SI.com's Andy Staples recently accompanied the South Florida Express travel team, which includes 25 of Florida's top prospects, on an unofficial recruiting trip to a national tournament and four schools in the South. From The Grove to South Beach, Staples got a firsthand look of what it's like to be a top recruit. This is the second installment of a five-part series.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Gerrod Holliman's hat caused a stir.
When Holliman's South Florida Express teammates looked at the lid and saw the Ole Miss logo on the front and the words "Hotty Toddy" written on the bill, they murmured. Did the safety from Miami's Southridge High commit to Ole Miss while the team visited the school? And if he did, to whom did he commit? Because of an NCAA rule that almost never affects football players, none of the members of the South Florida-based traveling 7-on-7 team had been allowed to meet with Rebels coaches when the team visited Oxford on July 1.
So had Holliman offered a verbal commitment to the Rebels? Had he accepted a verbal scholarship offer -- thanks to a new NCAA rule, schools can't issue written offers until Aug. 1 of a prospect's senior year -- to Ole Miss?
Yes and no.
That the answer is complicated shouldn't surprise anyone who follows college football recruiting. A daily reading of the content posted on Rivals.com contains more references to commitment than a year's subscription to Cosmopolitan. A player can commit to a program, but only if that program's coach considers the player's scholarship offer committable. If a player commits and doesn't plan to visit other schools, then he is considered a solid verbal. If a player commits but still plans to visit other schools, then he is considered a soft verbal. If that player's name is Keyser Soze, then his alias may or may not be Verbal Kint. If a player commits but doesn't want anyone to know, then he's a silent commit. If a silent commit decommits, it makes the same sound as a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear.
College coaches often whine about the lack of actual commitment by their verbal commitments, but their complaints ring hollow when they yank scholarship offers because another player became interested in their school or when they hand out 200 scholarship offers for a 25-man class. It's easy to blame the 17-year-olds for failing to honor their word, but the 45-year-olds are equally at fault in this case.
So how exactly would one have classified Holliman and Southridge (and Express) teammate Andrew Johnson when they visited Oxford last week? Two weeks earlier, the players had visited the campus with Southridge coach Patrick Burrows and some of their Southridge teammates. The visit was part of a multi-school swing that also included visits to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, North Carolina A&T and Clemson. That unofficial visit included meetings with Ole Miss coaches and players and a visit to the academic center for athletes. Holliman and Johnson loved the school, and they told Rebels assistant Chris Vaughn they wanted to commit on the spot. "I guess Coach Vaughn didn't believe me," Holliman said. "He said he wanted to wait until we got back home to see if that's what we really wanted to do. We came back up there again, and that's still my decision."
Holliman and Johnson decided to reveal their decision to the world in the moments after the Express won the BadgerSport Elite 7-on-7 National Championship on Sunday. They approached a Rivals.com reporter and told him of their choice. Within minutes, the news was on the Web. By the time the team gathered at a Tuscaloosa buffet for a celebratory lunch, a reporter from Scout.com had reached the players. Holliman and Johnson passed the phone back and forth while their teammates offered high-fives.
Holliman and Johnson also called and left messages with Vaughn. Because NCAA rules forbade Vaughn from calling the players, he sent them private messages on Facebook congratulating them and welcoming them to the Ole Miss family. (NCAA rules allow coaches to send unlimited e-mails. Private Facebook messages are viewed as e-mails. Wall posts and comments under photos and status updates are not -- a fact the Rebels' Vaughn recently learned the hard way.)
Johnson said Vaughn's message wasn't the only one he received. Coaches from Louisville and West Virginia sent along word that they intend to keep recruiting both players. So how will the players respond to courting now that they're committed?
Ole Miss coaches should hope Holliman and Johnson treat other suitors the same way Miami Northwestern quarterback Teddy Bridgewater does. Bridgewater, who is committed to Miami, preaches the gospel of The U wherever he goes. He also doesn't entertain many calls from other suitors. "I have a button on my phone that says Ignore," Bridgewater said. "And I do use it." When the Express visited Florida State on June 29, Bridgewater laughed when tour guides shooed Express players off the grass at Doak Campbell Stadium. "I'm going to tear up this field in a few years," Bridgewater said.
Plantation High linebacker Ryan Shazier seems to be another true believer. Shazier, who committed to Florida last month, minced no words when asked early in the trip what he would do if he fell in love with one of the schools he visited. "I'm not going to fall in love," Shazier said. But Shazier also admitted his commitment still may have one weak spot. He remains intrigued by North Carolina's sales pitch, and he worries a visit to Chapel Hill might force him to weigh his options. "That's why I'm not going to visit," Shazier said.
Linebacker Kent Turene of Boyd Anderson High in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., faces a different set of challenges when it comes to his commitment. Turene pledged to USC a month ago, and he went public Monday night when he returned home from the Express trip. There's only one issue. Turene has never been to USC. He'll visit on his parents' dime later this month. He also still plans to visit Georgia and Tennessee, but Turene seems sure he'll be a Trojan. Not even the recent NCAA sanctions could change his mind. "I talked it over with my parents, and we realized it's just one [bowl] game I'll miss in my first year playing," Turene said. "It's still a great academic program. I'll still get a great degree."
Whether that degree is from USC remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether Johnson and Holliman will sign with Ole Miss on Feb. 2. Commitments don't always last as long as they used to, and the players know it.
"It's a verbal commitment," Johnson said. "I'm still open to every other school. I just like Ole Miss better right now."