CONNECTING STUDENT ATHLETES WITH COLLEGE COACHES
Damon Mitchell of Cedar Creek High School verbally committed last July to attend Georgia Tech on a football scholarship.
This weekend - just five days before National Signing Day - the standout quarterback and defensive back is supposed to visit the University of Arkansas.
I think (Mitchell) just wants to see what Arkansas is talking about," Cedar Creek coach Tim Watson said Tuesday night.There is a chance Georgia Tech will pull Mitchell's scholarship offer.
"He's putting himself in a precarious position in terms of the Georgia Tech offer and he knows that. At the end of the day, he's trying to be true to himself and my allegiance is to him."
Mitchell's situation illustrates the hectic, topsy-turvy, flattering and frustrating world of college football recruiting.
In the past week, some of college football's most high profile coaches, including Brian Kelly of Notre Dame and Bill O'Brien of Penn State, have visited local schools on recruiting trips.
There was a time not long ago when the recruiting of a player ended when he gave a verbal commitment. Now, it's often just beginning.
Colleges continue to recruit players that have verbally committed. Coaches leave for other jobs, causing players to rethink their decision. Players also have second thoughts after a chosen schools sees its program wrecked by scandal or NCAA violations.
And sometimes 17-, 18- and 19-year-old football players - like any other prospective college seniors - simply their change their minds.
When a big-time recruit - like Mitchell - makes a move, newspapers, websites and television stations chronicle his every thought on the matter.
Watson, a 1994 Mainland Regional graduate, signed a national letter of intent to play football at Maryland. Back then a high school player getting his name in the back of Street & Smith magazine was a high point. This Wednesday, ESPNU will devote a full day of coverage to national signings.
"I'm getting a ton of calls (about Mitchell)," Watson said. "It's like a soap opera."
A recruit's decision doesn't become official until players sign a binding national letter of intent, which they can't do until the first Wednesday of February, under NCAA regulations.
"Things change in college sports," said Oakcrest linebacker Brandon Bell, who has verbally committed to Penn State. "You have to weigh your decision again and again. It's kind of like life. You never know what's going to happen."
Bell is one of five local players who have verbally committed to attend Division I Football Bowl Subdivision colleges.
In addition to Bell and Mitchell, quarterback and defensive back Rashad Kinlaw of Absegami committed to Notre Dame. Kicker Jim Cooper of Mainland Regional and wide receiver and defensive back Dayshawn Reynolds of Atlantic City have said they are going to Temple University.
Many of these players rethought their decision - at least once - after their verbal commitment.
Bell verbally committed to Penn State last June. But the sanctions handed down to the school last summer following the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal caused him to rethink his decision. Bell reaffirmed his commitment to Penn State last August.
Cooper rethought his decision to attend Temple after Owls football coach Steve Addazio left in December for Boston College. Temple hired Matt Rhule as coach in December and Cooper decided to stay with the Owls.
"You just have to rebound and think your way through it," Bell said. "You have to keep tight with your family and (high school) coach. Those guys are not going to steer you wrong. Whenever you're feeling worrisome, talk to them."
College coaches know their recruits sometimes have second thoughts.
That's why in January, coaches showed up at local schools to visit players. Penn State coach O'Brien went to Oakcrest. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson visited Mitchell at Cedar Creek.
Kelly came to Absegami just a few days after the Fighting Irish lost to Alabama in the National Championship game.
Kelly's visit created a stir. Absegami teachers and students, who were Notre Dame fans, plotted a way to get a look at him. Ironically, underclass Absegami football players couldn't have a conversation with Kelly because it would be an NCAA violation. But students who don't play football could talk to Kelly all they want.
"It was pretty cool and great for our school," Absegami football coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. said. "It's important for the head coach to come into the community of where his recruits are coming are from. The community feels a sense of connection to that program."
But despite a recruiting process that begins in a player's sophomore or junior season, sometimes the decision is made a few days - or hours - before signing day.
That's the way Mitchell is headed.
He chose Georgia Tech early because that school wanted him to play quarterback. Several other colleges wanted him to play defensive back.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Mitchell just started playing quarterback his sophomore season at Cedar Creek. He excelled last season, throwing for 22 touchdowns and running for 21 more. College and pro teams now desire quarterbacks who can run and throw. As his senior season unfolded, more and more schools began to show an interest in him at quarterback.
"He impressed people," Watson said. "He opened people's eyes in terms of what his ceiling is at quarterback. He's kind of coming around at the perfect time."
Mitchell stayed committed to Georgia Tech, but according to Watson, the lure of Arkansas and the Southeastern Conference - the best in college football - is hard not to look at.
"He's an 18-year-old kid," Watson said. "He's a football junkie. He might want to chase that dream of competing at the highest level of college football there is."
The only thing for certain is that all the uncertainty of the recruiting process ends Wednesday.
But what appears to be an end is actually a beginning.
"Four more months," Bell said, "and everybody else will be shipping off in the summer, getting to campus. It gets real."