Kickoff was less than 24 hours away.
ESPN finished positioning its broadcast trucks and assembling the sets for the anticipated primetime matchup between Clemson University and the University of Louisville. Marathon tailgaters were already setting up tents outside Death Valley.
Meanwhile, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables sat calmly in the old stands at Wren High School. He was on the visitor’s side to watch Wren host rival Daniel High on Sept. 30.
Venables was not there on a recruiting stop, at least not exactly. Coaches normally do not attend games wearing the recruit’s school colors.
But there is at least one Daniel player Venables certainly would love to bring to Clemson.
His son, Jake.
No one in that stadium will soon forget the name. “Jake Venables on the tackle” was called over the loudspeaker after nearly every play.
Like his father, Jake is a gritty linebacker. Jake’s instincts and athleticism help him attack the football. They also have helped him attract scholarship offers as a junior from Texas Tech, Southern Methodist…and Clemson.
Recruiting is already a daunting dance between assurances and ambiguity, promises and retractions, hesitation and haste. The process is even more complex for the sons of college coaches.
They benefit from their father’s first-hand knowledge and connections. Yet, sons must often counter the disinterest of other coaches who assume they will simply join their fathers’ programs.
Conversely, coaches like Venables must blend their responsibilities between father and recruiter. They must offer their insight and support without nightly recruiting pitches at the dinner table.
“I’m trying to find that balance. As a dad, going through it, it’s a struggle,” Brent said. “As I mature and learn through this process, I think I’ve got to be his dad first and foremost.
“I try to give him some autonomy. I don’t want it to be about me. I don’t want to be his dad, the coach. I want to be his dad.”
Brent was an all-conference linebacker at Kansas State in 1992. He has coached the position for 20 seasons, including 13 years in Oklahoma, where Jake was born.
“I’ve wanted to be a linebacker since Pee Wee football,” said Jake, who asserted that his father’s background has helped him sharpen his game on the field and on the recruiting trail.
“I can remember all the way back to when I was a little kid and listening to him and his recruits on the phone,” Jake said. “So, I was kind of used to the process before it even started for me.”
Recruiting never follows a template, but Brent’s expertise and network are an advantage in obtaining useful information promptly and accurately measuring Jake’s options. Brent is intent on ensuring that advantage never becomes a burden.
“I’ve tried to stay in the background on it but also try to facilitate it on my end as guidance for my son,” Brent said. “I have to tell him that he’s got to be persistent too. They want to know if you’re interested.”
Jake’s initiative will be critical in dispelling the supposition that he will automatically sign with Clemson. Brent even admitted he backed off some coaches’ sons earlier in his career.
“I’d always assume there’s no way we’re going to get him,” Brent said. “I’d say, ‘I’m not going to try to recruit that guy. He’s just going to go play for his dad.’ A lot of them do, but they may go somewhere else.”
Mercer University coach Bobby Lamb actively refuted those assumptions when his son Taylor was recruited four years ago. Mercer was just starting its program, and Lamb did not want to constrict his son’s opportunities.
Beyond spreading that message through a series of phone calls with fellow coaches, Lamb actually attended some official recruiting visits with his son, including one to Appalachian State, where Taylor is now the starting quarterback.
“It can be kind of awkward at some times,” Lamb said. “But you have a right to be there, because it is your son.”
The NCAA and its conferences do not restrict coaches from accompanying their sons on visits to other schools, joining living room drop-ins or reading text messages.
Lamb said the visit to App State also provided helpful perspective on another school’s recruiting pitch. However, Mercer and App State compete in different subdivisions and rarely compete for the same recruits.
Clemson’s rivals in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference may not welcome Brent inside their offices as eagerly.
“In Venables’ situation, it’d be weird if Georgia or South Carolina offers and all of a sudden he shows up on the recruiting visit,” Lamb said. “It can hinder you a little bit, but at the end of the day, if you’re a really good football player, other schools are going to want you. They’re going to try to get you just as much as your dad.”
At this stage in the process, Brent is more comfortable with his wife Julie attending Jake’s visits to other campuses.
“If I’ve taken him, I’ll drop them off, and then I go to the mall,” Brent said with a laugh. “I know those schools. I’m only going to help support him to good places, where there’s good people and a good culture.”
Brent Venables is known most for the relentless intensity he displays in his preparation and during his demonstrative sideline gestures. However, through this process, he must exhibit patience and trust.
“It’s kind of hard, because before all this, I’d always say, ‘You’re going to come play for me, right?’” Brent said. “He may not want to, and that’s OK, too.
“It might be neat to coach your son, but it may be hard. I don’t know. I’ve never done it. I’m almost afraid of myself that way.”
Jake has more than a year to finalize his decision, and if the remainder of his career at Daniel follows the foundation he has established, he should close it with more than three scholarship offers.
“I just want to take it slow,” Jake said. “It’s not that I want to leave home. I’m not sure where I want to go yet. Really, I just want to enjoy the process as much as I can.”
Until that decision is made, Brent will remain Jake’s most committed recruiter. As long as the schedule permits, he will be in the stands. Intently scouting. Intensely proud. In Daniel blue.