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The new thing to do in recruiting

A coach from a Southeastern Conference school called Camden County (Ga.) High School coach Jeff Herron recently to inquire about linebacker Jerrad Davis, an Auburn commitment who’d made it clear he was looking around.

Safety Tray Matthews is one of a large number of expected early enrollees in Georgia's 2013 class. Says Matthews, “If I come on in, I’ll get a good head start on some of the other players coming in then."

If Davis could graduate in January, Herron was told, “We will take him for sure.”

“Well,” Herron said, “there was no way he could, because he hadn’t been working on that.”

Davis subsequently switched his commitment to a different SEC school (Florida), but his situation illustrates the impact of a rapidly growing trend in recruiting.

Each year it seems more prospects are attempting to graduate high school early, leaving home after three-and-a-half years to enroll early in college, start classes and be able to participate in spring practice before a true freshman season actually begins. Once a relatively rare phenomenon, early enrollment is now becoming routine in the SEC.

“Maybe five, six, seven years ago, a guy that was enrolling early was almost a unique thing,” said national recruiting analyst JC Shurburtt of 247Sports. “They’d talk about a player, ‘Oh, he’s enrolling early.’ It was almost like an accolade. But now with, I guess, increased attention to academics and things like that, kids are getting done earlier and are better able to manage the course of their academics through high school. It’s become far more common.”

Reasons driving this are from each direction. Players want to keep up with other recruits and get a head start on college careers, while SEC programs are now juggling numbers like never before to deal with a new signing limit. A prospect who can enroll early offers additional flexibility in that pursuit.

Just take a glance around the SEC in January. The possibility of last-minute snags mean enrollment isn’t final until it happens, but Alabama could have perhaps as many as 10 early enrollees this class. Florida is expecting at least nine. Tennessee could have in the range of five depending on how it shakes out with a new coaching staff.

And at Georgia, the Bulldogs have gone from two early enrollees in 2011 to three in 2012 to a whopping 18 commitments that have been planning to enroll early for the start of spring semester classes Jan. 7. Even if not all of those make it in early as planned, Georgia still figures to have close to half its 2013 signing class on campus for spring.

UGA coach Mark Richt on early enrollment: "If there’s ever a year we pushed it, it was this year." (Photo by Wes Blankenship/UGA Sports Communications)

Two expected early enrollees in Athens are quarterback Brice Ramsey and athlete J.J. Green, senior standouts for Herron at Camden County.

“It’s a first for us,” Herron said. “We’ve never had a kid graduate early from Camden County High School, period, any kid. Our school board and our administration had to make a way for that to happen, but it helped that Brice and J.J. were really good students. Had they not been, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

When it comes to growing practice of early enrollment, Herron surmises that its impact on students is that it is “forcing them to grow up quicker.”

“J.J. and Brice are very mature young men,” Herron said, “and I think they will go off and handle this very well. But I wouldn’t say that about every kid we’ve ever had that signed with a Division I school. They need those four, five, six more months to mature as a person. … Recruiting just keeps happening earlier in every facet. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but that’s just the way the rules are written right now.”

The loophole

At its spring meetings in June 2011 in Destin, Fla., the SEC made headlines by adopting a hotly debated annual football signing cap of 25 prospects. Coaches were generally against the legislation, but school presidents were for it to address oversigning in football.

While the initial response was that it was a landmark move, that view overlooked the fine print of the legislation.

This was to be a soft cap of 25 and not a hard cap. So there was a loophole in schools’ ability to “backcount” prospects to a previous class if that prospect enrolled early in college.

Linebacker Ryne Rankin has already arrived at UGA to participate in on-campus bowl practices.

“It depends on what an institution has available,” said SEC associate commissioner Greg Sankey when asked at the time which year an early enrolling signee would count against. Basically, a school would have the ability to count a mid-year enrollee against the previous class or the upcoming one depending on the spots available and which worked best.

So in Georgia's case, the vast increase in early enrollees this year was by design. The Bulldogs had only 19 signees in its 2012 class. Two failed to qualify academically (each is still expected to be among early enrollees this time and will count in original spots if so), while three others enrolled early. Two of those early enrollees were able to backcount to the previous year, leaving the actual total -- for now -- counting in the 2012 class at 15 players.

Under the limit, Georgia still had the space to backcount 10 early enrollees from its 2013 class to 2012, according to head coach Mark Richt, and then add a full 2013 class to build depth on a depleted 85-man roster.

“We can have as many as 10 mid-year enrollees and count them back to last year’s class,” Richt said, “which allows you to sign forward still in this year’s class with 25. We can get into the 30, 35-range possibly.”

The Bulldogs’ staff has been recruiting with that in mind, currently sitting on 30 commitments with more in the works heading into National Signing Day.

In efforts to reach 10 early enrollees, Georgia will likely wind up with much more in January, 10 of whom will backcount and the remainder counting toward 2013. One of the early enrollees, Orlando, Fla., linebacker Ryne Rankin, is already on campus and participating in bowl practices.

“We don’t necessarily push it real hard,” Richt said of the practice of enrolling early. “If there’s ever a year we pushed it, it was this year, because we were trying to get to 10. That was an important thing for this year’s class.”

Other SEC schools face similar situations, and early enrollees offer flexibility, which leads to phone calls like the one Herron received.

UGA tight end Arthur Lynch on early enrollment: "“I think my career would have taken off a little bit faster had I done it. That being said, everything’s worked out now, and I’m glad I didn’t."

Under the current limitations, a prospect’s recruiting value is increased by his ability to leave high school early and enroll in college. Basically, it can become a way to separate himself from others at his position.

“What a lot of people don’t realize,” Shurburtt said, “and I think part of it is because of the star system and what goes on in people’s minds about player grades and ratings, is that a lot of players are very, very similar. You can line up across the country or even across your recruiting footprint five guys that basically if you got any of the five to fill a need, you’d be happy. … It’s not that big of a deal to go from your second target to your fourth. So I think sometimes when you’re making that determination as far as who gets that spot, if you’ve got a kid that can enroll early, maybe you can take another player and get can get him coached to be able to contribute the next year, I think that’s a bonus.”

Given the signing limit imposed by the SEC and response of coaches, is that the sole reason for the uptick in early enrollment?

Shurburtt doesn’t think so, saying that, “I don’t know so much that it is college coaches that put the pressure on the kids. I think it’s more the kids. They see other recruits doing it, so they want to go do it and think it’s the right thing to do.”

“A lot of guys, they just don’t want to be around that last semester,” Richt said. “They’re ready to go. They want to learn. They want to compete. They want to have a chance to play. They’re just excited about the next phase of life, and they want to get a head start academically, in the weight room, in the football aspect of it.”

Behind the scenes, Richt has actually indicated that he’s not always a fan of the practice despite the assistance it grants his program this year.

“Coach Richt, I’m remember him saying, ‘I want these kids to finish high school, but some of these kids think they have to do it,’” UGA junior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “I wasn’t ready for college my spring semester of senior year, and I’m glad I didn’t jump into it. … But it seems that’s the case, and a lot of kids feel like they have to gain whatever edge they can. And I think they might be right, which is kind of sad.

“But it’s the competitive nature of it.”

Chris Burnette stayed in high school a final semester to try to be valedictorian. (Photo by Philip Williams/UGA Sports Communications)

Those who don’t

At the high school level, so many aspects can shape the decision on whether to enroll early on not in college. Perception says the ability to enroll early is a gauge of a player’s academic prowess, and there is truth to that. One has to be a capable student to graduate early.

But there are also cases of a prospect being too strong a student to do it.

Georgia junior offensive lineman Chris Burnette, for instance, was originally planning to enroll early. But he chose to stay a final semester at his LaGrange, Ga., high school because he was doing so well in school.

“I was supposed to be an early enrollee but just elected against it just to try and see if I could be valedictorian,” Burnette said. “I remember talking to my dad, and he was saying, ‘Don’t let the pressure push you too much.’ But I feel like each guy has to do what he feels is right.”

Burnette wound up being salutatorian, but he says, “I wouldn’t have traded that last year or that last semester of high school for anything."

Lynch, a Massachusetts native, was in a similar place. He could have enrolled early opted against it because he was class president and played on his high school's basketball team.

“I just think I would have been cheating my class,” Lynch said. “I think my career would have taken off a little bit faster had I done it. That being said, everything’s worked out now, and I’m glad I didn’t. The way sports are for teenagers right now, they’re put in such a bind. When I was growing up, I played soccer, baseball, football, basketball, hockey. Where now it’s like you’ve got to focus on one, and that’s all you can do.

Todd Gurley didn't enroll early prior to his standout freshman season at Georgia.

"It puts pressure on these kids, especially with the status of the economy. If you want to plan to go to college, it’s not easy to pay for.”

Other players point out that enrolling early doesn’t guarantee immediate success, and waiting until June to enroll doesn’t necessarily hinder you from making an impact that first season.

Tailback Todd Gurley, offensive lineman John Theus and linebacker Jordan Jenkins started games for Georgia this season as true freshmen after not enrolling early.

Gurley rushed for more than 1,000 yards this past season and, because of his North Carolina high school’s late graduation date, Gurley actually had to go through red tape to even make it to Athens in early June with most of his fellow 2012 signees.

Meanwhile, Jenkins chose to enroll later and finish his high school as planned. During that time, he said he was working out at home to stay in shape and prepare.

“To me, I always wanted to finish my senior year,” Jenkins said. “I wanted to enjoy my high school while it lasted. I never wanted to leave early, because I loved high school too much, and I didn’t see the need for it. I figured I was a hard enough worker that if I couldn’t somehow make myself known as a hard-worker during the summer then I just wasn’t good enough to do it.”

Georgia sophomore linebacker Amarlo Herrera, another who played as a freshman after choosing not to enroll early and enjoy his final months of high school, says “Those moments, you can’t get back in your life. And that contributed to me not leaving early.”

“If you’re a player then you can come in later and still be a big factor and play,” Herrera said. “I don’t really necessarily think you have to come in early. If you’re a competitor and love the game, you can study and get up on it.”

Tailback Keith Marshall enrolled early and says he'd do it again. (Photo by Evan Stichler/UGA Sports Communications)

Those who do

In order to graduate early, a prospect is giving up the chance to compete in sports like basketball, baseball or track as a senior. There is also high school National Signing Day events and other things like prom and potentially the ability to walk at graduation with classmates.

None of that, however, meant much to Georgia freshman tailback Keith Marshall.

“I’m not big on that. I’m here for football. You only get one chance," said Marshall, one of three early enrollees from the Bulldogs' 2012 class.

An exceptionally strong student who has rushed for 723 yards and eight touchdowns as a true freshman, Marshall said he began planning to graduate early as soon as he knew it was an option during his sophomore year. He actually could have done it an entire year early because of how his classes fell, and he says he’d definitely do it again.

And there are plenty of players like Marshall who feel the pros of arriving early outweigh the cons of losing the last semester of high school.

“It’s a personal choice,” Marshall said. “The coaches definitely welcome it, but there wasn’t any pressure for me. … I think it’s becoming more of a trend. I think a lot of kids are anxious to get into college. You’re at home and you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to move out.’ Once you get here, you’ll miss home. But it’s worth it.”

One of Georgia’s expected early enrollees, safety Tray Matthews of Newnan, Ga., agrees. Matthews said it was a “tough move” to choose not to play basketball his final year, but at the end of the day he says, “I’ve got to think about my future too.”

Quarterback Brice Ramsey is one of two UGA commits planning to enroll early off Jeff Herron's team at Camden County (Ga.) High School.

“I have a real, real good opportunity to come in and start as a true freshman, because Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams will be leaving,” Matthews said. “If I come on in, I’ll get a good head start on some of the other players coming in then. Coaches said I have a good shot at coming in and starting. … It’s just a good opportunity, and you can finish school early too. In three or three-and-a-half years, we could be done with school and have our degree too.”

The fact so many others are joining Matthews at UGA appealed to him as well.

“It means a lot,” he said. “We’re all trying to work together and win a national championship next year. We feel like if we come on in early, we can rebuild and reload everything.”

Ramsey and Green each played for Herron at Camden County, but each of the situations was different. Ramsey decided more than a year ago that he would try to enroll early, while Green wasn’t this past spring.

“So it involved taking some online classes, certainly (for Green),” Herron said. “They were fortunate that they were already ahead of the game because they had made good grades and were not behind in any way. An average student or a below-average student probably wouldn’t have been able to pull it off at our school.”

Enrolling early helps at any position, but the general consensus is that quarterbacks benefit the most from it. Of Georgia’s four scholarship quarterbacks currently on campus, three of them enrolled early, including three-year starter Aaron Murray.

Another is expected on campus soon with Ramsey, who says “I’m really excited for it. I’m ready to start a new chapter of my life."

“I just want to get in there and learn everything I can and have an easy transition into school and football,” Ramsey said. “Coming in during June, I’d have a harder transition.”

Murray enrolled early out of Plant High School in Tampa, Fla. Though he redshirted his first season, he won the starting job as a redshirt freshman and hasn't missed a game since, throwing for more than 3,000 yards three years running.

“It seems like every year there’s more and more kids that are doing it,” Murray said of early enrollment. “There weren’t a lot of high schools when I was doing it that had the program or ability to even allow a student to graduate early. And I think now that more kids are wanting to do it more high schools have changed their curriculum around that they allow that to happen. I think that’s why it’s a lot easier for that to occur now-a-days.”

Despite his success in college, would Murray do it again?

Maybe not, he says.

“If I went back today and had to make the decision, I don’t know if I would do it again,” Murray said. “It definitely helped me a lot, but that second semester of high school your senior year is a lot of fun, I’ve heard.”

What's next?

With more recruits able and willing to enroll early and more colleges encouraging them to do it, the trend isn’t likely to slow down in the future under the current recruiting rules.

“I’m pretty sure a lot of (prospects) are going to start doing it,” Matthews said.

The numbers in each program will be different each year, of course, because of the 85-man scholarship limits for the entire team. Georgia won’t be able to add as many prospects in 2014, but regardless of who counts in which class there is no reason to stop a recruit from doing this is he wants to do it.

Well, and also if he can do it.

What can be lost in the process is that sometimes there may not be the option. If a prospect hasn’t been planning on enrolling early, it’s difficult to make it happen in the short term. He is especially at a disadvantage if he attends a high school that isn’t equipped to help the same as others.

“Every high school is different,” Shurburtt said. “There are some high school guidance departments that couldn’t handle a hot dog sale. I mean, they’re awful. And those folks kind of leave it up to the kids and the parents and even the coaches in some instances to do it on their own. There are a lot of those guys. But then there’s some schools where it’s excellent, and they go lay out a plan and help the student-athlete do what he needs to do and get ready to go.”

And it’s this reason why Marshall thinks something could be done to limit early enrollees, because not every prospect has the same opportunity available.

“I don’t think the NCAA would allow it to the point where that’s the norm, because a lot of people can’t come in early,” Marshall said. “I think it’s becoming a trend, but I don’t think it will ever be like, ‘Everyone is coming in early.’”

At the same time, Herron contends that “There’s no question you’re going to see kids that a coach will tell them, ‘Well, if you can graduate early, we can take you. If not, we might not be able to.’”

As a high school coach, Herron would favor limitations for early enrollees, but in his mind it goes beyond that to a recruiting process that gets earlier each year.

“High school coaches, college coaches, I think we would like to all see some way that we could quit offering kids early,” Herron said. “Let them finish their senior year in football before you can extend offers and slow the recruiting process down so you have longer to evaluate them and kids have longer to mature. It just keeps getting worse. I think eventually that’s going to have to be done.

“And I would like to see kids finish high school and have that chance to mature.”

The increase of early enrollees from high school, in the meantime, continues to make Signing Day less important in the process and push recruiting earlier each year.

“If it was my kid, I wouldn’t advise him to do it,” Lynch said. “But that’s not the nature of sports anymore. The pressure on kids just grows every day, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.”

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