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Monday, February 2, 2009
Updated: February 4, 7:40 AM ET
Future factors into recruits' decisions

By Matt Winkeljohn
Special to ESPNRISE.com

You could say football is in Matt Couch's blood, and that would be an understatement -- so it shocked nobody when the top-notch offensive lineman visited Penn State. His father, Thomas, after all, was a member of the Nittany Lions' 1982 national championship team.

There's plenty more to Couch's story.

In addition to Penn State, the senior from Enola, Pa., has visited Michigan, Michigan State, Pitt and more schools since last spring while trying to choose one.

Now here's a possible surprise: Blood might be thicker than water, but Couch could end up on water. ESPNU's No. 14-ranked center prospect in the nation has narrowed his choices to Army, hard by New York's Hudson River, and Navy, on Chesapeake Bay. They are ranked by US News & World Report as the No. 14 and No. 22 liberal arts colleges in the U.S., respectively.

Why would a young man with a chance to play big-time college football opt for an academy or, in the case of superb linebacker Shayne Skov of The Trinity-Pawling (N.Y.) School, choose a school like Stanford, which is more noted for producing Nobel Prize laureates than football players?

There is a common theme. When highly talented football players opt for ultra-high-end academic institutions, they have long-range plans in mind.

Shayne Skov
Shayne Skov was the first person in his class to commit to Stanford.

"Schools like Michigan and Penn State, the way I look at it, when you graduate, unless you're one of that select percent and going on to NFL, you're just like any onother graduate," said Couch, a senior at East Pennsboro Area High. "My dad was on a very successful team at Penn State from 1981 to '84. But he sees what the Naval Academy or West Point could do for me. I can play football and have a career. When you graduate, you don't have to look for a job; you have one."

Skov was the first player to commit to Stanford's 2009 recruiting class, on Sept. 1. At first glance, Stanford -- tied with MIT at No. 4 among national universities ranked by US News & World Report -- might seem an odd fit for a stud football player. But Skov grew up in Oakland, Calif., and now attends a boarding school -- "To help me mature," he said. His father went to Cal, his mother to UCLA, and one of his great grandfathers, Rogers P. Podge Sr., was a track star at Stanford from 1929 to 1931. Plus, "My parents emphasized academics from the time I was very young," he said.

Skov sees Stanford as a striking opportunity to set himself up for life with an education from a school that has produced 18 Nobel Prize laureates and four Pulitzer Prize winners. He said he also considered Notre Dame (No. 18), Virginia (No. 23) and USC (No. 27), among other schools.

"I'm not talking only about myself in this instance, but there's only a few athletes that have that combination of talent and [academic acumen to qualify for schools like Stanford]," said ESPNU's No. 16-ranked outside linebacker. "When those individuals are bright enough to play football and go to an academic institution like that, why sacrifice one or the other? It's the best of both worlds."

Skov is not the only Stanford commit with a big-time football pedigree. On Jan. 26, San Diego's Tyler Gaffney, one of the top-ranked fullbacks in the nation and the California player of the year, committed to the Cardinal over USC and Notre Dame.

There should be no cynical views taken when young student-athletes make such big-minded decisions. Critics might suggest, however, that players like Skov, Gaffney, Couch and defensive end Davon Custis of St. Francis DeSales High (Columbus, Ohio), who will attend Northwestern rather than nearby Ohio State, are signing up for football misery.

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Sure, Navy has been much more competitive over the past eight years, Vanderbilt (No. 18)) went to a bowl this past season, Stanford upset USC in 2007 and Northwestern appears to be trending upward. But more often, it seems teams like these, particularly Army, get pounded on the field.

Perhaps these players can be agents of change.

Sophomore running back Jonathan Dwyer was the ACC player of the year this past season after rushing for 1,395 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns for Georgia Tech. He rushed for 144 yards and two scores in the Yellow Jackets' 45-42 upset of in-state rival Georgia, the first time in eight years the Jackets beat the Dogs.

Before choosing Tech, he'd narrowed his field of choices to the Jackets, Florida, Southern Cal and Georgia; he could have gone almost anywhere.

He opted to stay close to his home in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, and quite a few football factory-caliber prospects joined him. Like Couch and Skov, Dwyer planned for the future -- albeit in a different way. He was part of perhaps the best recruiting class in Tech history, a group that formed an uncommon bond during the recruiting wars even before they became Jackets.

"The '07 class that came in with me … we started to become more like brothers. That was the biggest reason I came to Tech, to be part of a family atmosphere," he said. "Academics was a big part, too."

Tech's '07 class had a lot to do with the Jackets' 9-4 record in '08 under first-year coach Paul Johnson. Against Georgia, members of that class scored 39 of Tech's 45 points (including those by sophomore walk-on kicker Scott Blair), and accounted for all the Jackets' passing yards and 406 of their whopping 421 rushing years. Running back Roddy Jones rushed for 214 yards and quarterback Josh Nesbitt for 48; safety Morgan Burnett -- who tied for the national lead with six interceptions and returned one for a score in that game -- also was part of that group.

Jonathan Dwyer
Jonathan Dwyer is getting a top education and playing big-time football.

So was starting defensive end Derrick Morgan, who bypassed offers from Ohio State, Penn State and Boston College to attend Tech, and tackle Nick Claytor, who had offers from Ohio State, Auburn and others. Linebacker Kyle Jackson was recruited by Florida, Alabama, Clemson, Stanford and others. Nesbitt and Burnett, whose brother Cap played a few years ago at Georgia, were heavily recruited by the Dogs.

"You're going to spend four years or more at a college," Dwyer said, "and you want to be around good people you're going to remember for the rest of your life."

Finding very bright students at places like Stanford, Northwestern, Army and Navy is easy. Finding multiple players who are simultaneously upper crust on the field is not. A group like that can help jump-start what had become a stale program like the one at Tech (ranked No. 35), and that's what Skov has in mind for Stanford.

He met Custis on a recruiting visit to the school in Palo Alto, Calif., and although he failed to convince him to join the Cardinal rather than go to Northwestern (ranked No. 12), he continues to call and text potential Stanford recruits -- much as Jackson, Dwyer and others did at Tech. He thinks something special is afoot for coach Jim Harbaugh, who received an extension at the school last year.

As much as Skov -- who is class president at Trinity-Pawling -- looks forward to majoring in physics, he relishes the idea of helping make the Cardinal more relevant on the football field.

"I look at where the Stanford program is headed, and I may not win a national championship in my four years, but I think the program is on the rise," Skov said. "It's in a great location, it's Pac-10 football, and you can build on all that. Plus, I think a Stanford education will open up my future."

These players and others like them are not discounting the possibility of pro football careers, nor banking on them.

"Look at Mr. Skov going to Stanford," said Couch, who also visited Vanderbilt, Stanford and several Ivy League schools. "You graduate from Michigan, Penn State or any other big schools like those, and, not to take anything away, but you're just a number. You go to a Stanford, you don't have to fill out anything. You're automatically called to a job interview because people know it's a special kid who can play Division I football and go to an academic institution like that."

Sometimes, the kids who go to Stanford, Northwestern, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Army and Navy are ultra players like Stanford quarterbacks Jim Plunkett and John Elway. They went on to win Super Bowls in the NFL. Current Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler went to Vanderbilt.

Maybe pro careers will work out for Skov, Couch, Custis, Gaffney and others.

If not, Tech's Dwyer said that you can't beat getting -- and taking -- the chances to play big-time ball and get a big-time education.

"That's like two free gifts, two presents given to you," he said. "Some people … want a career for themselves other than football, which doesn't last forever. Not a lot of people make it to the NFL, and some people want a better backup plan."

Matt Winkeljohn recently left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.