College football teams are engaged in a new arms race.
Eric Zeier was a pioneer when he committed early to Georgia and enrolled in January of 1990, just weeks after being named to the ALL-USA first team following his senior season at Marietta, Ga. Casey Clausen and Philip Rivers were rarities when they committed early and enrolled early in 2000. But what was once unusual, is now the norm.
Of the 20 top pro-style quarterbacks in the 2016 class according to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, only two, Dillon Sterling-Cole of Westfield (Houston) and Keaton Torre of Bingham (South Jordan, Utah), haven’t committed to a college and most of those top 20 say they plan to enroll early. The same holds true for dual-threat quarterbacks, with only two holdouts among the top 20: Xavier Gaines of Lake Wales, Fla., and Rocky Lombardi of Valley (West Des Moines, Iowa).
“For guys like me who have a shot to play early, it’s a good thing to graduate early and get down there and play,” said Lake Stevens, Wash., quarterback Jacob Eason, listed as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class and a Georgia commit. “The faster you can get down there and play, the faster you can start building your own thing and get to the next level, which is what we all want to do. I think graduating early is the key to that.”
College coaches, hoping to use an elite quarterback such as Eason to entice other top recruits, have been pushing quarterbacks to commit early, frequently in the player’s sophomore year. Last year’s ALL-USA Offensive Player of the Year, Kyler Murray of Allen, Texas, is fighting for the starting job as a freshman at Texas A&M. He said because he was his team’s starting quarterback as a sophomore, he wasn’t surprised when schools began recruiting him early. He committed to the Aggies in May of his junior year.
“My situation was different because I was the young guy on the team so I had a lot of teammates being recruited already,” Murray said. “I definitely noticed that quarterbacks get recruited a little earlier; I assume it’s because the position is so important on the field. If I were a coach I’d definitely go lock up my quarterback first and form that relationship early.”
At times, the move has worked out spectacularly, for both the quarterback and his college. Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman Trophy as a redshirt junior, a few years after enrolling early at Baylor, just a month after his senior season ended at Copperas Cove, Texas. In 2012, the Heisman was won by Johnny Manziel, a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M who enrolled early out of Tivy (Kerrville, Texas) in January of 2010. The next year, former Hueytown, Ala., quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman as a redshirt freshman in 2013, less than two years after he enrolled early at Florida State.
“If it works out, it is great for both parties,” CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said. “It pushes up the maturation process for kids. However, sometimes the kids make such hasty decisions that they’re unhappy. Make sure you can believe the coach about the future of the program. If they’re being honest, the kid will at least be a solid backup his first year and possibly a four-year starter.”
Deuce Wallace of Sevier County (Sevierville), the top quarterback recruit in Tennessee, switched his commitment from Northwestern to Vanderbilt in April after he said he was given a promise the Commodores would not recruit any other 2016 quarterbacks.
Quarterbacks who commit early and enroll early often expect to start as freshmen. When that doesn’t happen, they are likely to transfer.
Gunner Kiel, an ALL-USA quarterback and Indiana Mr. Football in 2011 from Columbus (Ind.) East, committed early, first to Indiana, then to LSU, but when he enrolled early, it was at Notre Dame. His freshman season, he was fourth on the depth chart and transferred to Cincinnati. After sitting out a year, he threw six touchdown passes in his first game with the Bearcats.
Sometimes, the early commitments only mean more decommitments.
“With coaching changes and scheme changes, there’s a lot of stuff left to happen (for Class of 2016 quarterbacks who already committed),” said Rivals.com recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. “Who the heck knows with some of these guys whether their coach will be there? If the coach is not there, then they start looking around. You had a kid like Zach Gentry from New Mexico who decommitted from Texas and went to Michigan after Jim Harbaugh was hired. There will be two or three instances of that every year.”
In other cases, early enrollees are not prepared emotionally for the college environment. Cam Newton left Florida after one season when he was suspended by the team after an arrest for stealing a laptop. De’Andre Johnson, who played last season at First Coast (Jacksonville) was dismissed from the Florida State football team earlier this month after video surfaced showing him punching a woman at a Tallahassee bar.
Another factor driving the early recruitment and early enrollees of quarterbacks is a 2013 NCAA rule interpretation. The organization said early enrollees can sign financial-aid agreements with colleges beginning Aug. 1 of their senior season. Colleges are bound to honor scholarship offers to those players, while the players can still back out of their decisions until they take their first class.
In 2013, only a handful of quarterbacks, including Clemson’s DeShaun Watson and LSU’S Brandon Harris, signed financial-aid agreements during the fall of their senior year of high school. Last year, nearly all of the quarterbacks who attended the Elite 11 camp signed financial-aid agreements prior to enrolling with those colleges in January.
“I think the financial-aid agreements gives them more a level of security, so a lot more of them commit early,” said Quincy Avery, a private quarterbacks coach based out of Atlanta. “They feel like they can’t be dropped anymore. You used to see guys commit early and schools would drop them for someone else. The problem is a lot of the early commits aren’t a real commitment. The quarterbacks are the instrument that coaches use for recruiting, but then those quarterbacks end up leaving as soon as a better offer comes up.”
When that happens, it can have a merry-go-round effect. Ricky Town, a 2015 quarterback recruit from St. Bonaventure (Ventura, Calif.), committed to Alabama as a sophomore, but switched his commitment to Southern Cal as a junior. Blake Barnett, from Santiago (Corona, Calif.), then decommitted from Notre Dame, jumping for Town’s spot at Alabama. St. Peter’s Prep (Jersey City) quarterback Brandon Wimbush changed his commitment from Penn State to Notre Dame and that move had its own reverberations. Three-star quarterback Tommy Stevens of Decatur Central (Indianapolis) said goodbye to his Indiana commit and committed to Penn State.
“Eventually, that opened up a spot for one of my guys, Austin King (of Alpharetta, Ga.), to drop his commitment to North Carolina State and go to Indiana,” Avery said. “You have to keep your options open.”