LATTA — Lattas population of 1,379 rises now and then with unfamiliar faces and the occasional out-of-state license plate.
They make their way off of I-95, through the South Carolina countryside, down the towns main street and toward the beacon shining from the athletics fields and weight room at Latta High.
College football recruiters since 2011 have made their way to the Dillon County town to see Donell Stanley, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound, nationally regarded offensive lineman. To Stanley, theres more to it than that.
I try not to be selfish, said Stanley, a rising senior for the Vikings. I like to involve all my teammates. Hopefully, I can get some more schools in here. I like to get them to come watch me and watch my team and see if they like anything.
Whats good for Stanley is good for Latta the school and the community. Thats the approach he takes to the attention that comes with being one of the top-rated prospects in the state and country for the Class of 2014.
LATTA BUZZ, TAKE TWO
Stanleys stardom and the accompanying buzz are something not seen in Latta since basketball star Raymond Felton led the Vikings to two state championships before moving on in 2002 to play at North Carolina and the NBA.
He has wrapped the whole community around it, said Lattas third-year coach, Kelly Williamson. He has a keen sense that hes the big guy on campus. He walks around here with that protective shield on. Its pretty neat.
The attention was born the summer after Stanleys freshman season and grew from there. Clemson was the first to offer a scholarship in June 2011, followed by South Carolina that July. Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Florida were among the offers that came in 2012. Notre Dame and Florida State did the same this year.
I never dreamed about all this, Stanley said. After my first offer, I didnt know what was going on. I was so young and inexperienced. Looking back then, I never thought Id be up here. Its a blessing.
Stanley shares that blessing with coaches and teammates as often as he can. They travel with him on campus visits. When recruiters are in Latta, Stanley views it as a chance for them to see his teammates, as well.
It helps me a lot, said Latta running back R.J. McClam, whose goal is to continue playing in college. For what he brings to the table, when college coaches come to the game, it gives me a chance to show them what Ive got.
Chris German a Latta football assistant and Stanleys uncle played basketball with Felton and can vividly remember coaches from such schools as Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina coming to watch practice.
The recruitment and attention from schools are about the same for both players, German said. Whats changed in 10 years are the Internet, the rise in social media and the industry that covers recruiting.
Back then, you couldnt look on the Internet and see sophomores, juniors and seniors in high school getting all this notoriety, he said. Now, you type in Donells name and, bam, youve got all these articles and pictures popping up.
FOOTWORK AND FOCUS
Williamson estimates that at least 50 schools have sent recruiters to Latta over the past three years. That number is smaller these days as Stanley narrows his focus and the end of his recruitment draws closer.
South Carolina and North Carolina are among the major players for Stanley, who has more than a dozen offers. Coaches Steve Spurrier for USC and Larry Fedora from UNC have made their way to the halls of the 400-student Latta High in the hopes of making an impression.
There are no leaders in the process, said Stanley, who grew up a Tar Heels fan. He has visited Columbia and Chapel Hill multiple times and has been to Clemson, N.C. State, Alabama and LSU.
Stanley has yet to fully tour the South Carolina or Clemson campuses, he said, and plans to do that this summer. Hell also get to Alabama, LSU and Ohio State. A decision could come before or during the season, he said.
Stanley, who wears size 22 cleats that he gets through the Carolina Panthers, plays tackle in high school but could play any position on the line at the next level, Williamson said. He is a hot commodity among colleges for more than his size.
Donell looks really good from his hips down, Williamson said. Good footwork, balance, long arms and strong. He plays with a very flat back. His angles are good. Hes got a chance to be special.
Those who saw Stanley at a camp after his sophomore year were raving about his technique, footwork and focus, said Keith Niebuhr, national analyst for 247Sports.
And hes brutally strong, Niebuhr said, a cerebral player and just strong, really strong. His punch is, Boom! it hits you. Hes pancaking guys not having to go forward at times.
He can squat 525 pounds and bench-presses 355 pounds with a goal to get to 400 pounds before he gets to college.
Rivals and Scout rate him the top player in South Carolina for the Class of 2014, with Rivals having Stanley No. 43 nationally. Hes No. 2 overall instate in the 247Composite ranking, which factors in all networks.
Stanley will have his pick of the national all-star games that will follow his senior season.
The recruiters from South Carolina, North Carolina, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame who made their way to see Stanley this spring saw him in a different uniform. He played first base and helped lead the Latta baseball team to the Class A championship series.
Stanley plays basketball, too. He plays tennis for a workout. And when hes not playing sports, hes recruiting athletes from other teams at Latta to join him in football.
There arent many negatives at this stage of being in the spotlight, said Stanley. The biggest downside comes when the journey ends.
Its a big experience, he said. Its just that decision you have to make whats right for you. You have to turn a lot down.
Stanley lives seven miles outside of Latta in the even smaller community of Floydale, where he says not much goes on except for hunting and fishing. An admitted country boy, he listens to Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Jason Aldean, and its not unusual to see him in a cowboy hat and boots at school.
South Carolina offensive line coach Shawn Elliott was in Latta for the first game of the baseball title series. Stanley wasnt the only one to notice.
A lot of the community and little kids got to see him, he said. It was good not only for me to see him there and show me he cares. It meant a lot to the community and to me.
The way Stanley sees it, the longer hes in the spotlight, the more attention Latta gets.
It can put us on the map just like Raymond did, Stanley said. If I do the right things, I think it will happen. Hopefully, I can impact lives so more people will play football and get this experience like I have.