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TAMPA ― The annual pilgrimage began in early January, as it always does. Coveted tailbacks and tight ends checking in to dorms and dining halls, starting the next stage of their life a few months in advance.
In a conventional year, early graduation from high school, and early enrollment at the college program of their choice, represented a jump on the remainder of the incoming signing class.
“I thought I benefited greatly early enrolling at Alabama,” former Plant High quarterback Phillip Ely said. “Not only was I ahead football-wise, but acclimating to a college schedule, study hall and managing my free time."
This year, that head start has become a headache.
As the confirmed cases of the coronavirus multiply cross America, colleges are on hiatus, and college sports have been shut down. No spring football. No meetings. No lifting. Student-athletes are being advised to return home.
For dozens of early enrollees in Florida alone, the chance to climb a rung or two on the depth chart has vanished in a sea of new jargon. At a time when they normally would be soaking in new schemes and routes, social distancing is the only terminology that matters.
USF had two freshmen — receiver Omarion Dollison and defensive back Christopher Townsel ― who enrolled early. FSU had eight. Florida had at least 11.
But the Bulls had only one spring practice before the coronavirus scare forced them to shut down. UCF had four, one more than FSU. The Gators hadn’t started.
Whether practice resumes at any of those places is uncertain. Previous early enrollees say the lost opportunity is a priceless one.
“What I found most helpful was the transition from high school to college,” said former USF safety Devin Abraham, who enrolled in January 2014 after graduating early from East Lake, and started six games as a rookie.
“Getting that first semester under my belt so then when summer came I would be ahead of all of the other freshmen and could compete for a spot on the travel roster.”
Just last month, Gators coach Dan Mullen spoke of how Clearwater High alumnus Ethan White evolved from a behemoth project to the offensive line’s sixth man down the stretch last season, in part by enrolling early and using the additional months to work with trainers on transforming his body.
“Having our guys enroll early on the offensive line gives them that jump and that advantage to do that which can give us the opportunity to add depth right away this season,” Mullen said.
None of which suggests this year’s early enrollees would have been better off simply remaining home for their entire senior year. Nationwide, high schools have closed for now, and those events worth sticking around for — proms, spring sports, etc. — could be canceled altogether.
Moreover, the semester wasn’t a total wash. Before campuses shut down, the early enrollees were able to participate in two months of classes and winter conditioning, getting acclimated to their coaches, peers and course loads.
But the chance to make a significant impression in full pads? To brandish consistency over the course of 15 spring practices? To make a splash play or two in the spring game?
Seems those opportunities have become yet another coronavirus casualty.
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