More than meets the eye: Why did Power Five schools avoid recruiting record-setting receiver J.P. Shohfi?
Of his 122 receptions from last season, J.P. Shohfi can't pick a favorite. How could he? There are too many highlights, too many big-time catches, too many yards—a national high school record, 2,464 of them, to be exact—to take into account.
There is some consensus, at least, on the two best plays of Shohfi's career.
The first: In the third quarter of San Marino (Calif.) High's Nov. 27 matchup against Summit High in the CIF Small School Central Division semifinal, Shohfi beat double coverage, skying over a safety, to haul in a 56-yard fade that gave his team a 28–17 lead. "I remember being really pumped up," he says. "I caught it, I ran for five yards, turned around, the guy was on the ground and I thought, 'This is good, this is big.'"
The second: In what Shohfi calls "the craziest game I've ever been a part of," San Marino rallied from a 21-point, fourth-quarter deficit on Dec. 12 in the California Small School regional bowl. Trailing Sierra Canyon High 35–28, Shohfi lined up for a third-and-10 with the Titans second-string quarterback under center. He took off on an outside go route, saw the ball arcing "super high" toward him and corralled a 32-yard pass approximately six inches above the turf, setting up a score that brought the Titans within one. San Marino then used Shohfi as a decoy on its ensuing two-point conversion, luring enough defenders that the third-string quarterback, Mark Wicke, snuck into the end zone for the game-winning score in a 36–35 victory.
Interestingly, no one mentions the catch that secured Shohfi's place in the record books. And that's because no one realized it was about to happen.
A 6' 1", 190-pound senior receiver, Shohfi found out he was about to break the national single-season record for receiving yards the old-fashioned way: He read about it in the newspaper.
"I was at home, the paper gets delivered, here's a bunch of stuff about our team, so I read it," Shohfi recalls. "Then I saw I was 162 yards from the record. My parents were in the room with me and I was like, 'You guys have gotta check this out.' It was very surprising."
Shohfi broke the mark set by Cody Cardwell of Stephenville, Texas, who recorded 2,427 receiving yards in 1998. The article that tipped Shohfi off ran days before San Marino met Central Catholic High in the CIF state championship, a game the Titans lost 56–21. Shohfi managed 197 yards on nine catches, though he would gladly trade his place in history for a first-place trophy.
"Somebody asked me afterward, 'So, you threw that last ball to J.P. so he could break the record?' And I'm like, 'What record?'" San Marino coach Mike Hobbie says. "Honestly, I had no clue."
This spring Shohfi will leave San Marino as one of the most productive receivers in the history of high school football, regardless of state or classification. But despite his stats—Shohfi totaled 5,052 receiving yards with 61 touchdowns over his three-year varsity career—he amassed a grand total of zero FBS scholarship offers.
On National Signing Day, Shohfi is expected to sign with Yale, the lone Division I school to seriously pursue him. Though a smart (Shohfi boasts a 4.3 GPA), all-around successful athlete (he plays baseball and soccer, too) heading to the Ivy League is hardly a victim's tale, it's peculiar given Shohfi's numbers.
Then again, maybe it's not.
Greg Biggins, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com who watched Shohfi play for B2G Sports in the 7-on-7 circuit last summer, says the receiver often stood out as one of the best players on the field. That's saying something, considering seven B2G players are expected to sign with Power Five programs on Wednesday. But Biggins wasn't shocked by Shohfi's lack of offers.
"Honestly, it's hard for a white receiver who's not 6' 3" or 6' 4" and doesn't have exceptional speed," Biggins says. "If you're a quarterback, you love J.P.: He's gonna run the right route, he's got good hands, he understands how to get open, etc. But in the same way that it used to be hard for a black quarterback to be recruited as a quarterback—lots of times schools would say, 'Let's recruit him as an athlete,' then move him to defensive back—it's almost harder for a white running back or white receiver. No one will come out and say it, but most coaches like their backs and receivers a little darker."
Shohfi caught 81 passes for 1,821 yards with 25 touchdowns as a junior, then spent last summer improving his ability to create separation against press coverage. He had multiple opportunities in 7-on-7 games where, according B2G coach Ron Allen and Shohfi's teammates, he regularly torched Power Five-bound defensive backs.
Chacho Ulloa, an uncommitted four-star safety, according to Scout.com, who plays with B2G, sighs and admits it's true: Shohfi has burned him.
"He doesn't pass the eye test," Ulloa says. "But I'm telling you: The first person who goes against him and underestimates him, that guy is done. He'll be put on J.P.'s highlight tape right away."
D.J. Morgan, a three-star safety who committed to Notre Dame last September, isn't convinced skin color has played a role in Shohfi's recruitment, though he acknowledges Shohfi does not "look the part" of a big-time receiver. "He's not built like an athlete," Morgan says. "He's got this little comb-over hair style. You line up across from him and think, 'Who is this pretty boy?'"
That's a fleeting reflection, though, Morgan laughs; within seconds, Shohfi has manipulated the defense and disappeared downfield. "Then you're thinking, 'Wait, did he just do that to me?'"
At 7-on-7 events in Florida and Chicago, Morgan watched opposing defensive backs smirk when they lined up across from Shohfi, then remark, incredulously, that "the white boy's pretty good." And Allen, the CEO and cofounder of B2G, compares Shohfi to former Colorado standout Paul Richardson and current Washington State star Gabe Marks before noting his dearth of offers is "the mystery of this season."
"I've heard a lot of questions from college coaches about his speed, his ability to separate," Allen says. "I've seen a lot of receivers in my time. I don't understand why they're questioning those things. His performance on the field is phenomenal, and I don't use that word lightly."
If Shohfi's lack of attention is the result of stereotyping, that's nothing new in sports. In July 2014, UCLA's Jim Mora, a former NFL coach, told reporters he would hate for then-Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley to be labeled as a "runner" because he is black. Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey, the '15 Heisman Trophy runner-up, has openly talked about the skepticism surrounding his athletic abilities because he is white. Meanwhile, Polynesian players are still trying to shed the perception they can only thrive in the trenches, a notion Marcus Mariota's success at Oregon—he won the Heisman in '14—has helped shatter.
Regardless, Allen doesn't want his players to wonder why doors close—he just wants them to focus on what they can do to get past that. He draws on his own experience: As a black, 5' 11", 180-pound quarterback coming out of Oak Park (Calif.) High, Allen dreamed of one day running the offense at USC. Instead, he wound up at UCLA from 1997-98. He played defensive back.
Shohfi isn't sure why he didn't get offers from Pac-12 schools or any other Power Five program. He says he had preferred walk-on spots at Stanford, Vanderbilt and Michigan, among others, and that he had ongoing conversations with Washington State, Washington and Cal. On Jan. 9, when Shohfi announced on Twitter that he had committed to Yale, he says Cal called and asked him to take an official visit on the weekend of Jan. 30. Shohfi declined.
Yale, he says, "felt like a really great fit," both because of football and academics; the son of a doctor and physical therapist, he is interested in studying sports medicine. Biggins, the recruiting analyst, thinks the move makes sense. "If you're not going to get a Pac-12 or Mountain West offer, the next step down, the gap to the Ivy League, isn't as big as you think. He's looking at this decision as the next 50 years, not just the next four. Plus, if you're good enough, the NFL will always find you."
Shohfi said he typically heard some variation of "we don't have the slot space" when he inquired as to why he wasn't getting a scholarship. Coaches usually added that aid would likely become available once he got to campus and earned a roster spot. "It wasn't necessarily the most definitive answer," Shohfi says, noting that he wanted to play for a school that wanted him.
Hobbie doesn't want to speculate on the reasons why Shohfi was overlooked. In fact, he says, "overlooked" is the wrong term in this particular case.
"I used to be a Division I coach, and I've been in the recruiting process," says Hobbie, who served as the offensive coordinator at South Florida from 2001-04. "Do I think some people made mistakes? Yes. Am I perplexed? No. Do I think he got overlooked? No. He got looked at—he just didn't get the offers."
Despite getting limited attention from FBS schools, Shohfi harbors no bitterness. He says he has talked with friends and coaches about why he wasn't heavily recruited, and acknowledges it might be a conversation that continues throughout his career.
"It's interesting," Shohfi says. "There has been a stereotype before that you don't see many white guys in my position at the next level. I've heard stuff about it before, when we're playing 7-on-7, there are little mentions, guys saying I'm 'pretty good for a white guy,' 'pretty fast for a white boy.' I don't take it personally. In football, people see it as a way of giving a compliment."
Shohfi laughs, then pauses. "It is pretty cool to break any stereotype, to be outside of what people would expect."