Sherrod Pittman looks back on July 29 with pride.
That’s the day the four-star Jacksonville, Fla., linebacker put his hands together on local television, flashed his Gamecocks gloves and broke the news of his commitment to South Carolina.
“It was a great moment,” said Pittman, who just completed his junior season at First Coast High. “No more waiting. I had to commit to my future school. I can’t wait to be there.”
Today, Pittman and others like him look ahead with some level of uncertainty.
More than 170 juniors were already committed for the Class of 2015 as schools signed off on their 2014 groups, according to 247Sports. Pittman, whose pledge to USC came 556 days before he can sign with a college, was one of many across the country who announced a decision before their junior seasons began.
Those types of earlier decisions are becoming more common, recruiting analysts say, and the strength of their commitments will be put to the test with so much time between their pledges and Feb. 4, 2015.
“These guys are getting offers earlier, so they’re going to commit earlier,” said Chad Simmons, national recruiting analyst for Scout. “I think you’ll see that trend continue. They love that attention at the beginning. What that is going to lead to, I think, is more decommitments. They’re going to see other schools and change their mind.”
When a signing day wraps up for the Gamecocks, one recently made commitment for the class ahead is normal. This year was not normal.
USC on Feb. 5 already had five Class of 2015 pledges made anywhere from six to nine months earlier. The number dropped to four after Chauncey Rivers (Stone Mountain, Ga.) switched his commitment to Georgia. Another earlier pledge, Arden Key (Lithonia, Ga.), committed in June but decided in September to reopen his recruitment.
Five-star defensive end Shameik Blackshear of Bluffton is committed to USC but continues to be sought after by other major programs, including Alabama and Florida State. Three-star receiver Dexter Neal of Stone Mountain is a Gamecocks pledge who has spoken favorably of Tennessee and continues to receive new scholarship offers.
Pittman is still committed to USC but open with his desire to see other schools. He has already taken or plans to take visits to Florida, Florida State, Michigan State, Southern Cal and California.
“It’s the sign of the times,” said Keith Niebuhr, recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “All your friends are getting offers and taking visits. Obviously a young kid is going to want to see as many places as possible.”
The Gamecocks have no problem offering and accepting commitments from underclassmen they evaluate and feel really good about, said Steve Spurrier Jr., the team’s recruiting coordinator.
Coaches are aware of the challenges that come with the earlier-than-normal pledges, he said, including the greater chance for decommitments.
“You have to keep recruiting those guys pretty hard,” Spurrier said. “It’s good to know you’re evaluating underclassmen and you know who they are. We feel good about the players who are committed to us.”
Even as some colleges are taking verbal commitments from those as young as the eighth grade, USC would like to keep pledges contained to rising juniors and seniors in high school.
“A year away is not a bad thing,” Spurrier said. “I am not opposed to that.”
Simmons predicted that recruits will stick with their original commitments stick 75 percent of the time.
Part of the pull nowadays for prospects, according to Niebuhr, is social media’s impact on a high school kid’s psyche.
“They want to commit early but then they realize later on that they’re not getting the love from the fans of other schools and the Twitter attention,” he said. “You’re kind of battling that as much as you are other schools.”
Having a top talent such as Blackshear in the fold early can help build a class, Niebuhr said, as others may want to be part of what could be a highly rated group. Still, when prospects commit so early, schools never know if they can hold onto them.
“You’ve got to recruit them to the very end. You’ve got to fend everybody off,” Niebuhr said. “There’s no magic formula. People can always get in a kid’s ear and make them look around. It’s a never-ending battle until that signature is on the paper.”
For Pittman and other early commitments, the line of questioning in media interviews has changed from “Why commit to South Carolina?” to “How committed are you?” and “Would you ever decommit?”
Pittman wants USC coaches to stay in touch regularly to show they care, he said. He can see himself signing with the Gamecocks almost 11 months from now, and that’s still the plan.
“I just want to play football and have fun, my last year, and end up at the Under Armour game,” he said. Beyond that, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Time will tell.”