There’s high school football and there’s college football.
National Signing Day is when the two meet.
Almost a sport unto itself, football recruiting has spawned a cottage industry of analysts and media insiders who specialize on where a high school senior is going to play in college. He may not know who won the big game in November, but he knows a player’s top three choices.
It’s the lifeblood of every college sport.
For players, it’s the realization of lifelong dreams. A chance to play at a higher level, perhaps even appear on television. It may be a stop on the way to a professional career.
For other players, and especially their parents, it’s the culmination of years of hard work on the local field of dreams and, perhaps most importantly, it lifts a financial burden as far as college tuition is concerned.
Nine Wilson County football players signed on the dotted line Wednesday and a 10th Thursday. Football isn’t the only sport either, as a baseball player, softball player and soccer player also secured their immediate futures on the next level.
Wilson Central sent four players to play college football on Saturdays – receiver Alex Price to Austin Peay, linebacker Kyle Coombes to Carson-Newman, running back Kaleb Butler to Lenoir-Rhyne and defensive end Preston Reed to Tennessee Tech.
Watertown spent the fall of 2013 in a rebuilding phase. But two seniors signed Wednesday – record-setting quarterback Ty Jobe with Tennessee Tech and receiver Dakota Self with Cumberland.
Mt. Juliet was much more diversified as four Golden Bear athletes signed in three different sports – tight end Michael Khoury with Tusculum football, running back Courtland Douglas with Kentucky Christian football, pitcher Austin Smith with Columbia State Community College baseball and Kristin Jackson with Union University softball.
On the other side of town, Mt. Juliet Christian sent tight end Zack Jones to Tusculum, where assistant coach David Crawford, a former MJHS coach, collected two TEs from West Wilson.
From Lebanon, defensive tackle Coleton Thomas signed with Cumberland while center-midfielder Amanda Nugent cast her lot with Carson-Newman soccer.
National Signing Day is an NCAA concoction. Cumberland, while still an NAIA member, isn’t bound by this day, which is the start of a signing period. But the first Wednesday in February has become so special that many high school seniors want to sign on that day, whether they have to or not.
While players - and their parents – are generally excited about their college choices, the college coaches are usually relieved when they get those signatures faxed into their offices.
At the high end of Division I, the team which signs the most five-star signees usually wins the recruiting war in February. Whether that translates into winning a national championship three or four years down the road is more murky.
At the bottom end of the feeding chain is Cumberland, a school in the early stages of transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II. National signing day wasn’t as busy for football coach Donnie Suber as it was for his BCS counterparts. He only signed six players Wednesday.
“We’re not signing very many this year, anyway,” Suber said. “We’re waiting to see what’s happening with the I-AA kids and the kids who fall off.”
That’s the domino effect. A junior-college basketball coach once said during that sport’s signing day in April he wasn’t busy yet.
“A lot of kids are just now finding out Alabama’s not going to be signing them,” the coach said, back when the Crimson Tide was an SEC hoops power.
Suber said he expects to sign 15-20 players before it’s all said and done. Part of the reason is the school’s transition to D-II and its different scholarship rules.
“With the transition to Division II, we’re trying to weed the numbers down,” Suber said. “We don’t need to bring in as many players as we used to.”
NAIA rules allow for 24 equivalencies [24 full scholarships to be split among as many players as the coach decides]. But the 24 doesn’t count until a player actually appears in a game. A player who’s redshirting can still receive money from the school, but won’t count against the NAIA limit. Suber said Cumberland has usually played 53-55 players out of a 130-man roster in a given season.
NCAA D-II allows 36 equivalencies, but those cover redshirts if the money comes from athletic scholarships. Suber said he hopes to play 70-80 players when the transition is complete in a few years.
As far as football goes, Cumberland graduated 24 players from last fall’s 7-4 team, bringing the current roster to 122. He anticipates losing a few players along the way for various reasons, but doesn’t have room for a big class.
But he does have holes to fill.
“Offensive line is a major one,” he said. “We lost all five of our starters from last year.
“We’re trying to get a couple of receivers [and got one in Watertown’s Self], one freshman quarterback [with co-starters Reed Gurchiek of Mt. Juliet and Broc Loveless entering their senior seasons] and two defensive linemen [one being Lebanon’s Thomas] and one defensive back and one linebacker, maybe, if he’s really good.”
The Division I power teams cast a big net when players are high school underclassmen. Some, like former Friendship Christian star A.J. Long, latched on and signed with Syracuse University, where he’s now enrolled after graduating from FCS in December. He’ll participate in spring practice with the Orange and be ahead of the game when other freshman quarterbacks report to campus for the first time this summer.
Early on, Watertown’s Jobe visited the SEC’s Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Ole Miss. But in recent weeks, the choices for the aspiring dentist were smaller-profile area schools Western Kentucky and UT-Martin in addition to Tech.
The Alabamas of the world select their players, followed closely behind by their BCS brethren in the power conferences, then the mid-majors. The FBS schools then get the pick of what’s left, followed by Division II and the NAIA.
For players, it’s a matter of which school will offer and how much. For college coaches, it’s a matter of finding the best player to meet their needs. The big school powers start the ball rolling and the rest watch the dominos fall where they may.
Of course, unlike those falling dominoes which, when set up correctly, fall perfectly, college recruiting is full of potholes, twists and turns. Some players end up being underrated and others overrated. Some of the best end up in the NAIA [if you check NFL rosters, you’ll find numerous players from lower-lever schools every year].
Even Cumberland can jump ahead of the line.
“We still compete with the Division II schools and the I-AAs [FCS],” Suber said. “The 1-AAs may offer him a partial, whereas we can offer more.”