Mostly whimsical reflections on life
College football games in the fall are won in February when the umpires aren’t around to toss their hankies.
February is national signing day, when all those high school kids who have been wooed actually sign a piece of paper committing to go to a college to play football – and hopefully attend class.
National Signing Day has taken on increasingly significance as elite and not-so-elite football programs recruit their next wave of talent to win games on Saturday – and a ticket to a big game on or near New Year’s Day.
As Nick Saban has proven at Alabama, if you don’t sign up hulking 18-year-old linemen in the dead of winter, you will be dead in the water when footballs starting flying in the fall.
With stakes that high, you can expect tactics that are pretty low. Like flipping a “commit” from another school just before the deadline. Oregon flipped De’Anthony Thomas from USC and the Trojans returned the favor by flipping running back Vavae Malepeai this February.
The college football player recruiting process isn’t always pretty. One of Saban’s recruits – a hulking 18-year-old lineman – de-committed because he said Alabama wanted him to “grayshirt.” Grayshirting is a kind of limbo that involves postponing college enrollment until the second semester of school to preserve the player’s college eligibility – and, perhaps more important, not count on a college team’s scholarship limit.
Jostling for 5-star, cream-of-the-crop high school players reduces college coaches to cheerleaders for their schools and football programs. They try to impress the kids with flashy uniforms and visions of gridiron greatness. They try to impress the parents the kids will get an education and stay out of trouble.
The recruiting process is relentless and endless. UCLA reportedly offered a scholarship to a promising 6th grader. Jim Harbaugh, head coach for the University of Michigan, wound up in a sleepover with a highly desired prospect in Phoenix. (The hulking 18-year-old lineman wound up going to another college.)
University of Oregon Head Coach Mark Helfrich has won plaudits on the recruiting trail for honesty. He says where he thinks a kid fits in with the Ducks. And he tells them he will try to recruit a better player than him – in the name of competition and winning.
One of the most satisfying outcomes on the recruiting trail is finding a gem in the rough – or a great player nobody noticed. For example, Marcus Mariota. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner had only one college scholarship offer before Helfrich saw him throw a football in Hawaii and instantly recognized a future star.
Vernon Adams, who replaced Mariota as a one-and-done graduate transfer, wanted to come to Oregon’s high-profile program after he was snubbed as a high school recruit. He became a star at Eastern Washington University, was the most efficient college quarterback in the nation at Oregon and performed brilliantly at the East-West Shrine Game. One announcer called Adams’ performance the best NFL audition in a single game that he had ever seen.
You can’t blame young men for choosing a college that a) wants them, b) offers them a chance to play college football and c) has a reputation for sending players into the National Football League. The Southeastern Conference has turned that wish list into a recruiting mantra, which is why a big chunk of the highest ranked high school players gravitate to SEC schools.
But dreams in February can turn into nightmares. The Oregonian posted a retrospective on what happened to the top Oregon high school football recruits from four yeas ago. A few, including Tyson Coleman of Lake Oswego who went to the University of Oregon, enjoyed collegiate success. Several didn’t click with their original college and transferred, with mixed results. Some never even made it onto a college football field.
Achieving glory in high school is no guarantee of even suiting up in college. When you sign up for a football scholarship, you are signing up for a grueling, year-round job. You need to shine in the weight room, be alert in the film room and blend in with the team in the locker room. And that’s before you hit the field – and other players.
Signing day in February can be a dream come true for many kids. It can be a dream undone for many coaches. Players envision touchdowns, not concussions or knee injuries. Coaches see wins, not disappointments on or off the field.
Fans like me hold our breath. We will love our team no matter what. But our love will be a little sweeter if that hulking 18-year-old lineman comes to play for our team.