By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist
National Signing Day, it has been said, is like Christmas in February for hard-core football fans. It’s a day for combing over heights and weights of incoming recruits, pouring over grainy footage of YouTube highlight reels, and simply imagining what sort of impact player might emerge from the class.
Increasingly, however, signing day in the FBS world is becoming even more of a circus. Last-second decommits, sometimes switching from one team to their most bitter rivals, were surprisingly common as more highly touted recruits milked their time in the spotlight and created the high drama that media members crave so much. (I didn’t think I’d be looking back longingly about Terrell Pryor’s recruitment, but I guess I am.)
Recruiting in the FCS world is not entirely devoid of drama, but it tends to be more of a positive, upbeat affair where there are few losers. Away from the high-stakes gamesmanship that Signing Day is becoming at the big money schools are stories of gratitude for the honor of going to college, mostly for free, to play Division I football.
Getting an opportunity for a college education is a great thing, but excelling at a sport to the extent that you can get a full scholarship or partial scholarship to play at the highest collegiate level is something special. And it’s no longer simply niche for hard-core college high school or college football fans: It’s something that football recruits look forward to their entire playing lives.
Signing day ceremonies are now commonplace in high school gymnasiums nationwide. Not limited to football recruits, some now resembled a full-blown pep rally, featuring highlight reels of each college-bound player, family members and local media present, and a cake featuring the names of all the honored athletes. While the methods of celebration vary – some are simply held in the school’s library – it’s still a big deal.
Players become part of an FCS football team through as wide a variety of methods as there are schools in the Football Championship Subdivision.
For some schools, recruitment is largely a local affair. “We try to pattern our recruiting model where we recruit the same guys that the major schools in our state recruit - the (University of South) Carolinas and Clemsons of the world,” South Carolina State's Buddy Pough told the Orangeburg Times & Democrat. “Toward the end of their processes when they find out that these schools are not necessarily going to happen for them that we’re poised to be in a position to be able to go ahead and take 1-2 of them and that seems to have worked out for us.”
In talent-rich states such as South Carolina, there are lots of great football players, but not everyone can be gobbled up by FBS programs. When schools get caught in a numbers game – for example, when defensive lineman Kendrick Frazier (Denmark-Olar High School) falls off the recruit lists of Kentucky and South Carolina – Pough is right there to offer a scholarship.
In talent-rich areas, frequently coaches need to outwork others to put together great teams. That’s something that new Youngstown State head football coach Eric Wolford seems to understand.
According to an article in the Youngstown Vindicator, Wolford figures he’s visited between 50-75 schools in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
“I’m a Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, Pittsburgh guy,” Wolford said. “Where they make the steel at. [But] we’ll venture down into Columbus and central [Ohio] and down to Florida. I’m not saying our whole football team will be out of Florida. But a couple key guys if they’re the right fit.”
With 13 Ohio kids and two Florida kids on his 19-strong recruiting class, he seems to have delivered exactly what he promised.
For other schools, though, it’s even more than just recruiting the local area and perhaps another state. In the high academic world of the Ivy and Patriot League, where there are a limited number of players nationally that meet the stringent academic requirements and sometimes it’s an aspect of the program – academic or athletic - that makes the difference.
Consider the case of Brook Hill High School (Texas) senior offensive lineman Heath “Big Hoss” Dickey. With his grades, and 6-foot-7-inch frame, he could have gone almost anywhere, including local FBS high academic strongholds Baylor or Rice.
His choice? Georgetown of the Patriot League.
“I’d decided I wanted to get into politics, so my father and I went to D.C. to check out the schools,” Dickey told the Bullard Banner-News. “I wanted to go to school in D.C. for the internship opportunities. Georgetown has a beautiful campus with more history than you could write a book [about]. Its political association is unrivaled in the U.S. which is perfect for my plans.”
Indeed, the “Big Hoss” makes it seem like football is a mere stepping stone to his real ambitions – to conquer the political world. “I intend to graduate with a political science degree in four years and continue my studies at Georgetown’s law program,” he added in the same way another recruit might talk about getting playing time as a freshman.
Frequently, schools such as Georgetown, Harvard and other high academic schools are in competition nationwide for talent, not just locally. Stanford, Baylor, Vanderbilt and Northwestern get a lot of kids like that – and sometimes it’s hard for high academic FCS schools to compete. Still, sometimes it’s simply the academic prestige that matters over everything else. “It’s still Yale,” wideout Deon Parker said of his decision to travel 3,000 miles away from San Diego to play football as an Eli instead of pursuing school at, say, San Diego State.
Similarly, sometimes the lure of a scholarship isn’t the only thing that matters, too. For example, lineman A.J. Borriello signed at Marist, and while the Red Fox program is nonscholarship, the Ellenville, N.Y., native will receive some financial aid to play Division I football in Poughkeepsie.
“I wanted the academic, athletic and financial aspects that fit me best. The Marist kids I met were similar to me, and the coaches were great,” he said.
Signing day is the cumulation of a long process, where schools often run hot and cold and coaches say and do a lot of things to land the kids they want.
At the FCS level, it rarely gets to the level of last-second decommits or encounters with “recruiting hostesses,” but the shenanigans from the upper levels do indirectly affect them. Players see the marketplace for college football players — complete with rankings from sites such as ESPN, Rivals and Scout.com — and frequently see early interest from an FBS school run from hot to cold. “A lot of the schools you talk to, their offers get filled quickly, because kids see that it fits right for them, so they go ahead and make a commitment,” Fordham-bound defensive back Zach Crosby told the Gainesville (Ga.) Times last year.
Still, last-second decommits do happen. This year, offensive lineman J.D. Szurko was all ready to become a Lafayette Leopard – and the Philadelphia Inquirer announced as such – when Delaware swooped in at the last second and offered the North Penn High School standout a scholarship offer.
Similarly, Arkansas-Pine Bluff was all set to sign promising defensive line prospect Armani Williams out of Navarre, Fla., – until Jacksonville State offered a full scholarship at the last minute.
“I had hoped they would (offer) but they waited,” Williams told the Florida Daily News. “I had told myself I was going to Pine Bluff, and I was OK with that … I loved it there, too, but the big difference is my whole dream was to play top-notch, championship football and when I got to Jacksonville State, it was a no-brainer at the end of the day.”
Aside from the last-second decommits, FCS fan bases are in no way less rabid than those in the FBS over the pressing needs of their teams, either.
Appalachian State fans, facing the graduation of quarterback Armanti Edwards, are keenly looking at their incoming class to see whether prospects Elijah Adamiak or Kalik Barnes will be the answer at the gaping void on offense.
In Montana, with wideout Marc Mariani possibly heading to the NFL, Griz Nation pours over the video of Mitch Saylor, hoping that perhaps the 6-foot-5 prospect can be the answer.
At Northern Iowa, it's hoping wideout Brett LeMaster, out of Wichita, Kan., will blossom and become a receiving threat in the near future.
While it’s different than FBS recruiting, fan bases still have high expectations and always will be excited about seeing the new classes.
Some columnists swear by the rankings of Rivals.com, Scout.com and others demonstrating that the experts on those sites whom, in many cases, have spent their lives covering college football recruiting.
Judging by the incoming classes of 2005, Rivals’ prediction of a USC/Florida State BCS Bowl game in 2010 might have – well - fell a little short, let’s just say. (It ended up being Alabama – No. 18 in the Rivals prospect rankings – against Texas, No. 16.)
If you look at Rivals.com‘s FCS recruiting classes, it gets even more ridiculous. Sure, its rankings in 2005 of Richmond as the No. 1 recruiting class in all of FCS with national champion Villanova right behind it, looks pretty good.
Until, that is, you look right below those two schools. While some might argue that UMass might have belonged at No. 3 (thanks largely to the presence of defensive back Sean Smalls, who might be NFL-bound this year, in its class), I think it’s fair to say that the next best recruiting classes did not come from 0-11 Georgetown (No. 4), 0-11 Northwestern State (No. 6), or 1-10 Indiana State (No. 9). Viewed in that light, it’s difficult to take the rankings seriously — not to mention the absence of perennial powerhouses Appalachian State, Montana or Northern Iowa from the rankings, too.
Even when you take a closer look at the reasons Richmond and Villanova were ranked highly, it makes you scratch your head. Sure, Rivals is right on some players — Richmond quarterback Eric Ward, runningback Josh Vaughn and wideout Tre Gray certainly merited (at a minimum) two stars in Rivals, while Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney ranked two stars and defensive end Dave Dallesandro one star. But Villanova’s 2005 class also was “highlighted” by two-star runningback prospect Gianluca Ragone, who didn’t get a single carry last year, and Richmond’s 2005 haul involved two-star wideout Scot Riddell, who ended up switching to defensive back in 2008 and was buried on the depth chart during its national championship season.
Inaccuracy aside, that hasn’t stopped schools such as Southeastern Louisiana from announcing that its recruiting class is “No. 1 in FCS” by Rivals based on its ranking system (ahead of Appalachian State and Villanova). Still, it’s harmless that future Lions wideout Treyvias Alexander is ranked above future Wildcat wideout Corey Reeder: It makes a long offseason just a bit shorter, and gives a relatively new FCS school like Southeastern Louisiana a chance to shine alongside the big dogs in FCS football.
But the full report of the class that has all the attention now — the incoming class of 2014 — won’t realistically be known until years down the road. So right now, all folks really have are a dizzying number of names — and speculation.
Let’s face it, it’s fun to think about player names such as quarterback Gunnar Jespersen (Central Connecticut State), offensive lineman Hakeem Lassiter (Grambling State), or runningback Wilmot Wellington (UNI) providing four years of impact for your school. But who knows whether the more impressive high school statistics will translate to the FCS level? While wideout Bryant Belew (UT-Chattanooga) was an All-State receiver at Columbia High school who set school records with 2,164 yards and 20 touchdowns, who knows whether that will translate into production in the SoCon this year or in the future?
Meanwhile, all we have are names. We wonder whether wideout Patrick Pascal – whose name sounds more like a French philosopher than an all-conference wideout – will prove everyone wrong and will help the Black Bears achieve an FCS championship.
We wonder whether we’re going to have to worry about how to pronounce defensive lineman Maduka Nwanekezi’s (Bryant) or tight end Trent Guiberteau’s (Texas State) names in the years to come. We wonder how local papers could abuse their headline-writing privileges with incoming recruits like offensive lineman Ednut Egberongbe (Indiana State), defensive end Two Willis (Northwestern State) or offensive lineman Lefi Letuligasenoa (Cal Poly).
We count the number of Tyler and Colton’s in the incoming classes. And we wonder about some of the nicknames – we can understand, perhaps, why runningback Mason Hayes (Northwestern State) is nicknamed “Speedy,” but why is defensive back Ayobami Ayoola (Tennessee State) nicknamed “Dare”?
But the names of the next Armanti Edwards, Marc Mariani and Dominic Randolph are in there somewhere. While it’s all speculation now, in the not-too-distant future folks will look back at this recruiting class, looking at a team that won a conference championship and/or FCS national championship — and seeing how right the schools were. They are finally here, for everyone to see and to get excited about.
Signing day seems like it’s changed from a year ago. It’s still stressful, there’s still last-minute poachings and shenanigans, and if there’s one thing that is destined to be a fact it’s that Rivals is going to right – and wrong – about a multitude of recruits.
But especially at the FCS level, it’s an incredibly positive time. It’s a time where rabid FCS fan bases get to know their recruits, a chance where high schools can talk about their athletes shining brightly and a place where kids earn a college education.
On signing day, every FCS school is excited.