Football: Early entrants draw debate

jperson@thestate.com June 3, 2008 

Many coaches wonder if the benefits of early enrollment outweighs the growing pains

The past two years a freshman quarterback has enrolled at South Carolina early in the hopes of getting a jump-start on school and football — and never taken a snap during spring practice.

Stephen Garcia was suspended in 2007 after two arrests in a two-week span, the first of two suspensions for the troubled right-hander from Lutz, Fla.

Reid McCollum lasted two weeks after arriving at USC in January. Citing homesickness, McCollum returned to his hometown of Summerville and is expected to re-enroll at USC next month for summer school.

As the trend of players graduating high school a semester early and putting their college careers on fast-forward continues to grow, coaches question whether 17- and 18-year-olds are socially ready to be thrust into college life in the middle of the academic year.

Others wonder whether the early arrivals actually benefit from the head start they get on recruits who stay in high school and begin practice in August.

For every success story like Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, the Florida quarterback who earned playing time behind Chris Leak in 2006 after getting to Gainesville a semester early, there are others like Brock Berlin, A.J. Suggs and J.P. Losman, quarterbacks who transferred from their initial schools.

“You just look around the country, I don’t think it does a lot of good,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said. “Look at all the guys that come in early, it doesn’t really mean a lot. But they want to graduate early. They want to try to jump in early.”

Georgia’s Eric Zeier is credited as being the first big-time quarterback to enroll early. Over the next decade or so, early arrivals were a rarity and were mostly quarterbacks.

But the practice has become increasingly popular among all positions.

According to USA Today, there were 105 early entrants this year at the 66 BCS-conference schools, up from 69 in 2007. The total was 34 as recently as 2005 and 12 in 2002, the first year the newspaper tracked the issue.

“It’s becoming more and more a happening in terms of players wanting to get out earlier. I don’t recommend it,” Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville said. “I think it’s good in terms of they get to come in and not be thrown into the fire athletically in game competition for a little longer. (But) senior year in high school is a fun year of your life.”

During a February interview, Garcia said he was not ready for the adjustment to college when he showed up on campus last year as the highest-rated quarterback of Spurrier’s USC tenure. So Garcia understood better than most when McCollum headed home to Summerville.

“He just said he wasn’t ready for it. Same thing for me. I wasn’t ready for it,” Garcia said. “Lucky enough for him, he didn’t get into any trouble. He did the smart thing.”

Defensive end Travian Robertson, the Gamecocks’ other early enrollee in 2007, appeared in all 12 games as a freshman but finished with seven tackles. None of USC’s players who arrived in January this year — receiver C.C. Whitlock, safety Jay Spearman and linebacker Shaq Wilson — is expected to be a major contributor this fall.

“Personally, if I was coming out, I’d want to go to the senior prom,” Spurrier said. “I’d want to play basketball, run track. I would enjoy my high school career as thoroughly as possible. ... It may work out for some, but overall I don’t think it’s that big a deal that they come that early.”

At Clemson, one of the five players who enrolled in January already has made an impact ... in baseball. Quarterback Kyle Parker made the All-ACC team as a designated hitter.

Vanderbilt used to prohibit freshmen from starting early, believing the assimilation process worked best when they arrived with the rest of their classmates and lived in freshman dorms. Although the ban has since been lifted, Commodores coach Bobby Johnson will not encourage recruits to get on the fast track to Nashville.

“I think a guy ought to enjoy his senior year, help his high school in other sports or just be a regular person,” said Johnson, a three-sport star at Columbia’s Eau Claire High. “He’s going to have five years to play four seasons in college. He has plenty of time. Everybody comes to summer school, so that’s not a factor anymore.”

Florida has had 14 freshmen arrive early the past two years, one of whom — defensive lineman Matt Patchan — was shot in the shoulder at a Tampa-area park this month.

In addition to Vandy, three other SEC schools had no early arrivals this year: Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

“I think they can live without that,” said first-year Rebels coach Houston Nutt, formerly at Arkansas. “I just think you’re rushing it, and I don’t know how much they truly get out of it.”

Tuberville, who had one January enrollee this year, believes a new NCAA admission standard requiring recruits to complete 16 core high school courses (up from 14) will cut down the number of those graduating early.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said the NCAA is aware of the practice but has no pending legislation on the issue.

“With the standards we have in place, to graduate early and meet those standards to be academically eligible, it means that student is working pretty hard in high school,” Christianson said.

While the early graduates might be academically prepared for college, the bigger question is whether they are ready for the social pressures.

“Sometimes a guy is not ready to go to school, yet,” Johnson said last week at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla.

“He’s just finished his high school playing career and next thing you know, he’s on a campus. Hardly any other (incoming) freshmen are there, probably none. And he’s got to try to assimilate into a team and a school where he just pops in.”

“Some kids can handle it, some kids can’t,” Tuberville added. “I basically let the parents and the players and the high school coaches determine that.”

But Tuberville said ultimately if a recruit tells a coach he plans to graduate high school early and come to campus, he is not going to deny him.

“When a kid graduates, he graduates. Of course, we’re not going to say, ‘We’re not going to take you if you’re a heckuva football player,’ ” Tuberville said. “You’re going to take him.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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