No slowing down

While college football waits for playoff, recruiting moving at warp speed

Originally Published: August 13, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

Say what you want about the youth of America today, but football recruits are smarter than ever when it comes to the game they play -- and the games played by coaches.

The sweet talk and empty promises that once sold prospects no longer resonate. They would rather hear about a program's five-year plan than the promise of playing time.

Kids live in a wired world. They're well connected and keen to the old tricks.

Schmooze is out. Straight talk is in.

Recruits read depth charts and study film with a tap of the touch screen. Often they know as much about college programs as the fans who follow them.

And more than anything, recruits want to hear the truth.

They rave at the no-nonsense approach of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who's known, while talking to prospects, to crack a smile about as often as his Tide defense gets embarrassed.

Sure, those three big rings make it easier for Saban to stay in character. But other college coaches have followed his lead on the recruiting trail. Even Lane Kiffin, once flamboyant and outspoken, plays it closer to the vest these days at USC.

And look at the Trojans' 2013 class -- No. 1 nationally with 12 of 18 commits ranked in the ESPN 150.

Before Kiffin inks that group on Feb. 6, USC may contend for a BCS title, college football's second to last before the introduction of a four-team playoff. With the sport in transition, recruiting is full speed ahead as coaches vie to land the players who will factor so heavily in changing the face of the game.

Around the world of recruiting, here's a look at a few of the other notables topics and trends to watch as the football season opens:

No time to waste

The acceleration of the recruiting process began years ago. It's now advanced to full-throttle mode.

Not yet to the middle of August, and 106 members of the ESPN 150 have pledged to colleges. Among quarterbacks, 24 of the 25 to attend the Elite 11 finals this summer were committed.

Texas, which helped ignite this trend by collecting commitments en masse during the winter of its recruits' junior years, had long declined to offer scholarships before that time. No more. The Longhorns extended nearly 20 offers to the Class of 2014 this month.

The early decisions are getting earlier. Unofficial spring and summer visits to campus, for a higher percentage of recruits each year, supplant officials as the primary method used to gather information.

Tate Martell
Erik McKinney/ESPN.comTate Martell accepting an offer from Washington before he even plays a high school game stirred up the debate of "How soon is too soon?"
In July, 14-year-old QB Tate Martell of San Diego committed to Washington. He hasn't started eighth grade.

It continues to accelerate, with no slowdown in sight. Coaches like Steve Clarkson, the quarterback guru who tutors Martell, want it like this -- similar to the recruiting process in basketball, with more third-party involvement and offseason scouting.

What can be done? Nothing, really. The NCAA two years ago, apparently in a move to stem the early decisions, changed the date a school can mail a written offer from Sept. 1 of a prospect's junior year to Aug. 1 of his senior year.

This means offers went out to seniors just two weeks ago. Of course, the act of slowing verbal offers -- or promises of offers -- is near impossible.

All the NCAA did was make it easier for college programs to back out of their end of the deals.

If coaches got together and took a stand, change could occur. But that's less likely than a Tennessee invite to Kiffin back to Knoxville to commemorate the 2009 season.

After all, coaches got us here in the first place by pressuring juniors -- then sophomores -- into early decisions. What would you do, as a coach, if 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker Dylan Moses showed up to your camp and clocked a 4.46-second 40-yard dash.

LSU offered a scholarship. Moses, by the way, is 14.

Tell him it's too soon, you say? That he performed well but needs time to develop, to mature, to learn the game, to determine if his love for football matches his physical prowess?

That's how coaches get behind. And ultimately lose games -- and their jobs. Little risk exists for the colleges in offering young players. If the players don't pan out by their senior years of high school, hey, the NCAA said no offers are official until Aug. 1 anyway.

[+] EnlargeShane Morris
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comMichigan QB commit Shane Morris has nearly 15,000 followers on Twitter, but his account is closely monitored by his parents.

140 characters of potential danger

One guarantee for the upcoming football season and period of recruiting before national signing day: A recruit is going to get himself or his college in trouble for something posted on Twitter.

New Jersey cornerback Yuri Wright last year manufactured a few obscene tweets, prompting college programs to reconsider their pursuit of him as a recruit. He landed at Colorado and said recently he's learned his lesson.

Good for Wright.

Others, assuredly, have not learned, though.

Twitter and other forms of social media present an unprecedented stage for teenage athletes. They yield daunting influence, with the ability to reach thousands in a few seconds, and the power often gets put to questionable use.

Quarterback Shane Morris of Warren (Mich.) De La Salle, counts nearly 15,000 followers on Twitter. For that, Morris, committed to Michigan, ranks among the most popular recruits ever anywhere.

Morris tweets about everything: the 6-8 girl on the Russian volleyball team, his new shoulder pads, a photo of his official scholarship offer, senior pictures, his recent 18th birthday. He shares banter with Christian Hackenberg, the Penn State QB commit with whom Morris shared a room this summer at The Opening.

It's mostly harmless stuff. Morris said his parents monitor his online activity.

"They keep me under control," he said.

But many in his shoes receive little or no supervision. Recruits can talk with fans and boosters. Social media is how kids communicate. It has changed the way we cover recruiting and will continue to evolve.

Down what road, we'll soon see.

Robert Nkemdiche, Denzel Nkemdiche
TwitterRobert Nkemdiche (left) is a Clemson commit and the nation's top recruit, but this pic of him at Ole Miss with his brother Denzel stirred things up.

One and not done

The nation's No. 1 prospect, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (Loganville, Ga./Grayson) has a healthy 9,000 followers on Twitter. His words command more attention than anyone in the recruiting game this year.

Committed to Clemson since June, Nkemdiche is far from a done deal for the Tigers. He looks set to flirt with colleges for a while longer.

Nkemdiche said he doesn't seek the attention. But on some level, he enjoys it.

Otherwise, during a visit to see his brother, Ole Miss linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert wouldn't have pulled on a Rebels jersey and posed for a photo, knowing it would quickly go viral. He wouldn't have made suggestive comments to a reporter that Clemson ought to recruit more of his Grayson teammates; three are already committed, in addition to a recruited walk-on.

Check back soon for more drama involving the nation's top prospect.

On second thought

So many early commitments will lead to a rise in decommitments. It's natural order.

Reuben Foster, No. 2 in the ESPN 150, has already flipped from Alabama to Auburn (gasp!) after he transferred from Georgia to Auburn High School for his senior year. Foster joins an under-construction Auburn class that features three defenders rated among the top eight prospects nationally.

Also among the elite, top-rated receiver Ricky Seals-Jones of Sealy, Texas, backed out of his pledge to Texas in June without another school in mind. Seals-Jones simply needed more time.

[+] EnlargeReuben Foster
Alex Scarborough/ESPN.comReuben Foster, No. 2 in the ESPN 150, flipped from Alabama to Auburn and he won't be the only prospect to change schools through the recruiting process.
The choices of Foster and Seals-Jones kicked off the start of decommitment season, as much a rite of passage among many recruits as the initial decisions.

Programs > prospects

The news Friday that 2011 Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu has been dismissed from LSU sent shockwaves through the college game. So how does it affect recruiting?

At LSU, the impact is minimal.

The loss of Mathieu, a sparkplug cornerback, no doubt rates as a huge event for the 2012 Tigers. But no one is crying foul here. Mathieu broke the rules. Recruits will understand.

If no untold information emerges from the smoke of this story, the LSU brand suffers little or no collateral damage. The Tigers have built enough equity with recruits for all parties to realize the Mathieu situation could have gone astray anywhere.

This is not about LSU as much as one player who made a series of poor decisions.

But there's a bigger recruiting issue to be addressed: No player, no matter how hyped, is free of scrutiny today in college football. Top recruits must understand that because of the recent scandals at Penn State, Ohio State, Miami and USC, no matter how good you look on film, don't expect special treatment.

Interestingly, many players seem not to fear scandal. Maybe it's the straight talk from coaches like Kiffin and Bill O'Brien at Penn State, but recruits are flocking to the high-profile programs yet to feel the true impact of NCAA sanctions.

And big-time players, too, like quarterback Max Browne, defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow and safety Su'a Cravens, the top recruiting scores for USC in the 2013 class who all rank in the top 18 of the ESPN 150.

The problems are much more severe at Penn State, of course. Still, O'Brien, while suffering the loss of offensive tackle Dorian Johnson, No. 27 in the ESPN 150 and the No. 2 OT, and others, has managed to keep No. 1-ranked tight end Adam Breneman and Hackenberg, the top-rated quarterback.

Questions persist about the Penn State recruits. Will they stay loyal or join a growing list of decommitments, at Penn State and elsewhere?

It's a polarizing issue. Everyone wants to offer advice. But maybe the kids are equipped to make the right decisions without the help of thousands.

Remember, today's recruits are smarter than ever.