COLLEGE FOOTBALL RECRUITING:

Midterm enrollees on the rise

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Bolivar quarterback Rafe Peavey was Arkansas' first commitment of the 2014 class.
Bolivar quarterback Rafe Peavey was Arkansas' first commitment of the 2014 class.

FAYETTEVILLE - Early enrollments are on the rise in college football, and the University of Arkansas is fully engaged in the trend.

Four of the Razorbacks’ newcomers - high school players Rafe Peavey, Jared Cornelius and Chris Murphy and junior-college receiver Cody Hollister - elected to enroll in January for the spring semester to get a jump of at least five months on the rest of their class.

National signing day is Wednesday.

Two of Arkansas’ early enrollees, Cornelius and Murphy, arrived in January when the opportunity presented itself during the recruiting process.

Peavey, meanwhile, has been high on the Hogs since attending one of former Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt’s football camps as a fourth-grader along with his older brother Kolton, a quarterback at the University of Rhode Island.

“From that day on, I always have known I wanted to be a Razorback,” Peavey said.

Peavey committed to Arkansas during the summer of 2012, before his junior season, when John L. Smith was interim coach after the dismissal of Bobby Petrino, and Peavey has never wavered despite Arkansas’ 7-17 record the past two seasons.

Peavey is an extreme example of an early enrollee who has been intent on attending one school as early as he could. Arkansas’ other two senior enrollees took their chances as they came.

“It was the possibility of me getting to play early,with Arkansas having a younger depth chart,” said Cornelius, a receiver out of Evangel Christian School in Shreveport, explaining why he graduated early and headed to Arkansas.

“Basically just because I could,” said Murphy, a cornerback from Marietta, Ga. “I think I’ll have a big advantage on the rest of the signing class coming in. I think I’ll be better acclimated and be more able to fly through summer and fall.”

Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema embraces the concept.

“From a head-coaching standpoint, being completely selfish, it’s the greatest thing there is,” said Bielema, who believes early enrollment increases the chance for newcomers to play during their first year on campus.

Arkansas is an advocate of early enrollees, but the Razorbacks haven’t been as heavily invested in it as a few other SEC schools.

Georgia brought in 13 early enrollees last January but only one this year, and Tennessee set what is believed to be a record with 14 early entries, 10 high school players and four transfers.

Tennessee Coach Butch Jones, a strong proponent of the early enrollment process in his previous head coaching stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, said it takes a more mature player to handle the earlier transition to college, but the ones who do it come out ahead.

“When August rolls around they understand the standard, the expectations, the style of play, [and] physically they are able to develop, mentally they are able to develop from a mental toughness standpoint but also understanding the playbook,” Jones said. “The learning curve, it really helps the learning curve and all that you do mentally and physically. It builds team bonds and chemistry. It builds an overall comfort level.

“The advantages are endless, it is invaluable.”

Bielema said he plans to continue recruiting and signing early enrollees, within reason.

“I don’t want a whole bunch of them,” Bielema said. “I’ve seen some schools that want to set a record, have seven, eight, nine, 10. Then I think you’re going more for a kid that’s coming in early than going for the best kid.

“We go after what we feel are the best kids academically, athletically and socially. If there’s a couple that fit this mold, then it’s even better for us. This year we had three, and I think we targeted six. So we hit 50 percent.”

RECENT PHENOMENON

Early enrolling is a somewhat new concept.

Bielema said he first remembered it “come to to life” in his first season as a defensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2004.

“When I first started covering recruiting 20 years ago, it was unheard of, but over the last five years we’ve seen it become more commonplace,” ESPN.com senior writer Jeremy Crabtree said. “I think if you were to crunch the numbers, it’s risen to somewhere between 35-40 percent that do it now.”

Based on figures compiled by the Democrat-Gazette, SEC schools brought on 67 early enrollees - 45 high school signees and 22 junior-college players - during the current semester, which amounts to almost 20 percent of the roughly 350 signees who will join the 14 SEC football programs this year.

Enrolling early can make adjusting to college life more manageable, as well as learning complex playbooks and schemes during spring practice, analysts say.

The biggest plus from a coach’s view is a half-year on campus for players to adapt to college ways.

“It allows them to go through spring ball, and more importantly they go through our winter conditioning in conjunction with spring ball, then hop into our summer program,” Bielema said. “So they’ve already been a part of it. It just helps their development increase so much faster.”

Lemming said the downside revolves mostly around less social interaction with family and classmates - such as missing the prom - for the final spring of their senior years.

Missing a senior prom doesn’t have to be the case for players who sign with Bielema.

“One of the parameters I’ve always laid out there is if you’re a senior and you’re doing this and you want to go back for prom, I don’t care if it’s on our spring game, I’ll let you go back for it,” Bielema said. “I don’t want to have them miss out on some life experiences they should get to do.”

Senior experiences include the actual rite of graduation.

Cornelius said he’s returning for his graduation but is electing to miss his prom, while Murphy intends to return to metro Atlanta for both his prom and graduation.

NOT FOR EVERYBODY

To get on track for early graduation and early enrollment, an athlete must show early maturation as a player and a student.

“Your average student isn’t going to be able to get it done,” Bielema said.

“Certainly you have to have some planning, because it necessitates being ahead of schedule academically,” Arkansas senior associate athletic director Jon Fagg said. “The kids who do it are typically strong students and it all works out very well for them.”

Enrolling early starts an athlete’s eligibility “clock,” which means the athletic scholarship for a typical player who goes through the process runs out after the first semester of his senior year.However, schools like Arkansas will typically foot the bill for a player if he needs more hours to graduate in the spring semester of his final year.

“It does put, in their back pocket, that redshirt year in case there is a tragic injury,” Bielema said.

Peavey, a quarterback from Bolivar, Mo., said he began planning his academic track for early graduation as an eighth-grader.

Murphy took a block schedule his first two years of high school before transferring to Marietta Lassiter, a semester-system school, which he said gave him more credits than his peers as a junior.

“The second semester of my junior year I was technically a senior, and then we realized that I could graduate early and we started to look into it more,” he said.

Cornelius said his lead recruiter, Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith, broached the possibility of graduating early because Evangel also worked on a block schedule that provided a path to a winter graduation.

“Coach Smith brought it up and I was down with it,” he said. “There really wasn’t that much planning. … I thought leaving would be the best for my college career and going on to the pros.”

Bielema said advance scouting can usually target potential early graduates by their second year in high school.

“We’ll usually try to approach kids that are sophomores that we feel potentially are going to be athletically in position to be an early offer, and if they’re a really good student we’ll say, ‘Hey, one of the things you might want to think about is this right here,’” he said. “Then we’ll give them an example of their schedule, lay it out in front of them to see what they can do.”

CALLING ALL QUARTERBACKS

Quarterbacks seem to take advantage of early enrollment more frequently than players at other positions, as the added time with playbooks can help slow the game down before they begin to take full-speed snaps.

“It’s a slower pace of installation and learning systems and going through spring ball,” Crabtree said. “It’s especially helpful at positions like quarterback or the offensive line. Anything that takes a little more development can take advantage of this and help them earn a chance to play earlier.”

Peavey is one of nine quarterbacks who enrolled on SEC campuses in January.

Some of Peavey’s quarterback colleagues could end up starting next fall. The list of early graduates at quarterback in the SEC includes Kyle Allen of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Desert Mountain, the nation’s top-rated pro-style quarterback who is at Texas A&M; Will Grier of Davidson (N.C.) Day, who is at Florida after passing for 14,565 yards in high school; Brandon Harris (LSU), the nation’s third-rated dual-threat quarterback from Bossier City (La.) Parkway and David Cornwell (Alabama) of Norman (Okla.) North, the fourth-rated dual-threat signal caller.

Georgia’s lone early enrollee this winter was Jacob Park, a 6-3 pro-style quarterback from Goose Greek (S.C.) Stratford High.

Marvin Zanders of Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines is at Missouri, Drew Barker of Hebron, Ky., is at Kentucky, and Nick Fitzgerald of Richmond Hill, Ga., is at Mississippi State.

A handful of SEC quarterbacks used the early graduation process last year, including three at Alabama, and LSU’s Anthony Jennings from Marietta, Ga., whose breakout moment came late in the fourth quarter of the Tigers’ 31-27 victory over Arkansas after Zach Mettenberger’s injury.

Some college football observers see the increase in early enrollments as a signal that an early signing period for football is on the not-too-distant horizon.

“I think there are several things that are driving to an early signing date, this being one of them,” Bielema said.“But also just the fact and the reality that kids are making decisions early based off of information that they got from earlier in their careers.”

Fagg said he doesn’t think early enrollment connects directly to an early signing period.

“Early signing carries with it some other issues that take a long time to discuss,” Fagg said. “I don’t see it as a true precursor.”

NO SURE THING

Arkansas’ success with early enrollees has been mixed.

There have been successes like running back Knile Davis and lineman Brey Cook from the high school ranks and junior-college defensive lineman Robert Thomas. There have been a few who didn’t pan out, such as receiver Quinta Funderburk, quarterback Jacoby Walker and defensive end Austin Flynn.

Cook, a Springdale Har-Ber graduate, said early enrollment was an easy choice for him with his family based in Northwest Arkansas.

“I felt like it would have been a waste of time if I hadn’t come here,” he said. “I would have been stuck in high school, working out with them and not really doing a whole lot, just being on my own instead of jumping into the program and getting set up in the weight room.”

Cook said he began planning for early enrollment in the fall of his junior year. He took college algebra at Northwest Arkansas Community College in the spring of his junior year and an English composition class in the summer before his senior year to satisfy his core graduation requirements.

Cook said his decision to graduate early would have been harder if he hadn’t lived so close to campus.

“I was able to walk at graduation, go to prom, and I was able to see all my friends,” he said.

He remains an advocate of the process.

“I would definitely encourage it,” Cook said. “You can look at players and you can see that they’re hungry to get up there and play. It’s like that semester is just prolonging the wait, like you’re just sitting there waiting.

“I felt like a veteran by the time the other guys came up here. It was nice to be settled in that summer for summer workouts.”

Richard Davenport of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, contributed to this report.

Sports, Pages 17 on 02/04/2014

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