Justin Denson Jr. was at a camp in Georgia earlier this month when he earned an invitation to play in the 2024 All-American Bowl in San Antonio in January. As a Michigan State commit, Denson was not a stranger at the camp by any means.
But when coaches asked players to share where they were from, Denson was on the receiving end of a few jokes — and several perplexed looks.
“A lot of people don’t know where Rhode Island is,” said Denson, a three-star cornerback who plays at La Salle Academy in Providence. “Everybody always compares it to New York or thinks we’re in New York. My new (line) is, ‘You know where the (Boston) Celtics play? Yeah, 30 minutes from there.’”
Denson is the top player in Rhode Island in the Class of 2024. The second-ranked in-state prospect, wide receiver Israel Hiraldo, is also from Providence. They’re the only two ranked players — according to the 247Sports Composite — in the entire state of Rhode Island.
“It just really means a lot,” Hiraldo said. “(But) I’ve really got to explain it.”
Welcome to life as a recruit from a small state not known for its high school football prowess. Someone always has questions.
“I went to Tennessee camp this year and a couple kids asked me where I was from and they didn’t even know South Dakota was a state,” said three-star offensive lineman Navarro Schunke, one of two ranked prospects from the state that is best known as the home of Mount Rushmore.
“I was just like, ‘Well. It’s small. And it gets really cold. It’s exceptionally high north.’”
Talent-rich states such as California, Florida, Georgia and Texas have always dominated the recruiting trail — for obvious reasons. This cycle alone, Florida has 249 prospects listed in the 247Sports Composite. Texas has 195, Georgia has 158 and California has 141.
Rhode Island and South Dakota, by contrast, have just two each, with Wisconsin linebacker commit Thomas Heiberger joining Schunke in South Dakota. Four states have just one ranked prospect — New Mexico (three-star linebacker Stratton Shufelt), Montana (Nebraska wide receiver commit Quinn Clark), New Hampshire (three-star Oregon State athlete commit Exodus Ayers) and Delaware (three-star Syracuse edge commit Tristen Graham).
Alaska, Maine, Vermont and Wyoming all have zero ranked prospects. Even West Virginia has just three.
“I’m really originally from New Mexico, so it’s great to represent my state,” said Ayers, the New Hampshire prospect. “When you tell people you’re from New Mexico, they really don’t even know that’s in the USA. It’s kind of like, ‘Wow. What did you learn in school?’ That’s what I want to ask them. New Hampshire’s a little bit more known.”
Indeed, college recruiters had no problems finding Ayers at Proctor Academy in Andover, N.H., where he transferred prior to his junior season to get more exposure. Even though he’s still the only ranked recruit in his new state, the move paid off, especially after he took home Gatorade New Hampshire Football Player of the Year honors in January as Proctor Academy’s first winner.
When Oregon State started to actively recruit Ayers, his high school coach told him that he believed the trip from Corvallis, Ore., to Andover — spanning nearly 3,100 miles — had to have been one of the farthest the Beavers staff had ever completed.
“It’s funny because they’re coming to the middle of nowhere,” Ayers said. “So when they get up here, they’re a little surprised.”
Schunke is a two-sport star at Brandon Valley (S.D.) High School and is leaning toward football over wrestling at the collegiate level. He would like to head back to Tennessee and Kansas State for official visits. Even on the wrestling circuit, he said that people tend to recognize South Dakota only when he’s in a border state. Otherwise, he’s constantly fielding the same question.
“Most of them are like, ‘Where’s that?”’ he said, admitting he had the same question when he was 10 and his family relocated to South Dakota from Colorado. “They don’t even know.”
South Dakota was actually a popular stop on the recruiting trail in the 2023 cycle. Lincoln Kienholz, a quarterback from T.F. Riggs High School in Pierre, was an early commit to Washington but also had offers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kansas State. Then, in November, Ohio State entered the picture, and Kienholz — who ended the cycle ranked No. 190 nationally — flipped to the Buckeyes and signed in December.
Nebraska wide receiver commit Quinn Clark, Montana’s lone ranked player, said that the hit television show “Yellowstone” has brought more attention to his home state. Still, he had to travel to out-of-state camps to get more exposure. Camping at Nebraska ultimately led to his offer with the Cornhuskers earlier this summer. A native of Bozeman, Mont., he’s no stranger to questions similar to the ones Schunke routinely fields.
“(People usually say), ‘Where’s that?’ Kind of like a, ‘MONTANA?’ with a question mark at the end of it. ‘Y’all ride horses to school?’” Clark said. “It’s funny.”
Indeed, players in er, lonely states don’t seem to mind.
Several of them indicated they get a kick out of meeting new people, and in Denson’s case, he’s even become a bit of a celebrity. Born and raised in Rhode Island, the Spartans commit works as a staffer at the local recreation center in Providence, where young kids are constantly coming up to him to ask for photos. Especially in the summer.
“I have an image that I have to keep up with and make sure that I’m always doing the right things and staying on the right path,” he said. “Me being who I am currently, it holds a lot of weight.”
Clark said that when college recruiters do come through a state such as Montana, the prospects usually have their full attention.
“It’s definitely cool. It’s cool to be the only one and I’ve got a lot of opportunities because of just me being a standout player in the state,” he said.”But at the same time I think we need some more.”
And Hiraldo called it all a “blessing” — but added he might steal a page out of Denson’s book and start using the Boston Celtics as his frame of reference, as opposed to New York.
“I think,” he said laughing, “that might be my new thing.”
(Photo of Justin Denson courtesy of Jangaba Media)