TAMPA — They want to commit, but they can’t. The can’t wait to sign, but may have to.
The 1,000-yard rusher is waiting for his grades, hoping they are good enough.
The 1,500-yard passer is checking the mail, waiting to see if he got a high enough score on the SAT.
The unstoppable linebacker is waiting for both.
This is the Signing Day Scramble, where years of academic indifference have come home to roost.
Martin Ruiz is thankful to have avoided it.
Directionless after his first two years in high school and boasting a grade point average that was just good enough to keep him on the football field, the Robinson running back wasn’t thinking much about grades and test scores in 2010.
But when coaches told him his work in the classroom wasn’t going to be enough to get him a college football scholarship, he listened.
Today, Ruiz is a qualified athlete with a handful of offers and growing interest from bigger schools who weren’t looking before.
“On signing day (Feb. 6),” he says proudly, “I’ll know where I’m going to school.”
Success stories like Ruiz’s will become rarer in the future, due to new NCAA guidelines.
For the 2016 class, new academic standards are in place for Division I that require a student to have a 2.3 GPA (up from 2.0) in their core courses — and the corresponding 1080 SAT, though on the NCAA sliding scale the higher the GPA, the lower the test score required.
And students have to complete 10 of their 16 core courses before their senior year — and those grades are locked in by then.
Pinellas Park’s Kenny Crawford said most younger kids are tough to convince, only responding “when things get real.”
Things just got real.
“It’s going to affect a lot of kids. You don’t have time as a ninth-grader to fool around,” Bloomingdale coach John Booth said. “It’s hard. You’re dealing with 14-year-olds, and while you’re looking four years down the road, to when he’s 18, he’s not even looking four days down the road.”
For anyone who thinks the new standards are just a minor bump, consider: 35 percent of football players who were eligible to enroll in college two years ago would not meet the newer standards, according to the NCAA.
The message is the same from high school coaches — study, and if you need help studying, ask — but now with added urgency.
“Kids have to stop cutting themselves in the throat as freshmen and sophomores,” former Robinson coach Mike DePue said.
There are myriad reasons the message doesn’t get through, many of those beyond coaches’ control. They understand this.
But there are many opportunities for athletes to overcome most of these. There are mandated study halls, online courses, tutors, chances to replace poor grades, and even night and summer school.
“Even then, I’m not sure they get it,” Crawford said. “It just always seems to be just as bad or worse than it was the year before. They just think everything’s going to be okay.”
Coaches continue their efforts, to the point where Largo’s Rick Rodriguez half-jokingly said he needs an academic coach.
“At the end of the day though, if a person is not doing their work he’s the one that has to step up,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes it just comes down to self-discipline.”
Rodriguez said he diligently checks his players’ grades, and if they are struggling finds someone to help.
Booth said he endlessly preaches the importance of being qualified.
Crawford is trying to create a support group at Pinellas Park to drive the point home to parents.
DePue made sure Ruiz and others took advantage of Robinson’s extended learning program, and the coach didn’t start practice until 4 p.m. on Thursdays to accommodate it.
Ruiz was able to raise his GPA and test scores, and enjoy the fruits of a senior season in which he rushed for 1,300 yards and scored 19 touchdowns and led Robinson to the state semifinals.
“I was worried a little bit,” he said. “But I wanted those offers. At the same time, I told myself I needed to step up and start studying more.”
Ruiz took his SAT three times. Many coaches encourage their players to take the test multiple times. Booth said at Bloomingdale, they tell their sophomores to start prepping for it, so they can take it multiple times as a junior.
Ruiz, who has offers from Eastern Kentucky and Youngstown State, said it felt less daunting and more “familiar” to him each time he took it.
While some teammates and friends wait for next week’s grades and prepare to take the SAT again, Ruiz will bask in the knowledge of what those grades and scores might mean.
On his last try his SAT score was 210 points better.
Soon after, the University of Minnesota called and expressed interest.