Linda Robertson

Dreams come true as state schools shine on National Signing Day

St. Thomas Aquinas receiver Mike Harley headlined a strong UM recruiting class.
St. Thomas Aquinas receiver Mike Harley headlined a strong UM recruiting class. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The college football recruiting game has gotten so competitive that it’s not just coaches wooing players. Players have to be salesmen, too.

Take the case of defensive lineman D.J. Johnson of Sacramento’s Luther Burbank High School. He has been obsessed with the University of Miami since he was a peewee — if a person who is 6-4, 240 pounds was ever a peewee.

But recruits like to collect scholarship offers these days the same way some folks like to collect wine or stamps. That way, when these 17-year-old celebrities appear on national TV on Signing Day, as they did Wednesday, they can play musical hats or list their various suitors.

UM coach Mark Richt doesn’t want “It’s all about ME!” players. On his team, “It’s all about the U.”

Johnson passed the loyalty litmus test.

“Our Help Wanted sign was not a ploy. We needed guys with a sense of urgency, and we were very hard-headed about wanting them to be from South Florida,” UM defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said. “We have to cultivate our home fields. So for a few weeks D.J. recruited us as hard as we recruited him. He was insistent he’d had a desire since childhood to be a Hurricane. He had posters in his room. He talked a lot about his love for UM.

“This is not fantasy football. It would be so much easier to win if it was. We want kids with emotional ties to UM.”

Johnson won them over, even though he lives in California. He joined 23 other signees at UM and thousands more across the country who made formal commitments to schools that proclaimed renewed hope for big plans, as they do every early February.

Richt was pleased with his class. He struck out on cornerbacks Chris Henderson of Columbus and Brian Edwards of Miramar, who chose Florida, but he signed wide receiver Mike Harley of St. Thomas Aquinas and didn’t lose any commits from a bountiful group. Three speedy linebackers, four aggressive defensive backs and five offensive linemen who will have the chance to grow in concert with UM’s new quarterback finally give UM the depth it’s been lacking because of a recently expired scholarship reduction penalty by the NCAA — although UM signed only one running back, Robert Burns of Gulliver, and is thin at that spot.

“When we stack the 2018 class on top of the two we’ve signed, we’ll be ready to blow anybody’s doors down,” Diaz said.

Butch Davis is back in the sport at FIU, where he made a splash by signing four players from Miami’s Booker T. Washington, plus highly rated offensive linemen from Southridge and South Broward. Davis only had six weeks to assemble his class. He is one of the best recruiters in the nation and will make things quite interesting at FIU.

Florida and Florida State made their mark with multi-starred players who committed early and didn’t waver, including a dozen from among South Florida’s top 25-rated recruits. Ex-Texas coach Charlie Strong swept in at South Florida and signed three players from Carol City. Lane Kiffin, who left his Alabama offensive coordinator job to rekindle his head coaching career, signed a solid class at FAU.

Three new coaches, combined with the traditional powerhouses, make Florida the place to be.

“Everybody talks about putting a fence around South Florida, but if you put a fence around it, there might be 120 guys who are going major Division I,” Richt said. “Guess what? You can only take 15 or 20 a year, on average. When you have that many great players in your backyard, you have to make sure you are creating those relationships with those kids as early as possible.”

Signing Day is merely the end of a process that gets longer and starts earlier for teens as the stakes in college football get higher.

It’s a day of joy and relief for everybody, especially kids wearing coats and ties, hugging parents and principals. It hit them hard Wednesday: They’ve got to grow up fast. After years of hype and seduction, of pondering their future, at last they were able to determine their destiny, with the swipe of a pen.

“These kids don’t want to say no,” UM offensive line coach Stacy Searels said. “Being able to say no is a weight off their shoulders. When they’re debating where to go I tell them they will feel it in their gut. Once you sign it’s a true commitment. Prior to Signing Day, it’s just a reservation.”

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