The Baltimore Sun will follow Franklin's Steven Smothers, Gilman's Ellison Jordan and McDonogh's Eric Burrell on the recruiting trail as they try to decide over the next year which college will be the best fit. This is part one in an occasional series.
Steven Smothers' cell phone started dancing just a few seconds past midnight on Sept. 1.
The Franklin junior had switched his phone to vibrate, but he didn't ignore it, knowing college football coaches could begin contacting Class of 2016 prospects via text message, email and social media immediately after midnight.
Smothers, a dazzling All-Metro wide receiver and return man, had good reason to expect a few messages. After the first one from Rutgers, he saw about a dozen more before turning in.
Gilman's Ellison Jordan never heard his early messages arrive. The exceptionally-skilled All-Metro defensive tackle had already called it a night. The next morning, he lit up his phone to nearly a dozen messages.
McDonogh's stellar safety Eric Burrell didn't expect to hear from anyone at that hour. His phone was on vibrate too, but the first pulse caught his attention. It was 20 after 12 and it was Michigan State.
Since then, the electronic messages have continued and a lot of snail mail — 60 pieces in one day for Smothers — has arrived as the college recruiting process takes a giant leap forward for the trio. All are four-star prospects ranked in the top 112 of ESPN's Junior 300.
Now that they're into well their junior seasons, they're thinking more seriously about where they want to play college football as more coaches make scholarship offers. They have until signing day, Feb. 3, 2016, to decide and until then, The Baltimore Sun will follow Smothers, Jordan and Burrell as each works to improve his game while considering which college will be the best fit athletically, academically and socially.
Whether they realized it or not, the college recruiting process began for Smothers, Jordan and Burrell when they were still in middle school. All three played in the Grassroots Youth Football League, a magnet for the area's top young players. Coaches from the local private high schools mine the league for talent to fill their rosters and college scouts peg the players with the potential to play for them five or six years down the road.
Before they get to high school, their talent and their potential has already put them "on the radar," said Adam Friedman, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com who played football at River Hill and is familiar with all three prospects.
"Once they start playing in their first team practices as freshmen or play in that first game as freshmen, you get a good look at them and see how far along they are," Friedman said. "You can really judge their potential from there and that's when their first offers can start coming in."
Each received his first college scholarship offer as a freshman. Since then, they've filled out questionnaires, gone to camps and forwarded video highlights to college coaches, bringing more offers.
Smothers has almost 20 offers, Jordan has more than 10 and Burrell has around five. They've begun to pinpoint a few favorites, but they're not in a hurry to commit. All three said they plan to take it slow, a strategy their parents support. They'll each make up to five official visits and as many unofficial visits as they want before deciding on one.
That's no easy task as they try to balance their football dreams with the reality that, according to the NFL Players Association, only 0.2 percent of high school seniors in a given year make it to the league. Most of those players have short careers — about three-and-a-half years, on average.
The junior year is pivotal in the recruiting process. They have emerged among the top players in the country, but college coaches will look closely at their performances and whether they're living up to the potential that showed when they were middle schoolers.
Friedman pointed out three major pitfalls they'll need to avoid this school year.
"No. 1 is if you commit too early and you realize that school isn't for you or the coaches change after the season or you get hurt, then what?" Friedman said. "Then, academically, they can't fall behind. As much as they are into the football season and into the recruiting, none of it matters if they don't have the grades, and I see that far too often where kids just forget about that stuff.
"The third one is on the field. If they don't perform like they're expected to for one reason or another — whether it be a family situation or they're struggling in the classroom or there's an off-field incident — that can really submarine everything they've built."
Smothers: 'I'm really having fun'
Smothers, No. 89 in ESPN's Junior 300, returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown in Franklin's season opener, adding to his many highlights from last season, including a soaring leap in the end zone for a touchdown in the state final to help the Indians seal their first championship.
With his speed and explosive moves, Smothers is being courted by many top FBS programs. He told Friedman two weeks on Sept. 15 that West Virginia, Alabama, defending national champ Florida State, Florida and Rutgers were his top five. He also has three dream schools: Miami, Oregon and Southern California, and his initial contact letters from them hang on his bedroom wall.
At 5-feet-10, 160 pounds, Smothers might be small, but he believes he can make it to the NFL. His speed just might get him there.
He has been unofficially clocked at a blistering 4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash and has been dubbed Tavon 2.0 after former Dunbar and West Virginia star Tavon Austin, who is also small but fast and is now a St. Louis Ram. Like Austin, Smothers can run the ball, catch the ball and return kicks.
Over the summer, Smothers worked hard on and off the field to bring in more offers, going to camps and playing in 7-on-7. He also contacted coaches he hadn't heard from and sent video to pique their interest.
He doesn't feel any pressure at this point. He wants to see how many offers he can get.
"I'm just still figuring it out. Most dudes would be like, 'I can't take the constant phone calls and the mail,' but I'm really having fun with the process," Smothers said.
Jordan: 'I don't let it go to my head'
The list is growing for Jordan too. West Virginia, Rutgers and North Carolina extended offers on the same day last week, adding to those from Maryland, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and others.
He's also drawing attention from programs such as Alabama, Penn State, Tennessee, Miami, Kentucky and Nebraska.
At 6-feet-1 and 260 pounds, he's undersized for a defensive tackle, but that just motivates Jordan, who has the technique and agility that can make up the difference beyond the high school level. He also has the moves to carry the ball at fullback, breaking one of the Greyhounds' best runs in the nationally-televised season opener at St. Edward in Ohio.
While Jordan, rated No. 112 in ESPN's Junior 300, said he would love to play in the NFL, he's more focused on setting himself up for a strong college career. He and his parents have alleviated the pressure by taking a systematic approach to considering the offers he's receiving.
"When coaches are saying you're really, really good, I'm really appreciative of that," said Jordan, adding that all recruits hear the same thing. ."I don't let it go to my head, because if you let it go to your head, your production's going to fall off. … You've got to realize everybody was the big fish in the pond back in high school, but like my mom and dad told me, every level you go to is going to be a bigger pond."
Burrell: 'I need to ... keep getting better'
At McDonogh, Burrell is on the brink of his break-out season. Overshadowed last fall on an 11-0 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship team deep in defensive talent, he continues to play free safety with the ball skills of a receiver, and he can also play in the box.
He is the top Baltimore player ranked in ESPN's Junior 300 at No. 80 and is the No. 5 safety recruit in the country. While his recruiting lags a bit behind Smothers and Jordan, McDonogh coach Dom Damico expects bigger offers to come for Burrell who had an interception and a touchdown catch in the 31-20 loss Saturday at LaSalle (Pa.).
Two weeks ago, he got an offer from Boston College and his mail in the last few weeks has been full of recruiting letters from schools such as Oregon, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Florida State, Purdue and West Virginia.
He said he doesn't have a dream school and hasn't made any unofficial visits, while Smothers and Jordan have been to several different campuses. He expects to visit some schools after the season.
"I'm comfortable with how everything's going. I don't feel pressure," Burrell said. "I think junior season if I have more than 10 offers, I think I'd feel some pressure, but my dad just gets on me about that every day, like I need to have better foot work, I need to catch the ball, be hungry, keep getting better."