When West Brunswick (N.C.) defensive end Alfy Hill walked into a restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last October, the other patrons realized who he was, rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
Hill, who was in town for an official visit, had been committed to Alabama for more than two months, and the show of support did nothing but solidify his future.
"When you go into that atmosphere ... it's unlike anything I have ever seen," said West Brunswick coach Jimmy Fletcher, once a longtime college assistant. "As a kid, I would want to sign. Football is just different. It's king."
As national champions, Alabama is the current king of college football. The Crimson Tide are hoping talent cultivated in the Carolinas will help keep them there for the foreseeable future.
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Alabama is expected to ink Hill, Rivals.com's No. 3 prospect in North Carolina, and Manning corner John Fulton, the Palmetto State's second-rated prospect, on National Signing Day today. The Tide also had a commitment from the Tar Heel State's top and the nation's No. 5 prospect, Keenan Allen, until he and his brother, a transfer from Buffalo, decided they wanted to play together.
Even without Allen - the Tide reportedly didn't have an available scholarship for he and his brother - Alabama's recent recruiting success in the Carolinas is unprecedented. In decisions that were surprising to many recruiting analysts, Hill spurned North Carolina and Fulton spurned South Carolina when choosing to play for Nick Saban. Both are rated among the nation's top-70 players by Rivals.
"They haven't had a lot of luck in the past," said Shane Youngblood, a recruiting analyst for Rivals. "This is really a big story line for Alabama's recruiting class this year. They've had their hearts broken a couple of times by in-state kids such as Stephon Gilmore and C.C. Whitlock. They really just struck out with some guys, but I think it's just persistence and continuing to build relationships.
"It's a recent phenomenon. With John Fulton, South Carolina fans really thought they had him locked up. ... Everybody assumed Alfy was going to North Carolina, because it was closer to home. I don't know if there is a magic formula. They've just got the right coaches in the right states."
Alabama's primary recruiters in the Carolinas are former Clemson assistant Burton Burns (South Carolina) and former Carolina Panthers assistant Sal Sunseri (North Carolina). Using the relationships forged years earlier, they've been able to use the Tide's recent success to open a recruiting avenue that Alabama hasn't traditionally attempted to navigate.
And Alabama doesn't seem to be making this a one-year affair, focusing enough resources and effort on the Carolinas to potentially help land some blue-chip recruits down the road. Sunseri spent more time at West Brunswick than any other coach, Fletcher said. That helped galvanize Hill's commitment even before he made his official visit for the Tennessee-Alabama game.
Even though football is big in the Carolinas, Alabama is able to mesmerize recruits by just getting them on campus in Tuscaloosa, Youngblood said. He compared it to basketball recruits stepping into the North Carolina's Smith Center or Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time.
Hill was blown away by his entire visit and left with an indelible memory after receiving a standing ovation at dinner.
"It let me know what the next four years of my life are going to be like," he said. "It's really hard [to say no], because who wouldn't want that in their life?"
If schools in the Carolinas are ever going to create such fervor for their programs, they must stop allowing out-of-state powers to poach prospects from their own backyard, Scout.com recruiting analyst Miller Safrit said.
Safrit doesn't believe there is enough talent in either of the Carolinas for any of its schools to piece together a top-five recruiting class - or a top-five ranking for that matter. That means they must ink their state's top players and win over out-of-state players, which is made more difficult when schools like Alabama have success here.
"You're going to have to recruit outside of the Carolinas and lock down your own state," Safrit said. "North Carolina and N.C. State did a better job of doing that this year. ... In South Carolina, you've got top prospects going to Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina. So, locking down your own state should be a priority, because you should have an initial step in the door recruiting those players, but you still need to recruit out of state - locally, regionally and nationally."