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College football recruiting: Itís a totally different game for prospects
There's uncertainty as pandemic jumbles process
 
Published Tuesday, March 30, 2021 10:00 pm
by Jared McMasters | UNC Media Hub

COURTESY JONATHAN CANNON
Vance High offensive tackle Jonathan Cannon, (left) and his family in Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill after the Cougars beat Leesville Road 24-3 in the North Carolina 4AA state championship game on Dec. 14, 2019. Cannon, a three-star recruit, has signed a letter of intent to play at North Carolina A&T.

Family and friends in his grandparents’ home. Delicious fried chicken in the kitchen. The North Carolina A&T shirt under his jacket.


These are the parts of national signing day on Feb. 3 that still stick out in Jonathan Cannon’s mind.


Cannon, a senior offensive tackle at Vance High and three-star football recruit, was on the precipice of making one of the biggest decisions of his life.


Around 7 p.m. that February evening, Cannon and a group of those closest to him were on the way to his grandparents’ house in Huntersville, where Cannon would sign a letter of intent to play scholarship football for the Aggies.


After a previous commitment and decommitment from Georgia Southern during the COVID-19 pandemic, this signature represented a sigh of relief for the Cannon family now that they wouldn’t have to worry about paying to send Jonathan to college.


“There were a lot of tears because I come from one of those families where a lot of people don’t get to do a lot of things that other families do,” Cannon said.


But Cannon’s story of recruitment isn’t the norm. Based on a 2018-19 study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations and research from the NCAA, roughly 1 million students play high school football in the United States. Fewer than 74,000 of them will make an NCAA Division I, II or III team in college.


As a result of the pandemic, the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s football season was delayed from fall 2020 to spring 2021, forcing college coaches to navigate recruiting decisions on a much stranger schedule. With so many players vying for roster spots without the normal exposure opportunities, the pressure and unreliability of that competitive environment amid COVID-19 has reached a new level. Some recruits have resorted to taking advantage of whatever opportunities they can get rather than the best-case scenarios they may have earned during a normal year.


“(Decommitting from Georgia Southern) was a very long thought process because there were a lot of those ‘What if I’m stranded?’ questions,” Cannon said. “There were just a lot of things that could’ve went wrong.”


For many of the high school football players who will get a chance to compete at the collegiate level, recruitment begins to pick up steam around the end of their sophomore year or beginning of junior year.


So, naturally, Cannon was disappointed when he was several weeks into his junior season with experience playing offensive line, defensive end and even a little tight end, yet he had no official scholarship offers to show for it. While those around him, like teammate and linebacker Power Echols, received offers from major programs such as Clemson, Tennessee and North Carolina, Cannon was still forming relationships with coaches.


Then, near the end of September, Cannon was sitting in science class when his trajectory shifted thanks to a call from the coaching staff at UNC-Charlotte to present him with his first offer.


“It just changed my whole overview of the game and what I could be like,” he said. “I was excited; I didn’t want to do anymore schoolwork the rest of the day.”


From there, the offers began to pile up. Liberty University in November 2019. Georgia State the following January. Coastal Carolina three months later.


But, as the summer came to a close and COVID-19 raged on, the interest in Cannon started to stall. Although he originally believed he could get the attention of Power Five schools through the exposure that comes with camps and his senior season in the fall, the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic left Cannon’s future in question.


Cannon’s relationships with coaches generally fell into one of two categories from then on. One scenario was the coaching staff was already impressed with what they had seen and felt confident enough to offer Cannon by the fall. The other scenario was one where Zoom visits, occasional phone calls, and clips from highlight videos weren’t enough to persuade staffs.


“I was just a late bloomer coming into the game,” he said. “I honestly think I could’ve been at a Carolina or a Virginia Tech because all the schools kept in contact, but they haven’t seen me.”


While some football recruits share Cannon’s perspective about the pandemic closing more doors than it opened, others have viewed the last year as an opportunity to grow up quick.
Jahaad Scales, a safety out of Robert B. Glenn High School in Kernersville, was the No. 73 recruit in North Carolina when he learned he would have to wait until spring 2021 to play his senior season.


Like Cannon, his recruitment was a slow burn. Late in his junior year, he received his first offer, also from the 49ers. A handful of others from schools like Gardner-Webb, Old Dominion and North Carolina Central followed suit shortly after.


“I felt amazing,” Scales said. “It took a chip off my shoulder just knowing that my mom wouldn’t have to pay for me to go to school.”


With the help of his high school coach, Antwon Stevenson, Scales was able to send enough film of himself out to colleges to commit to Old Dominion in early July before he even got the opportunity to meet the staff in person. But he doesn’t consider his decision to enroll early to be a leap of faith at all.


“They treated me as family, even before I was committed to them,” Scales said. “I would get here early, get a semester of school in and play spring ball, so getting a jumpstart on school was important.”


Still, like Cannon, Scales can’t help but let his mind wander just a bit about other opportunities.


“I’m happy where I’m at, but I think if I had gotten to play my senior year, I would’ve gotten more offers and more looks,” he said. “I just control what I can control, wake up every day and go get it.”


Jackson Stokes was unsatisfied when he finished up his workout at an invite-only combine at Randolph-Macon College on a rainy Saturday last September.


The intensity and competition at the Division III school was as prevalent as a safety with no stars or recruiting profiles like himself could ask for. Stokes, however, was looking for more from the academic side.


“If I could find a place like Davidson with the football atmosphere that I just experienced, that’d be perfect,” he told his dad after the workout.


The very next day, Washington and Lee University reached out.


“I don’t know if that was coincidence or luck or whatever, but I started talking with the coach, and whenever they offered me, I just knew it was the school for me,” Stokes said. “It was an early Christmas present.”


Stokes’ story is one example of another path to college football that’s just as familiar as Scales’ and Cannon’s journeys. For Stokes, the dream of playing college football was always in his head, but he has followed the advice of his father and defensive coordinator at Eastern Alamance High School, Patrick, in the sense that he picked a school he loved first, then asked himself if he could compete on the field at that level.


“It’s different if you’ve got colleges just beating the door down offering scholarships, but that just doesn’t happen to most people during the recruitment process,” Patrick Stokes said.
Although the pandemic doesn’t seem to have had nearly the impact on Stokes’ recruitment, the future remains hazy for players like Scales and Cannon.


With the NCAA’s decision not to count the 2020-21 academic year toward a student-athlete’s eligibility, there are plenty of uncertainties about how many scholarships will be available for players in the future, how eligibility will work and what impact this will have on the NCAA’s transfer portal for star athletes who couldn’t get exposure before committing during COVID-19.


“It’s kind of early, but yeah,” Cannon said, “if I blow up, I could see myself transferring. You’ve got to take it on and earn everything that’s given to you. I’ve just got to go in there with a dog mentality and be ready to work.”

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