The No-Star Recruit

What’s it like to be recruited to college to play football? Famous coaches in your living room on bended knee? Recruiting trips full of parties? Money and Playstations and cars?

That’s not how it goes for most athletes.

Every year on the first Wednesday in February, thousands of college athletes will sign their letters of intent to play college football. In 2007, I was among that group. But the recruitment process varies quite a bit for each prospect.

It’s true that some athletes have every college in the country trying to break down their doors. They’re the top recruits, the guys on national recruitment lists and high school All-America teams. They’re the ones who sometimes get money thrown at them (shhhh, no one’s supposed to talk about this). These are the guys with “5-star” or “4-star” next to their names.

The next tier of college football prospects are pursued, albeit more quietly than the top recruits. Lastly, there are the guys who don’t get recruited at all. They dream of a college football scholarship, but no coaches are calling. I call these players “no-star recruits.” I was a no-star recruit.

Here’s how the recruiting process works. All the different recruiting services evaluate each high school prospect and give him a rating of 2-5, with five stars being the best. As a “no-star recruit,” I didn’t even land on the rating system. I was nowhere to be found on Rivals, Scout, or ESPN, the big three sites that monitor recruiting. Yet I ended up at the University of Miami as a football player, became a two-year starter, made the All-ACC team my junior and senior seasons, was named a captain my senior year, and was able to enjoy a cup of coffee in the NFL (last month, I wrote about my life as an NFL journeyman). How did it all happen?

For starters, the recruitment process was something of an enigma, especially for me. I knew I was good enough to play college football, but it seemed like none of the colleges agreed. After my junior season of high school football, I began to receive recruitment mail from a variety of different schools. Envelopes from Ole Miss, Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisville, and a plethora of others flooded my mailbox each week. It was awesome that universities were destroying whole forests just to send me information about their programs. I was special, I thought. But I soon realized these letters are generic pieces of paper they send to thousands of prospects, regardless of their rating. I existed as a name in a Excel sheet somewhere, but not in the minds of coaches. I was not special. I was still completely under the radar.

The summer before your senior high school season is the best chance to showcase your abilities to college recruiters. Every college has its own summer football camp where college coaches can evaluate players. I had signed up for the Louisville, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt camps, and I was registered to attend one of Rivals’ regional camps, a well-known way to grab some exposure. These camps were my best opportunities to get noticed. Then bad luck struck. I broke my hand at the first camp I attended, Arkansas, and I was sidelined for the rest of the summer. I was completely devastated. My high school coach assured me that my game film would still be good enough to speak for me. But the opportunity at the summer camps to work with college O-line coaches would have helped me tremendously.

So I entered my senior high school season as a nobody. I had no scholarship offers and almost no contact with college coaches. Things were not going as planned. Not only did my hometown Memphis Tigers ignore me, but it was all silence from other Division 1-AA schools too. I remained hopeful and knew that there was plenty of time for my recruitment to pick up. And sure enough, it did.

Early into my senior season we had a primetime game against Nease High School in Florida. That’s the school where Tim Tebow played his high school ball, and they had plenty of college talent every year. This particular year, their whole offensive line was full of 5-star recruits. Even though we were completely blown out, I had a good game, and afterward two Miami coaches approached me and told me so. I wasn’t sure of the significance, but it did feel good getting recognition from a major university.

You can’t make colleges call you. That’s frustrating, but all you can do is work on your game and put yourself in a position to be noticed. Sure enough, someone did. Miami followed up with me by phone. On the other end of the line was Mario Cristobal, who at the time was Miami’s offensive line coach (today he’s the O-line coach for Alabama). He told me he loved my tape and he counseled me to be patient with the recruiting process. So I tried to remain patient. Very patient. That’s not easy for a 17-year-old who’s counting down his high school days and wondering if all his options will dry out.

My high school also had a 4-star linebacker. I remember Nick Saban and other high profile coaches stopping by our high school all the time. Yet, despite the college coaches walking in and out of my head coach’s office, I never heard from any of them. I had to trust the process of being a no-star recruit, and accept the lack of attention as a form of motivation.

I didn’t hear from Coach Cristobal until December. When he did call, he didn’t have the news I expected. He was calling to say he was leaving Miami to take the head coaching job at Florida International University (FIU). He offered me a scholarship to FIU on the phone. An offer! My first scholarship option. I was ecstatic. But wait … what and where was Florida International University? My excitement was already waning somewhat. It was all happening so fast. I discovered that FIU had not won a single game that season. That same week, Joe Pannunzio, who was the tight end coach at Miami, came to my school to let me know Miami was still going to evaluate me and consider recruiting me. Suddenly I had gone from zero options to two options.

The whole process became more muddled when Larry Coker, the head coach at Miami at the time, was fired. I called tight end coach Joe Pannunzio to find out what was going on, and again he assured me that Miami was still interested. By then it was January. National Signing Day was around the corner. During this time, I had picked up two more offers, from the University of Central Arkansas (a Div I-AA school) and from Arkansas State (where my grandfather just happened to be a prominent alum).

As Signing Day loomed, I still had no idea where I wanted to go. I had visited FIU, UCA, and ASU, and I still wasn’t sure. The week before Signing Day, Miami’s offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland (the current offensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles) visited my school unannounced. We met in my coach’s office and after a couple minutes of small talk, I blurted out, bluntly, “Are you here to offer me or not?” It was the kind of bold — or stupid — question that only a high schooler would have the nerve to ask. (Especially for a guy like me, who is usually soft spoken.) He was taken aback. Maybe he was a little shocked, or maybe he liked my directness. In any event, he said, “Yes.”

I went on my official visit to Miami that weekend, fell in love with the campus and the culture, and signed my letter of intent that Wednesday on Signing Day. I still didn’t have any stars, but a few weeks later I was retroactively awarded two stars. Two whole stars. Better late than never.

My recruitment wasn’t the stuff of legend. I didn’t have 25+ scholarships. No Internet buzz. No big welcome parties. No Sports Illustrated stories about me. But I did enjoy my own experience, and looking back on it, I laugh at how nervous I was about my future. By trusting the process and being patient, things took care of themselves. Whenever I feel doubtful about the future, I just remind myself that in the span of one week I went from having no options to attending a school a thousand miles away on a football scholarship. A lot can change in one week. To the high schoolers in that position this week, I see you. Be patient. Best of luck.