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Acc Aboard Early Commitment Train

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Bill Wagner

Chris Jackson committed to Georgia Tech on Dec. 21, 2006, only one month after completing his junior season. He said the school "just felt like home." Thus, the wide receiver from Henry County High in Georgia became the first member of the Yellow Jackets' Class of 2008, two months before national signing day for the Class of 2007.

Matt Mihalik received a scholarship offer from Virginia on Sept. 6, 2006, five days after Division I-A programs were allowed to extend written offers under NCAA rules. It didn't take long for Mihalik, an offensive lineman from Gilmour Academy in Ohio, to make a decision. He called UVa coach Al Groh and committed to the Cavaliers a few hours after reading the letter.

Marquan Jones gave a pledge to Clemson way back in June 2006, telling Rivals.com that he had "developed a great rapport with the coaching staff." He specifically spoke about his relationships with wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney and lead recruiter Brad Scott. Jones, a wide receiver from Blythewood High in South Carolina, committed before he was formally offered a scholarship.

Those are just a few examples that illustrate the changing landscape of college football recruiting. Coaches, players and analysts all agree that the process has been accelerated, and the result is more early verbal commitments than ever before.

Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor for Scout.com, said Penn State started the trend of early commitments about a decade ago. Other Bowl Championship Series schools slowly but surely have followed suit.

Over the last two or three years, Wallace said, the early commitment phenomenon has become more and more prevalent, to the point that even perennial powerhouses such as Texas, Southern California and Florida State are joining the party. That's a big change for the Seminoles, who long have been famous for getting most of their pledges in the weeks leading up to signing day.

"There's a finite talent pool out there, only so many big-time players to go around," said Wallace, who has covered football recruiting since starting SuperPrep magazine in 1985. "I think schools are starting to realize that if their competition is going out and locking up good players, they better do the same.

"There is no question that times have changed. It used to be that schools would only get a couple commitments during the summer. Now, if you don't have 10-12 commitments by the start of the season, fans think something is wrong."

There are all sorts of reasons behind why schools are seeking commitments earlier than ever before, and why rising seniors are willing to give pledges many months – even a year or more – in advance of signing day in February.

Most agree that the massive surge of recruiting coverage on the internet has played a huge role in the process. Scout.com and Rivals.com both have dozens of reporters covering recruiting news on a national or regional basis. Many school-specific websites have recruiting writers as well. As a result, prospects know more about their favorite programs and which other players are being recruited at their positions.

"I think the high school players have become more knowledgeable and more sophisticated," Maryland recruiting coordinator Dave Sollazzo said. "They are doing their research, doing their homework, and they are learning a considerable amount about the various schools in which they are interested without necessarily talking to the coaches of those schools."

Another element of the new trend is that players are not waiting until the official visit to tour the campus and check out the football facilities of their favorite schools. Increasingly, top prospects are taking unofficial visits to schools during the spring and summer, at their own expense.

Colter Phillips, a tight end from Georgetown Prep in Maryland, took three unofficial visits to Virginia before giving the Cavaliers a pledge in late April. A.J. Francis, a defensive tackle from Gonzaga High in Washington, D.C., traveled with his father to Atlanta to check out Georgia Tech and to Winston-Salem to see Wake Forest before choosing Maryland in mid-February, during his junior year. That was one week after the signing day for high school seniors.

Clearly, ACC schools have jumped on the early commitment bandwagon. Virginia Tech ranked among the national leaders in mid-September with 19 commitments. Florida State (16), Clemson (15), Maryland (15) and Miami (15) weren't far behind. Georgia Tech (13), Boston College (12), Virginia (12), N.C. State (11) and Duke (11) also hit double figures over the summer.

Wake Forest, which tends to recruit a bit differently than other ACC schools, stood at nine commitments in mid-September. North Carolina, with only four pledges, is the only program in the league that does not seem to be following the trend this year.

It's unclear whether first-year UNC coach Butch Davis has a different philosophy than his ACC brethren. School officials said that recruiting coordinator John Blake, who has a well-earned reputation as one of the nation's finest recruiters, does not discuss strategy details with the media. One factor that likely is limiting the Tar Heels' numbers is that they expect to enroll a smaller-than-usual class next fall, well under the NCAA limit of 25.

Florida State, meanwhile, has changed the way it is doing business. The Seminoles have come to the conclusion that even they no longer can afford to wait until the last minute for top-tier prospects and risk getting shut out.

"To me, it's simply a matter of keeping up with the Joneses," legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "For years and years, we were always late in taking commitments, and that was successful. We haven't done as well (in recruiting) lately, so we had to change our style a bit."

Bowden admitted that the new method makes him uneasy, because it leaves the school little wiggle room. The Seminoles entered September with only a handful of scholarships left to award and thus have little freedom to extend new offers between now and February.

"You have to be real careful with early commitments, to make sure you're getting the very best player at that position that's on your board," Bowden said. "If you take one guy, then a month later someone better wants to come and you don't have a scholarship left, well, that would hurt."

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said the trend of early commitments puts more of an onus on him and his staff to conduct proper evaluations of prospects at an earlier stage. Friedgen requires his assistants to do thorough background checks on potential recruits, talking with high school coaches, guidance counselors and parents to determine the caliber of the individual off the field.

"You need to look even closer at the character of the kids you are recruiting. I'm not going to offer a kid a scholarship until I am certain he's the type of person we want in our program," Friedgen said. "I'm comfortable with the number of commitments we have so far, because I know those kids are all good students and good people."

Clearly, major college programs believe the positives outweigh the negatives with regard to early commitments. Stocking up during the summer gives the coaching staff a better picture of what other needs require addressing as the recruiting cycle wears on.

"If you can only take two running backs, and you get commitments from two during the summer," Sollazzo said, "well then you can focus on another position."

Most programs go into a recruiting season with specific numbers as to how many scholarships will be awarded at each position. As a result, coaches can put pressure on prospects by telling them, for example, that the program is recruiting six defensive backs for two slots, and that it's first-come, first-served.

"I'm definitely hearing more and more about schools pressuring players to commit early. I understand that type of thinking, because the schools need to know where they stand for planning purposes," Wallace said. "It's a two-way street, and the early commitment can also serve the interest of the student. There are a lot of kids these days that don't want to deal with the hassle of recruiting and want to get the decision out of the way so they can concentrate on football and schoolwork and generally have a normal senior year."

Sollazzo didn't dispute that coaching staffs are telling prospects to commit early and secure their spots on college rosters.

"Hey, most schools can only offer around 20-24 scholarships per year, and they are valuable. It's a game of musical chairs, and no one wants to be left standing when the music stops," Sollazzo said. "If you like a particular school and football program and have a scholarship offer, why not make a commitment and guarantee that is where you are going to go?"

Ultimately, that message is getting across to the players, who see the early commitment trend and want to maintain control of their futures. National-level recruits, the ones awarded four or five stars by Rivals and Scout, don't have to worry about having somewhere to go. However, many two- or three-star recruits believe they can't afford to sit back and let the process play out until the end.

"I think kids these days are wising up," Bowden said. "If you know where you want to go, why sit around and wait? Why not get it done and move on?"

That is what happened in the case of Nick Moody, a defensive back from Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia. Although a four-star prospect with numerous offers in hand, Moody jumped as soon as FSU extended a scholarship.

"Florida State has always been my dream school. I like the tradition, the atmosphere and the fact so many players get drafted out of there," Moody said. "I knew as soon as Florida State came through with a scholarship, I was going to take it."

Along with the increasing trend of early commitments come renewed calls for an early signing date for football. Friedgen has been a vocal proponent of creating an October or November signing date, so that players and schools can make things official. Not long ago, Maryland was the victim of one of the most publicized cases of a prospect reneging on a high-profile commitment.

Antonio Logan-El, an offensive lineman from Forestville High in Maryland, gave the Terrapins a pledge during his sophomore year and repeatedly told the media that the commitment was solid. But Logan-El changed his mind at the last minute and chose Penn State on the eve of national signing day.

Of course, the roles have been reversed on occasion, with schools backing out of scholarship offers to players from whom they previously had accepted commitments.

"I think there needs to be accountability on both sides," Friedgen said. "If a kid commits to me in the summer, I should be able to have him sign a letter of intent in the fall. I think that would protect both the school and the student-athlete."

Part of Friedgen's reasoning for an early signing date is the fact that, under the existing format, schools must continue to recruit prospects who already have committed. Recruiters have to continue to "show the love" and make players feel wanted all the way until signing day or risk losing a commitment. Of course, for that to happen, it means that competing programs still are pursuing players who already have given pledges to other schools.

"I think an early signing day," Friedgen said, "would prevent schools from wasting a lot of time and money continuing to recruit kids who are already committed."

For now, though, most football coaches expect to continue with their accelerated recruiting plans – evaluate early, offer early, take commitments early, and then hold on for as many months as it takes.

"That's the system we have right now," Bowden said. "Unless something changes (with NCAA rules), this is the way we have to approach it."

Bill Wagner, a veteran sportswriter for the Annapolis (Md.) Capital newspaper, covers football recruiting for the ACC Sports Journal, ACCSports.com, SuperPrep magazine and other publications.