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TAMPA — When Jefferson High School senior cornerback Will Watson committed to Iowa State the week before preseason football practice began in early August, he did so sight unseen.
The Cyclones have had great success recruiting the Tampa Bay area, mainly by snagging talented under-the-radar prospects — LB Jeremiah George (Clearwater), DB Leonard Johnson (Largo) and WR Jarvis West (Gibbs) among them.
But the recruiting game continues to change, with colleges seeking commitments earlier than ever. Virginia Tech already has 25 commitments for the Class of 2012, Miami has two dozen. Georgia owns a verbal from a highly-touted high school sophomore. This year, there were more commitments in June than in January, the month before national signing day.
So for someone like Watson, his commitment to a mid-level BCS school is one with wiggle room. Since committing to Iowa State he has received an offer from East Carolina plus interest from Ole Miss. He still plans to take his official visits and entertain other offers. In some ways, it’s an insurance plan, but one that could be made on shaky money.
Watson is quick to bring up the recruiting lessons he learned last year. Former Jefferson teammate Chris Moore, a polished receiver on the Dragons’ state title team, lost an offer from Auburn because he didn’t commit fast enough, then immediately committed to Cincinnati.
He also remembers how former Armwood receiver A.J. King committed to Purdue before a season-ending knee injury, only to see the Boilermakers pull their offer in the eleventh hour.
“I thought about all that,” Watson said. “All that comes into your mind right before I committed. It’s a dirty game really.”
But Watson’s commitment — or lack thereof — doesn’t sit well at Iowa State. Rivals.com doesn’t list Watson among the Cyclones’ commits, and Rivals recruiting analyst Chris Nee said the school doesn’t consider him one.
It’s the result of the frenetic pace of college recruiting, which begins earlier every year. More sophomores and juniors are making unofficial visits. There are junior days and summer camps that allow underclassmen to be evaluated early.
And the pressure to pledge is demanded sooner.
“It’s a time now where the unofficial visit is more important than the official visit,” said ESPN national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg.
“The mantra with every school is get a kid on campus as early and often as possible. There are a couple schools that I talk to, they feel if they don’t have a kid on campus by the end of the summer, they’ve got no shot at him. To me, that’s absurd because you still have the official visit, but that’s the way it’s become.”
Newberg said most BCS schools have locked up 70 to 80 percent of their commitments by the beginning of football season, so there is pressure for recruits to commit early.
“You never know,” said Boca Ciega senior safety Elijah McClendon, who committed to Middle Tennessee State in August. “It’s a business now, and a lot of stuff can happen. If you get hurt or anything, a lot of colleges will back off. I think it depends on the loyalty of your college, but I feel like Middle Tennessee and I have a great bond."
Still, McClendon said he plans to make official visits to other schools.
“If you wait too late you might not get what you want, so at the time you can take your best offer,” said Hillsborough senior RB/DB Anthony Brown. “You can verbal, but it’s not final until it’s on paper. You can verbal to the best school you want and see what happens during the season and take it from there. That’s how I feel.”
Brown, who committed to Purdue on an unofficial visit Aug. 5, considers himself a solid commitment. At this point, he plans to make only one official visit (to Purdue), but said the coaches there aren’t against him taking other trips. He said Iowa State has also shown interest recently.
That’s rare, Nee said. Most schools want a promise that a commit will take no other official visits.
“By committing early, some kids honestly do take themselves out of a position of getting better offers and better opportunities,” he said. “They’re looking at these schools’ numbers going up and they don’t want to be left out in the cold, so they kind of save themselves a seat on the bus and then get into a contentious situation. They can’t aggravate the school they’re committed to.
“It’s a tough position for kids to be in, because you want to get a good scholarship. It’s a tough balance, but that’s what happens when the process speeds up like this and schools push for a commitment and then end up pulling offers.”