Tyrell Higgins didn’t even plan to redshirt, let alone end his Texas career prematurely.
“I was going to go play for four years and go pro,” he recalled. “That pretty much was my mindset.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of high school stars around the country will sign national letters of intent to play major college football just as Higgins did in 2007. Coaches and fans will agonize over those 25 or so guys pledging to each school.
But how those recruiting classes make their mark on the field in a few years will often look very different from those tidy lists released by teams. Consider the consensus top five hauls in 2007: Florida, USC, Tennessee, LSU and Higgins’ pick, Texas. An analysis by The Associated Press showed that of the 123 high school players who sent in letters to those programs on signing day, only 59 (48 percent) were still on the teams’ rosters as seniors in 2010 or ’11 (depending on whether they redshirted).
Some turned pro early. Some never made it to campus in the first place. Many departed at some point during their careers for a variety of reasons: disciplinary problems, academics, injuries, lack of playing time.
Higgins has noticed how many of his former classmates, like himself, never completed their eligibility with the Longhorns. He’s preparing for his senior season at Division II West Texas A&M, still dreaming of the NFL but far wiser about the demands of playing football at the highest level that waylaid him and several of his fellow signees.
“At the end of the day, the type of player they recruited just wasn’t set to be a prototypical Texas football player,” Higgins said.
Back in 2007, a school less associated with highly ranked recruiting hauls, Illinois, had a consensus top-20 class.
“It was an exciting class,” said the coach who signed those players, Ron Zook.
So exciting that several members turned pro early. But quite a few others left for the typical laundry list of causes, and only six of the 20 high school players signed were on the Illini’s roster as seniors.
Zook is spending this signing day as a commentator for CBS Sports Network after being fired in November.
“You have to judge it a couple years into it,” he said of recruiting classes. “Some just don’t pan out the way you thought they would.”
The NCAA doesn’t maintain statistics on attrition, though Zook believes its Academic Progress Rate now puts more pressure on coaches to recruit players who will stay and to work to keep them in the program. But gauging whether a player is the type who will stick around is tough because of the limited amount of time coaches can spend with prospects, he said.
Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and his staff used to talk about when it came to these teenagers: “When is the light going to go on?”
That could be hard to predict.
“Kids who had it easy, great athletes, never had to work hard — all of a sudden, the daily grind, competition rears its head, meaning they have to work harder than they’ve worked in their life,” said Bellotti, now an ESPN analyst who will take part in Wednesday’s signing day coverage. “Everybody is bigger, stronger, faster and committed.”
A program is fortunate to keep more than 80 percent of a signing class deep into those players’ careers, Bellotti said, but 65-70 percent is more typical. He suspects that as early commitments have become more common, attrition increases, because it’s harder to predict whether a high school junior will pan out than a senior.
Coaching changes can lead to more attrition, and Florida, USC and Tennessee have all gone through one since 2007 — two for the Volunteers. LSU had limited contributions from fifth-year seniors on this past season’s team that reached the BCS title game, relying on a talented group of younger players.
For Florida, which went a combined 15-11 the last two seasons, several 2007 signees proved so good they turned pro early, including Maurkice Pouncey, Aaron Hernandez, Joe Haden and Major Wright. But the Gators’ list from that year also includes a quarterback from College Park, Ga., named Cameron Newton.
“I don’t think there’s any question, the more you can keep a team together, the more you have fourth- and fifth-year players playing, the better you’re going to be,” Zook said.
At Texas, which went 13-12 in 2010 and ’11, the unfulfilled promise of Higgins’ class was hard to miss.
On Feb. 7, 2007, Texas coach Mack Brown said of the signee from Schertz, Texas, “Defensive tackle is a position of need for us and he’ll help us out there.”
But Higgins struggled with the transition to college, recalling he “wasn’t ready for Austin life that early.” He went home after one semester, later returning to the program as a walk-on.
He stood on the sideline during the BCS championship after the 2009 season but didn’t play. Higgins eventually earned a scholarship and a spot in the starting lineup, then his playing time diminished and he left the team late in 2010.
Higgins was just going to complete his degree and become a physical therapist, until coaches at lower-division schools started courting him. So he came to Canyon, Texas, where a big crowd is 15,000 fans instead of the 100,000 in Austin.
An all-conference pick this past season, he’s inspired by J’Marcus Webb, who also transferred from Texas to West Texas A&M and now starts for the Chicago Bears.
“I didn’t want to let my potential go to waste,” Higgins said.
After the 2005 list of the nation’s top recruits featured an inordinate number of busts — such as Fred Rouse, kicked off Florida State after one season for what coach Bobby Bowden called “conduct detrimental to the welfare of the football team” — Rivals.com started trying to include evaluations of character in its rankings, said national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. The recruiting service also publishes new team rankings each summer based on which players actually enroll at the schools, to take into account recruits who didn’t qualify academically or otherwise failed to make it to campus — though nobody seems to notice.
“That’s never brought into play on signing day,” Farrell said. “Signing day is about unlimited potential and the solution to all our problems.”