National Signing Day for football is coming up next week, and like pretty much every year, there will be very little drama for players from Wisconsin. To their credit over the years, we really don’t see players do the hat dance on Signing Day, commit with elaborate videos, or draw things out just to make their decision live on ESPN.
That doesn’t mean that things have always been hunky-dory the rest of the recruiting process. Working at WisSports.net since 2008 and covering football recruiting since 2010, I’ve seen and heard some rather interesting things happen during the recruiting process, and I’ll share some of them below. Please note that to avoid any embarrassment, I will withhold names in some situations.
– In my first few months covering recruiting after taking over for the late Marlin Lee III, one of the interesting stories to follow was that of Homestead All-State defensive lineman Donte Phillips. A player with a good amount of upside, he initially committed to Indiana. However, a coaching change led him to re-open his commitment and look around a bit more. I talked with him several times and the week before Signing Day, he indicated he was going to visit Penn State, who all but assured him that if he visited, they’d offer. He said he was going to commit to the Nittany Lions but asked me to hold off reporting anything, which I obliged. While on the visit to PSU, he was informed by Joe Paterno that they no longer planned on offering a scholarship, which left him scrambling in the last couple days before Signing Day. Ultimately, he signed with Texas Tech and a nice career with the Red Raiders, but he’s an example of how unpredictable and frustrating the process can be for players at times.
– It was a difficult time for Waunakee’s Leo Musso in the days leading up to National Signing Day as well in 2012. I said for months that he was extremely under-recruited, with little BCS interest at the time, despite excellent athletic ability and incredible production. Finally, in January, he picked up interest from Pitt, where Paul Chryst was the new head coach, and the Panthers offered a scholarship. He planned an official visit for the last week of January with the intention of committing to the Panthers. However, late interest would come from Wisconsin, who initially targeted him as a preferred walk-on. In the final days, Wisconsin did come through with a scholarship offer, and after some serious conversations with his head coach Pat Rice, Musso decided to stay home with the Badgers. I still recall speaking with Coach Rice late into the evening during that week as he and Musso went over his options.
– The recruiting story of Waukesha West’s Joe Schobert is pretty well-documented, as he was another player who I tried telling anyone who would listen was being being significantly under-recruited. I exchanged emails with both Joe and his father Randy several times during his senior year, and despite some interest from D1 schools, not a single scholarship offer came his way. In fact, in following up with them the day before the 2012 Signing Day, Joe indicated he was likely to walk-on at North Dakota. That same day, a dejected Randy Schobert wrote to me, “Really kind of amazing no one offered him any athletic scholarship. All in all this has been very disappointing for Joe; not sure what went wrong or what else we could have done to help him as this whole process was brand new to us.” The rest of the story has been told many times. At the WFCA All-Star Game that July, Schobert wowed the coaches with his abilities. Several of the high school coaches contacted Bret Bielema and the Badgers and implored them to look at Schobert again. They did, and offered a preferred walk-on spot just days before Schobert was set to move to North Dakota. Ultimately, he agreed to stay home, became a fixture in the Badgers’ line-up, and this year was elected to his first NFL Pro Bowl. His story arc from record-setting high school junior to under-recruited prospect to Badgers' walk-on to now is perhaps my favorite story I've followed at WSN.
– Not all stories are as positive however. There was a player several years ago who contacted me after his freshman season to report all of the recruiting interest he was receiving, including phone calls with schools, visit invites, and more from programs around the country. Not only that, he sent me recorded phone conversations with schools which he claimed were discussions about setting up visits. However, in listening to them, the calls were with general admissions staff to set up school visits that anyone could do, they weren’t football-related. Several of the recruiting websites reported his strong interest from top-flight schools and he suddenly became a “must get” in the eyes of message board recruitniks. The whole thing struck me a bit odd for that level of interest from those kinds of programs to come so early, so I contacted his high school coach. He informed me that while a nice player with potential, he was not at that level yet and had not received the kind of college attention that was being discussed. The player ended up signing with a D1-FCS program before leaving the school a year later.
– When it comes to less than straight-forward information in recruiting, the next player takes the cake however. I received an email from a player’s father informing me of interest that said player was receiving from multiple Division 1 schools. It was a player I was not familiar with previously, which isn’t totally uncommon with the large number of athletes in the state. As is the case when I get info from a player I’m not familiar with, I did some research and upon reviewing his player profile on WSN, saw him listed as a 5’10”, 230-pound sophomore offensive lineman. This did not add up with the interest that was claimed (we’re talking multiple Big Ten and BCS schools), so I tried contacting his coach, with no luck. The player and his father continued to send me information on recruiting attention, but without being able to verify anything, I did not report it (which angered them). Somehow he was able to talk nearly a dozen BCS schools into having him for visits however, as he posted numerous photos from visits he took to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and others. The recruiting services picked up on it and did not properly vet the info, so he was added to their lists. In fact, one recruiting site for a Big Ten school listed him as one of the top five “must get” prospects. If they had taken the time to even review his highlight film they would have seen it was JV film, he was way undersized, and not anywhere close to a D1 prospect. He likely wasn’t a D3 prospect. At one Big Ten summer camp, they actually moved him out of the offensive line group because he was so far behind everyone else and stuck him with the fullback prospects. Of course, for the recruiting sites, this just meant he had great versatility. I finally connected with the Athletic Director at the player’s school and as I suspected, he informed me that the situation was an ongoing challenge for the program and the player was not receiving the kind of true recruiting interest he was claiming. The player would go on to be a starter on the high school team his senior year, but certainly not a Division 1 prospect. However, he announced a “commitment” to a D1 school, which the local newspaper ran as a story. Needless to say, he never played there.
– The proliferation of social media has been a boon to high school prospects, who can market themselves directly to coaches and also provide recruiting information publicly instead of fielding calls from dozens of recruiting sites. But it has also has the possibility of being a negative for players, whether it constant badgering from college fans wanting them to attend their favorite school, the source of scorn if they choose a different university, or a place for the athletes themselves to make mistakes with improper posts. There is a bit of a sense of, "It doesn't happen here," however, there was a recent example of a Wisconsin high school player losing a Big Ten scholarship because of multiple inappropriate social media comments, though he did end up eventually signing with a D1-FCS program. It wasn't reported as such at the time, and we won't identify the player here, but it highlights the potential pitfalls of social media use by athletes.
There are certainly other interesting stories over the years, including players leaving scholarships to D1 programs before school even starts to return home, but we’ll save those for another time. As I begin work on Player Rankings for the Class of 2019, it will be interesting to see what unexpected stories may come from that group.
For the latest and most up to date football news and recruiting information, follow Travis on Twitter @travisWSN. Email story ideas, recruiting info, etc. to Travis at travis(at)wissports.net.