Trend shows football recruits committing, enrolling sooner
By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It starts earlier, moves faster and is getting uglier.
The world of college football is evolving as the increasingly expedited process changes the landscape of the sport’s second most important season that is becoming big business.
And not everyone likes it.
Rules that are more restrictive and trash-talking rivals were among the issues Alabama coach Nick Saban listed as problems with the never-ending recruiting process.
It’s not all negative, though.
The trendy decision of enrolling in classes early makes for more prepared true freshmen ready to contribute right away. With 11 newcomers of the incoming class of 26 already in Tuscaloosa, Saban’s not complaining about having that record-high number for the program. Only two players - junior college transfer James Carpenter and freshman Chance Warmack — enrolled in January of 2009.
Enrolling is just the last step in the process that can take years before a top prospect sees a classroom.
The shifted calendar used in the recruiting process has many roots. Players are getting attention earlier and earlier from college coaches eager to get a leg up on the competition.
Saban remembers when he first entered the college coaching ranks as an assistant in the 1970s, scholarship offers weren’t extended until after players completed their senior seasons.
Now, players such as Russellville High School star Brent Calloway are committing before their junior seasons. Cullman junior Spencer Region already had a change of heart and a second commitment. The Birmingham News reported Saturday that Region backed out of his previously unreported pledge to Alabama and donned an Auburn hat at a morning news conference.
Calloway, however, remains with the Tide after committing in June of 2009, not long after completing his sophomore school year.
But he wasn’t the first as Vigor’s Marvin Shinn committed in April and it isn’t nearly as noteworthy as USC’s latest commitment.
New coach and former Tennessee leader Lane Kiffin’s scholarship offer to 13-year-old quarterback David Sills was accepted Thursday and the Trojans’ class of 2015 has its first member.
That borderline absurd example contrasts greatly from the Alabama class signed Wednesday. Keiwone Malone was the first to make a public announcement in February of his junior season, 10 months later in the process than Shinn.
Once a big deal in recruiting circles, school-hosted “junior days” are becoming obsolete under the current model. Alabama held its 2010 day for 11th graders five days before Wednesday’s National Signing Day to get a head start on the next class. But Saban said more and more sophomores are coming to the meet and greets and evaluation periods.
Inviting prospects to summer camp is also going the way of the typewriter.
“We used to use camp to get most of the juniors to come to camp and then make decisions on them after that,” Saban said. “Now they don’t want to come to camp anymore. They want to know before they go to camp whether you want them or not. Everything has gotten accelerated.”
A byproduct of the early scholarship offers and premature commitments is the mudslinging and constantly changing decisions.
The sooner a high schooler makes a pledge to a school, the more time competitors have to influence a change of heart.
Alabama signee DeMarcus Milliner said he didn’t hear much of the trash talk from other recruiters but newcomer Phillip Sims did.
“You’ve got your in-state school saying ‘You don’t want to go all the way down there. They’re going to get you all the way down there and you’ll be sitting on the bench 12 hours away from home where your parents can’t see you.’ Stuff like that.” Sims said.
The recruiting lasts long after commitments are made.
Newly signed Alabama tight end Brian Vogler made it clear he was sticking with the Tide after committing in July, but he was receiving calls from Notre Dame within the past few weeks.
“When a guy commits early to us, to me then we just become the target,” Saban said. “Every other school keeps recruiting them and they know the kid wants to come to Alabama, so now they’re bashing Alabama every day. Whether it is taking our depth chart out and saying we have too many players at that position.
“I don’t know how all these other schools know about our team, because I know nothing about third team and they know more about our team than I know about our team. They get the depth chart out and they know how good players are that haven’t even played before, haven’t even been on the field, haven’t lettered — haven’t done anything. It’s amazing to me. I’m talking about convincing, being an expert. We don’t do that.”
Some change their mind
Only five-star safety Keenan Allen backed out of a commitment in the days before signing with Cal, but other schools weren’t as lucky. Georgia saw its highly-regarded class slide to the middle of the SEC pack in the final hours leading up to Signing Day while Tennessee picked up a few and lost others in the 11th hour.
Saban asks prospects to hold off making a commitment until they are sure Alabama is the place for them — even encourages them to visit elsewhere if they’re not sure.
“There is an old saying ‘if you’re shopping, then we should shop,’” Saban said. “It shouldn’t be that way, but when guys make commitments and don’t stick up for them, then you kind of get stuck a little bit, because there may be other guys that you didn’t recruit, that you could have recruited, that could have actually taken their place. I wish there was a better way, but there is not.”
On the flip side, players who commit early become recruiters themselves.
Milliner’s pitch: “If you want to win a championship, Alabama is the place to be. That’s all you need to say.”
The notoriously thick recruiting rulebook is still expanding, changing the playing field for all, and cutting head coaches out of a big part of the process.
Starting in 2008, only assistants could visit high schools in the spring evaluation period running April 15-May 31. It was dubbed the “Saban rule,” since the legislation came about after the Alabama coach allegedly violated the loosely interpreted “bump rule” in his first spring with the Tide. The original bylaw allowed head coaches to visit schools, but contact with prospects were limited to chance meetings involving little more than a quick hello.
When stories of Saban’s encounters with now-sophomore quarterback Star Jackson and other South Florida prospects went beyond the basic pleasantries, the call for change led to NCAA rule 188.8.131.52.2. It takes away any chance of an extended hello since head coaches aren’t allowed near the high schools.
The restrictions still bother Saban two years later.
“I’ve always thought that being out in the spring was a great time to develop relationships with (high school) coaches, to see guys practice, even though you weren’t allowed to talk to the players,” he said. “I would much rather see us have a contact period in the spring, especially with everything being accelerated like it is, and the head coach be allowed to go out in the spring and watch guys than to eliminate the rule because somebody was worried about somebody bumping into somebody, which is basically what happened.”
Of course, the rule affects everyone, not just Alabama. With new Auburn head coach Gene Chizik sidelined by the new rules last spring, he loaded a limousine with assistants to tour the state’s high schools.
Neither Milliner nor Sims committed particularly early, but both made the move to Tuscaloosa earlier than most.
As two of the 11 already taking classes, they’re hoping to take advantage of graduating high school early and getting a head start on transitioning to college life and football.
Former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeirer is thought to be the first to make the early leap in 1991, but the concept didn’t gain mainstream acceptance until recently.
The USA Today tracked the rise of the trend, counting 15 who graduated high school early in 2002 to the 110 who did so last season.
The cycle isn’t slowing.
At least no time soon.
After all, this is a world where seventh-grade quarterbacks are choosing colleges before high school.