A new recruiting frontier? Lance Wright's path to Rice from Alaska
Of the nearly 8,000 high school seniors listed in Rivals.com's college football database, 1,101 are from California. There are 903 players from Texas, 828 from Florida and 509 from Georgia. There are 33 players from Washington, D.C., a city that encompasses only 61 square miles.
Alaska, meanwhile, stretches across 586,000 square miles. Yet there is only a single prospect listed on Rivals.com from the entire state.
His name is Lance Wright. He lives in Fairbanks and attends North Pole High, which is located in a town with a population just over 2,200. A 6-foot-3, 190-pound wide receiver, Wright has committed to play next fall at Rice -- which sits approximately 4,000 miles from where he starred on the football field.
Wright is the only prospect in the Owls' 2014 class who didn't play prep football in Texas. His quest to the FBS wasn't easy; he dealt with a nagging ankle injury as a freshman and suffered a devastating knee injury as a sophomore. Yet his most impressive feat was attracting scouting attention from Fairbanks, a town better known as the starting location of the Yukon Quest -- an annual 1,000-mile sled dog race -- than a hotbed for gridiron talent.
"When I went to football camps, people were saying I had to move to Texas or California or somewhere I could get noticed," Wright said. "They saw I was raw and had talent, but they didn't think it would be discovered in Alaska."
Though Wright was born in Irving, Texas, his family moved to Fairbanks when he was six. Alaska became home, and he played organized football throughout his youth. Even before he debuted at North Pole High, Wright stood out. He scored invites to camps in the lower 48 states, and despite an ankle injury his freshman year, he received letters from several prestigious programs, including Miami.
Then, on the first play of his sophomore season, he ruptured his ACL and tore the meniscus in his right knee. For the second consecutive year, he wasn't able to show his talent. The letters stopped coming.
Missing essentially two full seasons of high school football would be problematic for any prospect, regardless of location. In Alaska, the issue is particularly acute. "I'm not saying we're bursting with talent, but there are a handful of kids who do get missed," said Richard Henert, the head coach at North Pole High. "It's hard to go out to Alaska and recruit, and we understand that."
The rehab process was very challenging for Wright. He felt he had the ability to play at a Division I level, but some people wrote him off once he went down. "That fueled my fire," he said. "When I was in rehab, my goals were to break a thousand yards and get noticed."
During his breakout junior campaign, Wright caught 45 passes for 1,017 yards and 14 touchdowns, becoming the first receiver in the history of the Alaska Interior to break the 1,000-yard mark. The letters came back, but even at the end of his junior year, no school had offered him a scholarship. Alaska was limiting his potential.
"It's frustrating," he said. "You go to a camp and you see someone you're better than, but that player gets pulled aside and offered a scholarship based on where they live. There are athletes up here that could play Division I football, but they don't have the guidance that the lower 48 [states] kids have."
Luckily for Wright, he had traveled to camps outside of Alaska. Still, as his senior year began, he lacked a college offer. He grew worried.
One day, while sitting in class, coach Henert pulled Wright out of the room to tell him he had a call from Rice. On the other end of the line was Sean Edmonson, a graduate assistant with the Owls. Edmonson had been watching film online and stumbled upon Wright. He came away impressed. Unsure of the caliber of high school competition in Alaska, Edmonson invited Wright to campus in June. After roughly 20 minutes of sprinting and route running, Wright finally had an offer. He committed a few weeks later.
Wright isn't the first player to come out of Alaska -- current Arizona Cardinals offensive guard Darryn Colledge actually graduated from North Pole High -- and he still has family living all over Texas. But even with some natural advantages, landing an FBS offer was no small feat.
"It's been described as crabs in a barrel," Wright said. "When someone tries to get out of North Pole or Fairbanks, it pulls them back down. My goal has been to make it out and to be the one that succeeds away from home."
With National Signing Day approaching, Wright is excited about what Rice will bring: A great academic school, a football program on the rise (the Owls went 10-4 and won the Conference USA title game in 2013) and what he calls a "community" of football players and fellow students. Moving thousands of miles from home won't be easy, but he has overcome bigger hurdles in the past.
"I didn't want to move in high school for recruiting," Wright said. "... I just wanted to be someone who made it from Alaska."