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 two of an occasional series.
One of the biggest tests on the football recruiting trail is how a player performs during his junior year. With college coaches evaluating players earlier and earlier, having a strong junior season has become critical to drawing new scholarship offers and solidifying the ones a player has already received.
Franklin wide receiver Steven Smothers, Gilman defensive tackle Ellison Jordan and McDonogh safety Eric Burrell certainly passed that test. Now they just have to build on it in the offseason.
The three standout juniors, whom The Baltimore Sun is following through the recruiting process until national signing day in 2016, had stellar performances on the field last fall, playing major roles in their teams' championship seasons and earning first-team All-Metro and All-State accolades.
All three remain prominent on the recruiting radar around the country. Smothers has nearly 25 offers, Jordan has 16 and Burrell has seven as they've moved into the January-through-May time frame in which they will work out to get bigger, stronger and faster while college coaches take a closer look at their physical assets, academic standing and character.
"They call it the offseason, but they don't really want to take time off," said Adam Friedman, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com familiar with all three prospects. "They really need to kick it back into gear … They need to continue training and continue to get better so they continue to shine on the camp circuit, at college camps and in the eyes of coaches and scouts."
All three are hitting the weight room. Smothers and Burrell are sprinters on their schools' indoor track team and are aiming to improve speed and explosiveness. As a lineman, Jordan is working on upper-body strength and getting a quicker blast off the line.
They want to further impress college coaches already familiar with their junior season highlights.
Smothers, perhaps the area's most electric player at 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds, scored four touchdowns, including three on catches, in the No. 2 Indians' 35-21 state championship. His highlight-reel touchdown grab between two defenders just before halftime sparked the Indians' rally from a 21-point deficit.
Burrell, 6 feet and 175 pounds, made the play of the season for No. 1 McDonogh, recovering a fumble in overtime to seal a 21-14 season-finale victory over No. 4 Gilman, which gave each team a share of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship.
Jordan, a 6-1, 260-pound tackle, disrupted every opponent's offensive plan with 16 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles. He made plays despite battling two blockers most of the time.
Each also spent time on the opposite side of the ball — Smothers as a cornerback, Burrell as a wide receiver and Jordan as a fullback — something Friedman said benefits their recruiting because it shows their athleticism and understanding of the game.
Now the college coaches want to get an up-close look at these four-star recruits on ESPN's Junior 300 list. This spring, those coaches can watch recruits work out and review their academic records between April 15 and May 31.
McDonogh coach Dom Damico said coaches know all about recruits because they can watch full games online, but now they want to see the player in person.
"They want to eyeball him to make sure he's 6 feet tall and 180 pounds and not 5-8 and 140 pounds," Damico said of Burrell. "Sometimes it's hard to tell on tape exactly how tall or how much a kid weighs, so they want to see the physical stature of the kid and then they want to talk to the kid just to get a feel for his personality and use their people skills in evaluating whether they feel this kid would be a good fit for their program."
Smothers, Jordan and Burrell are working to improve their grades to make sure they meet the minimum NCAA qualifying standard to play, a 2.3 core course GPA. There's a sliding scale for their GPA and SAT score. A 1,000 SAT score requires a 2.5 GPA. A lower SAT score means they must have a higher GPA.
Jordan and Burrell have cumulative GPAs above 2.5. Burrell earned a 3.1 for the fall semester. Smothers, however, is borderline 2.3, coach Anthony Burgos said. Burgos said he thinks Smothers will be able to reach qualifying status, although some schools on his list might be out of his reach because they have higher academic standards than the NCAA.
Seeking best fit
Beginning to peg which programs fit them best overall and whittling down their lists even as new offers come in will be key for the players over the next few months.
"That's a challenge in itself," Gilman assistant coach Henry Russell said. "Ellison and his family need to get together and figure out academically what his goals are, athletically what his goals are and see what the best fit is. It's a fun time, but it also can be a hectic and stressful time for these kids. They are 16- and 17-year-old kids that have a lot of people wanting them to come to their school."
All three, however, have said they want to take their time. Smothers would like to make his announcement on national television, if he's fortunate enough to be invited to one of the All-America games after next season. Jordan and Burrell just want to be thorough and don't know when they might commit. None of them are quite sure what's going to happen between now and the end of the summer.
Friedman said he expects all three to get more offers, adding that college coaches will want to see them on the field to determine how they compare to other top recruits a coach is evaluating. All three plan to make a lot of campus visits during the spring and summer.
Smothers is the only one who has a favorite.
"Because I've been there so many times, the school I'm most comfortable with is West Virginia," said Smothers, who has visited Morgantown, W.Va., many times, especially with teammates Jacquez and Jordan Adams, who plan to sign with the Mountaineers on Feb. 4, the first day of the signing period for seniors.
That doesn't mean he's set on going there just yet, said Smothers, who has offers from Alabama, Florida State and national champion Ohio State. He said he is open to any program and plans to visit many campuses this summer, including his three dream schools: Oregon, USC and Miami, which have not made him an offer.
Burrell, who hasn't made any unofficial visits, said he's planning to skip spring track season to make trips to Wake Forest and Virginia, and he might visit all the schools that have offered him by the end of the summer.
"I'm looking for more offers," Burrell said. "I'm a junior so I have one more year and I want to keep my options open for a while. I want to get 10, but [seven would be] all right."
Jordan, who received an offer from N.C. State Jan. 23 — his 17th — has made unofficial visits to Maryland, Virginia Tech and Penn State, but wants to see Michigan State, West Virginia, North Carolina, Rutgers and some others, too. He wants to see what other offers come in and make a lot of visits this summer.
"I'm not rushing through it," Jordan said, "but me and my dad were talking about it and he said 'don't wait so late, because that spot may run out quick at any of these schools because they do offer a lot of players and the spots may fill up.' If I stop getting offers, I'm going to start making a Top 10. I'm just taking my time with it, enjoying it and, by the grace of God, it's happening and in one more year, it will be over."