High school stars try to find balance between recruiting and playing

High school stars try to find balance between recruiting and playing


High school stars try to find balance between recruiting and playing


It’s early in the week and Priest Willis is locked in on Laveen Cesar Chavez, his Friday night opponent. It the senior defensive back’s final regular-season football game, and a top-four seeding in Division II is at stake for Tempe Marcos de Niza.

The other stuff can wait.

That other stuff is going to Arizona State on Saturday afternoon to see the Sun Devils against UCLA, then getting ready to travel the following Saturday morning to Louisiana State’s big game against Alabama.

“I haven’t even talked about it yet,” Willis said. “I’ve got to call up the coaching staff and get my transcripts and stuff.”

LSU is one of the five-star player’s official five recruiting visits. It is a school he has high on his list because of the great defensive backs it has produced, including the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson, whom Willis has on speed dial.

Peterson has given him advice since he met him at ESPN’s The Opening, which showcased the top 2013 prospects last summer.

Some of that advice is finding balance among recruiting, academics and football during his final high school season.

“I’ve been focused on the season,” the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Willis said. “Now that it’s coming up, I’m thinking about it (LSU trip). But as of right now, it’s Cesar Chavez. They’re good. The playoffs are coming up. And we’re working hard in practice.”

Willis is the most highly recruited player Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez has ever had. He is the top recruit for the 2013 class in Arizona by azcentral sports. Since the spring, more than a hundred college coaches have come through the Tempe campus to get information and an up-close look at the athlete who can play any of the secondary positions and has been asked to play outside linebacker at times this season.

Lopez says he never has had to worry about Willis not keeping his feet on the ground.

“He’s very composed,” Lopez said. “When you have LSU, Florida, USC, Virginia all coming in during the same day, that can get pretty crazy. But he’s handled it a lot better than anyone I’ve seen. He’s not school-struck or star-struck. He’s just looking for his best fit, the best interest for him and his family.”

Willis, a humble kid who is his own worst critic, said he constantly is reminded by his parents that academics come first, no matter what school he winds up choosing.

“The recruiting stuff is cool, but I have to look at what’s important now, and that’s this season and getting a state championship for my teammates and coaches,” Willis said.

It can be a difficult task during a season to stay grounded while scouting services are hitting players up for a few words on their favorite colleges, getting updates on their offers and trips, and sophomores, juniors and seniors are trying to figure ways to get to faraway destinations where game tickets are being left for them without draining their parents’ bank accounts.

At Phoenix Mountain Pointe, receiver/defensive back Jalen Brown and defensive lineman Natrell Curtis — both juniors — are figuring in unofficial trips on college game days, after playing on Friday nights. They’re two of the state’s most coveted 2014 players.

Earlier this year, Mountain Pointe senior offensive lineman Kenny Lacy gave UCLA a pledge, albeit soft, after visiting there with his teammate Brown and watching former Chandler star quarterback Brett Hundley light up Nebraska in a victory. Lacy says he will still take trips to Vanderbilt and Kansas State after the season.

Willis said he grabbed a ride at the last minute from one of his assistant coaches who was going to the UCLA-Nebraska game.

With Hundley having a breakout season as a redshirt freshman, UCLA suddenly has become a pipeline for Arizona talent. Willis admitted what Hundley is doing this season makes UCLA that much more attractive.

Phoenix Brophy Prep senior wide receiver Devon Allen said earlier in the year that UCLA was among his top schools. UCLA is starting to take a serious look at Brophy senior linebacker Robert Relf, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, who has been flying under the radar, despite a strong senior season.

“I know (Hundley) does a great job selling Arizona kids onto UCLA,” said Gary McCulley, whose son Mitch is a talented 2014 receiver at Chandler who took an unofficial visit to Arizona and saw the Wildcats blow out Washington. “UCLA, talking to a coach there, they view Arizona as a very talented region but flies under the radar. They can come into Arizona and there’s not a lot of competition. They can get kids right from under ASU and UA. They feel it’s becoming a hotbed of football.”

When Rich Rodriguez came to UA and Todd Graham took over at Arizona State after last college season, they both talked about how crucial it was to keep the top players from leaving the state.

But high school kids like to travel and, if their parents can afford it, they will take unofficial visits during the season.

“If they have an unofficial, I let them do a red-eye out, 5:30 in the morning,” Chandler Hamilton coach Steve Belles said. “For them to get a true feel for what school is like, there is no better aspect than that game day.”

Hamilton junior offensive lineman Casey Tucker took an unofficial to Southern California this season, even though he already committed to USC in the summer. Hamilton senior cornerback Cole Luke will take his official recruiting trip Saturday to Oklahoma for the Notre Dame game.

Two weeks ago, Scottsdale Chaparral senior linebacker/receiver Jake Roh recently took a trip to Washington State, where his Pop Warner teammate, Brophy Prep quarterback Tyler Bruggman committed during the summer. Roh got a scholarship offer during the trip.

“He had to get up at 3:30 in the morning after a game,” said Fred Roh, Jake’s father whose oldest son Craig is in his fourth season starting on defense for Michigan. “When Craig was taking official visits, he would come back sick the next week. They’re hanging out and not getting any sleep. That’s the hardest part about it. Kids have a lot of fun, but they miss tape on Saturday morning. It’s very physically demanding when they should be recovering from the game.”

Jake Roh has an iPhone with a Hudl application, where he can watch film of his games and practices and grade himself. That technology wasn’t available in 2008 when Craig Roh was a senior defensive end at Chaparral.

“I just go to that app and watch it on there,” Jake Roh said. “Then I get together with my coaches when I come back and go over it. You just have to catch up.”

Allen has taken some trips during the season. He took a Midwest swing through Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State last summer.

“It’s a minor inconvenience, as long as they take care of things, if they get their run and lift in on their own,” Brophy coach Scooter Molander said.

Chandler coach Shaun Aguano said he holds meetings before the season with parents to let them know what they expect from the players while they’re going on unofficial college visits during the season. He said UCLA has seven players in his program on its radar.

With today’s social media and technology, players could get pulled and start feeling they’re bigger than their high school teams.

Mountain Pointe coach Norris Vaughan said he doesn’t provide star treatment for his top recruits.

“We work the heck out of them,” Vaughan said. “If they’re not willing to do it, I’ll be sitting them down. They get excited about the college recruiting. But most of our kids are grounded. Early on, it’s a little struggle, but it becomes business as usual. We hold them to high standards. We do a lot of group work, fundamentals work. I treat them like everyone else on the team. We keep them grounded that way.”

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