Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

January 29, 2014

Signing day brings a lot of anticipation, hope

BLUEFIELD — Your favorite college football teams will have more pieces to their puzzle in place at this time next week.

Some of the guys will become household names, other will just be names.

Who will your team wind with?

Could it be a five-star recruit such as Jason Gwaltney, who signed with West Virginia in 2005, never panned out and has seemingly disappeared forever. Or, could it be three-star Steve Slaton, who was just another part of that same recruiting class, and wound up as one of the all-time greats for the Mountaineers, and played for the few years in the NFL.

Such is the challenge of trying to evaluate high school football players, which will become a topic of interest next week when National Signing Day is held across the nation.

Much like election day, which is the first Tuesday of every November, signing day is the first Wednesday of every February.

College football fans are more interested in next week. Of course, you don’t know what you’re getting from your politicians or athletes. Personally, I have more faith in the athletes.

High school seniors will begin signing on the dotted line next Wednesday, choosing their college of choice for the next three, four or five years.

The list of names — many of whom none of us have ever heard of — will help fill the rosters at regional schools such as West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Marshall, Virginia and even Concord at the Division II level.

Bluefield College is an NAIA school which doesn’t normally release any names of signees on that particular day.

Some find the entire spectacle of publicizing where high school kids are going to college to be silly. Others realize this is where championship teams are made.

My sister once dated an avid Alabama fan whose idea of a romantic evening was turning down the lights and listening to WLAC 1510 AM out of  Nashville, in which so-called experts would spend several hours a night speculating about where high school seniors would play college football.

That might explain why she married someone else.

His influence, however, did make a convert of me. I started purchasing recruiting guides written by Forrest Davis — which, regretfully, have been discarded long ago — and watched Davis and Jamie Newberg on the old "Countdown to Signing Day" television show on CSS, building the momentum toward the big day.

There was little else on recruiting.

Has that ever changed.

Today, recruiting is covered, like everything else in sports, ad nauseum. For 365 days a year, Rivals, Scout, 24/7 Sports and others constantly track and update where high school seniors, juniors, sophomores and even younger kids may wind up in a few years.

A commitment to a school is big news, even if it really makes no difference unless the player has filled out the paperwork and faxed it in.

That can officially happened on Wednesday, and it will be big news. Even ESPN — which didn’t used to seem to care — will put 11 hours of coverage on ESPNU, and SiriusXM Channel 91 will start at 6 a.m., and go until 9 p.m., a full 15 hours of coverage on where a high school player has decided to attend college.

Yes, it is a big deal.

Winning is about having players. Nick Saban doesn't win national championships without the athletes. That goes for any coach anywhere, and they know it.

There is so money now being thrown at coaches that they have to focus on recruiting pretty much all season long. There is no offseason, except during the periods when the NCAA won’t allow it, and some schools still find ways to get around those rules.

It matters where these kids go.

There is a reason why schools like Alabama struggle at times in bowl games that aren't related to championship games. They are more interested in recruiting.

It's not hard to see. When Virginia Tech defeated Alabama in the Music City Bowl in 1998, it was pretty obvious which team had more to gain from victory. It wasn't the Crimson Tide.

Who will get the biggest prizes in 2014? According to the rankings right now, it will be the usual suspects, Alabama, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida State...notice a trend there.

Big schools, big name programs, everyone else has to try and keep up.

The four local schools in our coverage area rarely find themselves high on those lists, although Virginia Tech is currently ranked 22nd by Rivals.com.. Virginia follows at 37, along with West Virginia (42) and Marshall (70).

No wonder it is so hard for those schools to stay competitive with the top programs that get the so-called best classes every February.

How good those classes ultimately are will be decided a few years down the road. A can’t miss like Gwaltney could miss, and one of the ‘other’ guys like Slaton or even Pat White could explode to the top.

Get two of those ‘sleepers’ at the right time in the right position and look what can happen.

Remember when West Virginia was a national championship contender a few years ago. It wasn’t a team full of five-star recruits, it was a collection of  athletes with lots of heart who were coached up and played a certain brand of football that nearly took the Mountaineers to the very top.

That is why, as many recruiting services try to do, you can’t measure recruiting success with stars or rankings, and you definitely can’t do it for next Wednesday’s class for a few more years.

You will know how good that class was in two, three or four years.

That is what fans of the Hokies, Mountaineers, Cavaliers and Thundering Herd must hope for next week.

When it comes to recruiting, patience is a virtue. When it comes to college football fans, there is no such thing.

Signing day approaches. Turn down the lights, the recruits are coming.

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He can be contacted at bwoodson@bdtonline.com or on Twitter @bdtwoodson.

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