Football's future is heating up
Prospects like Jabrill Peppers are under more scrutiny than ever before
The current climate in football recruiting increasingly confounds high school and college coaches. As for its future, the forecast calls, well, for more heat.
Here's a story to help explain: Scott Altenberg, coach of coveted Class of 2014 prospects Adoree' Jackson and Dwight Williams at Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra, recently received a package in the mail with a request for his players to sign and return the included pictures.
There was a note, too, expressing to Altenberg that the sender had been a fan "forever" of the cornerback Jackson and linebacker Williams.
"For as long as they could remember," the coach said.
Keep in mind, three years earlier, Jackson and Williams were in eighth grade.
"What, so two years? What is going on here?" Altenberg said, his voice rising. "It's crazy."
The celebritization of elite prospects expands with each recruiting cycle. Among the names in the ESPN 300 released Monday, many have long been well-known to college football fans. Other recruits will gain acclaim and notoriety for their decisions over the next 7½ months.
Once reserved for the uber-football talent or supreme high school basketball player ready to waltz to the NBA, the treatment now shown to football recruits every year by the dozens – and growing – is nothing short of a game-changer for the sport.
Innocence ends at age 16 for top prospects. They collect tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, commit to their colleges on ESPN and other networks, command attention in public and never leave the public eye after the first couple of major scholarship offers.
"I think it's awful," said Nevada coach Brian Polian, a former assistant at Texas A&M, Stanford and Notre Dame. "I would struggle to find anything that's good about it, to be honest. It's funny -- and I don't say this disrespectfully -- that ESPN wants to write about it, because ESPN is part of the beast.
"We're turning the Elite 11 into a reality series. The recruiting process is hard enough to deal with, and now the guys at the highest level enter a media spotlight that very few people are prepared for, certainly not a 17- or 18-year-old."
At Paramus Catholic High School in Paramus, N.J., coach Chris Partridge provides leadership training for his players. They attend seminars on how to handle interviews and receive constant reminders about acceptable behavior in public and on social media.
Partridge coaches cornerback Jabrill Peppers, the No. 2 prospect nationally and cornerstone of Michigan's top-ranked class. Coach and player meet daily during the school year to discuss Peppers' football career.
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"If he goes anywhere, people are going to notice him," Partridge said. "He can't have his pants sagging. If he gets angry at someone, he can't show it. He can't blow up. We talk about displaying positivity throughout everything. You've got to be upbeat."
Yeah, you'll get upset, Partridge tells Peppers, but save that for home or the locker room.
"Every decision you make," the coach said, "it could affect your team and affect your family."
That kind of advice has long applied to professional athletes.
"It just so happens now," Partridge said, "these guys have been thrust into that spotlight earlier."
Peppers said he embraces the situation.
"This is the life I wanted, so I'm grateful," Peppers said. "At the same, it can get a little annoying. I have an image to protect, so that means when you go out, know your surroundings, know who you're with. When you're one of the top players in the country, everyone is going to have their opinions of you – no matter how well they know you."
But it's only been this way for two or three years, coinciding with the rise of Twitter, expanded recruiting coverage and better organization of showcase events like The Opening next month in Portland, Ore.
When Altenberg coached USC-bound receivers Robert Woods, George Farmer and Marqise Lee, all top-100 prospects in 2010 and 2011, the coach said they were known locally and regionally, but the comparison to today's environment is "night and day."
"I had kids who were overwhelmed by seeing three coaches in one day," Altenberg said. "Now, that's nothing. It's a whole different animal. It's unbelievable."
Polian played the lead role in recruiting Manti Te'o from Honolulu to Notre Dame as the No. 2 overall prospect in 2009. In Te'o, Polian said he found a respectful, grounded kid with the proper approach toward football.
"He arrived at Notre Dame and knew full well that he was owed nothing," Polian said.
Such an attitude helped Te'o manage adversity early in his Irish career. And Polian said he believed Te'o better handled and survived the firestorm of controversy that surrounded him last winter because he never allowed his status as a five-star recruit to impact his outlook on life.
For today's elite recruit, it appears much more difficult to keep perspective.
Polian worked on a staff not long ago that landed an early pledge from a top recruit who later told the coaches he was decommitting because he had not received enough "respect" in the media. If he opened his recruiting, the recruit said, maybe he would again get that desired attention.
"That is the absolute worst motivation ever," Polian said.
And if you don't think it's going to progress further, Polian said, pay better attention. More dark clouds loom on the horizon.
FUTURE OF FOOTBALL
What does the future of football look like? ESPN.com will spend the week gazing into our crystal ball. The week kicked off with a look at the next class of college stars and continues with predictions for future college and NFL power rankings.