|ESPN.com: Football||[Print without images]|
Stephanie Gow is terrified to leave.
She's watched the calendar for months. She wished Wednesday would not arrive. Mercilessly, time marched forward.
Wednesday, she drops her first born, Trent, who turned 19 on the Fourth of July, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The promise of a football career lies ahead at the Air Force Academy.
"I don't know how I'm going to walk away," Stephanie said. "I have prayed about it a lot. I have cried a lot."
So often we think of recruiting as a series of visits and names and scholarships offers. All that data drives the process. But recruiting, at its core, is about people and dreams and conflict. It's about promises made and broken, heartbreak and destiny.
ESPN.com has tracked the journeys of four high school football stars over the past 16 months, starting late in their junior years.
It was a time of awakening, growth and transformation for Trey Johnson, Walker Jones, Jarrett "Anu" Solomon and Trent Gow, who are now preparing to enter college at Ohio State, Alabama, Arizona and Air Force, respectively.
The final months at home -- with recruiting as a central focus -- will shape their perspectives and college experiences.
Through the eyes of the players, their parents and high school coaches, from Atlanta to Memphis to Las Vegas to Dallas, these are their stories.
|In 2011, Central Gwinnett (Lawrenceville, Ga.) linebacker Trey Johnson felt a connection to then Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who also player linebacker at Gwinnett.|
In the summer of 2011, Ted Roof was recruiting Trey Johnson to Auburn.
The Tigers, in January of that year, beat Oregon 22-19 in Glendale, Ariz., to capture a fifth straight BCS crown for the Southeastern Conference. On Feb. 2 -- national signing day -- Auburn offered a scholarship to Trey, who had just completed his sophomore season as a linebacker at Central Gwinnett High School in Lawrenceville, Ga.
For years, Trey believed he could play college football. Football was his passion after age 6. He got a taste of the game in the parks near his home, northeast of Atlanta.
"Once I got out there and hit," Trey said, "I loved it."
He figured he'd make it in the FCS-level Southwestern Athletic Conference at Grambling (La.) State or Jackson (Miss.) State, which turned out Walter Payton and Trey's father, Wilbur Orville Johnson Jr.
The elder Johnson, raised in Natchez, Miss., joined the army after college and worked his way to Atlanta. He found work as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
Wilbur respected the game. He understood the need for discipline to achieve success. He preached this to his son, Wilbur Orville Johnson III (Trey for short).
Trey Johnson's profile as a college prospect mirrored Auburn's rise in 2010. Major college recruiters began to gather at his games. Johnson was astonished to meet coaches like Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
I wanted him to continue to look at the big picture. I had seen guys go through this. I told him not to rush, to take his time. But I think he thought, at that time, that I didn't know what I was talking about." -- Wilbur Johnson Jr.
His first scholarship offer came from North Carolina State early in his sophomore year. Others followed quickly. But Johnson couldn't get Auburn out of his mind. Kids everywhere fell for Cam Newton.
It wasn't just Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy that fall. It was Roof, the Tigers' defensive coordinator.
Roof played linebacker at Central Gwinnett before a college career at Georgia Tech. His picture hung in the CGHS locker room.
Johnson, as an eighth-grader, printed a copy of all the school's defensive records. He kept the papers by his bed and circled the marks he wanted to break. Among them: tackles in a single season. It was Roof's record. Johnson shattered it as a sophomore.
The connection in recruiting with Roof was immediate. It was personal. Johnson committed to Auburn in August 2011, eight months after the Tigers won the title in former coach Gene Chizik's second season.
Too soon, Wilbur Johnson told his son at the time.
"Everything happened so fast," Wilbur said. "I wanted him to continue to look at the big picture. I had seen guys go through this. I told him not to rush, to take his time.
"But I think he thought, at that time, that I didn't know what I was talking about."
Trey Johnson was intrigued by the notion that Auburn could sign a defensive class in February 2013 that featured him and fellow early commit Dee Liner, plus subsequent pledges Reuben Foster and Carl Lawson. All were top-50 prospects nationally. Johnson rated No. 48 in the final 2013 ESPN 300 and as the No. 2 inside linebacker behind Foster.
"They think they're going to be the biggest, best defensive class ever," Central Gwinnett coach Todd Wofford said.
Dad remained skeptical.
"It was too good to be true," Wilbur said.
There exists two categories of information the rabid Alabama fan base must digest on incoming freshman linebacker Walker Jones: What they need to know and what they already know.
The second category is exponentially more extensive. A recent graduate of Evangelical Christian School in Cordova, Tenn., northeast of Memphis, Walker is the brother of Barrett Jones. If you need a reminder -- Alabama fans do not -- Barrett helped lead the Tide to three BCS crowns. He started at a different spot on the offensive line for each title run, most recently serving as AJ McCarron's center this past season.
Aside from coach Nick Saban, Barrett Jones is simply the most iconic figure in the Crimson Tide's ongoing dynastic era.
|Walker Jones and his family to a trip to Haiti to build a community basketball court.|
On Easter weekend in 2012 near the Jones' vacation home in Florence, Ala., Rex Jones overheard a couple at Walmart arguing about his son Barrett.
"That's him," the wife said.
"No way," said the husband. "No chance we'd see Barrett Jones, the Barrett Jones, here at 9 p.m. on a Friday."
It was Barrett, though the couple never knew for certain.
A year later, same weekend, same Walmart, after the third title, Barrett walked in and flocks of people mobbed him. They followed him to the bathroom. A girl screamed at the checkout aisle.
"It was kind of a frenzy," said Leslie Jones, the mother of Barrett, Walker and middle brother Harrison Jones, a rising junior tight end at Alabama.
That is what Walker Jones faces at Alabama. That is what people already know about him.
What they need to know is Walker Jones is not Barrett, the four-year Tide starter and two-time All-American who won three national titles, a Rimington Trophy and an Outland Trophy. Walker wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, inspired last winter by the work of Dr. James Andrews in repairing his injured shoulder.
Like his older brothers, Walker is deeply religious and didn't play football until he reached the sixth grade. As a fifth-grader, he served as a missionary in Ukraine with Rex, a former Alabama basketball player. The family made similar trips to Nicaragua, Honduras and Haiti, where they helped construct a basketball court.
Like his brothers, Jones could have had a full academic scholarship to Alabama. He scored a 30 on the ACT and posted a GPA well above 4.0. He seriously considered college football options other than Alabama, though most people don't believe it.
Walker is quieter than Barrett. The youngest Jones is early to appointments. He pores over details. Recruiting was a chore for Walker.
The victories fade, Barrett told Walker as the kid prepared to make a college decision. The experiences do not. The people do not.
"Picking a school is such a complex thing," Barrett said. "But it's so simple, if you know what I mean. I just felt so comfortable at Alabama."
Eventually, so did Walker.
Jarrett Kahanuolaokalani Solomon likes to get lost in the lights.
Up and down the Las Vegas Strip, he walks with his eyes fixated atop the buildings that glisten on the desert landscape.
In this global crossroads, it's OK to dream big. It's easy, in fact.
The quarterback, who goes by Anu -- a truncated version of his middle name -- watches as people and traffic pass and wonders where the lights may carry him.
"It's a beautiful thing," Anu said.
Anu's parents, Jarrett and Jaime Solomon, moved with their four boys to Nevada from Honolulu when Anu was 10 years old. They sought something bigger than Hawaii. They got it, and then they got two more boys and a baby girl, Kili.
Anu is the oldest of seven and a born leader. Often, he had no choice.
The Solomons picked Las Vegas because for Jarrett, a bail bondsman back home, and Jaime, a hospital worker hoping to become a radiology technician, the city offered something new: the promise of a more exciting life.
|Anu Solomon, his six younger siblings and their parents live in a four-bedroom home in Las Vegas.|
Less than two years after the Solomons got to the mainland, they tried to enroll Anu as a sixth-grader at Bishop Gorman High School, a private institution across the south side of town that's known for its athletic programs. Bishop Gorman, it turned out, only offered grades 9 through 12.
Anu was always ahead of his time. He played linebacker on the gridiron. But when his youth team needed a first down, he'd enter at QB.
"He's like a running back with great instincts," said Joe Charles, a former assistant coach at St. Louis High in Honolulu who has helped tutor Anu for several years. "He sees things before they happen."
On the basketball court, he meshed with Rashad Muhammad and Rashad's older brother, Shabazz, a future high school classmate and recent first-round NBA draft pick out of UCLA.
"He had so much feel for the game," Shabazz Muhammad said. "I knew it would translate to football."
After three years at another school, Solomon transferred to Bishop Gorman for his freshman year. He spent about a week with the junior varsity in summer workouts before coach Tony Sanchez shrugged his shoulders and promoted him to varsity.
"It was evident he had a little bit of an edge," Sanchez said.
Solomon started every game at quarterback over four years at Bishop Gorman against a national schedule that last year included Honolulu St. Louis, Olney (Md.) Our Lady of Good Counsel, Anaheim (Calif.) Servite and Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic. The Gaels won four state titles and 56 of 60 games.
"Once I saw him as a freshman," said Duke-bound receiver Ryan Smith, a Gorman teammate, "I knew he was going to be the face of this program."
Solomon threw for more than 10,000 yards in his high school career. He's headed to Arizona this year to play for Rich Rodriguez.
Big things are expected. That's nothing new; Solomon was born to seek the lights.
For every elite football prospect with 20 or 30 scholarship offers, there are dozens of high school players who walk in the shoes of Trent Gow.
He got more second looks last year than a baby at a biker rally, but as the 6-foot-3, 235-pound tight end from Mansfield, Texas, began the summer before his senior season, only Air Force had called with an invitation.
Trent and his dad, Brian Gow, a former safety at East Texas State, embarked on a tour of sorts the first week of June 2012.
They expected to return with options. If not Tulsa, then Iowa State. Each had given solid indications that an offer was imminent if Trent visited the campus, so off they went in Brian's 2010 Dodge Caravan, loaded with 95,000 miles on the odometer and big hopes in the bucket seats.
Nothing happened on the trip. Even so, Trent looked forward to an impending visit to LSU.
He had received good vibes from LSU tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, whom Gow spoke with on the phone three times that spring after Ensminger visited Mansfield High School. Ensminger wanted Trent at camp to meet LSU coach Les Miles.
|At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Trent Gow looks like an average high school tight end recruit.|
Trent camped in Baton Rouge. The Tigers told Mansfield coach Jeff Hulme that LSU liked Gow better than Plano (Texas) Prestonwood tight end Christian Morgan, who collected more than 15 offers and signed with Ole Miss.
LSU asked Gow to wait through July before he settled on a school. Then? Nothing. The Tigers took a commitment in early July from ESPN 300 tight end DeSean Smith of Lake Charles (La.) Barbe.
Promises of offers if Gow visited also came from San Jose State, Temple and Florida Atlantic. Louisiana-Monroe coaches told Gow they were considering him for an offer.
He looked into Houston but didn't fit the offense. Looked into TCU but got a bad vibe from the coaches. Visited North Texas and Oklahoma State.
Gow received an invite to Cal's junior day. He talked at length to Colorado assistant J.D. Brookhart, who told Gow he was "99 percent sure" the Buffaloes would take two tight ends in 2013. They signed none.
Likewise, Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck told Gow the Huskers would sign two TEs. Gow visited for the Huskers' spring game, which was canceled because of severe weather. Still, he enjoyed the trip.
Nebraska did end up taking two tight ends. But neither was named Trent Gow.
Not one of these calls or trips even produced an offer.
"He's done everything he needs to do," Hulme said at the time. "But Trent is a true tight end. It's hard to find a true tight end now. You see a lot of schools that go out and recruit a big receiver, then try to convert him to tight end. It doesn't always work, because that guy may not know how to block."
Hulme said he believes Gow can make it to the NFL as a deep snapper.
Texas A&M tight ends coach and special-teams coordinator Brian Polian, now the head man at Nevada, encouraged Gow to walk on at College Station. He could redshirt in 2013, Polian said, then compete with four others for the deep-snapping job in the spring of 2014. The winner would get a scholarship.
Bad deal, Gow said.
His parents rode along on the roller coaster.
"There was a period that was overwhelming," Stephanie said. "The waiting game was the hardest for us."
For a short time, Gow didn't want to talk to his parents about college. He said he wanted to stay home.
At Colorado State, the Gows met with coach Jim McElwain, who less than a year prior had left his job as Alabama's offensive coordinator for Fort Collins, Colo. Gow, in conversation, mentioned his interest in LSU.
Immediately, Stephanie said, the tone of their discussion changed, and became more businesslike. Later, when the Gows asked McElwain about his loyalty to CSU, the coach recited monetary details of his contract.
"He was very arrogant," Stephanie said. "It was good, though, because there was a peace after that for Trent. I respected what we heard from all of the coaches. But it was easy to listen to them build your kid up and believe it.
"It was easy to get emotionally attached, but it wasn't the right thing."
As the Texas summer temperatures soared, Trent Gow grew more comfortable with his first real suitor, Air Force. Georgia State and Central Arkansas offered. But the more he learned more about the academy, the more he felt a connection.
"I fit in here," Gow told his dad after an October visit for the Navy game.
Just one place may have fit better: the University of Texas.
In the summer of 2012, Ted Roof was recruiting Trey Johnson to Penn State.
But often in recruiting -- or life, for that matter -- if it seems too good be true, it is.
Roof left Auburn in December 2011, four months after Johnson committed and just prior to the Tigers fall the following season all the way to the bottom of the SEC standings. Roof went to Central Florida as defensive coordinator, but then bolted to Penn State in January 2012 for the same position on Bill O'Brien's staff.
"I was like, 'OK,'" Johnson said, "'I see how it works.'"
|Through Auburn's awful 2012 season, Trey Johnson stayed committed, but he kept his options open.|
Auburn, after an 8-5 season without Newton in 2011, derailed in 2012. It was all but over by late October after a 1-7 start, capped by a 63-21 home loss to Texas A&M.
Foster and Liner eventually defected to rival Alabama. Of the big four early defensive commits, the Tigers kept only Lawson.
Officially, Johnson stayed in the fold for the Tigers through the tumultuous season. But the linebacker had long reopened his recruitment.
Brian VanGorder came from the Atlanta Falcons to replace Roof. It was Tommy Thigpen, though, the Auburn linebackers coach, who kept the relationship with Johnson strong. Thigpen, a dynamic recruiter and former North Carolina linebacker, talked at length with Johnson about subjects that went beyond football -- at times they even talked about the stock market.
The recruiting interest never stopped, actually, even after Johnson's early commitment. Most top programs in the Southeast -- in addition to national powers such as USC and Notre Dame -- continued to visit Central Gwinnett in the spring of his junior year.
He planned official visits to USC, Miami and Auburn. Even Penn State, saddled with massive NCAA sanctions in July 2012, got an official visit; Roof still carried weight with Johnson.
The situation grew intense as Auburn's demise appeared imminent. Trey never wanted this. He settled on Auburn early, in part, to avoid chaos at the end. Late in the season, Wilbur Johnson asked Thipen about the rumors that Chizik and the Auburn staff would be fired soon.
"He said, 'No, everything's going to be OK,'" Wilbur said. "And then as soon as the season ended, bam, there it was."
On Nov. 25, 2012, one day after Auburn lost 49-0 to Alabama, Chizik was fired. Trey Johnson decommitted on Nov. 27.
"It was a zoo within a week," said Wofford, the Gwinnett Central coach. "I tried to protect him, but it happened anyway. It was hard to stop and hard to control."
The calls from coaches and media accumulated. Johnson stopped granting interviews. But he stayed in touch with Thigpen, who landed as the cornerbacks coach at Tennessee.
"It was like something you'd see in a movie," Johnson said. "They'd all have their sales pitch. But now, they've got their iPads, too, and they're showing you videos of their campus. It got kind of crazy, but I was open to listening to what anybody had to say."
Enter Urban Meyer.
Walker Jones recalls with fondness a phone call from his mother, Leslie, in 2006. Barrett was camping at Auburn after his sophomore year of high school, and then coach Tommy Tuberville had taken him aside and offered a scholarship. Leslie dialed home to deliver the news.
"An offer? I didn't know what that meant," Walker said.
Neither did the rest of the family, really.
Barrett wondered at the time about the ramifications. Does that mean I get to play college football?
Oh, how far they've come.
|After taking visits to multiple campuses, Walker Jones knew he couldn't turn down Nick Saban.|
"Barrett was clueless," Walker said, "and I guess I was kind of overeducated about the process."
Harrison Jones, who followed Barrett to Alabama, got his first offer from Stanford just after midnight on Sept. 1 of his senior year. The middle brother nearly committed to North Carolina, but the desire to stay near home pulled him to Alabama.
For Walker, the initial offer came from Cincinnati, according to his high school coach, Geoff Walters, though Vanderbilt later claimed it was first.
NCAA rules prohibit schools from sending formal, written offers to prospects until the start of their senior year. Also, during certain parts of the year college coaches are not allowed to contact recruits directly, so they often rely on high school coaches to relay their interest in recruits.
Regardless, the onslaught began in Walker's junior year. As with his brothers, Stanford pursued Walker aggressively.
For Barrett, it had been among his most difficult moments to turn down Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who called Barrett with a recruiting pitch from the Los Angeles Coliseum 10 minutes after the Cardinal's upset win over No. 2 USC in 2007. Barrett never visited Stanford. Neither did Harrison nor Walker, who had considered a trip to Palo Alto, Calif., in the summer before his senior year.
The grip of the Southeastern Conference was too strong. Walker Jones settled on Mississippi State, Tennessee, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Alabama as his finalists.
Each had a different pitch, of course.
Tennessee and MSU acted most aggressively.
Jones heard from Tennessee that it needed him because the Vols were deficient in smart linebackers. Playing time, as a result, could arrive quickly for Jones in Knoxville.
Mississippi State receivers coach Angelo Mirando, who resigned in August 2012 amid a scandal at the school in which a student-athlete received impermissible benefits from a booster, mailed Jones several hand-drawn pictures.
The sketches depicted the MSU staff as it watched film of Jones, or the coaches together at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas with a caption that indicated they were thinking of him.
Walker kept all the pictures. He enjoyed the attention. But it swayed him little.
A few recruiters, during the spring evaluation period last year, pushed the definition of the NCAA's bump rule, which allows only for a hello and a handshake in person.
"Coaches will give you a lot of lines," Rex Jones said. "But the smart ones know he's not buying into all that stuff."
Barrett told Walker it was fine if he picked a school other than Alabama.
"This decision will undoubtedly alter the rest of your life," Barrett said before Walker made his decision. "I'd love for him to go to Alabama. But I'll be totally fine with it, no matter what. I'm hardheaded, stubborn, and it'd a tough balance for me, for sure, if he went somewhere else. I might not wear their colors, but I'd go to the games and watch."
On the third weekend of July, Walker and Rex and Leslie drove to Nashville for a last look at Vanderbilt. Walker's team played in a 7-on-7 tournament but rain delayed the event, so he got to spend time with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and linebackers coach Brent Pry.
Afterward, they drove straight to Tuscaloosa. Jones participated in a one-day camp and chatted with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
On July 23, back home in Tennessee, Jones called Saban.
|After competing in two Elite 11 regionals, Anu Solomon was not invited to the televised finals -- rejection he was not used to experiencing on the football field.|
The born leader stands 6-foot-1. That's a problem. He has a Howitzer for an arm, but to some college coaches, it didn't matter. They saw right past Anu Solomon's 56 wins, four state titles and steely nerves.
"At the end of day," said Sanchez, the Bishop Gorman coach, "colleges recruit a shell. If you fit that shell, you're good to go."
Recruiting for Solomon started with a flurry of scholarship offers during and after his sophomore year. The first group came from Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Illinois. This was in the winter of 2011-12, and each of the schools ended up losing their head coaches.
Four offers made, and four offers gone.
Welcome to the world of recruiting. Colorado and Arizona reaffirmed the old offers under new coaching staffs.
Others stayed away. And reality arrived for Solomon. He attended an Elite 11 regional in Dallas and struggled with his accuracy. The QB blamed it on his own arrogance.
Later in the spring of 2012, Solomon went to another Elite 11 regional in Oakland, Calif., to compete with many of the top quarterbacks out West in search of an invite to the finals, televised on ESPN that summer. He had never lost two straight high school games and rarely experienced failure, but at the regional, Solomon was not chosen. It stung.
"You could tell he was really bothered," Sanchez said. "Looking back, I don't know if he was ever OK with it.
"You know, there are a lot of good-looking, tall, strong kids who can't win a football game. It's one thing to throw the football. It's another to throw it when the pressure is coming down on you, your protection's breaking down and you've got to step out of the pocket."
Two days after the Elite 11 camp in Oakland, on the third Sunday in May 2012, Solomon committed to Arizona. He talked on the phone to cornerbacks coach David Lockwood.
"He was yelling," Solomon said, "absolutely loving it."
The next day at school, Solomon said he learned from Sanchez that he had received several scholarship offers of which he was not aware, from Nebraska, Purdue, Oregon State and others. Again, it stung, said Solomon. He blamed the misunderstanding on his own poor communication with Sanchez during a time of year that college recruiters speak more regularly with high school coaches than prospects because of NCAA-mandated limitations.
He would not decommit, he said, because he loved the fit with Rodriguez. Still, more than eight months remained until signing day. Solomon sought more information before he was certain about Arizona.
"I needed to know [Rodriguez] was the coach who could help me follow my dreams," he said.
Trent Gow is a normal Texas kid. He tweets about his workouts, the weather, the NBA playoffs. His high school jersey number, 86, hangs on the wall above his bed. He likes Pop Tarts and looks out for his little sisters, Chandler and Joley. And he loves the Longhorns.
It makes sense that in Gow's life to that point, Feb. 25, 2012, ranked as one of the most exciting days. He was among 20 prospects invited to Texas' second junior day, an occasion like no other in Austin.
Texas and coach Mack Brown helped make a national trend of junior days. UT famously filled its recruiting classes at these events.
Six months later, that February day would rank as the first dose in a diet of disappointment for Gow involving the Longhorns.
But Gow had no idea at the time. He knew only that he was "offer approved" by the UT staff, a largely unsubstantial label, but magical words to a 17-year-old kid who dreams in burnt orange and white.
Fresh off his second year as a starting tight end at Mansfield, Gow attended the junior day with teammate and longtime friend Austin Davis, a center who signed 11 months later with Duke. Texas supplied four buses to tote the recruits around campus.
And yes, Gow met Brown.
"He came up and talked to me, knew who I was," Gow said. "That was cool."
Stephanie Gow was equally impressed. Texas did a fantastic job of educating the prospects' families about the recruiting process, she said.
|Memorabilia from Trent Gow's football career at Mansfield (Texas) High covers his bedroom walls.|
"What they made very clear is that they don't hand out more offers than they can fulfill," she said. "Mack Brown was passionate when he said that. Other schools do that. They load up on offers and let guys down.
"I feel like they were protecting Trent in a way."
They all felt differently by midsummer.
Texas received a commitment from tight end Durham Smythe of Belton, Texas, in March -- he defected to Notre Dame nine months later -- and continued to pursue junior college prospect Geoff Swaim. Still, the flirtations continued with Gow.
Gow developed a relationship with UT tight ends coach Bruce Chambers. They stayed in touch on Twitter and Facebook. Gow went to the Texas spring game. In early June, touted receiver Ricky Seals-Jones decommitted from UT. Again, the Gows' hopes jumped.
Gow performed well in a minicamp at Texas on June 10 and heard from Chambers that UT might offer a grayshirt opportunity. It would delay his full-time enrollment and scholarship status until January 2014, but Gow was immediately receptive.
Then on June 12, Swaim committed. Gow's line went cold.
Later in the summer, Texas began to extend offers to the Class of 2014, a practice it had never before employed. To Gow, some of the shine had disappeared from the words Brown preached back in February .
On Oct. 10, four days after his visit for the Air Force-Navy game, Gow committed to the Air Force Academy. He never looked back.
His experience with Texas, though not uncommon for a marginal prospect, left Gow's family with a bitter taste.
"They kept stringing him along," Gow's father said. "If you say you're going to do something, follow through with it. Be upfront and honest with the kid. We would have been fine if they told him the situation right away."
To Texas, Trent Gow was another name on its recruiting board. The Longhorns broke no rules. They compromised no ethics. But to Gow and his family, they shattered a dream.
|A tumultuous recruitment that included a decommitment from Auburn and a secret visit to Tennessee didn't end until Trey Johnson signed his Ohio State letter of intent on signing day 2013.|
In January 2013, Ted Roof was recruiting Trey Johnson to Georgia Tech.
Roof left Penn State after the 2012 season to take over as defensive coordinator back home in Atlanta, his fourth job in 13 months. And right away, he took another shot at Johnson, bringing a group of Tech coaches to see the linebacker, who had committed to Ohio State on ESPN during the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 4.
The visit ended without any notable drama, but the same could not be said of Johnson's final days before he signed with the Buckeyes on Feb. 6.
Johnson began to feel right about Ohio State on Thanksgiving weekend. While Auburn was getting crushed against Alabama, he watched from the Horseshoe as the Buckeyes shut out Michigan after halftime to win 26-21, completing a perfect season.
Meyer and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell made up for lost time with Johnson. After Johnson's visit to Columbus, the coaches visited Central Gwinnett. Meyer took the lead.
"He is such a hands-on recruiter when he wants somebody," said Wofford, the Central Gwinnett coach. "He recruits the family, the coach. He recruits the lunch lady."
Meyer met with Johnson's father and his wife. He met Johnson's mom, Shellie Johnson.
"It just seemed like he was everywhere," Wofford said. "He has a presence about him that demands attention."
And this time, Johnson's dad approved the decision.
"There are no shortcuts with them," Wilbur said. "If Trey was willing to play football, they made me feel like they were going to get the most out of him on and off the field."
But as Trey Johnson's decision drew near, Wofford said, the recruiting progressed from intense to ugly. He heard accusations from recruiters that coaches at rival schools don't look after black kids or that a program would soon land itself on probation or that a head coach was set to leave.
Many of the shots were directed at Meyer.
"The thing that surprised me the most is that I know some of these coaches are friends," Wofford said, "yet they still went for the jugular against each other. It's a dog-eat-dog world."
Meyer addressed the negativity with Johnson.
"For me, it didn't even matter," Johnson said. "I formed my own opinion about him."
Johnson declined to meet with most coaches after his pledge to the Buckeyes. He was done talking. Except to Tommy Thigpen -- the Auburn-turned-Tennessee assistant who connected so well with Johnson after Roof's first leap.
Thigpen wanted Johnson to visit Knoxville. Johnson thought he could go without attracting attention. He made the trip -- a week and a half before signing day.
Wofford denied knowledge of the visit until he received a text message from a reporter with a photo of Johnson in Tennessee.
"It's beyond paparazzi," the coach said. "I know everybody's got to get their story, but that was a new one for me."
It's a good learning experience. These coaches, they get paid. They're here today, gone tomorrow. You focus on what you want to do." -- Wilbur Johnson Jr.
Confused, Johnson returned home. Wilbur, who discouraged the Tennessee visit, again was not pleased.
"I guess [Thigpen] thought since he had him at Auburn, he could come get him and take him to Tennessee," Wilbur said. "Well, that wasn't going to happen."
This time, Wilbur sat down with Trey and made certain that his son listened.
"You're not confused," he told Trey. "This is how it's supposed to go. They're supposed to blow your mind. Just take your time, get yourself back together and stay on track."
The elder Johnson spoke with Thigpen, too.
Wilbur recounted the call like this: "You haven't been up there two days, and you're going to tell a kid he can come up there and start, when you don't even know the personnel you have on your team?"
Soon, order was restored. The last bit of drama had ended.
"It's a good learning experience," Wilbur said. "These coaches, they get paid. They're here today, gone tomorrow. You focus on what you want to do."
Johnson settled in at Ohio State last month, his quest underway to join the likes of Buckeyes linebacker greats James Laurinaitis, Chris Spielman and A.J. Hawk.
No doubt, the difficult moments of the past two years will serve him well.
"The thing that he didn't want the most," Wofford said, "he got."
And in the end, the thing he wanted most, the right fit in a college program, perhaps he got that, too.
|Walker Jones, middle, will be the third Jones brother, following Harrison, far left, and Barrett, far right, to play football for Alabama.|
Nick Saban is a savvy recruiter. He's conquered most every situation. But it's uncommon, no doubt, that Saban must convince a player that the Crimson Tide coaches believe in the recruit's ability.
Walker Jones needed to hear it. He knew it deep down, yes. Alabama would not offer a scholarship based on his brother's achievements or his family's profile. Still, Jones wanted Saban to explain why Alabama wanted him.
After all, Barrett is a legend. And the Jones family, well, they rub elbows with important people. Rex and Leslie's neighbor and longtime friend, for instance, is Jimmy Sexton, who is also Saban's agent. Barrett was named after Sexton's brother, and Sexton's three sons have long admired the Jones brothers.
"They're great role models, no doubt," said Sexton, who now represents Barrett, a fourth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams.
Another Sexton client, Tim Tebow, trains occasionally in Memphis. He's visited with Rex, Leslie and the boys. They also know Memphis native Michael Oher, inspiration for the book "The Blind Side."
Walker needed to make sure that Alabama believed in him, not just his brother or his family.
Saban met with Rex and Walker in Tuscaloosa days before Walker delivered his commitment. The coach laid it out for Walker -- Alabama liked his combination of size, speed and smarts.
Until then, other schools appeared to covet him more than the Crimson Tide. Turns out, that's just Saban's style.
"He isn't one to beg people or act like he needs them," Jones said. "But they let me know they recruited me for me and not anything else. And that was important."
So far, he fits in fine. Jones left for Tuscaloosa on May 26. He began school with 32 credit hours, accumulated through advanced-placement classes in high school. He's majoring in business and plans to take all the prerequisites for medical school.
Jones shares a dorm room this summer with walk-on QB Luke Del Rio, son of Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and Grant Hill, ranked as the No. 1 offensive guard prospect nationally for the Class of 2013.
Days start for Jones with runs at 6:30 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. after study hall.
Physically, the curve appears steep.
"We're smart enough to know the best kids are going to play," Leslie said.
Barrett told Walker this spring that he can succeed at Alabama because of his work ethic, physical tools and his approach to the game.
And who would know better than Barrett Jones? Well, Saban would, and he's on board, too.
On his first offensive possession in the first game of his senior year, Anu Solomon surveyed the Good Counsel defense. He remembers the feeling. He remembers the situation -- third-and-14, on national television.
The call, a play-action rollout, didn't look good to the quarterback against a zero-coverage, man defense. Solomon spied the safety as he crept toward the line. The quarterback audibled and hit Ryan Smith on the edge for a first down.
One drive into his senior year -- that's how long it took Solomon to regain his groove, to reclaim his sagging confidence.
Can he make decisions like that in the Pac-12? "Yeah," Solomon said. "Of course, I can."
His relationship with the Arizona coaches has strengthened. Before long, Solomon said he was "totally committed."
He thought about looking around when Oregon tried to coax a January visit. Solomon spoke with running backs coach Gary Campbell, a victory in itself for the Ducks. Most coaches never got on the phone with Solomon.
Arizona actually gave Solomon its blessing to visit Eugene. But Solomon said no.
Instead, he visited Arizona for a second time and watched the Wildcats face UCLA and his buddy Shabazz Muhammad on the hardwood. Solomon said he was shocked by how fans in Tucson knew who he was. It was gratifying, in a way. Through high school, Solomon won championships and set records, yet he never captured the attention of Las Vegas like Muhammad or another contemporary, baseball phenom Bryce Harper, who left high school ahead of graduation to get a jump on his pro career with the Washington Nationals.
Arizona's quarterback job is open this fall. B.J. Denker took most of the snaps in the spring. Redshirt freshman Javelle Allen and junior college transfer Jesse Scroggins will compete, too.
But don't write off Anu Solomon. Others have made that mistake already.
|Trent Gow, pictured here with his father Brian, made the ultimate commitment to Air Force Academy, where he will be commissioned into the U.S. Air Force after graduation.|
From now until the end of July -- probably longer -- Trent Gow will not enjoy life. As a student at the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School, he faces a two-week boot camp upon arrival. It's not as harsh as the six-week program required of cadets at the academy, but still, it's no picnic.
"The coaches there were very open," Gow's father, Brian, said. "They let them know that first year was going to suck. They flat-out told them, 'You're going to hate it. You're going to want to go home.' But it's going to be worth it in the long run."
For this first year, Air Force placed Gow at the prep school with many of the 2013 recruits signed by coach Troy Calhoun's staff to certificates of intent. Air Force does not use the letter of intent, and it is not bound by NCAA scholarship limits.
The prep school football team operates independently of Calhoun's program. Gow can leave the prep school at any time. In fact, he's still not guaranteed a spot at the academy, though completion of one year at the prep school greatly enhances his chance.
Once enrolled at the academy, a cadet can leave without penalty for two years. Upon graduation, it's a commitment of five years and an automatic commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
The gravity of Gow's college decision dwarfs the meaning of the word commitment as it applies regularly in recruiting.
And he's all in on this choice.
Gow watches the news more closely now. He paid attention to the nuclear threat in North Korea this spring, considering that something similar could directly impact his life.
"It's a bigger commitment than just football," Gow said. "It's tough to swallow that I could be fighting in a war in five or six years, but I'm willing to do what I have to do."
Gow said he would like to get into coaching, perhaps during his postgraduation service time. He's discussed the idea with Air Force recruiting coordinator John Rudzinski, who delivered that first scholarship offer back in May 2012.
Air Force signed four players from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex in 2013, including Gow's Mansfield teammate Bryan Shanklin, a fullback. Two other Mansfield football players went off to Colorado Springs a year ago.
Nevertheless, for Gow, the decision was deeply personal. Both of his dad's late grandfathers served in World War II -- one in the Navy and one as a marine. The ex-marine told Trent he worked as a chef in the war, though Trent later discovered his great-grandfather was "kind of a badass."
"They'd be very proud of him," Brian Gow said. "We all are."
Stephanie cried a lot this spring, usually when Trent was out of the house. She would not have picked this route.
"He's going to be lonely," she said recently. "He doesn't know what he's in for."
But Stephanie keeps praying. She believes her son made this decision for the right reasons. She will soon count the days until Labor Day weekend, when parents can visit the prep school campus in Colorado Springs.
Often, she remembers the words of Hulme, the Mansfield coach and a longtime friend of Stephanie's family. She trusts his advice on recruiting -- and that it will apply to the Gows' next chapter, too.
"He said this can either make wonderful memories, or it's going to be a huge stress," Stephanie said. "Make your decision now. We just chose to think of it as an awesome dream."