MADISON, Wis. -- It's one of the smallest states in America, but there's no question New Jersey has plenty of talent when it comes to high school football.
It's far from the recruiting hotbeds of California, Florida, Ohio and Texas -- four states that are home to 123 of the 300 players ranked by Scout.com as four-star recruits or better -- but considering the sample size, the Garden State more than holds its on.
Nine New Jersey players are ranked either five or four stars by Scout.com, about one for every 50,526 high school students in the state, according to the 2009 census. The other states on the eastern seaboard -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Rhode Island -- combine for just 10 of those types of players.
It's the main reason longtime Badgers coach Barry Alvarez and his chief recruiter, Bernie Wyatt, spent so much time during their tenures on the East Coast, particularly New Jersey, and got some big scores. Players like Troy Vincent (Trenton), Jonathan Casillas (New Brunswick), Chris Pressley (Woodbury), Garrett Graham (Brick Township) and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne (Berlin Township) were signed on Alvarez's watch and were or are on NFL rosters.
"New Jersey is all about respect, especially in North Jersey," said Matt Alkire, Northeast recruiting analyst for Scout.com. "You just really have so many different types of personalities as you separate from North Jersey (basically New York), Central Jersey and then South Jersey (a little bit of Philly). I have good relationships with many coaches who are legendary in the Garden State, and if they don't know a new coach, it's all about presentation. How do you carry yourself? How did you dress that day? It's like your grandfather taught you: 'Shake that hand firmly, son.' Literally, that initial impression can kill a recruiter with some coaches, and I've seen it countless times."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and his staff have quietly gone about their recruiting business by sticking to their Midwest values: letting their product sell itself. Bielema, like any coach, puts a lot of stock in his staff's ability to develop relationships. It has taken some time, but Bielema and his staff have found a niche.
Back when the transfer of power was taking place from Alvarez to Bielema, the two decided to not make any coaching hires until after the end of the 2005 regular season. At the time, Alvarez's assistants were recruiting players they would never coach. Once Bielema's staff was on board, a downturn was inevitable.
Of the 23 players who signed letters of intent in February 2006, only 12 were on the roster in the 2010 season, a statistic that partially explains why UW slumped to a 7-6 finish in 2008. Now, as Bielema and his staff have gotten settled, the recruits have gotten better because the framework of what Wisconsin needs has become clearer.
"It settled more into what we know needs to work at Wisconsin," Bielema said last season. "Mentality, who's going to be able to survive Wisconsin ... Madison is not an easy place at times to be involved with. I really think the kids have done a good job figuring out who would fit in."
One thing that hasn't changed much is the recruiting rankings. Bielema's 2006 class averaged 2.52 stars (out of five) and was ranked No. 37 nationally by Scout.com. The '08 class averaged 2.83 stars and ranked No. 26 (his best class). Last year class, though not as highly ranked, could have been Bielema's best, as Wisconsin targeted players who fit their needs at the defensive end, tight end and wide receiver.
"No one wants to trust their players to the sweaty, foul-mouthed coach from X University who has crumbs on his shirt," Alkire said. "Wisconsin has always had very good coaches all the way back to Barry Alvarez. The school and football program are pretty easy to sell with the quality of academics and success on the field, so it's up to the recruiters to just build good relationships. It helps to be 'one of the boys' in Jersey."
Over the last three recruiting cycles, the boys have changed. Two years ago, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst grabbed highly touted quarterback Joe Brennan and tight end Sherard Cadogan. Last year, Greg Jackson searched New Jersey, and with Jackson having gone to the San Francisco 49ers, the Badgers are turning to new running backs coach Thomas Hammock.
Hammock has never recruited the East Coast, but he had success when he recruited South Florida for the first time for the University of Minnesota.
"Everywhere you go, you've got to be new at something," Hammock said. "We've got a bunch of kids on the list that we are getting after. We're trying to get these kids here and see if we can get these kids interested in Wisconsin. The thing about recruiting is that recruiting is recruiting. If you can recruit, you can recruit anywhere."
If Hammock can come through in Year 1, it will be a gigantic boost to a Wisconsin recruiting class that has already secured verbal commitments from four four-star players for next season. In New Jersey, Don Bosco High School has no shortage of great players, but when one defense has five-star defensive end Darius Hamilton (ranked No.4 in the country by Scout), four-star cornerback Yuri Wright (ranked No.6 in the country) and safety Elijah Shumate (ranked No.7 in the country), it is an embarrassment of riches.
Throw in three-star middle linebacker Mike Strizak and four-star wide receiver Leonte Caroo and it is easy to see why Don Bosco went 12-0 last season, won the New Jersey state championship and finished No.3 in the country in the national rankings.
"At Don Bosco, we are a hard-working team and a hard-working program," Shumate said. "It has a rich tradition. If you lose a game at Bosco, it's a shocker, which is why they preach going hard, never giving up and giving it 110 percent on every practice, every play in the game and everything we do. It's about giving it all for your teammates, loving your teammates, respecting your teammates and doing all that to become a great team."
Wisconsin has offered scholarships to Bosco's three top players on defense, as well as four-star safety D.J. Singleton from Jersey City. According to Alkire, Hamilton -- a big, strong lineman who has very good mobility -- is Bosco's best player and Wright may have the most upside on the squad, having tremendous size for a cornerback and outstanding ball skills.
"We talk about (playing together) a lot, actually, and we tell each other about different schools, like what we thought of a visit and if it's worth going out there to check it out," Shumate said. "If it happens that we go to the same school, that would be great because there will be someone there I can trust and I can play next to a great player. If it doesn't work, they'll still be my boys."
And if they go elsewhere, Wisconsin will be back, continuing to build the pipeline into one of the biggest little states in the country.