Far away from the high school gyms, local reporters, and ESPNU camera crews, approximately 20,000 high school seniors decide which schools they will attend and play football for. For the vast majority of kids and families, the recruiting process is much less glamorous, but just as important. From NCAA Division 1 down through NAIA schools and Junior Colleges, 17-19 year old boys make one of the first real decisions of their adulthood. "Where am I going to college?" And for these lucky many, that comes along with the opportunity to play college football.
This past Wednesday was National Signing Day (NSD), marking the biggest day in recruiting ffor college football programs. It's a day that affects many lives around the country and most of the kids you never hear about unless you're connected in some way. Today I'm going to offer you a glimpse into what it was like for these young men the last couple years, and the path they've each taken. The young men you'll meet, come from all over the country, you may or may not have read about them previously. Their stories are all unique but still neatly fit into the current recruiting paradigm. Personally, I can relate to many of the details we'll talk about here, and that is a big reason I chose to ask these kids for help. I wanted their help in explaining how special a process it is at every level for young men and their families, but also its challenges and nuances. Their final decision may come with the involuntarily toting of a historical and cultural flag, perhaps a promise to your dad, or it may simply be a decision that provides great relief knowing the process is over. Very rarely does it include the charade we see unfold on the TV these days with hats, helmets, cheerleaders and the school band. What is it like "in reality" to get recruited? Is the process different at the D1 level than it is at lower levels? Well, let's find out! These 3 young men were good enough to share with Z Delay Special a little about their journey.
Melvin Holland Jr., WR, University of Minnesota
Melvin is originally from Tallahassee, FL (Go Noles!) but hails from Ashburn, VA. and played for Briar Woods HS. For some reason my man has a Florida Gators background on his Twitter account, so let's see if we can't get him to update that nonsense! Melvin ended his recruitment with a composite 3-star ranking at WR. He is a soft spoken kid with fantastic athletic ability. It's easy to see why Coach Kill and staff wanted him so badly. Question I had was how come there weren't a lot of heavy hitting offers on the table for him, or more momentum earlier? I watched his film and he has above average straight ahead speed, he catches the ball particularly well, and he's physically imposing. He does show some rough edges regarding some of the finer techniques of playing WR. Regardless, this dude looks the part and plays the part. I was curious as to why some of the bigger schools in the SE (where he's from) weren't all over him. In talking to Melvin, I got all the information I needed to know. This recruiting game is unforgiving in many ways.
Melvin never started a game at WR until his SR year in HS. I asked him why and he told me that he got some reps here and there but the team needed him on defense...so he played defense. Melvin didn't do the camp circuit throughout high school and when he finally did get to a couple camps his Jr. year, the coaches recruiting had little to no film on him to scout. He told me that there were several schools, LSU, in particular that liked him but didn't have any film, so they "didn't know how to evaluate". Part of that is nonsense, I mean he was right there in front of them, but the other part is realizing that Melvin didn't have any tape at WR because he played where the team needed him. This is the part that is interesting to me. What if Melvin had known that he needed some camps and he needed reps at WR to get the looks he needed to best expose himself? Would he have spoken up to his HS coaches?
I asked him at the end of our discussion, what his favorite thing about playing WR was, and he responded, "I just love football, man" He said he'd play wherever he had to and do whatever he could to help his team win. He told me he never wants to let anyone on his team down. Isn't this EXACTLY the kind of guy you want on your team? Physically gifted, loves playing the game, will help his team wherever he can, and doesn't want to let anyone down...and all that unselfishness did was cost him more opportunities for exposure on the recruiting trail. Don't get me wrong, Melvin obviously had some quality offers, but I illustrate that point to show you how fickle the process can be.
The University of Minnesota didn't start speaking with him until a couple games remained in his Sr year football season, which is a little later in the process. Coach Anderson was his recruiter, and by all accounts Coach Anderson is a great recruiter. They loved what they saw and it's hard not to, Melvin is a high level athlete with a big frame for WR, which is exactly what Minnesota went after in this cycle and philosophically at that position. Obviously, the Gophers made up any lost ground with Melvin Jr. and struck up a good relationship. Perhaps most coincidentally, because of his unselfishness, Melvin may have had less interest early in the process and overall, but he is exactly the kind of program guy for this Minnesota team. Melvin told me that the coaches want him to come in and compete for a role immediately. And on the surface he's got the talent to do so. The MN WR corps is desperately in need for some play-making and depth. Melvin also told me that he'd be just fine with taking a Redshirt year to learn the system and get comfortable at college. This is probably ideal because, given some time to clean a few things up Melvin will be a very productive player. Either way, he's going to do what's best for the team and you gotta love him for it. Like I said, there wasn't much to dislike for Coach Anderson and the Gophers staff, and on the flip side, it didn't take long for Melvin to like what he heard about at MN either.
Academics are a big deal to Melvin, as he and his father have a deal that Melvin Jr. will get his degree before anything else, professionally. He didn't know anything about the University before speaking with Coach Anderson. Both Melvin and his dad Melvin Sr. liked what they heard and decided to make a visit. Melvin told me that the only thing he was at all worried about was "the cold" I told him that I can't blame him one bit! Melvin enjoyed his visit and when considering the school and the fact that it is Big 10 Football, he felt pretty good about Minnesota. But for Melvin, the biggest piece of the puzzle was coach Kill and his staff. The fact that they'd been together as long as they have was appealing to Melvin. The stability even through some challenges the past couple years meant a lot to Melvin and ultimately sealed the deal for him. He chose MN over Wake Forest, Rutgers, Wisconsin and others. Melvin is one of the top 2014 recruits in Coach Kill and his staff's finest recruiting class to date. He's got an opportunity to help build upon significant team success since Jerry Kill and crew have taken over at Minnesota. I wish him nothing but hard work and great success. Perhaps we'll check in him from time to time. Welcome to Minnesota Holland family, Ski-U-Mah!
**Please see Melvin's Sr. highlights below, courtesy of YouTube**
Justin Motlow, WR, Florida State University
Justin wasn't as highly ranked at the position, simply because of his size (Justin, I can relate). Justin is 5'11 and currently about 178 pounds, but I'm going to say 185 to make him feel better. He hails from Tampa, FL and played his ball at Tampa Catholic. Tampa Catholic is not short on Athletic prowess, although most of its notable alumni played baseball. Twins fans will know the name Denard Span, but there were several others...oh yeah and Channing Tatum went there, heeeyy!! Additionally, one of Justin's teammates is 4-star OL signee at FSU, Corey Martinez.
Just faces the same challenge MANY hopeful college football players face, size. at below 6 feet, he's not the mold for the ideal WR size, and minus elite speed, it's easy to see why coaches may have overlooked his skills at the highest level. But don't let the size fool you, this kid can flat get it done on the football field. He's got decent speed, but above average lateral quickness. He's a great yards after catch (YAC) guy because he is a savvy player with the ball in his hands. He catches well, uses stiff arm very well for a HS WR, can block and is a tough player. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and I love it.
Justin excelled in track and football and his recruitment really picked up his junior year. Stats were good, competition is good, and he was about to get on top of the recruiting momentum that picks up after your junior year. But, during spring practice Justin's junior year he separated his shoulder and it was severe enough that he couldn't go to camps in the summer...the summer before his senior year, his last opportunity to play directly in front of and communicate with college coaches. He may not have realized it then, thinking that he had his whole senior year left, but this was a big deal, especially for a kid without superior physical talents. Justin told me the most frustrating thing for him during this process was that despite his senior season being statistically better, the momentum of his recruitment had died down. Attention remained from a few schools, Wake Forest (new staff), Holy Cross, and Boise St., but despite Wake Forest being close to offering they didn't. Florida State had liked him and Coach Dawsey ended up calling a few weeks ago and offered Justin an opportunity to be a Preferred Walk-on. Justin Accepted. A Preferred Walk-on (PWO) is a walk on that is invited to pre-season camp and is as part of the program as anyone else. Additionally, they're often awarded with scholarships depending on their play, roster numbers, and attrition. It can also be the dreaded thing to hear for many kids hoping for that scholarship.
Despite the frustrations of the recruiting process for a "tweener" who didn't quite catch the break he needed, Justin will be offered an opportunity to compete for the defending national champions...not bad right? It gets better. Justin is 1/4 Seminole Indian, a part of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. His father grew up on the reservation and was a high school athlete, playing football and baseball. Athletics is a big part of his life and his hard work has earned him the right to be the first Seminole Indian to play football for the Florida State Seminoles. I'll let you take a second to process how cool that is...Justin is very proud of his heritage, but also told me he didn't want any attention from it, he just wants to play some ball. However, he's well aware of the attention this may bring him and just hopes that he will be judged for his work ethic and play on the field. Justin is in good company on campus as his sister Jessica is a Sophomore on campus currently...this is where I have to say his story hits kind of close to home. As someone who also walked to play WR at FSU, was also undersized, and also spent time with his sister on the same campus...I find a sense of nostalgia in this whole story, except for the Seminole Tribe membership, of course. Oh yeah, and when I transferred in, it was a semester after the Noles last national championship in early 2000...almost creepy! Here's where the story diverges a little however, Justin is a great student.
In speaking with Justin's mother, Lisa, you could tell how proud she is of Jessica and Justin. But, she emphasized Justin's academic record just as much as his football. She knows what this opportunity means to Justin athletically, but recognizes its value in the classroom too. Leave it to the parents to have priorities straight, huh? Justin took trips to Harvard and Princeton, is an honor student, and will be held to a higher standard than most other college student by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. While Justin is not signing an athletic scholarship this semester, the Seminoles (Tribe of Florida) are supporting his college experience as long as he stays above a 3.0 GPA. His academics are important and will remain so.
In preparation for next fall, Justin has been working and training with some big time names in the area and industry, Jonathan Ordway helps Justin train as well as Reidel Anthony. Justin is serious about his ability to compete for playing time in his career at FSU. I love his inner Jaguar, and he's even got an extra tool in his belt...he can punt!! 43 yard average, and I KNOW FSU is going to be looking for some competition at that position. He's excited to be a part of the program and offensive line coach Rick Trickett shares the emotion as he called Justin not long ago to tell him just how excited he is for Justin to be a part of the program. Like many other recruits there were frustrations along the way but in the end, he's going to end up in what just HAS to be the best place for him, right?
I look forward to watching Justin's career over the next few years and sharing with Z Delay Special's readers his progress. Just before we got off the phone, I asked him what his favorite part about playing the game was and he kind of stuttered a bit because he was looking for words that could explain it, but really all he wanted to say was that he just loved to catch the football. Justin will arrive at FSU in good company as they signed perhaps the best WR class in the country, he's in good company, there will be plenty of chance to catch the football. Great story, and a beginning to a great journey. Good luck in Tally Justin, Go Noles!
**Please see Senior Highlights at bottom of story, courtesy of YouTube**
Greg Rooney, TE, Winona State University
From one place in my heart to another. I grew up in Winona, MN (about 2 hours south of Minneapolis) and played at WSU for current head coach Tom Sawyer, before transferring to FSU. Coach is extremely excited about Greg joining the Warriors and it's not hard to see why. Greg is a big, athletic kid. 6-5 about 240. In high school he played on both sides of the ball and you could see he was able to use his big strong frame to make plays, he dominated kids. That's a D1 size frame, and I think Greg is going to be someone that by the time he's a senior could play at any level.
Let's look at how Greg's talents fit into the mold of a high level D2 player versus an opportunity to play at the D1 level. As Greg grew into high school, baseball was always his favorite. He actually hoped to play college baseball as a pitcher prior to his Sr. year in high school. His head football coach approached him and told him that he should begin to think about playing football at the next level. Greg had always played football and enjoyed it, he just never thought of it at the next level. Greg also knew that his Senior year's football team had a chance to be very good, and that helped motivate him. Timing wise, it wasn't until sometime during Greg's Jr year that he even started thinking about playing college football. That means he never went to individual camps, put together highlights, or gave any football coaches any reason to be interested in him. And, that kind of marketing is a big part of being recruited. Along with the lack of information is the lack of specific training as he's just not as polished as he would have been. But, the physical part is all there, and he is an animal on the field. Greg plays multiple sports, excels in them each and while his skill set is probably not quite refined enough for the D1 level, the D2 level provides a perfect competitive level for him to excel...and WSU knew it.
Another piece of the puzzle is location. Greg is in a great location for a very good D3 league in Wisconsin (WIAC) and a great D2 league in Minnesota, IA, ND, and SD (NSIC). Once Greg realized football was an opportunity for him, he got himself into some camps before his senior year. He immediately struck up relationships with a few coaches around the area, even Div 1AA (FCS) National Champion, NDSU. There was no doubt about his size and athleticism and that had coaches at camps excited about him. How different would his recruiting be if this was the 3rd summer he was attending these camps? It's all part of the equation into how certain players end up with certain opportunities. For Greg, the process began with a lot of communication but one school and coach struck him differently.
Greg's senior season went very well. All-Conference and All-Region on both sides of the ball, and a Wisconsin All-State TE. The recruiting process had hit its peak. It was no different for Greg as it was for Melvin or Justin, perhaps even more intense because of how new he was to the process. Coach Barton at WSU was Greg's recruiter. Greg told me that Coach Barton was different than all the others he was speaking with. Most coaches asked about his games and then talked about their schools and how he'd like it there, but Coach Barton spent a lot of time just chatting with him. Greg mentined that his conversations with Coach Barton just felt more comfortable to him. I'll add, that is extremely important, Coach Sawyer should give Coach Barton a fist bump, because this what it's all about. These kids are getting called by a all kinds of people and you've got to be able to stand out, highlight your school, but also be real and show the kid you care about him. It didn't hurt that Greg remembered Coach Sawyer from a team camp a few years before either. Greg told me that throughout his recruitment he just felt more comfortable with the people and the place...and growing up int he same Mississippi river valley 30 minutes away probably didn't hurt.
Greg visited Winona and a couple other places for games in the fall, and took an official visit to Winona and really enjoyed it. He told me that Coach Sawyer's history at the program and the sucess under him was a big deal. He felt comfortable that Coach wasn't trying to move up the coaching ladder and that stability was a important. Greg took a second official visit to conference rival Mankato, and enjoyed the visit but it didn't feel the same. He and his family were heading straight from there over to Sioux Falls, SD for another visit and before they got on the way he turned to his parents and said, "I don't think we need to make this trip, I want to go to Winona". He told me he just didn't see the point in driving another several hours if he'd already made up his mind. So he called up and committed to Coach Barton. The decision felt right and it's a great fit. Greg was never offered any PWO opportunities at big D1 programs, he knew he had an opportunity to play for a great D2 program and he knew they wanted him. Game over.
When I asked him what was his least favorite part off the process he told me it was towards then end when he was getting phone calls from several schools on a nightly basis and it was constantly the same conversation over and over. Melvin Holland Jr. told me the exact same thing. It's a very fortunate thing to have people that want you for something, in this case to play a game and have the school pay for a college education, but the process can get grueling and be stressful. There was just a sense of relief when it was all over. Academics played a role as well, Greg wants to study Exercise science or another Physical Education discipline and Winona has an excellent department for that, I'd know my dad taught in it for most of my life!
I look forward to following Greg's career as a Warrior and really how he develops in his craft. He's blessed with the physical talents of many D1 football players and it's my hope that WSU brings out the BEAST in him over the next several years. Congrats on a new journey and Go Warriors!
**Please see Greg's highlights HERE**
I wanted to spend time talking to athletes who I respect for the work they've put in and because I know, to a degree what they've gone through and what they will go through. I also wanted to outline the similarities in recruiting regardless of level and the importance of the decision to the 20,000 kids every year who don't get their mug on TV. Because I love the game and many others do too, I think any opportunity to talk about the uniqueness of college athletics recruiting is valuable content. There are few bigger hustles in all of our country than finding the best young men for your football team year in and year out. I picked three guys at different points and different schools to tell you there stories and let them get their face on...the internet at least! I also picked these three schools because they were the teams I grew up cheering for, playing for, and loving. I wish Melvin, Justin, and Greg all the best and I can't wait to follow each of their careers.
Feel free to comment below with any thoughts, things I missed, or anyone else who's got a great story!
Go Gophers, Go Noles, Go Warriors!