DADE CITY — An Ohio State assistant coach was sitting in a Tampa barbershop this spring, raving about a high school freshman who had just landed a Buckeyes offer. That’s when Unsigned Preps 7-on-7 coach Carlos Blake asked if he wanted to see a real ninth grader.
Blake whipped out film of Pasco receiver Nate Craig.
“We got an offer from him on the spot,” Craig said.
That sums up the lightning-fast recruitment of Craig, who has drawn nationwide attention as a potential five-star prospect while becoming the most highly recruited freshman in Tampa Bay history.
Gators coach Will Muschamp called Pasco this week to offer the 2016 prospect a scholarship. Florida State and Miami quickly followed. Clemson, Tennessee and Wisconsin also rank among the dozen offers he’s received since mid April.
“What a future he has in front of him,” said Jamie Newberg, Scout.com’s national recruiting analyst. “It’s ridiculous.”
That a 16-year-old prospect with 18 varsity catches could pick up offers from five top-25 programs three years before signing day is a testament to Craig’s freakish abilities and the hyper speed of college football recruiting.
Craig’s physical tools stand out, even from the top rows of W.F. Edwards Stadium. He fills his 6-foot-3 frame with a rock-solid 200 pounds. If he keeps growing, colleges could turn him into a pass rusher or tight end. If not, he’s already about the size as Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt’s all-SEC receiver.
“He just physically meets what they want,” said Ricky Sailor, who assists Craig’s recruitment through his non-profit, Unsigned Preps.
Craig combines his massive hands with rare athleticism and top-end speed. When Tom McHugh timed him in the 100 meters last spring, the Pirates coach couldn’t believe what his stopwatch read: 10.8 seconds.
“I thought I screwed up the clock,” he said, “but I didn’t.”
Craig was the fastest boy in Pasco County, and he was still in junior high.
According to Centennial Middle School, he broke school records in the 100 (10.83 seconds), 200 (22.98) and high jump (6-1 1/2) in one meet last April. All three results would have won district titles in high school.
Craig turned potential into production with a breakout game in the Class 5A region final at Robinson.
In front of a handful of recruiting analysts and college scouts, he caught two touchdowns, recorded the first 100-yard game of his career and outran the Knights’ loaded defense with a highlight-reel 59-yard score.
“When I found out he was a freshman,” said Newberg, who covered the game, “I was like, holy smokes.”
Craig built on that by starring for Unsigned Preps in elite 7-on-7 tournaments this spring. Texas Tech gave him his first offer in April, and he’s already earned four SEC offers this month.
“I didn’t know freshmen got all this attention,” Craig said.
They didn’t a decade ago, Newberg said, but the recruiting cycle has sped up. The Internet has made it easier to target elite recruits, so colleges can peek at 2015 and 2016 while working on their next class.
According to 247Sports, 16 Florida freshmen hold at least one college offer, and SEC programs have offered 61 different prospects for the class of 2016.
With 31 months until signing day 2016, every ninth grader is a risk, but Craig has one other invaluable tool: his family. His older brother, Chargers cornerback Josh Johnson, and uncle, UMass cornerback Trey Dudley-Giles, both signed with D-I colleges out of Pasco. Craig’s mother, Nicki, helped them navigate recruiting while staying out of trouble.
And though Craig already holds more offers (12) than Johnson and Dudley-Giles did combined (11), the hype hasn’t changed Craig’s humility or drive.
“Right now he’s a bit shy,” said Pasco athlete and fellow D-I recruit Malik Johns. “He doesn’t say much, and he’s not as aggressive. But wait ’til next year and his senior year. He’ll be a star for sure.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.