HOOVER, Ala. - Coaches. Facilities. A winning tradition.
For decades, all have been common factors in recruiting. Yet in today's world of college football, a new factor is at the forefront of the decision-making process: NCAA investigations.
Nearby Auburn tops the list of schools they're worried about.
"I had Auburn as my No. 2, but you know that stuff," the 6-foot, 180-pound Elston said, referring to the NCAA's investigation into the recruitment of former quarterback Cam Newton. "You never know what might happen. Like Reggie Bush [at Southern California], it came out and came back and got them.
"You never know. It might happen with Auburn. I pay attention to it a lot. It helps me pick which school I want to go to. I want to go for a championship."
Auburn isn't the only school the two are considering that has been under the watchful eye of the NCAA. Oregon and LSU are also in the mix. Both schools have been linked recently to questionable recruiting services.
"That factors a lot," said Alexander, who is considered the top outside linebacker in the nation. "I don't want to be at a school that's in a whole lot of trouble."
The 6-2, 210-pound Alexander said his mother keeps him up to date on the latest NCAA news with his prospective schools. The nation's 16th-best overall prospect also intends to ask some direct questions when he visits with coaches this fall.
"It's kind of difficult, but it is what it is," he said. "They've already done it so they can't take it back."
Elston not only has his list of schools cut to five, he also has it in order. The safety lists his leaders as Clemson, LSU, Miami, Alabama, Oregon and Auburn.
Both players said they'd like to stay close to home if possible. The X factor in that may be Oregon. Even though they didn't visit the Ducks' campus, they were wowed by nearby Portland, the weather in the northwest and Nike's hospitality when they took part in The Opening this month in Beaverton, Ore.
Elston has also hit the road regionally, visiting Tennessee, Clemson, LSU, Texas, Arkansas, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Elston said he has grown close to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, which makes the Tigers well worth watching.
"I talk to him a lot," Elston said. "I Skype him. I call him to see how things are going at Clemson."
Alabama's two most prominent in-state schools have also made strong impressions, led by Bama coach Nick Saban and Auburn coach Gene Chizik.
"Saban is quiet. He uses a lot of hand motions," Elston said. "That man doesn't say a lot. Chizik is like a nice, gentle family man."
Alexander said he stopped counting how many scholarship offers he had after it got to 43. He said his top 10 are Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Ole Miss, Miami, LSU, Oregon, Southern California and Oklahoma. He said he'll cut his list to five before his senior season and added that Oregon, Alabama and Auburn have been recruiting him the hardest.
"It's been kind of difficult," he said of whittling his list. "Some schools were just offering to offer."
Alexander hasn't traveled nearly as much as Elston. He has been to Alabama twice and to Southern Miss to visit friends.
"Alabama is a good school, a great school," he said. "Coach Saban is a great coach. The school is just nice; nice facilities, nice people to be around. Auburn, Coach Chizik is a great coach. I love the facilities. Great people. Both of them are great schools to go to."
Just how much Oregon factors in Alexander's recruiting remains to be seen. On one hand, he says distance isn't a big factor; then he seems to suggest it is.
"It factors a little bit but it's my decision," he said. "I want my mom and dad to be able to come see me play, it factors a little bit."
Alexander and Elston know this much: They'll both announce their college destinations on national signing day in February and they expect some publicity.
"ESPN should be coming is all I know," Elston joked.
What the Oxford duo doesn't know is whether they'll continue playing together in college.
"We talk about going to the same school, but wherever our hearts are at, we'll go to," Elston said. "If we want to go to the same school, we will."
Said Alexander, "Sometimes we talk about that, but we don't know if we're going to the same school or not."
Clemson is the variable. Elston seems to have far more interest in the Tigers than Alexander.
Whatever decisions they make, each has a best friend to lean on.
"We talk about it almost every day," Alexander said. "We know it's going to be hard to pick one school. It's going to be the hardest decision of your life, but we just have to work through it."
Said Elston, "We talk about it but we don't take it that serious until officials. We just try to have fun. You can't let it stress you out a lot."
Alexander and Elston have plenty of motivation at the National Select 7-on-7 Championship in Hoover. Both remember playing in the tournament two years ago when their team was bounced out early.
While Elston is certainly trying to help Oxford win the tournament title, he's also enjoying the opportunity to improve.
"It helps me both ways, receiver and DB," he said. "Just looking at routes and reading them right. And then making the right coverages and all that."
Most project Elston to play safety in college. He's fine with that, but he'd also like a chance to play offense, a fact that the Crimson Tide recently took advantage of.
"They are the first school that told me to come to their camp and work as a receiver, so that really helps a lot," Elston said. "I want to play receiver too."
Elston still partially laments making the move to defense.
"I played offense ever since I was little," he said. "In the ninth grade, I was second-string at receiver. They said I had a chance of starting on defense, so I moved."
Elston has proved effective in a passing league format. He helped his team win the 7-on-7 tournament at The Opening in Oregon.
Elston said Clemson, LSU and Auburn have also talked to him about playing receiver.
Two in front
The recruitment of Grayson linebacker Robert Nkemdiche has an Alabama appeal despite his Georgia roots. The standout prospect who could play linebacker or tight end in college said he has primarily heard from two schools.
"Only Alabama and Auburn are talking right now," the Loganville (Ga.) Grayson prospect said. "They're the only two schools talking to me right now."
That will likely change Sept. 1, when colleges can more easily reach prospects as per NCAA rules. But for now, Nkemdiche, who is expected to be one of the top prospects in the southeast, has seen two schools make an impression.
"They're good football schools," he said. "I visited both of them. I like the campuses and I like the coaches."