College recruiters get 'em while they're young
The excitement in Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ voice was palpable. He was in the midst of a life-changing week – well, as much as one can be in a 16-year-old’s existence.
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Seferian-Jenkins, a sophomore at Gig Harbor High School, passed his driving test Wednesday and is now eligible to tackle the Puget Sound roads on his own. On Thursday, Washington State coach Paul Wulff visited Gig Harbor and informed Tides coach Darren McKay that the Cougars would offer Seferian-Jenkins a football scholarship.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Seferian-Jenkins said happily.
Waiting for which?
Um, that would be the driver’s license.
“I don’t have to go to Coach McKay’s office anymore to call my mom for rides,” Seferian-Jenkins said.
And the scholarship?
“Yeah, WSU offered me a scholarship,” Seferian-Jenkins said almost matter of factly, as if it wasn’t the first time such a monumental moment had occurred.
And the truth is it wasn’t.
The scholarship offer from WSU was the third that Seferian-Jenkins received.
The first – an offer from the University of Washington – came back when he was still relying on his mom for transportation and before he even played a down of a football as a sophomore for the Tides.
It seems strange for a sophomore to receive scholarship offers.
On some level, it is. It’s something that seems more likely in the football-mad South where high school football prodigies in places such as Florida and Texas are under constant recruiting bombardment from schools in the Southeastern and Big 12 conferences.
But it’s happening in Washington. Seferian-Jenkins isn’t alone in receiving offers as a sophomore. Skyline quarterback Jake Heaps now a junior, received a handful of scholarship offers as a sophomore. His teammate, sophomore wide receiver Kasen Williams, has already received six scholarship offers, including his first one just after his freshman season.
The days of waiting until athletes’ senior year to recruit them has long since disappeared like the single-bar facemask. Heck, waiting until players’ junior year might be too late.
As the competition grows to secure the best talent, college coaches are forced to not only recruit, but offer scholarships to sophomores. The trend could soon mean that athletes such as Seferian-Jenkins and Williams will no longer be the exception, but the rule.
THE SUPER SOPHOMORES
Regardless of their age or year in school, there is little questioning whether Williams or Seferian-Jenkins are worthy of the scholarship offers they’ve received.
Williams, whose father Aaron was a standout athlete at Wilson High and a Huskies wide receiver, burst upon the high school scene late in the 2007 season as a freshman for the Skyline Spartans.
For most of that season Williams played sparingly on a loaded varsity squad. Then-coach Steve Gervais and wide receivers coach Mat Taylor, who replaced Gervais following the season, decided to ease Williams into varsity play in controlled and low-drama game situations. There was little question of his size (6-2, 180 pounds at the time) or his athleticism, which looked more like a junior or senior. But with a roster full of juniors and seniors, there was little reason to rush Williams.
“We never wanted it to get to a point where he lost his swagger,” Taylor said.
For the regular season, Williams had just five catches (two for touchdowns) in varsity games. But that changed in the playoffs. With star receiver Gino Simone, out with a concussion, Williams stepped in and caught four passes for 116 yards in a quarterfinal win over Kennewick. From there, Williams stayed on the field for the Spartans, catching five passes for 107 yards in Skyline’s 42-35 win over O’Dea in the 3A state championship game.
Fans in a packed Tacoma Dome got to see a star being born. But at what level? Taylor would soon find out.
A week after taking over for Gervais, who joined the Huskies’ staff, Taylor got a phone call from UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who was already recruiting Heaps. But in this conversation, Neuheisel let Taylor know that he wanted to offer Williams a scholarship to play for the Bruins as well.
“I was like, ‘holy smokes,’ ” Taylor said. “I wasn’t even certain if Kasen was 15 years old yet.”
Williams was indeed 15, and he already had a scholarship offer from a Pacific-10 Conference school.
“At the beginning, I couldn’t really believe it, I thought he was kidding,” Williams said.
“But then Coach Taylor told me he was serious. It caught me off-guard because I really only played in the last four games of the year.”
The whole situation seemed so surreal to Williams.
“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t thinking I was going to play on the varsity at all. I thought I was going to play with my friends on the freshman team,” he said. “And then I had a scholarship offer.”
Washington followed with an offer later in his freshman season. Following the end of a sophomore season in which Williams caught 59 passes for 939 yards and 13 touchdowns, he has received six scholarship offers, and the number seems likely to grow.
Seferian-Jenkins’ story isn’t quite the same, but not altogether different.
Like Williams, he played sparingly on the varsity.
“We used him on special teams mainly,” McKay said.
But even in those few moments, Seferian-Jenkins stood out, perhaps because he was several inches taller and far larger than many of his older teammates.
At 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, the description of him many use is “man-child.”
McKay likes to tell the story of Rocky Seto, who was recently promoted to USC’s defensive coordinator, visiting Gig Harbor. McKay happened to mention that he had a big and promising freshmen in the program at the very moment Seferian-Jenkins was walking by in the hall.
“I pointed to Rocky and said, ‘There he goes right there,’ and Rocky said, ‘No way. That kid can’t be a freshmen,’ ” McKay recalled with a chuckle.
But even as large, hulking and powerful as Seferian-Jenkins is, he’s also amazingly athletic and graceful, which is evident when he is playing basketball for Gig Harbor.
It was something the University of Washington coaches couldn’t help but notice in the summer following Seferian-Jenkins’ freshman year when he participated in a football camp.
About a month and a half after the camp, Seferian-Jenkins took an unofficial visit to the Montlake campus and was offered a scholarship. He had yet to start a varsity football game.
“I was very surprised,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “I mean, I played mostly with the ‘C’ team my freshman year.”
After a solid sophomore season at tight end, Seferian-Jenkins, who has 3.6 grade-point average, got an offer from Stanford.
But his choices are expanding to much of the Pac-10, including serious interest from Arizona State.
IS TREND A PROBLEM?
The recruiting of kids as early as their sophomore or a freshman year isn’t new. It has happened in the past, but not on a wide-spread basis. But that is likely to change.
“I didn’t think it’s really new,” said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for Scout.com
and founder of SuperPrep magazine. “Recruiting has been headed in that direction for a long time.”
The simple answer is that recruiting has become more competitive.
“The recruiting game has moved up like everything,” Wallace said. “There is more and more pressure to get better kids, so more and more schools are (making) greater efforts to fill recruiting classes with better talent. There’s pressure on everybody to make the best impression possible.”
Not only the best impression, but the earliest impression.
Does being the first to offer a scholarship help in the recruiting process?
“Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t,” Wallace said. “It’s like flipping a coin, but schools can’t really afford not to flip it.”
The pressure to recruit early mounts on universities in areas with talented local players. Every program wants to make sure it gets the best in its backyard.
“When you are talking about local kids, if you haven’t offered a local guy and he’s drawing interest of schools across state borders, you run the risk of a public relations nightmare,” Wallace said.
Is it bad for a university to make such early offers?
“Really, schools have nothing to lose, because it’s just as imperative that they get involved quicker than ever on the prospects that are the most heavily recruited,” Wallace said.
The thing to remember is that a scholarship offer, much like the verbal commitment from recruits, is not binding.
“There’s not much downside to that, especially with the way oral commitments go, when half the time kids don’t even live up to them, it’s all pretty much an informal process,” Wallace said.
So schools are making early offers to let kids know they are interested.
“If you offer (a scholarship to) the kid, chances are he probably won’t even commit right away,” Wallace said. “And even if he does, he’ll continue to take trips to schools. Assuming you can get any kind of decent evaluation by your staff, there’s no reason to hold back on offers.”
Not surprisingly, high school coaches see it differently.
“Some of these kids simply aren’t ready for it,” Lakes coach Dave Miller said. “Sometimes they think once they get the offer, it’s a sign to stop working. And really, it’s all based on potential, not reality.”
Both Taylor and McKay rave about their youngsters keeping the numerous offers in perspective. But they both admit not every kid would react in such a way.
“Some kids can handle it, and there are other kids where it will pretty much occupy their thoughts completely,” McKay said.
Taylor, a seemingly young coach at age 33, admitted it all made him feel old.
“I graduated in 1994 and the only recruiting thing you had was your Northwest Nuggets or what that (blue chips) thing the Seattle Times did,” he said. “That’s basically it. Maybe you sent some game film. But we didn’t make highlight films, and there were no recruiting services back then.”
Wallace said he thinks the changing climate of recruiting has also changed the kids, so the old ways would never work today.
“The old days of being beholden to tradition (don’t move) today’s youngsters, who are more savvy in the ways of the world and expect a lot more,” Wallace said. “They are much more demanding and tend to pay attention to recruiting efforts.”
Taylor, who has coached two sophomores who received multiple scholarship offers, knows they won’t be his last.
“It’s a trend,” he said. “It’s going to keep growing and growing. Who knows, pretty soon (we’ll have) an eighth grader getting a scholarship offer.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483