LONGVIEW, Texas – Maybe it’s because there isn’t anything else to do in East Texas.
Maybe it’s because of great coaching.
Maybe it’s because there is no other sport in Texas than high school football, or maybe it’s because the players for some reason just develop better in this part of the state.
But you can make a case that the best football in the nation is played in East Texas. And after the first day of Rivals100.com scouting trip to the region, there is plenty of proof for that argument to be true.
So what is about East Texas that makes the region so special? Ask the coaches in the area and you’ll get different answers.
Sulphur Springs coach Brad Turner thinks it’s the speed of the players in the region that makes it special. Texarkana Texas coach Barry Norton thinks it’s the support of communities in East Texas that makes a difference. Other coaches say it is because some of these smaller towns don’t allow for distractions outside of football.
In reality, all of these arguments have merit – especially Turner’s comment about the speed.
“When you think East Texas, you think speed,” Turner said. “But it’s all relative. All of these teams have great speed at every position, but there is something about East Texas guys that just makes them faster than other guys in the state. It seems like every team in East Texas has guys that can fly around and play.”
Watch East Texas teams on film – especially teams like Tyler Lee, Lufkin and Longview – and it’ll look like their playing in fast forward.
However, Norton’s comment about the community involvement and support in the football program is also a key component in the success of East Texas football programs. It also doesn’t hurt that football in Texas really is the only major sport that can rally a community and build excitement amongst players.
“Kids in East Texas have always had speed,” Norton said. “But to these kids football matters so much, and the same is true to a lot of people in these communities. Football is something that these kids can identify with, and they want to create something to be part of.
“We have to run these kids out of the weight room. They come in here to hang out, and this is what they identify with. I feel confident saying that football in East Texas is probably the best ball in the nation.”
No matter what the reason is, football in East Texas is special, and Rivals100 had a chance to see some of the region’s most special players on Wednesday.
The day started out with a stop at Sulphur Springs to visit with star safety Keenan Clayton. Clayton, who is 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, already has scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Arizona, Baylor, SMU, Texas Tech and several others.
He’s the ball-hawking safety prospect that every college coach is looking for.
He said he compares himself to Dallas Cowboys star Roy Williams, and his coach said it’s a fitting comparison.
“If I were a college coach, I would like to have a bunch of Keenan Claytons,” Turner said. “We don’t have anybody that wants to tackle him here in practice, and he’s gotten even stronger than what he was before. He’s added 15 pounds of muscle and has gotten even faster.”
Turner said he can point to Clayton’s father for helping mold the star safety into something special.
“His dad makes him do right,” Turner said. “He’s never in trouble, and he does everything we ask him to do. His dad makes sure that he stays on the right track. When he was a freshman and got here, we sort of threw him into the fire and he’s always had a great attitude.
“He’s matured, and gotten a lot tougher and stronger. He’s not going to let this attention get to his head.”
Clayton lists Oklahoma as his leader, and really came away impressed with the Sooners after attending OU’s spring game two weeks ago. He has regional track this weekend, but might attend the Baton Rouge NIKE Training Camp on Sunday at LSU.
Rivals100 then headed East on Interstate 30 to Texarkana to visit with Texas High star linebackers Chris Collins and Chris Brown. Collins, who looked a very solid 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds (plays at 230), is already committed to Texas and Brown, who is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, has offers from Missouri, Arizona, Houston, Arkansas and heavy interest from Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU.
But it’s Collins that most of the people in the state of Texas have been talking about. Norton, who has been in the coaching business for quite some time, calls Collins one of the best players he’s ever coached.
“He’s definitely the best linebacker I’ve ever coached,” Norton said. “He wants to be the best that he can be. He wants to please you. He runs great and has great explosion. He really strikes the ball carrier and steps through them.”
College coaches heading to Texas High this spring won’t be able to recruit Collins, though. That’s because he’s off limits since he committed early to the Longhorns.
“He’ll be a middle linebacker at Texas,” Norton said. “One thing about coach (Mack) Brown and the guys he recruits, he always wants guys that are great players and great kids. Chris is real quiet and really polite, but he plays hard every single play.”
And he’s been doing it for years for the Tigers.
“We started him out at defensive tackle to just get him on the field, and he instantly made all of the defensive tackles better,” Norton said. “And then we moved him to defensive end as a sophomore and they got better because of Chris.
“Now that he’s at linebacker, he continues to play hard and brings the level of those guys around him to another level. He’s just one of those special kids that only come around every once in a while.”
While Collins has been getting most of the headlines, Norton thinks that Brown might be a huge “steal” for one college program.
“He’s going to be the biggest steal in the state,” Norton said.
“He plays harder than anybody that I’ve ever coached. He has an amazing motor and he’s always revved up all the time.”
Brown is still raw as a player, though, which might scare away some teams, but his natural pass rushing ability makes him a player to keep a very close eye on this season.
“Technically he’s not great,” Norton said. “But that’s something that you can work on when you get him in college. He’s just so explosive in his stance, and nobody can block him.”
One guy that might like to take that challenge on is Tyler Lee offensive lineman Ciron Black, a monster that stands easily at 6-5 and 325 pounds. Black worked out in the third day of spring drills on Wednesday, and he honestly didn’t show any signs of a knee injury that still has him working on rehabilitation every day after practice.
One of Black’s early knocks is that he doesn’t have great feet, but he has shown marked improvement in that area and often he turned his blocks out on running plays into pancake blocks.
“It doesn’t matter what the coaches ask me to do, because I’ll do it all – run block or pass block,” Black said. “But I’m probably proudest of my base blocking, where I get to blow people off the ball.”
Black, who continues to lean toward LSU, said he is a vocal leader that isn’t afraid to get after his teammates if he has to.
“I try to get the guys up a little bit if things are going a little slow,” Black said. “But I mostly let my actions speak louder than words.”