TAMPA — Plant City quarterback Bennie Coney had known he wanted to enroll in college early since the beginning of his junior year. As his recruiting heated up, so did the thought of starting his college career a semester early.
Coney, the bay area’s top quarterback recruit for the Class of 2012, will have his first day on the University of Cincinnati’s campus Jan. 4, one of six early entrees at the Big East school.
He’s part of an increasing number of recruits who can’t wait to get onto their college campuses, opting for early starts over senior graduation, prom and national signing day.
“I went to prom last year, so I got a taste of what that was like,” said Coney, who threw for more than 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. “I don’t feel like I’m missing all that much, so it’s cool. I can’t wait go get up there and compete. I’m looking forward to playing with guys at the next level who want what I want.”
It’s a practice that allows colleges to stockpile prospects. According to NCAA rules, a college can sign only 25 scholarship recruits each year, but early enrollees can count toward the previous year’s signing class. In the case of Cincinnati, the Bearcats signed 18 prospects in 2011, so their six early enrollees would still put them under the scholarship limit.
“A lot of schools, when they’re recruiting you, they ask you whether you’re going to graduate early,” Coney said. “I think they feel like that’s a good start because you get in and learn the playbook and all that stuff before all the other guys. You get to play in the spring and hopefully be a starter sooner.”
That allows schools an opportunity to offer more recruits for a given class and allows the prospects an extra semester to get adjusted to the college playbook and campus life.
“We’ve seen it happen a lot over the last few years,” ESPN recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. “I think it works to both sides’ advantage. The school can get more kids in and still sign 25 and the kids want to jump in and get an early start.
“I think last year Florida had something like 11 early guys. It’s something that really started happening over the last decade. It used to be just quarterbacks, but now it’s matriculated to other positions.”
Some local prospects have seen success after enrolling early. Former Plant quarterback Aaron Murray became a starter as a redshirt freshman at Georgia and led the Bulldogs to the SEC title game this year as a sophomore.
Former Countryside offensive tackle Tyler Moore broke into the two-deep at Nebraska as a true freshman after enrolling in January and started four games for the Huskers, the most by a freshman offensive lineman in school history.
For Coney, he took night classes the past two semesters, including an English 4 class during football season, when he wouldn’t get home until 10 p.m.
Coney’s Plant City teammate, running back Dazmond Patterson, is also enrolling early — at Ohio University — a decision he made when heralded offensive lineman Jordan Prestwood was preparing for early enrollment.
“The way I saw it, I would just be wasting my time by staying here,” said Patterson, who had decided he wanted to enroll early before receiving an offer from Ohio during the summer. “My (spring) schedule would have been cake. By going up there now, I’m getting closer to achieving my goals and setting myself up for a better opportunity on the football field.”
Patterson, who plans to major in business and eventually become a lawyer, said enrolling early allows him a chance to get acclimated earlier to college academics.
“I feel like academically it’s closer to letting me be a regular college student for a little while,” said Patterson, who took an economics course through Florida Virtual School to get ahead. “I’ll be doing lifting and running for the most part, so it will be just like a regular offseason. It will give me an opportunity to get used to the college and be comfortable on campus.”