High School Recruiting

National audience anticipates National Signing Day announcements

The ESPNU cameras will roll for 10 consecutive hours Wednesday as dozens of reporters and analysts scrutinize teenagers’ whimsical decisions about where they plan to play college football. National Signing Day, the day high school recruits fax in their signed scholarship offers, has evolved into an NFL Draft-like extravaganza.

Recruiting junkies have spent months sifting through the “leans,” the “soft verbals,” the “silent commits” and “de-commits.” They have been speculating about who will flip at the last minute, because recruits always do. They are, after all, 17 and 18 years old. On signing day two years ago, All-Everything offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio announced he would be attending Auburn. Later in the day, he had a change of heart, and three days later, signed with rival Alabama, where his brother also played on the line.

There will be live remote reports from 13 campuses coast to coast Wednesday, as 17 players plan to announce their decisions on live TV. Some will put three schools’ ball caps in front of them on a table to spike the drama factor.

We will learn, once and for all, at exactly 7:35 a.m., whether consensus No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche, a 6-4, 282-pound defensive end from Loganville, Ga., will join his older brother, Denzel, at Ole Miss. Word is Nkemdiche had canceled a planned visit to Louisiana State, but then decided to go this weekend.

At 9:10 a.m., defensive end Carl Lawson is expected to announce his college choice. He committed to Auburn last spring, but Tigers coach Gene Chizik was fired and now Lawson is said to be considering Tennessee, Clemson and North Carolina.

Five minutes later, according to the published schedule, Miami’s Matthew Thomas, a linebacker at Booker T. Washington, will make his announcement. Will it be the University of Miami? He has been leaning toward Miami over Florida State, Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

One of the biggest story lines this signing day is that it’s now cool for football players to go to Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.

Never mind that Vandy just posted its first nine-win season since 1915, that it has been to the postseason just six times since the program’s inception in 1890, or that this past season was the first time the Commodores won five Southeastern Conference games since 1935. That newfound success, and charismatic coach James Franklin, are the reasons they landed quarterback Johnathan McCrary from Ellenwood Cedar Grove (Ga.). It is also why their upcoming class is ranked between Nos. 15 and 25.

“Vandy has been a patsy for all time, and now, you’ve got some of the best high school kids in the nation taking visits there and committing there,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting expert with CBS Sports Network. “A lot of recruiting comes down to perceptions, and the perception right now is that Vandy is a program heading up. They had a winning record in the toughest conference and are reaping the benefits of that, and their coach, James Franklin, is a very personable guy who’s knocking things out of the park.”

The same is true at Ole Miss, which was 2-10 two seasons ago and this season improved to 7-6. Experts say this is best Ole Miss recruiting class in 30 years.

“Hugh Freeze is a tremendous recruiter,” said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst at Rivals.com. “He relates well to the parents and the kids. It also helps that they might get the No.1 player in the country [Nkemdiche]. When other kids hear he is leaning there, it influences their decision.”

Charles Fishbein, a Hollywood-based recruiting expert for Elite Scouting Services, said both schools benefit from playing in the SEC.

“Kids want to play in the SEC, and if they’re not getting called by Alabama, Florida and LSU, they want to play for their opponents,” he said. “Vandy and Ole Miss are definitely reaping rewards. Even Kentucky is.”

Fishbein said Florida, Ohio State, USC and UCLA are all having great years.

Through the process, the athletes get wrapped up in the hype. Lemming has been a recruiting guru for 34 years. Of their top 2,000 rated prospects, Lemming said he sees 1,990 of them in person. A few weeks ago, he met with South Florida recruits outside Coral Gables High. He has learned that kids are impressionable and change their minds often.

“Some kids flip schools three or four times, or hold out until the last minute even if they know where they’re going because they love the attention from media and recruiting websites,” Lemming said. “The Internet makes money off uncommitted kids because they’re creating news and drama about their announcements. It seems the longer a kid waits, he turns into the greatest player who ever lived. I know of kids who commit early and then take visits late to get back into the media because they’re jealous of the attention other players are getting heading into National Signing Day.”

One thing to keep in mind as the recruiting craze winds down: In 2008, Robert Griffin III was the 12th-rated high school quarterback on Scout.com, behind such names as Star Jackson, Sean Renfree, Nick Crissman, Tommy Dorman, Blaine Gabbert, Landry Jones and Mike Glennon.