It was November 1986, and Rod Milstead had just led Lackey to an undefeated season and the school's first state championship. Shortly thereafter, the offensive guard was named to his second straight all-state team.

Milstead's standout high school football career was over, and he didn't have a single college scholarship offer. Towson sent him a letter during the season but never followed up. A Maryland assistant told Milstead after the state title game that he was a good player but, at a little more than six feet tall, was too small to play for the Terrapins.

Only two schools offered Milstead football scholarships: Delaware State and Howard, both in Division I-AA. After an all-American career at Delaware State, Milstead played eight NFL seasons with three teams, including the Redskins.

"I look back on that and laugh," said Milstead, now a Lackey assistant. "My mom used to tell me, 'If you're good, people will find you.' But at that time, Gwynn Park was the cut-off line. [Recruiters] didn't come further south. . . . I'm so glad it has changed. You shouldn't be punished for where you live.

"People are finally realizing there are some good football players down here in Southern Maryland."

Indeed, college recruiters have descended on Southern Maryland this year unlike in any other. In Charles County alone at least seven players from five schools will probably sign with Division I-A programs in the top tier of college football.

Two of them -- McDonough defensive back/running back A.J. Wallace and Lackey lineman J.B. Walton -- are widely regarded to be among the nation's top 25 recruits in the Class of 2006.

Westlake has had three seniors -- Darius Powell (North Carolina), Aaris Reed (North Carolina) and Pha'Terrell Washington (Maryland) -- orally commit to Atlantic Coast Conference schools; Thomas Stone linebacker Nekos Brown will make his commitment to ACC champion Virginia Tech official Feb. 1, national signing day. La Plata's Eric Jobe has offers from West Virginia and Marshall and could receive plenty more after the season begins tomorrow night.

An Untapped Talent Pool

"The quality of players down here has always been here," said Huntingtown Coach Jerry Franks, who has coached at DeMatha, Northern and Calvert as well as Navy and Connecticut.

Franks points to the period from 1987 to 1993, when Southern Maryland produced six players who went on to play in the NFL -- Milstead; Northern's Rondell Jones (Class of 1989); McDonough's Donta Jones (1990); La Plata's Matt Dyson (1990); Northern's J.C. Price (1991) and McDonough's Jim Nelson (1993). Throw in Great Mills's John Summerday (1991), who was in NFL training camps before a six-year career in the Arena Football League.

None of those seven were first-team All-Mets and none of them had mass recruiting appeal. But recruiting was much different then.

"What you're seeing is a population explosion," Franks said. "The recruiting services have exploded. All the combines have exploded. Those are ways for more exposure for people."

The numbers bear that out: Suburban sprawl in the area has swelled the population of Southern Maryland's three counties by 43 percent from 1989 to 2004, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census.

"When I say the talent pool is better, it's because of the number of people here," said Westlake Coach Dominic Zaccarelli, who played at La Plata and has coached in the area since 1985. "It's the law of averages. Is the talent in PG County better? Well, sure, if they have [21] high schools there, there are more kids playing" than at the 12 Southern Maryland football programs.

But recruiters are not guided by census figures. They will go wherever there is talent, and for a long time they did not consider a trip to Southern Maryland worth their time.

"It's not that the talent has changed," said Lackey Coach Scott Chadwick, who played at La Plata before graduating in 1988. "The recruiting has changed. The Internet has a lot to do with it. All the recruiting sites, all the combines. We didn't have combines when I was in high school."

Twenty years ago, Chadwick also didn't have the Internet, a tool that allows coaches (among others) to spread information instantaneously about every American teenager in a helmet and pads, regardless of where he lives or the quality of his team. It gave the mainstream access to a distant Southern Maryland community.

In Search of a Beacon

Southern Maryland football recruiting is a chicken-or-the-egg argument. Which came first, the recruit or the recruiters?

If it's the former, look no further than Terry Caulley, who graduated from Patuxent in 2002 as Maryland's career rushing leader. Yet as he built that impressive resume, Caulley attracted little recruiting interest because of his 5-foot-7 frame and also because he played at the southern-most school in Calvert County.

It took Franks, who had just left Calvert to become an assistant at Connecticut, to get the Huskies -- in the midst of moving from Division I-AA to I-A -- to give Caulley a shot. Once Caulley got there, he proved Franks's assessment correct.

"It doesn't hurt when Terry Caulley is the leading freshman rusher in the country," Franks said of Caulley's 2002 season. "When you look at that, you take another look at a kid from Southern Maryland."

It's possible that the recruiters came first. Franks said the recruiting game is so competitive that up-and-coming programs, such as Connecticut's, cannot go head to head with established teams for the same recruits. The Huskies, Franks said, needed to break into an under-recruited area such as Southern Maryland.

Connecticut has signed three players directly out of Southern Maryland in the past five years -- Caulley, Chopticon's M.J. Estep and Westlake's Trey Tonsing. All will be starters this season.

"If you're coming into town, you've got a lot of schools to visit," Franks said. "And if you've only got two days to go around the Beltway [to recruit], you're not going to go to" the more distant schools.

"The big thing is, let's find a player, and I'm going to outwork someone by traveling an extra 40 minutes to Southern Maryland."

It Begins Up Front

Caulley struggled to get colleges to look at him because he fails to pass the recruiter's eye test. He lacks the prototypical football player's build.

However, the past three graduating classes have included five Southern Maryland linemen with the ideal Division I build -- McDonough's David Ziegler (Marshall) and Lackey's Randy Robinson (Kent) in 2003, Westlake's Tonsing in 2004, and Derrell Jones (Pittsburgh) and Jerrell Edelen (Marshall) in June.

"If you have a 6-5, 300-pounder, people are going to come to your school automatically if he shows well on film," Zaccarelli said. "Linemen bring in the recruiters because good, big linemen are harder to find."

Once the recruiters arrive, they can see the rest of what the area has to offer.

"It works as a promotional tool for the rest of the program," Thomas Stone Coach Steve Lindsay said.

Not that Walton is lacking any attention. It's bound to happen at least once every practice, when Milstead will look over at Walton and shake his head in disbelief.

"I sit back and am amazed how fortunate he is going into his senior year," Milstead said. "His college future is already written for him."

And perhaps because of him, the college future of others in the area will be, too.

College recruiters have descended on Southern Maryland this year. In Charles County alone at least seven players from five schools will probably sign with Division I-A programs in the top tier of college football. Some of the area's top talent: Front row, from left: McDonough's A.J. Wallace and Westlake's Aaris Reed. Back row: Westlake's Darius Powell, Lackey's J.B. Walton, Thomas Stone's Nekos Brown and La Plata's Eric Jobe.Patuxent's Terry Caulley was the leading freshman rusher in the country in 2002 at Connecticut.