Utah State football: Despite distance, differences, Aggies cultivating Florida pipeline
Ryan Talbot, Utah State Athletics
LOGAN — You would be hard-pressed to find two geographic locales with less in common than South Florida and Logan. Sandy beaches replaced by rugged mountains. Humid ocean air replaced by arid desert. Hopping night life replaced by, well, you get the picture.
Despite the changes in culture and climate, Utah State is becoming a second home for an increasing number of Florida high school football players.
"It is very different coming from Florida," said freshman wide receiver and Oakland Park, Fla., native Jo Jo Natson. "It's a huge, huge swing. The mountains tripped me out the first time I visited. On my (recruiting) visit it was so cold. It was like in the 20s and I wasn't used to it. I told my mom I don't think I want to come out here. It's too cold."
Then there's the change in altitude, yet another shock to the system.
"It's a big change coming from below sea level to this altitude," said sophomore linebacker Tavaris McMillian (Miami Jackson HS). "It was hard to run and get used to the air at first."
Natson and McMillian are just two of seven Aggies who have taken their talents from South Beach to Cache Valley. There might have been some culture and climate shock at first, but the group has adjusted quickly to their new surroundings and fallen in love with the area.
"My freshman year I wanted to go home every chance I got," McMillian laughed. "Now I'm always here … I barely go home now. I stay here on vacations."
Maybe more so than anywhere but Texas, high school football is king in Florida. The state is known to produce some of the best athletes and football players in the nation. Florida prep products, with their high athleticism and speed, have been the backbone for SEC teams for decades and are responsible, in part, for the league's unparalleled success on the national landscape.
"Good players and good kids. They are very excited to be a part of Cache Valley and be a part of the team," said USU coach Gary Andersen of his Florida contingent. "They have adjusted really well. Look at how early they play in their careers. There is a reason we go to Florida to get young men to come to our program."
Across the board, the Florida players are high on Andersen's depth chart and will be counted on to make contributions this year.
McMillian was a monster at inside linebacker during his freshman season and as a sophomore will help anchor the defense.
The 5-foot-7, 145-pound Natson is by far the smallest guy on the field, but is already turning heads with his blinding speed and sure hands. Natson, along with former high school teammate Travis Reynolds, will provide some breakaway speed at wide receiver.
Freshman running back Kelvin 'Mookie' Lee was being targeted by top-tier schools like Nebraska, but was left without an offer on signing day due to the lack of a qualifying ACT score. Utah State swooped in and now the talented South Daytona native is eligible to play and has found a home in Logan. Lee is in the mix to find some playing time backing up senior starter Kerwynn Williams.
The Aggie secondary is peppered with athletes from Florida. Junior Nevin Lawson is the team's shutdown corner, while Rashard Stewart and Quinton Byrd provide depth and versatility in the defensive backfield.
So what has opened up the recruiting pipeline between Logan and South Florida?
Tireless recruiting from assistant coaches Kendrick Shaver and Jovon Bouknight, combined with the Aggies' recent success on the field and good word-of-mouth from the Florida transplants are most responsible. Neither Utah nor BYU has a player on their roster recruited straight from Florida high schools, but Florida prep stars are becoming a key component for the Aggies.
"My little brother is in high school and is a senior. He's always talking to me saying, 'I might be coming out to Utah State with you.' And I'm saying, 'If you get recruited," McMillian said. "Everybody at my old school Miami Jackson knows about Utah State. We are on the map now with the bowl game."
On the map, some 2,500-plus miles away.
Aggies with Florida ties
Nevin Lawson, CB, Jr., Lauderhill, Fla. (Piper HS)
Quinton Byrd, CB, Sr., Miami, Fla. (Miramar HS)
Rashard Stewart, CB, Soph., Miami, Fla. (Miami Jackson HS)
Travis Reynolds, WR, Jr., Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Boyd Anderson HS)
Tavaris McMillian, LB, Soph., Miami, Fla. (Miami Jackson HS)
Kevin Lee, RB, Fr., South Daytona, Fla. (Mainland HS)
Bruce 'Jo Jo' Natson, WR Fr., Oakland Park, Fla. (Boyd Anderson HS)
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