By Devin Golden
Letters from schools. Requests to call coaches. One-day, on-campus camps.
And more of those camps. And even more camps.
Vonn Bell didn’t have to do this, but then again, he was Vonn Bell and the Ridgeland defensive back was the kind of player who comes through northwest Georgia every three or four years.
When you’re a high school football player hoping to play at the next level — but not considered a coveted blue chipper — that’s what you have to do a lot of the time to get the attention. You have to sell yourself to programs. You have to contact them.
And that’s life for nearly all players in northwest Georgia, where an undersized defensive lineman is near the top of the hill.
What summer vacation?
For Northwest Whitfield’s Isaiah Mack, the break from the end of the school in May to the beginning of the school year in August, has sped by somewhere along the way to Muncie, Ind., and the Ball State University one-day camp.
“It doesn’t even seem like summer to me,” said Mack, who labeled himself a “two- or three-star” recruit. “It’s football season without school.”
And the coaches around here agree.
“These kids don’t have a summer vacation anymore,” Dalton coach Matt Land said.
Mack said he has gone to seven camps. When he gives the number, he sounds drained. He called it tiring. But it’s necessary, or he may not get as many opportunities.
“It’s become such a big deal, even with the big colleges,” Northwest coach Josh Robinson said of the camps. “Georgia and those types of places will give an offer to a four- or five-star kid without even seeing them. Everyone else needs to come to their camp. It’s strenuous on the kids. Appalachian State is like seven or eight hours. Mack and his parents drove over there and back. It’s such a tough situation for the kids with travel.”
Either that, or be the one-in-a-million kid who garners attention just by lacing up his cleats.
“How many players do we have all the way down to Sprayberry and up to Dade County going Division I?,” North Murray coach David Gann said. “All I know is a lineman who went to LSU and Vonn Bell.”
Bell is an anomaly in the truest sense. The 2013 Ridgeland graduate was a five-star safety who every major college program wanted. He received offers across the country and finally committed to Ohio State on National Signing Day, with Tennessee the main challenger. Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said Ohio State was the only camp Bell attended. College coaches saw his highlight tapes, knew he was a “no-brainer,” as Mariakis put it, and rolled out the red carpet.
Mack, a defensive lineman who won The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Player of the Year after recording 136.5 tackles, doesn’t get scholarship offers from Ohio State. His two offers so far are from Campbellsville University in Lexington, Ky., and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, The offer from the Moccasins came immediately after Mack participated in UTC’s one-day camp.
“Most kids will need to do that, to go to what they call prospect camps,” Mariakis said. “Basically, it’s a legal tryout. They go and pay a nominal fee and basically tryout for the team. Most will have some one-on-one position-specific drills. It’s for those kids who are not known yet to the college coaches and those bubble kids the colleges like but aren’t sure. They want to see them in person, the film looks good and they want to shake their hands. Those are a necessity for those kids.
“Now, if you’re a five-star guy like Vonn Bell, you don’t need to do that.”
Mack also has interest from Tennessee Tech, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Elon and the fledgling program at Kennesaw State. He has also garnered interest from FBS programs Middle Tennessee State University, Georgia State, Ball State, Iowa State and Wake Forest. His first letter came last October from Missouri. That’s as close to an SEC offer as he’s gotten so far, yet he still has received more than 50 letters since then and is on the phone with at least one college coach each day.
He admitted it was, at times, “overwhelming” and also disheartening.
“It’s hard,” Mack said. “You feel you’re on top and then see a Vonn Bell.”
So what do Mack and others have to do to get noticed? To get offers, even from smaller schools? They have to put themselves out there. They must flip the roles and be the recruiter. It requires things like driving eight hours to Ball State the night before a one-day camp and driving back the day after.
“The only reason I have to go is I’m not a prototypical 6-foot, 5-inch, 260-pound defensive lineman,” said Mack, who is 6-2, 240.
And Mack isn’t the only one doing the same thing. It’s a competition to get noticed.
Lyle Durham, a linebacker for Dalton, has interest from Tennessee Tech, Appalachian State, Middle Tennessee State, Jacksonville State and Georgia Southern. Durham is another lesser-known recruit catching the eye of smaller schools, and another recruit who, like Mack, has to work hard to sell himself.
“You have to work harder and make yourself known,” Durham said. “It’s a little easier at a place like Dalton where people know the school and there have been so many athletes who have played at the next level.
“It’s a lot different than if you were a five-star athlete.”
It’s just what you have to do.
“I really enjoy doing that,” Durham said. “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything except for working on football, obviously. ... It does get tiring sometimes, just because I’ve had to work out all week and then go to the camps and turn right back around and work out more.”
Perspective of eras
Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag was a quarterback for three seasons at North Carolina State from 1987-1989. He says recruiting is much different now.
“When I was playing, you went to camps,” Poag said. “I’d go to different quarterback camps and stuff like that. They had that for multiple days. But it’s all these one-day things that they do.”
Land was a defensive back at Auburn University and graduated in 1987. He also said the one-day camps weren’t around as much back then, and he believes there are other ways high school prospects can sell themselves.
“One of the things is kids have been so through the Internet and YouTube that there’s a self-promotion element they have to do if they’re not one of these high-marquee kids. Maybe that does assist in recruiting somewhat, but our experience is the program you’re playing for can do as much recruiting as anything else. That’s the great thing about Dalton. College coaches will come to our program. The tradition and name draws coaches as well to an area. ... I still think the most effective way to get kids to the next level is coaches having a good relationship with college coaches.”
Coahulla Creek coach Jared Hamlin, who said he had 32 Division I offers as an offensive lineman and graduated from Virginia Tech in 1991, believes the one-day camps also cause a financial strain on the kids and their families.
“When it starts costing kids money, that’s when I’m not sure if it’s worth it,” Hamlin said. “There are some kids who can’t afford it. It could cost $100 to attend a camp and then money for gas and what-not, there are some families who can’t afford it.”
But that’s life for most players in the Northwest Georgia region. You better enjoy the sport to put up with the letters, phone calls, and above all else, eight-hour trips across multiple state lines.
“If football is important to you and you think you have a chance, then it’s probably something you need to do,” Southeast Whitfield coach Sean Gray said.