About the project: a year in recruiting
Not as though I needed another reason to follow college football, but now I've got it.
Four reasons, actually.
For the next four to five years, Trey Johnson, Walker Jones, Anu Solomon and Trent Gow have got my attention.
I'm excited to learn of the next chapters in their journeys. They represent a cross section of college prospects -- from Johnson, as the No. 48-ranked recruit in the ESPN 300 for the Class of 2013, to Gow, who did not receive a ranking.
Not that it matters. History tells us that any of the four could blossom into an All-American and advance to the NFL or just as easily as disappear from the game without playing a down.
Recruiting has long intrigued me for its unpredictability. Portrayed as a science, with rankings and stats and projections, the development of a prospect into a college player also hinges on factors outside the game.
I set out in the winter of 2012 to find four prospects who would share the stories of this critical time with ESPN.com. The recruiting process sat at the center of their tales, but with Johnson, Jones, Solomon and Gow, like all incoming freshmen at college programs this summer, many additional layers of life experience will help determine their levels of success at the next level.
So how did you pick the recruits? It's a question I heard, almost without exception, in conversations about this project since its beginning.
I began with more than 50 names. Some I gathered through my experience -- such as Solomon, whom I met in Orlando at registration for the Under Armour All-America Combine in January 2012. Solomon, midway through his junior year at the time, had scholarship offers from four major-conference schools -- all four of which had recently fired their coaches, effectively eliminating his offers.
Most of the names on my initial list came at the suggestion of our RecruitingNation regional writers.
I looked for a group that was diverse demographically and in its prospect ratings, a mix of public and private school players, offensive and defensive recruits and players likely to deal with programs and situations in recruiting that would move the interest meter.
Most important, I needed kids and families and coaches willing to share.
They all did. Even when the line went cold with Trey Johnson around Thanksgiving last year as he bunkered in after reneging on his commitment of 15 months to Auburn, Central Gwinnett coach Todd Wofford kept me informed.
The players were candid.
Their parents were gracious with their time and all willing participants.
Hurt feelings regularly come into play in recruiting. They did here. But keep in mind, there are two sides to every recruiting story. This project was devoted to the stories of the recruits and those people who are close to them.
I learned what drives these players, about their dreams, their expectations.
"The hardest thing about recruiting is that it's different for everyone," Barrett Jones told me last year between BCS titles No. 2 and 3 at Alabama. "Different kids want to go to school for different reasons."
It's up to college coaches to decipher those reasons and use them to their advantage.
Some coaches, obviously, are much better at this than others.
A few final thoughts:
• Georgia and coach Mark Richt owe no one an explanation for their recruiting choices. The Bulldogs have won big and recruited well for more than a decade. But I wonder if they handled things differently in the prosperous state of Georgia, could it have made the difference in putting UGA over the top.
Four SEC programs have played for BCS titles in the past five years. Not Georgia, though it came 4 yards from a trip to Miami last season. Just a little nudge could get Georgia over the top.
Plenty of homegrown talent fills the UGA roster. But Johnson is among the latest in a line of elite Georgia prospects to get a cold shoulder in recruiting from Richt's staff. The Bulldogs recruited him on and off, though never with the fervor of Ohio State, Alabama, USC, Miami and others.
Johnson loved the Bulldogs as a kid. By the end, he was fed up with their indecision.
• Now that Texas no longer waits until February of a prospect's junior year to offer a scholarship, the Longhorns are just like everyone else in college football. No need to play the "offer-approved" game with kids.
UT is not a protector of high school players in the state of Texas. It's an institution with a football program that's trying to compete for championships – and doing it unsuccessfully over the past three years.
Gow and his family bit hard on Texas' vow to educate recruits on the process and on Mack Brown's big talk about refusing to offer more players than the Longhorns can take. That's nice, but Texas acts selectively with its offers because it can; not to protect the players or take a moral stance.
If Brown and his staff coached at Texas Tech, they'd extend offers en masse, too, and worry little about turning kids away.
Gow realized at the end that Texas, truth be told, recruits no differently than its peers.
• Nick Saban sits at the top of his profession for many reasons – chief among them, his attention to detail. It extends to recruiting, too. Saban, months after Jones committed to Alabama, went to Memphis for a visit to his high school.
Geoff Walters, coach at Evangelical Christian School, was impressed that Saban knew the name of Walters' wife and details about his family.
Clearly, Saban does his homework. But he was personable, too. That stunned Walters, who knew Saban primarily for the buttoned-up image he presents in the media.
"I was expecting a 15-minute, very frank, to-the-point, here-it-is discussion," Walters said. "It was not that way. I may have misunderstood this, but I felt like he enjoyed the time here. A lot of it was just coach-talk, talking about ideas and schemes, different events you go through as a coach. He told stories about his daughter.
"You don't win college football games by knowing a lot of football. You win college football games by getting great athletes. And you get great athletes by creating relationships. There's a personal touch to that. And he does a great job."
According to Rex Jones, sending his third son to play for Saban, "he's got a different kind of soft side that he doesn't let a lot of people see."
"He gets into a mode," Rex Jones said, "where you kind of tilt your head and go, 'Is this really Nick Saban?'"
As Rex's oldest son Barrett says, recruiting is different for everyone. But common threads exist. The best recruiters find them.