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Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Updated: February 6, 11:31 AM ET
Top recruits getting early start on school

By Jeff Miller
Special To ESPNRISE.com

As a toddler, Chance Warmack walked early. Talked early, too.

So his mother wasn't surprised that Chance was comfortable with starting his college football career early. The offensive lineman from Westlake High School (Atlanta) started classes at Alabama a few weeks ago.

"He said he had experienced everything that he could have experienced in high school," Courtney Warmack said.

Warmack is part of the growing trend of major college football signees opting to graduate from high school in December and enroll in college in January. More than 100 this year spent Christmas vacation buying textbooks and saying goodbye to high school friends.

The primary motivation is to participate in spring practice, meant to provide more of an opportunity to play that first fall. It also is seen as a chance to experience an academic semester before the fall semester of the first football season.

Texas coach Mack Brown brought in eight December grads this semester, probably among the most of any school. And that's down from nine last year.

"They can get acclimated to school when their schedule is a little less hectic and have the advantage of going through a spring and off-season program before the others get here," Brown said in an e-mail. "Since they have an opportunity to work with their coaches all spring, they get adjusted earlier and know what they need to work on in the summer. The coaches can't work with the guys in the summer, so that gives the group that gets here in January an opportunity to work with them and get a good feel for the system in the spring."

Brown said the Longhorns never initiate the issue with a recruit or a family.

"If the prospect brings it up, we tell him what he needs to do and make sure he understands that he needs to be 100-percent committed to it," he said.

Tate Forcier
Early enrollment was a priority for Tate Forcier and his family.

In the case of Alabama's Warmack, it was Mom who started the ball rolling when Chance, who graduated with a 3.2 GPA, was a sophomore. She said she has been in education for 23 years, the last 10 overseeing the program for exceptional students at Sandtown Middle School, which feeds into Westlake.

"I felt like I know my child," Courtney Warmack said. "Football is his love. This would give him a chance to adjust to academics and the sports program without the pressure of starting in the fall."

Courtney said Chance will return home to participate in graduation ceremonies, which appears to be the case with many early signees. Missing his prom isn't an issue with him, she said, since he attended last year's.

The opportunity to enroll early and play early was a priority for the family of quarterback Tate Forcier, from Scripps Ranch High School (San Diego), during recruiting. Tate's older brothers, Jason and Chris, are currently quarterbacks at Stanford and UCLA, and they graduated with their classes.

"I wouldn't recommend it unless you had a solid opportunity to play early," said Mike Forcier, the boys' father. He said it was Jason, who began at Michigan and transferred to Stanford in 2007, who sold Tate on the idea of going early.

"At the end, Tate was really worried about going and wanting to be with his friends for finishing high school," Mike said. "His brother sat him down and said, 'Not only the opportunity, you're going to have I don't know how many times more fun at college than you ever will in your senior year of high school.'"

Said Tate: "I'm not going to lie; it was a lot of stress. I'm not a great student. I'm an average student. There were times when I had doubts I was going to get it done."

Tate enters a Michigan program that finished 3-9 last season under new coach Rich Rodriguez, with sophomore Nick Sheridan and freshman Steven Threet splitting the 2008 starts and playing time.

On signing day, quarterback Denard Robinson from Deerfield Beach High School (Florida) chose Michigan over Florida.

Tate appears ready for the competition.

"I've learned so much from my coaches in just the last two weeks," he said. "I recommend coming early for anyone who has a chance to do it."

Jim Dalton believes quarterbacks especially benefit from getting in the early spring practice. Dalton is the quarterbacks coach at Avila University, an NAIA school in Kansas City, Mo. His son, Blaine, is one of two QBs who enrolled early this semester at Missouri.

Dalton said that the topic was first raised by Mizzou personnel only last summer and that he highly encouraged making the move.

"It was a matter of taking one extra core course that he needed," Jim said. "He's always been more mature than most of the other players his age. He'll really get a leg up."

Texas signed one of the top quarterback prospects in the country in Garrett Gilbert of Lake Travis (Austin, Texas). He elected to stay through his full senior year. With Colt McCoy returning for his senior year, Gilbert will probably redshirt.

The decision was made before new Lake Travis coach Chad Morris arrived. Morris had quarterbacks at Stephenville (Texas) who went early. Jevan Snead enrolled at Texas in January 2006, saw redshirt frosh McCoy win the job, then transferred to Mississippi. Kody Spano enrolled at Nebraska last January and was redshirted.

"It's good for kids that have an opportunity to compete for the starting position," Morris said. "Jevan lost a lot. He didn't get to go to the prom, didn't get to do a lot of things that normal kids get to do."

Quarterback Russell Shepard from Cypress Ridge High School (Houston) is one of six early signees at LSU and said he has enjoyed his brief time on campus.

Russell Shepard
Russell Shepard is one of six early signees at LSU.

"I'm already getting stronger, faster in the three weeks that I've been here," Shepard said.

He said he's taking five classes, with many of his fellow newcomers in them, for 15 credit hours.

"Sociology is the hardest," he said. "You have to think a different way."

Oklahoma has five early enrollees. Gerald Gurney, the Sooners' senior associate athletic director for academics, said he fears that the newcomers can become "odd men out" who have a difficult time fitting in with either the other non-athletes who start in January or with the football players already on campus.

Gurney has been involved in academic counseling for college athletes since 1980 at Iowa State, SMU, Maryland and OU. In 2006, he was recognized by the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics (N4A) for his career work and leadership in the field.

Texas' Brown, who first brought in early enrollees in 2000, said he prefers to bring in more than one or two to avoid any feelings of relative isolation.

"It gives the guys a group they can identify and work with," Brown said. "They push each other and help each other out."

While newcomers meet graduation requirements, OU's Gurney said, missing the opportunity to take additional higher-level high school courses works against them.

"While it may appear they're getting a jump on academics, in reality they're losing opportunities to become more prepared for college," he said. "Ultimately, it serves a disadvantage to them academically."

Gurney endorses the use of a summer bridge program. At OU, most football signees arrive that summer, take six credit hours and are tested to determine the best academic program to begin that fall.

Mark Meleney, the head of Florida State's academic advising unit for athletes, is this year's N4A president. He said the group collectively hasn't discussed early enrollees as a problem issue.

"Typically, these are really solid students," Meleney said. He added that at Florida State, the January football enrollees are required to attend the August orientation along with the players who arrive in the fall.

Said Gurney: "I would place a higher academic standard on midyear enrollees to ensure that they are indeed the most qualified to handle academic loads.

"They should have had the time to just simply have, in my judgment, an unforgettable senior year. That's a positive for most people."

Offensive guard Chris Burnette is doing just that at Troup County High School (LaGrange, Ga.). He was in position to leave early for Georgia and last summer was planning to do that when his family and coach Bubba Jeter convinced him to stay.

"They said I wouldn't have another chance to have a senior year," Burnette said.

So he plans to go on the senior trip to Six Flags Over Georgia and attend the senior-junior prom, which he skipped last spring to keep working out.

And there's the little matter of competing to become valedictorian in a class of about 250. Burnette said his GPA is 5.12 and that he's one of maybe three students in the running.

At 6-foot-3 and 285 pounds, Burnette could probably shake down his competition and win by forfeit.

"I'll let my grades speak for themselves," he said.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.