On Wednesday morning, a very familiar scene will play out in thousands of high schools. In gymnasiums or libraries, with dozens of spectators and sometimes a live TV audience, high school seniors will put pen to paper to cement their college choice.
But the highest profile recruit from John Marshall High in Oklahoma City will skip his school’s event. Justin Broiles will attend class — personal health, geography and African-American studies — and then he’ll return to his new residence, a campus dormitory at the University of Oklahoma.
Broiles is one of 11 newly minted Sooners football players — including nine high school graduates. It’s the largest class of early enrollees, as they’re known in recruiting parlance, in the school’s history. Their goal is not complicated:
“I want to come in and play,” says Broiles, the nation’s ninth-ranked cornerback according to 247Sports. “I’m pretty sure that’s everybody’s ultimate goal, but my goal is to come in and start.”
Which is why he’s already started.
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In leaving high school early for college, Broiles and his new classmates are joining what appears to be a growing trend. The early enrollee is not a new phenomenon, but the sheer volume in some school’s recruiting classes is unusual. A few examples: Alabama has 12 players already on campus. Ohio State has nine. Michigan has 11. Texas A&M and Virginia Tech have nine.
Like Oklahoma, Alabama has the most midyear football enrollees in school history. In 2010, when the Crimson Tide had 11 early enrollees (the previous largest number), coach Nick Saban called it “a unique circumstance,” and noted that early enrollees “used to be sort of the exception.”
If it’s not now the rule, it might be a trend — at least for some schools and some players. Alabama sits atop 247Sports’ current team rankings. Ohio State is No. 2, Michigan No. 4, Oklahoma No. 7 (Texas A&M and Virginia Tech rank ninth and 18th, respectively). Individual player rankings show similar movement, with 12 of 247Sports’ top 18 recruits already on campus. Three of the six still in high school are headed to Stanford, which doesn’t accept early enrollees.
“It’s clear that early enrollment has become a major priority both on the college side and on the prospect side,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “It has become a major point of emphasis, particularly for the big schools at the top of the food chain who are gonna be able to lock up guys earlier.”
It remains to be seen, but the expected addition next year of an early signing date in December might only accelerate the trend toward early enrollment. What already is evident is with the acceleration of the recruiting process, players give nonbinding oral commitments to school earlier and earlier — and many then want to get started at the next level as soon as possible.
It might also be a reflection of the trend toward specialization; many top recruits don’t play other sports, instead focusing exclusively on football. Broiles committed to Oklahoma last March. And although he played basketball at John Marshall until this year, he’s OK without it.
“Basketball wasn’t nothing but fun,” he says.
The potential benefits, for colleges and players, are fairly obvious.
“Colleges are finding the guys that get enrolled earlier have a real opportunity to help them a lot earlier, and that’s appealing to the prospect as well,” Simmons says. “It’s a full additional semester they’ve got their hands on these guys. … It’s just an enormous opportunity for these guys to walk into fall camp and be halfway to their sophomore year.”
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts graduated early to enroll a year ago. He first drew attention for mimicking Clemson’s Deshaun Watson on the scout team during practices before the College Football Playoff national championship game. Earlier this month, Hurts started opposite Watson in a championship rematch — and the 18-year-old noted before the game that he was a sophomore academically and otherwise.
“I have some experience under my belt now,” Hurts said at the championship game’s media day. “I’m not a little kid anymore.”
Says Simmons: “He’s a great example, a true freshman quarterback (starting) in a national championship game. But really he stopped being a freshman a long time ago, considering he was on the verge of winning the job coming out of spring practice. He had all that time to prepare.”
Likewise, Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason arrived early, then won the starting job. And it’s worth noting that both quarterbacks could be challenged this spring and next fall by newcomers trying to accomplish the same thing (Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama and Jake Fromm at Georgia). But if quarterbacks get most of the attention, early enrollment isn’t just for that position or for junior-college transfers anymore. Broiles says his father broached the idea last summer of graduating early. They worked with the school’s guidance counselor to ensure he fulfilled all the requirements to graduate.
“Everybody was behind me, all for it,” he says.
That included Oklahoma’s coaches.
“It depends on the person, for sure, more than anything,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops says. “But none of us would ever be opposed to it. It’s always better to have the chance to work with guys through the winter and spring. We’re always open to it.”
For college programs, it helps on several levels. If a hefty portion of a recruiting class already is signed, sealed and delivered, there’s potential to make the final weeks of a recruiting cycle less frenetic, allowing coaches to concentrate on the remainder of the class — and on juniors who might form the next year’s class, too.
“You know these guys are in school,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente says. “You know where you stand with those nine scholarships for certain. It’s almost like an early signing period.”
Another potential plus: increased roster depth for spring practices — which is a semi-hidden issue routinely faced by college programs, given the departure of the previous season’s seniors (and sometimes players who left early for the NFL Draft, as well).
And for the players, it’s a jumpstart academically and in football for players. Fuente noted another potential long-term benefit for recruits.
“You’re talking about kids who have maybe passed 18 (credit) hours before they even get on the football field and play a game,” he says. “On the back end, it allows you to graduate earlier and opens up some options for those kids in terms of what they want to do. Part of that is why you’re seeing the graduate transfers (increasing).”
John Marshall coach Rashaun Woods, a former Oklahoma State All-American who spent two years in the NFL, supported Broiles’ decision, even as he recalled making another choice.
“I wanted to spend that time back at home,” Woods says. “I was all about trying to redshirt, figuring it was the best thing for me to get better. But even if that was the thing, that extra semester would have helped me. It took me a couple of years to get acclimated to the (college) game.
“I think he did a good thing going ahead and going. Even if he doesn’t play (right away), he’s acclimated to how things are. There’s not anything negative that can come from it.”
For several reasons, the trend toward early enrollment might not filter down on a large-scale basis beyond the top of the recruiting rankings. Early enrollment isn’t for every player.
“I believe a lot of great things come with your second semester of your senior year of high school,” Fuente says. “You can play basketball or baseball or go to prom or just enjoy your last semester.”
And schools ranking lower on that recruiting food chain don’t routinely have the luxury of stockpiling early enrollees. They often cobble together classes on a later timeline. But we could be headed for a time when the schools that regularly lock up the top-rated talent do it even earlier, and then get them ready to play sooner, too, potentially providing one more advantage to programs that always seem to start with plenty of them.
“I do believe it will start to become more of the norm,” Stoops says. “More of these guys out of high school want the opportunity to play immediately, and this gives them a chance.”
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