By Shehan Jeyarajah
It was Jan. 8, 2014, one of the biggest days in the young life of Davion Hall. The sun was only just coming out, but the Hall family was already hard at work ensuring Davion was fully packed and ready for the next step in his journey.
He tweeted: “Got everything packed & ready to GGGOOO!!!! #OMW,” and began the long drive to his new home.
Little did he know, he had started a firestorm.
Davion Hall was just like any other high school kid excited to travel for his first day of college, but with one key exception: he was a five-star football recruit, high school All-American and had offers from such schools as Alabama, Texas A&M and a whole host of others.
While he tweeted his jubilation and sped to his destination, Baylor and Texas A&M fans argued about where he was going. Some pointed to Hall signing financial aid agreement at both schools, an unusual yet not unheard of situation that gives recruits a backup plan. Others pointed to an Aggie mouth guard that he wore while practicing for the U.S Army All-American game.
Everything is on the table.
Even insiders such as 247Sports Texas A&M recruiting analyst Taylor Hamm added fuel to the fire. On the same day that Hall said he was leaving, Hamm claimed that Hall still hadn’t made a decision yet between Baylor and Texas A&M.
When looking back, Hall couldn’t help but show his amusement at the circus.
“I mean it was mostly all rumors,” Hall said. “I kind of considered Texas A&M later in the process, but I wanted to stay through with my commitment. Obviously it worked out.”
The recruiting world has changed.
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For years, only coaches and boosters had extended access to the top recruits in the country. Perhaps a transcendent high school star such as Marcus Dupree or Eric Dickerson’s recruitment would be covered by mass media, but most high school kids arrived on campus with only some mention by their local newspapers.
Since the arrival of recruiting sites such as Scout and Rivals, high school recruiting has taken a big step into the public eye. Now, elite players are getting attention from colleges before ever setting foot in a high school, and the world is watching.
“Recruiting was a lot of fun, but I kind of wanted to get it over with because it did get tiresome,” junior left tackle Spencer Drango said. His top schools were Baylor, Stanford and Texas.
The Austin native picked up added interest from Texas late in the process, which added pressure from many people around him.
“It was right in my backyard and all my friends were UT fans,” Drango said. “[Former Texas fullback] Chet Moss graduated from my high school, he brought a bunch of players by to see me.”
Social media is also changing the game.
“Fans are tweeting at them all day, it plays in their head,” Baylor Scout recruiting analyst Kevin Barrera said. “Kids are getting caught up in the spotlight. You saw with Gilmer cornerback Kris Boyd, he changed his top five several times between Christmas and signing day.”
“It’s a hassle because you don’t know who’s telling you the truth and who’s trying to manipulate you,” sophomore wide receiver Corey Coleman said. “After a while, I talked to my high school coach and said I don’t want to talk to any other schools, tried to keep it honest. I had to make my decision based on me.”
Drango also said it is important to blocking out distractions throughout the recruiting process.
“My parents helped a lot with that,” he said. “If it was letters or phone calls, they screened them. Everyone tried to give me their opinion.”
For many top athletes, the opportunity to build and be a trailblazer is an attractive position. Drango said the other contenders for his services were Texas and Stanford, but Baylor provided a unique challenge.
“Baylor was just starting to build, and I wanted to build, not jump on,” he said.
Hall said he agreed that the opportunity to build into the future outweighed what a school has done in the past.
“I really didn’t look too much at history,” Hall said. “I just wanted to grow at a school that’s coming up, that’s starting from the bottom, which Baylor was. We’re trying to prove a point.”
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During the summer of 2014, Baylor held a camp to work with many high school athletes hoping to pick up an offer. In the middle of the camp, Baylor picked up a commitment from Silsbee offensive tackle Patrick Hudson, already a five-star prospect.
Soon afterward, word came out Baylor had offered and picked up a commitment from an unknown prospect named Tren’Davian Dickson. The Navasota wide receiver was not rated by any scouting group and held zero collegiate offers.
Since then, Dickson has blown up. The high school junior caught 90 passes for over 2,100 yards and broke a national record with 39 touchdown receptions on the way to leading his Navasota Rattlers to the 4A-D1 state championship.
Now, he has offers from 11 schools, including Texas, LSU, TCU and Texas A&M. He is also now rated Scout’s No. 3 wide receiver in the nation and No. 21 overall nationally. He eventually opened back up his recruitment, but Baylor is still considered to have an excellent shot at signing him.
What has made Baylor’s recruiting and coaching staff among the best in the country is the Bears’ ability to evaluate talent early in the process.
“The star rankings don’t mean anything to us,” Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said. “We want to get him in camp and put him through our drills. We can teach them and talk to them one-on-one to see how coachable they are.”
After find an elite football recruit, building connections is the key.
“I think the first thing is relationships, try and get to know the kid,” Kendal Briles said. “We have to figure out their goals and aspirations, so that we can figure out and present the best way for them to accomplish that.”
Before coaching at the college level, Art Briles was one of the most heralded high school coaches in Texas history, winning four state championships during an 11-year tenure at Stephenville High School. Kendal Briles attributes the staff’s trust among high school coaches and administrators to his dad’s background in Texas high school football.
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Evaluating talent and building positive relationships can only get a program so far. To reach the next step, the message is very clear: win.
“We can only start talking about these top recruits when we start winning football games,” Kendal Briles said. “You’re not going to get recruits if you don’t win, they won’t believe in what you’re doing.”
Since Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy in 2011, things have taken off. Baylor football has become only the second team to win back-to-back Big 12 Championships and were only votes away from being included in the first College Football Playoff.
“When we walked into a high school in 2008 with a Baylor shirt, we didn’t get many looks. It’s just completely different now,” Kendal Briles said.
With the changes has come new life for Baylor football. The two-time defending Big 12 champions has never been a “location,” but head coach Art Briles is changing the game.
Baylor is already off to a quick start to the 2016 class. The Bears have five commitments, four of whom are in either in Scout or ESPN’s Top 300 athletes.
“It’s all different. It’s different because of McLane Stadium. It’s different because of the proactivity of Baylor University and because of Waco as a city,” Art Briles said. “And you can’t forget the production on the football field. All this a feel; you feel that as a parent and a student-athlete. That makes a huge difference.”