Time for escape clause for recruits?

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sometime in the coming days -- or weeks or maybe even months -- the top remaining unsigned college football prospect in the country will decide where he's going to play and attend school this coming fall.

Macon County (Georgia) High School linebacker Roquan Smith thought he was going to attend UCLA. At least that's what he announced on ESPNU on national signing day a week ago, choosing the Bruins over Georgia, Michigan and Texas A&M.

But shortly after picking UCLA, Smith learned that Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was considering an offer to become an assistant with the Atlanta Falcons. Upon learning the news, Smith decided not to sign his national letter of intent with UCLA and reopened his recruiting. The Bruins announced on Sunday that Ulbrich, who was Smith's primary recruiter, was indeed leaving to join the Falcons.

"We didn't know anything about it," said Macon County High coach Larry Harold. "There are no hard feelings toward UCLA and Coach Ulbrich. The whole system is imperfect, and something needs to be in place to help the kids reconsider if something happens."

There currently isn't an escape clause in the national letter of intent for coaching changes. Coaches can leave for better opportunities, but players are bound to the schools by their signatures. Even if the assistant coach (or head coach) who recruited a prospect to a school leaves, the player still is required to attend that school under NCAA rules. If a prospect doesn't enroll at the school with which he signed, he'd be ineligible as a freshman and would lose one of his four years of eligibility.

That's wrong.

Smith, who was ranked the No. 29 prospect in the ESPN 300, wasn't the only recruit who was left high and dry after National Signing Day. There were nearly 20 coaching changes announced after the ink was dry on national letters of intent, including the retirement of longtime TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas. Nearly one dozen FBS assistant coaches left for jobs in the NFL, including Ohio State running backs coach Stan Drayton (Bears), Miami receivers coach Brennan Carroll (Seahawks), Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas (Saints), LSU receivers coach Adam Henry (49ers) and Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur (Falcons).

On Tuesday, Oklahoma announced that co-defensive coordinator Jerry Montgomery, one of the Big 12's ace recruiters, was leaving for the Green Bay Packers. Montgomery was instrumental in helping the Sooners land ESPN 300 defensive linemen Ricky DeBerry of Mechanicsville, Virginia, and Neville Gallimore of Canada. How do those players now feel about choosing a school so far from home?

Former Texas coach Mack Brown, an ex-president of the American Football Coaches Association and now an analyst with ESPN, said he believes there should be a one-week grace period for signees to change their minds if their primary recruiter, position coach or head coach takes another job.

"Everybody says the young man goes to the school and not the coach, but that always doesn't happen," Brown said. "The head coach would still have an opportunity to talk to the young man and try to keep him, but they don't want to feel like someone wasn't being honest."

Smith and his high school coach might have come up with a brilliant solution.

Smith, who awkwardly stumbled to put on UCLA gloves during his televised announcement, is now taking matters into his own hands. When Smith finally decides where he's going to attend college, he intends to sign a scholarship offer from the school, but not a national letter of intent, which would officially bind him to enroll at the school under NCAA rules.

The message seems clear: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

"We're doing it to protect the kid in case there are any more coaching changes," Harold said. "If you're sending a kid 3,000 miles away from home, his parents should be able to know that their son is going to be taken care of. We're doing it to protect him."

Other prospects who signed national letters of intent are stuck after their recruiters left. After Drayton left the Buckeyes, Detroit Cass Tech High School running back Mike Weber tweeted: "I'm hurt as hell I ain't gonna lie."

Weber, who was the No. 14 running back prospect in the country by ESPN, was committed to Michigan until former coach Brady Hoke was fired. Then Weber switched to rival Ohio State, although he struggled with his decision up until signing day. The night before Weber signed with the Buckeyes, Drayton was on the phone with him, persuading him to stick with OSU. The day after Weber signed, the Buckeyes announced Drayton was leaving for the Bears.

Last week, Cass Tech High coach Thomas Wilcher told cleveland.com that the Buckeyes clearly misled his player.

"When a young man is trying to make a decision with his life, you want to be totally comfortable," Wilcher said. "He was struggling with his decision a lot. A whole lot. Up until he decided, even after he decided, he was still struggling. It just didn't sit right with him. He's really upset about it."

On Monday night, after Notre Dame recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was hired to replace Drayton, Weber seemed to be more comfortable with the situation. He tweeted: "But want to say congrats to coach drayton wish nothing but the best, but excited to have @CoachTonyAlford aboard #GoBucks"

Even worse, some coaching changes can have a domino effect. Defensive end CeCe Jefferson of Glen Saint Mary, Florida, who was ranked the No. 9 prospect in the ESPN 300, waited until Monday to fax his national letter of intent to Florida, after Gators defensive line coach Terrell Williams left for a job with the Miami Dolphins.

Florida hired Texas assistant Chris Rumph to replace Williams, causing a few of the Longhorns' recruits to get upset. Defensive tackle Du'vonta Lampkin of Houston tweeted:"Guess i was lied to in my face" and then "Its not even the fact he left. Bc thats what coaches do. Its the fact i was told it wasnt going to happen."

Brown said he won't blame the assistant coaches who leave after signing day. Their head coaches often pressure them into staying through recruiting, and the pro teams who want to hire them don't need them because their season is over. But it doesn't make it any easier for the recruits when they leave.

"Now these coaches are recruiting guys for three years," Brown said. "They've built close relationships with them."

Harold isn't sure when Smith will pick a school again. He's waiting to see who replaces Ulbrich at UCLA and then will choose from his four finalists. He'll happily accept a scholarship from one of them, but he isn't going to sign a national letter of intent.

"Kids and parents need to know more about what they're signing," Harold said. "Everybody has their own opinion, but the thing they've been sold over and over during the last two or three years is the importance of relationships. To say you're committing to the school and not the person is sending a double message to the kid and his family."

Smith has sent a clear message to the schools recruiting him: He's still in control.

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