NATIONAL SIGNING DAY, THE HUSTLE: College football hopefuls aim for big recruiting break

sports@islandpacket.comFebruary 3, 2014 

Hilton Head Island High School football coach B.J. Payne makes an after school call on Jan. 9 to University of Missouri assistant coach Alex Grinch about an upcoming recruiting visit to Mizzou by Hilton Head star football player Poona Ford.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

  • WHAT IT TAKES

    National Signing Day is Wednesday. The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette take a look inside the people and processes leading up to a football player signing his National Letter of Intent and how all is not lost if a player doesn't sign on the big day.

    Monday -- The Hustle: The blue-chippers are the easy ones, their recruitment is in motion long before February of their senior year. For the others, though some high school football coaches work tirelessly creating video packages, contacting recruiters and working their circles for a spot to place players they believe in.

    Tuesday -- From the Bottom Up: How Beaufort High's Ron Parker crafted a path from the bottom of the depth chart at a Missouri junior college to starting in the NFL

    Wednesday -- Waiting Their Turn: Heralded recruits Shameik Blackshear of Bluffton and Nyles Pinckney of Whale Branch won't sign for a while, leaving each with time to deal with what can be an overwhelming process of combines, recruiting-site rankings, calls and texts from college coaches and feedback from fans.

  • WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

    Understanding the different NCAA divisions and how they operate can be confusing, particularly when dealing with recruitment and financial aid. Here are some key terms to know when it comes to student-athletes participating and what exactly they receive from schools.

  • National Letter of Intent: Only student-athletes participating for Division I and II schools sign this binding agreement, which requires them to attend their program of choice for one year in exchange for financial aid.

  • Preferred walk-on: Coaches can offer prospective student-athletes this during the recruiting process. The player is guaranteed a spot on the team but will not receive athletic scholarship money.

  • Division III: These schools do not offer athletic scholarships, unlike NCAA programs in Divisions I and II. Any prospective student-athlete must also apply and be accepted to their desired school before committing.

  • NAIA: The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics is a completely separate body from the NCAA. The second-largest athletic conference behind Division III, it can offer student-athletes athletic scholarships. Schools can also draft their own binding letters of intent similiar to the NCAA's NLI, according to the National Collegiate Scouting Assocation.

K.J. Ford panicked.

All his life, the Bluffton High School product only wanted to play college football. And now, in a few brief, painful moments, it all appeared to be coming undone around him.

His future was gone.

"It's a scary situation," he said, "because you don't know what you're going to do."

Ford began his senior season as a lightly recruited defensive tackle prospect, unlike his fellow linemate Shameik Blackshear, or his cousin Poona Ford at Hilton Head Island High School. Those two had numerous big-time offers, their next steps all but assured.

That wasn't the case for Ford. N.C. State was interested. So was Georgia Southern. But a miscommunication with Wolfpack coaches left his prospects in doubt and his goals temporarily derailed.

He tried to commit to N.C. State in May, but his recruiters were hesitant to accept after learning he planned to camp at Florida State. So Ford turned to Statesboro, Ga., only to find the Eagles' recruiting class was already full.

He was out of options and out of luck.

"It made me realize that (recruiting) is not what it seems," he said. "They don't tell you situations you could be in or what you could lose, and how spots can fill up fast."

Ford needed help, and he knew just where to turn. His cousin's coach, B.J. Payne at Hilton Head Island High, had been known as a relentless promoter of his football players. He helped turn Poona from an unknown prospect to one of the nation's most sought-after defensive players in less than a year.

Crossing enemy lines meant little to him. This wasn't about rivals Bluffton and Hilton Head High. It was about accomplishing goals and realizing dreams.

"That kid's dad gave a lot of blood, sweat and tears here; his cousin is on our team," said Payne, who continued promoting Ford even after learning colleges had academic questions about him. "There's a lot of family connections and ties to Hilton Head to where I'm really trying my best to help this kid. It's a very unique situation."

Payne's first year at Hilton Head High ended with just a 5-6 season, but he still managed to send four players off to Division I football, including quarterback Michael Julian to Toledo. Another batch of prospects are slated to sign National Letters of Intent this year. Those ceremonies, however, cap what is often more than a year-long process for the Seahawks coach, who takes pride in his ability to deliver players to the next level.

It generally starts with his annual Tour de Payne trip over the summer, when a group of high school players travel to several colleges camps over a two-week period. Midwest schools often draw the most stops due to their close proximity with one another.

Once players are introduced and showcased to the hundreds of coaches in attendance, it's back to the film room at Hilton Head High. Payne cuts and edits each prospect's highlight tape before posting them on the popular recruiting website Hudl, then emails the footage to any coaches he thinks may be interested.

All it takes is one offer to snowball a recruit's prospects, Payne said. Any time a coach extends an offer to one of his players, he will mass text every recruiter in his phone to make sure they know.

"It's a chain reaction," he said. "The college coaches will go, '(Shoot), Toledo just offered this kid, we need to take a look at him."

It is a process Payne has nailed down over the years. A few weeks ago while on a phone call with Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch to set up Poona's official visit, the Seahawks coach made sure to end the call with a little press for rising sophomore Tyler Hamilton, who Payne figures will be a national prospect by his senior year.

College coaches have developed a rapport with Payne over the years, trusting his judgements on players and taking him at his word when he says there is has a player who would fit nicely with their program. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has formed a strong bond with him, as has the staff at Toledo.

Tennessee, Arkansas and a host of other school also use Payne as a valued source during recruiting season, he said.

Once his Division I prospects are in place, Payne moves in on his seldom-recruited players who still wish to play college ball. He provides a seminar each year for parents and players on the differences between FBS and FCS, Divisions II and III and NAIA. If they are still interested, he attempts to place them provided players and families understand they will have to pay at least partial tuition wherever they go.

Such was the case last season for Brooks Jenkins. The offensive line prospect had a handful of feelers out from college teams only to see his stock soar upon the arrival of Payne.

He wound up at Division III Mount Union, a perennial national championship contender, and is slated to be the starting left tackle in 2014.

"As soon as he became the coach," Jenkins said, "my email just started blowing up with letters and stuff with teams interested."

Not every coach can devote as much time to the recruiting process as Payne, though. Such is the case for Bluffton coach Ken Cribb, who says he will contact college coaches if players ask him to but otherwise believes they must handle the bulk of their recruitment on their own.

"My belief is that a kid has to want it," he said. "If he wants it, he's going to get after it. He's got a lot of responsibility with his recruiting process, especially the way the Hudl technology is designed. He can have his any way he wants to."

Division I schools will find a player if he's good enough, Cribb maintains. Bluffton sent its first scholarship player to the FBS a year ago -- Anthony Smith, Jr. signed with Air Force -- but delivered other seniors to Division II, NAIA and six Bobcats to the junior college ranks.

"I personally don't like sitting on the bench, so I encourage my kids to find the right fit," Cribb said. "Find somewhere you can play, find somewhere that has the major you want to study in and do your homework."

It took Ford a little bit of extra help to do that, so the senior enlisted Payne for guidance. With his final season limited due to a hand injury, he would need all the connections he could to continue his football career.

"I'm just grateful that he's willing to help and that he's willing to be there," Ford said.

Shortly after the Bobcats standout approached him, Payne received a phone call from new James Madison coach Everette Withers. The former Ohio State defensive coordinator was in need of a tackle, and was curious whether Poona would have an interest.

Payne said no. But he did have another local product in mind.

"I've never been as involved (with a rival player) as I have been with this," he said. "It's because I think the kid can play. I coached against him last year, I've watched the kid on film more times than I want to.

"He's really good. I know the kid can play and I'm fortunate to the fact that I have contacts to be able to do this."

Payne directed Withers to Ford's film and to contact him should he have an interest. A brief text message came through not long after that.

"Can you send me KJ Ford's contact info? We just watched and are interested! -- Coach Withers"

An offer was on the table a few days later. Payne's work was done.

"Everybody's got their own opinion on what the role of a high school coach is," he said. "I feel that it's our job to help these kids get on to school. Help them have the chance to go get a higher education."

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