Commentary

Recruits don't fall for old tricks

Gone are the days of co-eds, fancy dinners winning commits; recruits know better now

Originally Published: January 4, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Presenting linebacker Dalton Santos, the modern-day football recruit.

A throwback on the field, Santos caused mayhem from the first moment of the first practice Sunday for the Under Armour All-America Game (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday on ESPN). More than one observer wondered aloud when, not if, Santos would knock someone into next week.

He plays on the edge. But in recruiting, Santos is all about control. Like so many of today's prospects in this age of instant information and social media, the Van (Texas) High School star enters every recruiting encounter with his eyes wide open.

One recruit's tale

Football players learn quickly about the business of recruiting.

Take Matt Davis, a recently graduated quarterback from Klein Forest High School near Houston who's set to enroll at Texas A&M next week.

Davis received his first scholarship offers as a sophomore from Alabama and Texas A&M.

"I thought I was on top of the world," Davis said. "I thought I was big-time."

Soon, his grades began to slip. He spent more time on recruiting than school.

"Everybody hounds you," Davis said. "Sometimes, I think they forget we're still kids. I just got my license six months ago. I'm barely getting peach fuzz.

"It's a grown man's decisions. That's why you need guidance."

Davis said his parents advised him to keep working hard and to focus on his own tasks, not the words of a college recruiter or the whims of zealous fans.

Consequently, he handled some new tricks of the game -- and old ones -- with grace.

Fans meet recruits through social media, Davis said, and suddenly, the fans think they're your friend. Davis said he received a phone call from a fan who simply wanted the quarterback to wish his wife happy birthday.

When he visited Auburn, Davis and his father got asked to dinner by a group of fans.

They didn't go.

Others sent him a video of Cam Newton.

"These are grown men," Davis said, "and they know you. That was the most surprising thing to me."

As for the old-school tricks, Davis received handwritten letters from college coaches who told him he'd win the Heisman Trophy at their school.

"They tell you it's a pipeline to the league," Davis said. "That's the kind of stuff kids want to hear."

His advice? Take it with a grain of salt.

"There's no way I'm going to win the Heisman," Davis said, "if I go out and throw three picks in the spring game."

-- Mitch Sherman

"People on the outside don't know what it's like when you've got coaches running through your house every day," said Santos, the nation's top inside linebacker who is committed to Tennessee. "They're telling you that you can have everything you want. Coaches say you can live the easy life."

Santos said he knows there's nothing easy about life as a college football player.

"The more you talk to them, the more you start to figure it out," Santos said. "This guy is acting fake. That's not who he really is. Don't let anybody lie to you. The main thing to remember as a recruit is that you're just another piece of meat."

Football prospects today are more knowledgeable than ever about recruiting. That's not necessarily a good thing for colleges that rely on age-old tricks of selling recruits on the fantasies that once worked in this business.

Recruits today talk to one another nonstop. They talk to fans. They know what to expect.

The consensus among players at the Under Armour game: Recruiting is a business -- on both sides. And the sooner you realize it as a recruit, the better.

Quarterback Zach Kline of Danville, Calif., long pledged to Cal, continued to hear from other schools for months after making his commitment.

The most persistent suitor? Michigan. Kline said he liked all the Michigan coaches but finally told them to stop wasting their time.

"It gets annoying," Kline said. "But you find out it's a business, and these players generate a whole lot of money. You've got to look at it and remember each of these players is extremely valuable. We're all pieces in a big puzzle for them."

The top high school players almost need an assistant to organize their recruiting -- to separate fact from fiction. Fortunately for defensive end Mario Edwards of Denton, Texas, he had his father, a former NFL cornerback and college star at Florida State, to represent him in talks with nearly every premier program.

Edwards is the extreme case; he's the No. 1 player this year in the ESPNU 150 and committed early to Florida State. Of late, though, Edwards also looked hard at Texas, LSU and Oklahoma.

"The main thing we did, we stayed honest with everybody," Edwards Sr. said. "They know they can't sell me a dream to get him.

"The No. 1 thing a kid should know, if you go on these trips, you're going to be wined and dined, but it's a business trip. You don't go there for the girls. You don't go there for the party life. You go there because that's a place you're interested in spending the next four or five years of your life."

But you're talking about kids often as young as 16 when recruiting begins.

"All those things appeal to kids that age," the elder Edwards said. "And it can get real crazy."

Nothing in the rules prohibits a recruit from examining every option before he signs a letter of intent. After it's signed, forget it.

"You're just another guy on the totem pole," Kline said. "It's why you have to go a school for you."

And it's part of the reason that so many top players continue to reconsider long-standing commitments less than four weeks before signing day.

In addition to Edwards, No. 1 quarterback Jameis Winston, also an FSU pledge, is looking at Stanford, LSU and Ohio State.

So many others nationally are doing the same this month, such as Southern California tight end commit Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick of Rocklin, Calif., who is set to take three more official visits.

The way recruits see it, take advantage while you can, because there's only so much time to dispel the misconceptions of recruiting.

Cope-Fitzpatrick, for instance, heard plenty of negative talk about Oregon.

"I heard the players are really snooty, because they get so much free stuff from Nike," he said.

Not true, according to Cope-Fitzpatrick. He visited Oregon and liked it.

"You really don't know until you get there," he said.

Uncommitted linebacker Ifeadi Odenigbo of Centerville, Ohio, found it bothersome when the coach at one school asked him about his visit to another.

The questions made him feel uncomfortable.

"They want to know how it went," Odenigbo said. "That's happened to me multiple times. I think they should just mind their own business. It's a business for us, too."

Odenigbo, in fact, changed his phone number this past fall to minimize the distractions. Before the switch, he said, he averaged a phone call every 45 minutes in the late afternoon, evening and night. Even late at night, he said, schools and media from the West Coast would call, failing to realize that while the clock read 8 p.m. out there, it was 11 at his home in the Eastern time zone. He just wanted to sleep.

Social media, too, keeps players informed. Several prospects interviewed at the Under Armour game events said they had been besieged by messages and requests from fans on Facebook and Twitter.

Offensive guard Vadal Alexander of Buford, Ga., said he avoids social media because of it.

"We're almost like celebrities," Alexander said. "Like child stars. It gets pretty intense. That's tough to handle for some people."

Alexander, an LSU commit, received mail at home from fans asking him to sign items and return them. He did it.

"The perception of the recruiting process is skewed," Cope-Fitzpatrick said.

College programs, despite the prospects' increased awareness, continue to woo recruits with the same tricks they've used for years.

Why? Because it often works.

Safety Landon Collins, No. 7 in the ESPNU 150 out of Geismar, La., visited LSU in December and ate dinner at Texas De Brazil, one of the most expensive restaurants in Baton Rouge.

The recruits stay at the nicest hotels and spend time with the most attractive female students. It's enjoyable, for sure, according to the recruits.

"But the girls aren't going to help you through school," Collins said. "They're not going to get you up at 7 in the morning to work out or help you learn the playbook."

Still, LSU sits atop of Collins' list alongside Alabama. He'll announce his decision Thursday during the TV broadcast of the Under Armour game.

On his trip to Alabama, Collins said he toured an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium with his parents just as part of the band marched through. Then, the coaches showed him a Crimson Tide jersey stamped with his No. 2.

Some recruiting tactics, while within the rules, border on bizarre -- like the coach who told Texas-committed receiver Cayleb Jones he could go to school five minutes from the Playboy Mansion, a thinly veiled suggestion about whom he might meet on the way to class.

Santos, the rough-and-tumble, Texas-bred linebacker, just smiles at some of it. Before signing day, Santos said, he plans to make an unofficial trip back to Tennessee and take visits to Ohio State and Arkansas.

"When you come down to it as a player, I've got to think about what's going to be best for me," Santos said. "Ten years down the road, what school can help me take care of my kids and my family?

"That's what I want to know."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman