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May 1, 2013

How important is NFL experience for coaches?

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Casey Tucker finishes up his first day of spring practice and walks off the field a sweat-covered, confused mountain of a man. It's 101 degrees in his hometown of Phoenix, and the four-star offensive lineman has just wrapped up a two-hour workout.

He's short on both breath and opinions. Tucker, the No. 71 high school prospect in America, has recently broken his commitment to USC and is re-starting the process of looking around.

Right now, the 285-pound tackle doesn't know much other than the fact that he's thirsty. He talks about possible landing spots, but refuses to provide much of a window into his thought process. Instead, he's gulping water as if he's attempting to hide the substance from authorities. The only definite he's willing to offer at this point is as follows:

"I'd rather have coaches that have coached or played in the NFL," Tucker said. "Having been on that level helps them get me ready for that level. They know what it's like. They can get me prepared better than coaches without NFL experience."

Tucker's take isn't a ground-breaking one by any stretch. Kansas' Charlie Weis, for example, didn't create a recent recruiting upturn based on the 6-30 record the Jayahwks have posted over the last three seasons. He did it with his Super Bowl rings. Ask any current Kansas commitment why he picked the Jayhawks, and you're likely to hear all about Weis' time in the NFL and the fact that much of his staff has the pro experience to match.

Having been where high school players are trying to go certainly grabs their attention. Casually toss a couple of flashy championship rings on the table and you have a full-fledged advantage. This is not a secret and it's definitely not new. It's just becoming more common.

"It helps that you can tell them about experience," said USC assistant Ed Orgeron, who spent a season as the New Orleans Saints defensive line coach. "Having been in the NFL, I can really tell my guys, 'look, these guys aren't going to want to see this on film. Instead, this is what you want to put on film.'"

Countering that line isn't easy, but Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen is used to it. Mullen is a college-football lifer with 19 years of experience. At this point, he's prepared for anything. When three Bulldogs were selected in last week's NFL draft, his congratulatory tweets were as much about combating the professional-experience recruiting pitch as they were anything else.

Proud? Certainly. But he was also recruiting 140 characters at a time. In his situation, there's no other choice. It's a battle Mullen and other coaches are forced to fight often.

"My biggest counter (to a player wanting a coach who has been in the NFL) is how many guys we put in the NFL," said Mullen, who has coached more than 40 players who eventually landed on NFL rosters. "I have a bunch of guys playing in the league from here and I had success even before I got here. So, my biggest counter is that we can develop players once they come through our doors and prepare them to have success in the NFL."

Orgeron is in the unique position of playing both sides of the fence. He has a hint of NFL experience to his name, but also has an impressive record of preparing players for pro careers. He produced 19 draft picks during his time at Ole Miss and, while at Miami, became one of few position coaches who can claim a share of responsiblity for developing NFL Hall of Famers (Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy) in consecutive seasons.

There is, after all, a reason Orgeron is now known as one of America's most effective recruiters.

"My time in the NFL comes up a lot," Orgeron said. "You don't want to sell it too much, but it does come up a lot. It's just as important or more important to have developed college players into first-round picks. That's a bigger selling point."

Or, at least it used to be.

Both Orgeron and Mullen say players are more concerned than ever with NFL experience. And with more coaches with professional experience popping up among the college ranks, the talking point isn't going to vanish anytime soon.

Still, it's not a foolproof pitch by any stretch. Holes can be shot through it, and Mullen seems to have the process of doing just that committed to muscle memory.

"A lot of guys with NFL experience tell these guys, 'we're going to run our program like an NFL team,' but an 18-year-old might not be ready to be a professional yet," Mullen said. "It's a more major deal to me when you take a guy like (cornerback) Jon Banks, who has one scholarship offer, and we develop him and help him grow. He then wins the Thorpe Award and goes on to the NFL instead of a guy that says 'I just signed a five-star guy and he went on to the NFL.' I don't really know how big of an accomplishment that is."

USCFootball.com's Gerard Martinez contributed to this story.



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