According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, just 5.7 percent of all high school football players continue their careers at the collegiate level. Of those, a vast majority play at Division II, III, I-AA or NAIA schools, which means that less than two percent of prep players can expect to play Division I ball.
Simple math suggests that during his 14 years as head football coach at Liberty High School, Jeff Whittaker would have seen two, or maybe three of his players move on to play collegiately at Division I schools. However, this mid-size Trumbull County school which generally boasts between 15 and 20 seniors per year has not only bucked the trend, it has become a magnet for Division I recruiters.
Since Whittaker took over the Liberty program in 1995, 15 Leopards have earned scholarships at Division I colleges. The list, which reads like a Who's Who among top football factories, includes; Lewis Daniels (West Virginia), Brian Beinecke (Pittsburgh), Charlie Campbell (Kent State), Marty Bowman (Boston College), Bradley Fletcher (Iowa), Donovan Fletcher (Ohio University), Tony Jackson (Ohio University), Jonathan Wells (Miami of Ohio), Chris Harrison (Cincinnati), Keith Forestal (Toledo), John Humphrey (Purdue) and Ryan Gillum (Syracuse).
Isaiah Bell and Fitzgerald Toussaint - a pair of 2009 LHS graduates - will play next year at Michigan. Bell, a defensive back, and Toussaint, a running back, both earned All-Ohio status as seniors last fall.
Meanwhile, defensive end Antonio Kinard, who will be a senior at Liberty next fall, has already made a verbal commitment to play with the Wolverines in 2010.
In addition, since 1996 more than two dozen other Liberty players have continued their football careers at the Division II and III levels.
"The number is pretty remarkable, and it says a lot about the talent that has come through this school in recent years," Whittaker said. "In order to be a Division I player, you have to be a Division I athlete. There are a number of great high school football players around, but many are just a step too slow or an inch too small to make it at the next level.
"At the same token, there are a lot of great high school athletes around who just aren't great football players. We've been fortunate to have our share of both."
While talent is the greatest and most obvious attraction for recruiters, Liberty athletes have gained several other advantages under Whittaker's tenure. For starters, Whittaker has developed a strong relationship with, and gained the trust of a large number of major college coaches.
"We've been fortunate to spend time with and develop a unique relationship with a lot of recruiters and coaches over the years," Whittaker said. "Over time, a trust develops and coaches know that when we tout a player we're not just blowing smoke."
"Plus, you have to remember that when one kid is being recruited, you can have upwards of forty different colleges coming here during the recruiting process. That can only help others who are trying to get a look."
While Whittaker's contacts have greatly benefited his players, Whittaker himself insists that the most valuable recruiting tool has been the reputation of past Liberty athletes who have gone on to have stellar college careers.
"When one of our football players moves on to the next level, they almost always end up playing four or five years of college ball, and they almost always earn a degree," Whittaker said. "In this business, word travels fast. And our school has developed a reputation for not only producing great athletes, but solid citizens and quality students."
Whittaker then noted that Beinecke was a three-year starter at Pittsburgh who, as a junior, was asked to be on the board to help select the school's next athletic director.
"That says volumes about what the school thought of Brian. That's just one example off the top of my head, but in nearly every case our players have gone on to excel on the football field and in the classroom. That's something that college coaches notice when they are looking for the next prospect, and that's something that our entire staff and community can take pride in," Whittaker said.
Whittaker noted that in many cases it is easy to spot potential Division I talent, even in the younger players.
"With a guy like Fitz (Toussaint), it was a no-brainer. Many times, you see some of the characteristics even while they are freshmen, then by the senior year you know whether or not they have a shot," Whittaker said.
Still, even the most talented of players can possess a surprise. Whittaker noted that while Fletcher's talent was obvious, his growth to a Big 10 and an NFL talent caught many of the so-called "experts" off-guard.
Fletcher was recently selected by the St. Louis Rams in the third round of the NFL draft.
"There were signs of Bradley's talent when he was a freshman, but I don't think anyone expected him to be a Big 10 player," Whittaker said. "Then again when he was at Iowa, he showed tremendous potential early on. However, four years ago I don't think people could have possibly projected him as a third-round draft pick. He just kept working hard, just like so many other Liberty athletes."
With the advent of the Internet and with instant access to game films, Whittaker acknowledges that high school coaches have an easier time today "getting the message out" when it comes to publicizing their potential college talent. However, the fast-paced technology does have its downfalls from a recruiting standpoint.
"The vast amount of film and other information can be overwhelming for college coaches," Whittaker said. "In the past, most athletes used to wait until their senior year to commit. Now, there is so much information available that coaches are being forced to evaluate players as sophomores, and they're being forced to gamble on sophomores at the risk of losing them to other schools."
Fortunately for the coaches who seek athletes from the Liberty football program, the gamble nearly always pays off.