Left to right: Eric Burrell (McDonogh), Ellison Jordan (Gilman)…
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'