they currently playing instead? There doesn’t appear to be a definite answer on this.

Players no longer need to move from Hawaii, Utah, etc. for exposure.

It used to be that a player could improve his chance of getting recruiting exposure by moving to areas that were more heavily recruited than his hometown. That’s still true, but less so, thanks to the advent of HD cameras and digital film, which have transformed the scouting industry.

“Before that, you had to make a DVD or a VHS and you had to send it out. Now you just drop your HUDL link, and it’s in HD quality, and the college coaches do not have to leave their offices — they can pull up everyone they hear about,” Gonzales said. “It used to be super grainy and pixelated.”

But I examined the rates for Utah and Hawaii, two states frequently cited in the discussions, and found no increase in big DL talent in the time in which California is dipping.

While it might be true that players no longer need to move as often for exposure, it does not appear to have been a contributing factor here.

Could recruiting services simply be overlooking Cali’s defensive linemen?

This seems unlikely, considering California tied for #1 among states in total 2019 blue-chip recruits. It’s still considered an elite talent producer at basically every other position.

It’s clear there’s been a decline in elite big defensive linemen in California. Why it happened is not clear.

Most of the reasons given by those I spoke with make sense anecdotally. But we should learn more in the coming years, if the trend actually continues.

If it does, it’s a major problem for the California schools and the Pac-12 as a whole. Defensive tackle is likely the toughest position to recruit, and if your region doesn’t have many, you’ll find the schools in the regions that do have them will fight like crazy to keep them. In 2011, Chip Kelly noted both the importance of elite big defensive linemen and the difficulty in pulling them across the country in the recruiting game.

”Most of the recruiting we do is geographic — on the West Coast,” Kelly said. “We’ve expanded, but I think you can expand to get a skill kid. I’m not sure you can expand to get that type of D line prospect. That’s always the toughest one.”

And that was in 2011, when California had produced 10 such players in the previous four cycles, as opposed to the three it is poised to produce in the 2017-20 classes.

If the Pac-12 wants to win the College Football Playoff, it needs to perform better when it goes up against the schools who have access to more of these type of players.

If California isn’t producing as many Brandon Mebane, Jurrell Casey, Arik Armstead, Kenny Clark, Mike Patterson, and Shaun Cody types, it’s not clear where Pac-12 schools will get them.