If you’ve seen a San Antonio high school football game in recent years, odds are pretty good that a player you’ve seen is playing for the University of Texas at San Antonio right now.
Southeast San Antonio is represented by offensive lineman Frankie Martinez, defensive lineman Jaden Jones, and offensive lineman Daniel Santallana of East Central High School. Northwest San Antonio is home to long snapper Cade Collenback (O’Connor), wide receiver Dre Spriggs (Harlan), and offensive lineman Rudy Aleman (Warren), as well as tight end Oscar Cardenas, cornerback Jalen Rainey, and defensive lineman Brandon Matterson (all from Brandeis). About a half hour further away is punter Ethan Laing of Boerne Champion.
To the north, there are wide receiver Jaren Randle and running back Justin Rodriguez (Johnson), along with quarterback Josh Adkins and outside linebacker Trey Moore (Smithson Valley).
Northeast Bexar County and the Schertz-Cibolo area have supplied an abundance of players: quarterback Frank Harris from Clemens, offensive lineman Spencer Burford from Wagner, and placekicker Hunter Duplessis from Cole. Steele has produced running back Brenden Brady, cornerback JayVeon Cardwell, outside linebacker Caleb Lewis, and cornerback Xavier Player. Judson (safety Rashad Wisdom, running back Sincere McCormick, offensive linemen Robert Rigsby and Kamron Scott, wide receiver Julon Williams, cornerback Xavier Spencer, running back De’Anthony Lewis) is a handful players short of a class reunion.
It’s all part of UTSA’s plan for using local talent to build its program, which is off to the best start in its 11-year history at 7-0 and broke into the two national polls this week for the first time. Dozens of local players from Bexar County and surrounding areas (linebacker Caden Holt of New Braunfels, wide receiver Cade Stoever of Wimberley, and linebackers Dadrian and Donyai Taylor of Shiner) have benefited from UTSA starting a football program.
The way UTSA Head Coach Jeff Traylor tells it, the local focus is about more than winning. When UTSA looks for players, “we’re going to start locally with the top talent,” he said. “People want to come to the ‘Dome to see guys they’ve watched their whole career.”
For generations, a San Antonio athlete who wanted to play college football locally was limited to Trinity University. The Tigers have an esteemed program, but they play in the NCAA’s Division III; with their high academic requirements and no sports scholarships, their reach is limited. And larger universities tend to focus their recruiting efforts on Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth area with their higher concentration of high schools and football players.
This has frustrated Bexar County athletes for decades, but UTSA Director of Player Personnel Joe Price sees this as an opportunity for the Roadrunners.
“This has to be an area that’s pretty under-recruited in comparison to Houston or Dallas,” Price said. “While those cities are talent-rich, they’re probably over-recruited. People have to be intentional about coming to San Antonio and seeking out players.
“We’re fighting like heck to make sure that at the end of the recruiting cycle, when whoever’s deciding between us and somebody else, we’ve done everything possible to make sure that they know that they’re wanted, and they can have the same impact that a guy like Marcus Davenport had right here in the city.”
Davenport, a Stevens High School grad and standout for the Roadrunners from 2014 to 2017, is a defensive end for the New Orleans Saints.
Staying close to home and mining Texas football talent is second nature to Traylor, whose high school coaching experience was mostly in East Texas, and Price, who is from the Houston area.
Traylor enjoyed phenomenal success as a high school coach, leading Gilmer to three undefeated seasons in his 15 years as head coach. He’d have happily stayed there but when then-University of Texas Coach Charlie Strong offered him a job as an assistant in 2015, Traylor saw an opportunity he could parlay into his own head coaching job.
By 2020, he had become the head coach at UTSA.
Traylor was emphatic from the start about recruiting area players. San Antonio is “underappreciated for the quality of athletes that we have,” he said. “I feel that from the high school coaches, and I think they’re grateful that we start with their schools and recruit their kids first before we make our way out [of the state].
“We’ve signed 29 kids so far, all high school football players, and we’re only one of only two schools in Texas that have only signed Texas high school football players. … It’s going to take a special situation for me to go out of state for a high school kid, when the very best players in the country are right here in our state.”
Starting a program
The very existence of football at UTSA has changed the landscape enormously. For years, T-shirts and bumper stickers were in available in the campus bookstore that read “UTSA Football: Still Undefeated.” The joke, of course, was that you never lose if you don’t play.
Lynn Hickey, then the UTSA athletic director, led the efforts to launch the program, marshaling personnel and financial resources for the process. UTSA earned instant credibility when Larry Coker became the first head coach. Coker, who led the University of Miami to a national championship in 2001, brought status and attention to the program immediately.
Coker enticed recruits, local and otherwise, with the prospect of immediate playing time.
Coker led the team for five seasons before resigning in 2016, and Frank Wilson became UTSA’s second head football coach. Wilson, who had been an assistant at Louisiana State University, took over the program only days before the official signing date for players; as a result he depended on his Louisiana and Mississippi ties for many early recruits. Even so, he brought in local players Harris, McCormick, and Wisdom, the cornerstones of the Roadrunners’ current team.
When Traylor became the head coach in 2020, he took that San Antonio identification and cranked it up to 11. Actually, you could say he cranked it from 11. “We had 11 [local players] on the roster when I got hired; we’re up to 29 right now. We’ve been here about 22 months.”
Traylor has taken the local emphasis even further. His program stresses five pillars of culture: integrity, passion, mental and physical toughness, selflessness, and perfect effort. The team votes on the players who represent these pillars the best. Those who receive enough votes wear single-digit uniform numbers, and the highest vote-getters wear the uniform numbers used in the San Antonio area code: “2” (wide receiver Joshua Cephus), “1” (tight end Leroy Watson and defensive lineman Jaylon Haynes), or “0” (Harris and Wisdom). The ploy is effective, if not subtle.
Traylor says it’s not original, either. “I’ll be honest — I’m not sure I’ve ever had an original idea in my life, but I read a ton and I listen, believe it or not. I know I talk a lot, but I also listen a lot.
“That was [Carolina Panthers Coach] Matt Rhule’s idea. He called me one night, late. He knew I was going to [have players] vote for the single digits. … But he had another idea. He said, `I want you to put the three top vote getters in the two, the one, and the zero and make that really special.’”
Building relationships and resources
Andy Everett, the radio voice of UTSA football since its inception, says Traylor’s background as a high school coach gives him a strong connection to local talent, and especially their coaches. “Jeff Traylor has relationships with every high school coach,” he said. “When you’re recruiting a player, and he asks his high school coach, `What do you think of this guy?’, and [the coach] can vouch for you, that’s invaluable.”
Traylor’s energy and optimism certainly help.
Said Traylor: “I don’t call it recruiting. I love people. It’s just the way the Lord made me. I love people, so if getting to know someone’s name, getting to know their family, talking to them, hanging out with them … if that’s recruiting, I was made to recruit. Because I love to get to know people. It doesn’t matter if you’re a walk-on to a five-star. They’re all the same to me. They’re all God’s children, and I love to be around them.”
The proliferation of media in the last 25 years has helped shrink one recruiting advantage major schools had over programs like UTSA: television exposure. “Once, when only Texas and the top 20, 30, 40 schools in the nation were on television, those were the only players to be seen by NFL coaches unless their scouts traveled,” Everett said.
“Everyone is on television now. The NFL can find anyone, and the sooner you can play, the sooner you can be seen.”
More television exposure for UTSA is on the horizon following the announcement Thursday that the university will jump to the American Athletic Conference, perhaps as soon as 2023. The AAC has a contract with ESPN that runs through 2031-32.
The RACE facility (Roadrunner Athletics Center of Excellence), UTSA’s $40.4 million training facility that opened this August, further shrinks any gap between UTSA and competing universities.
“We have all the resources,” Price said. “Our university and our athletic director are putting the financial resources at work to make our on-campus facilities just as good as anybody in the county. And we play in the best arena in college football.
“We got everything we needed to be successful. We just have to keep bringing in top talented kids.”
Traylor is adamant that this can be done without breaking the travel budget. “I’ve always thought this job had amazing potential. The city of San Antonio is the seventh largest in the country, [has a] multicultural community. There was athletes all around it, and I just didn’t think they were doing a real good job of recruiting the local talent.
“That was the main thing I could convince [Athletic Director Lisa] Campos and President [Taylor] Eighmy that I could do, was to start in the city and work our way out.”