The Commitment of a Quarterback: Why prep signal callers decide early and how it affects the recruiting landscape
This is Part V of an eight-part series on the recruiting, development and evolution of quarterbacks. The next installment will be Wednesday with Lindsay Schnell on private quarterback coaches.
Tua Tagovailoa was the lone holdout. On the first day of spring, the Saint Louis (Hawaii) School standout stood as the only one of Scout.com's top 10 quarterbacks in the class of 2017 who hadn't issued a verbal commitment to a school. The other nine—from Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High's Tate Martell (No. 1) to IMG (Fla.) Academy's Kellen Mond (No. 10)—had declared (at least once) an intention to join a program at the conclusion of their respective high school careers. On May 2, Tagovailoa (No. 3) finally pledged to Alabama, which had already watched another top-10 passer, Houston County (Ga.) High's Jake Fromm (No. 5), flip to Georgia two months earlier.
The timing of these quarterbacks' commitments is not unusual. All of them knew—or, at the very least, thought they knew at one point—where they plan to play college football. But at the time of Tagovailoa's announcement, a full nine months remained until National Signing Day. While the recruiting process has accelerated at all positions, the most important position on the field is an outlier: Quarterbacks make their college decisions early. Really early. This can be explained by the sense of urgency felt on both sides—program and prospect—to wrap up the process as quickly as possible.
Collegiate programs usually will not sign more than one QB in a given class. For a quarterback who is particularly fond of a certain program, that slot could be filled by another QB if the former does not act quickly enough. For example, Matt McKay, a three-star quarterback in the class of 2017 who attends Wakefield High in Raleigh, N.C., says he elected to commit to North Carolina State in February in part because he "wanted to lock it in and make sure I was the one to commit and not him." "Him" is three-star Dudley (N.C.) High product Hendon Hooker, whom the Wolfpack also pursued. McKay committed first and Hooker eventually picked Virginia Tech.
On the other end, with programs often assessing quarterbacks early in their prep careers (several passers in the class of 2019 report more than five scholarship offers), it behooves them to build relationships with (and preferably earn commitments) from those quarterbacks before other programs can do the same.
"Certainly the ones that I've been involved with, the quarterbacks, they kind of know what they're looking for," says Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, whose program earned a verbal pledge from class of 2017 three-star Sayville (N.Y.) High prospect Jack Coan in March. "It kind of narrows down—I don't know if it's because quarterbacks just put themselves on an earlier track." Chryst adds, "It certainly is a real thing and it's been for a long time."
If programs secure an early commitment from a quarterback, they can spend the rest of the cycle courting players at other positions while the QB helps out. NCAA regulations restrict assistants in when and how much they can contact prospects, but fellow recruits are free to try and persuade whomever they want. This can be particularly helpful with skill position players who may be intrigued by the possibility of lining up in the same backfield as, or catching passes from, a certain QB.
Jake Allen, a four-star quarterback in the class of 2017 who committed to Florida last July, mentioned three players in that class that he's trying to convince to follow him to Gainesville: Donovan Peoples-Jones, a four-star wide receiver from Cass Technical (Mich.) High; Alex Leatherwood, a four-star offensive tackle committed to Alabama; and Kai-Leon Herbert, another four-star offensive tackle out of American Heritage (Fla.) School. Allen had been pursuing St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High teammate Trevon Grimes, an uncommitted four-star wide receiver, but he conceded that "I think I lost Tre" to Ohio State.
"I committed just so I could start building this class and so I could start talking to other players," Allen says. "Because at the quarterback position, you're the helm of the team, really. Not only the offense, but you are the guy on that team. So I just wanted to make sure I was able to get a class, and just guys that I wanted to play around."
Even Joey Gatewood, an elite quarterback in the class of 2018 hailing from Bartram Trail (Fla.) High, says one of the reasons he committed to Auburn last December, during his sophomore year, was so that, "I could get the 2018 class, my class, right and start recruiting other kids that I want playing on my team."
While quarterbacks can play a role in building out their classes, another impetus for them to end their recruitments sooner is so that they can enroll in school early. Getting on campus before the start of spring practice is pivotal for quarterbacks with aspirations of playing right away. "They need that extra 15 practices just to kinda get themselves immersed in the playbook and kinda get themselves ready," says Brandon Huffman, the National Director of Recruiting for Scout.com. "Because that gets you up the depth chart a little bit quicker than if you come in in the summer."
The chart below compares the timing of quarterback commitments with that of players at other positions (using days between initial commitments and signing day). It covers the top-20 QBs, according to Scout.com, from the 2013–17 classes and the top-20 non-QBs from 2013–16 because of the small body of data for the latter category in the 2017 class.
Though some programs have little trouble getting a quarterback to hop on board long before signing day, the process can get complicated. Programs must gauge the interest of several QBs they covet while preparing for the possibility that those same QBs will ultimately spurn their overtures. If one program spends a lot of time chasing a quarterback who eventually snubs them, it would benefit from having an alternate option it can pursue. There's a significant opportunity cost to going all in on one QB.
Huffman pointed to the recruitment of Kyle Allen to highlight differing approaches from programs who missed out on an elite quarterback. Allen, a standout at Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the No. 1 passer in the class of 2014 by Scout.com, excluded Arizona State from the list of top five schools he released in late May 2013, but included UCLA (Allen committed to Texas A&M the next month before transferring to Houston in January 2016). Two days later, the Sun Devils picked up a pledge from four-star San Marin (Calif.) High prospect Manny Wilkins, who is in contention to start this season. UCLA, conversely, settled on three-star Summer Creek (Tex.) High recruit Aaron Sharp, who later switched to wide receiver after the Bruins signed five-star quarterback Josh Rosen.
For coaches, early quarterback commitments carry a distinct risk that can be mitigated only with recruiting zeal and persistence: Decommitments. The longer before signing day a QB proclaims his allegiance to a certain program, the more time he has to consider whether he might be better off elsewhere. This possibility can be especially concerning for less prestigious Power 5 or Group of 5 programs. Consider Oak Ridge (Calif.) High's Ian Book, a three-star quarterback in the class of 2016 who committed to Washington State last April, only to flip to Notre Dame* in August after reportedly taking a visit to South Bend. A late decommitment from a QB can be particularly costly because of the limited number of replacement options in the weeks before signing day.
"As guys start committing places, it starts to trickle down and guys start continuing to commit to other places," says Penn State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead. "And then you get to that point where it's the end of the recruiting cycle and if you have a guy that changes his mind and decides to go somewhere else, a lot of the guys who may have been the next guys on your list as offers are also committed as well, so that certainly presents a unique challenge from a recruiting perspective."
One downside to closing the door on quarterback recruiting early is that late-blooming prospects can be overlooked. Many programs passed on a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft, the Denver Broncos' Paxton Lynch, at Trinity Christian (Fla.) Academy before he blossomed into one of the nation's top quarterbacks at Memphis. With elite QB prospects flocking to Power 5 heavyweights, searching for slow-to-sprout passers can be a fruitful strategy for programs of lesser renown.
"Sometimes kids develop as seniors, too, that you notice," Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre says, adding, "There's always those exceptions, I guess."
But Lynch's recruitment remains atypical. A more applicable example would be the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff. A four-star recruit in the class of 2013 who went on to star at California. Goff committed to the Golden Bears well before the start of his senior season at Marin Catholic (Calif.) High, nearly a year before signing day.
*This was hardly the first time under coach Brian Kelly that Notre Dame has swiped a QB committed to another program. The Irish flipped Everett Golson, a four-star passer in the class of 2011, from North Carolina. More recently, Notre Dame convinced Brandon Wimbush, a four-star signal-caller in the class of 2015, to defect from Penn State a few months after watching Blake Barnett, a five-star passer in the same class who ended up at Alabama, withdraw his pledge to Notre Dame.
Omari Sankofa and Jesse Kramer contributed research for this story.