When Chad Wilson played cornerback for the University of Miami in the 1990s, the world of college football recruiting was a little different than it is today.
“When I signed with Miami there wasn’t a camera around — not even a Polaroid,” said Wilson, now a 41-year-old assistant coach at University School in Fort Lauderdale and owner of the recruiting website GridironStuds.com.
“The Internet was something few people knew about, so recruiting junkies got their news from SuperPrep Magazine or calling a 1-900 number. Freshmen didn’t play in college. You had to be exceptional to get any playing time, let alone start. Now, we have speed and skills camps for 6-year-olds. I told my wife this the other day: ‘The day I see an eighth grader standing in front of cameras and announcing where he’s going to high school, we’re leaving for the coast of France.’ ”
Mark Pantoni, the director of player personnel at Ohio State University, tweeted Friday night that he received a highlight tape from a seventh grader. He wasn’t joking.
If it feels like football is speeding up from top to bottom, well, that’s because it is.
A record 98 college underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft in May — that’s 25 more than the previous record set a year ago and more than three times the 29 who announced they were leaving early in 2000. One of those college players who decided to leave after the minimum three years was Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Over the past two seasons, Manziel and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston became the first freshmen in the 79-year history of the Heisman Trophy to win college football’s most coveted award.
More talents like Manziel are leaving college early for the pros, and more are skipping their final six months of high school to get a head start on college. Since Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett became one of 15 players to enroll early in 2002, the number of January arrivals has grown every year. According to USA Today, there were 162 high school players who enrolled in college at this time last year (and that was just at the 73 college programs in BCS conferences).
The best of the best aren’t signing up early to sit and watch upperclassmen play, either. According to JC Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports, of the 34 high school seniors in the 2013 recruiting class to be named consensus five-star recruits by all four major recruiting services (Rivals, ESPN, Scout, 247Sports), only four were red-shirted last season.
“The more you see guys leave for the NFL early, the more you’re going to see freshmen playing and starting,” said Shurburtt, who added that the 2013 season featured by far the most true freshmen who made an immediate impact.
There are plenty of examples throughout Florida of true freshmen playing big roles.
One could argue the best offensive player at the University of Miami each of the past two seasons has been a true freshman: running back Duke Johnson in 2012 and receiver Stacy Coley in 2013. At Florida, freshman cornerback Vernon Hargreaves was named third team All-American by the Associated Press and the National Defensive Freshman of the Year by College Football News. In Tallahassee, Winston wasn’t the only freshman to contribute to the Seminoles’ national title run. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey started 13 games in the secondary and finished with 49 tackles and an interception.
Locally, there are other examples. Former South Plantation High standout Alex Collins, whose wild recruiting tale last February was well documented, led all freshman nationally in rushing with 1,026 yards at Arkansas. Former Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas standout Joey Bosa was one of Ohio State’s best players on defense, racking up 7 1/2 sacks as a starter for the 12-2 Buckeyes last season.
“There are very few coaches nowadays who sign a talented kid and say, ‘He’s going to be a great player in two years. Let’s have him eat, lift weights and figure it out later,’ ” Shurburtt said.
Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said that although most college freshmen aren’t necessarily ready to carry teams in football the way they can in basketball, “physically, a lot of these top kids are ready to help immediately.
“Ten years ago, if I saw a 6-6, 330-pound kid I would be shocked. Now, I don’t even blink an eye,” Farrell said. “The big surprise to me are the quarterbacks and how quickly they are becoming stars like Johnny Football and Famous Jameis. It’s not just the athleticism they show, but the fact they’re able to pick up offenses and not make mistakes all over the field as they grow.”
Chris Nee, who covers recruiting for Noles247 and the state of Florida for 247Sports, credits 7-on-7 summer football for the improvement in quarterback play. Charles Fishbein of EliteScoutingServices.com says many high school players are also more prepared mentally for the bigger stage of college football because they are playing in more televised games and national showcases in college and pro stadiums. Many also are running the same offenses used in college.
“A kid like Peyton Bender at Cardinal Gibbons is headed to Washington State to run Mike Leach’s Air Raid Offense,” Fishbein said. “What does he run at Gibbons? Leach’s offense.”
Naturally, seeing freshmen make more of an impact over the past few years has affected recruiting. Nee said recruits are not only analyzing depth charts before making a commitment, but they’re also taking notes on how often freshmen are playing and how they are being utilized.
Nee said LSU specifically stayed away from recruiting a running back in 2013 because coach Les Miles had his eyes set on landing the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit in 2014, running back Leonard Fournette. At 6-1, 225 pounds and with 4.35-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Nee, Schurburtt and Farrell all believe Fournette could follow in the footsteps of Manziel and Winston and win a Heisman Trophy as a freshman.
Other 2013 freshmen and 2014 recruits to watch as potential Heisman dark-horses: Alabama tailback Derrick Henry, Auburn-bound running back Roc Thomas, Texas A&M-bound quarterback Kyle Allen, Oregon running back Thomas Tyner and Florida State running back Dalvin Cook (Miami Central).
The fan wins, but …
“What all of this [speeding up] has done has made college football more exciting for the fan,” Farrell said. “I’ve run team sites and message boards, and the one thing everyone has wanted to know for the last 20 years was ‘Who is next?’ They’ve always asked me more about a kid who red-shirted last year, or a true freshman, than the All-American quarterback.”
But the recruits and their parents are suffering, Wilson said.
With college coaches pushing for earlier commitments from high school sophomores and juniors, some are seizing the moment to hold scholarship spots, Wilson said. But it doesn’t always end well.
Wilson spent thousands last summer taking his eldest son, Quincy, a four-star defensive back at University School, on official recruiting trips to USC, UCLA, Ohio State, Note Dame, South Carolina and Tennessee before he finally committed to the Florida Gators in August.
“The reason you are seeing all these decommitments is because some kids are finally taking their official visits now and seeing schools and changing their minds,” Wilson said.
“It’s sad because the fan bases get on Twitter and get on the kids when in reality it’s just a flaw in the system. You speed things up and that’s what is happening.”