You can blame aggressive coaching staffs and negative recruiting spin. You can blame teams taking their eye off the ball and chasing uncommitted prospects while ignoring their verbal pledges. You can change instability on coaching staffs, with assistants bouncing from school to school, often at the most inopportune time. But in the era of made-for-TV All-Star games and high school football’s ever-expanding postseason, one of the biggest factors playing into the high stakes recruiting game are the very athletes being chased.
By the time Ronald Darby actually decides where he’ll attend college next year, he’ll have been dealing with daily media attention for the better part of two years. Text messages from school-affiliated websites, phone calls from reporters near and far, not to mention the barrage of official questionnaires, mailers, and letters that schools have been sending for the better part of three seasons. And that’s even before considering the personal relationships he’s built with coaching staffs, some of the most persuasive salesmen in business, all vying for the signature and services of one of the country’s fastest athletes.
“I wish I could split myself into pieces so I could go to several different schools,” Darby is reported as saying to ESPNU.
If the quote is true, who could blame him? And while Darby had long been committed to the Irish — and long been rumored to be the least stable of any commit — Irish fans have taken to pursing Darby’s public comments, like a jilted lover trying to piece together what went wrong in a relationship that had lasted almost long enough to be considered official.
In what’s starting to feel like a John Cusack movie, fans are trying to figure out what’s “changed,” after Darby told various reporters that his relationship with Notre Dame “changed” after a while. (It’s better than, “It’s not you, it’s me,” if that’s some consolation.) While Chuck Martin’s move from defense to offense might have been a small factor, the Irish defensive staff and system will be unchanged next year, with Bob Diaco still manning the ship. Coaches Tim Hinton, Ed Warinner and Charley Molnar would never have coached Darby anyway.
But what’s likely changed is the environment Darby has been surrounded by the past few weeks, as the red-carpet All-Star treatment of some of the nation’s most talked about recruits has high schoolers doing their best to become the next LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwayne Wade.
After months of being hounded by reporters, coaches, and hanger-ons, games like the Semper Fidelis Bowl, the Army All-American Bowl, and the Under Armor Bowl give these athletes — with their choice of some of the biggest fish in the college football world — a chance to meet some of their peers, who they’ve been stacked up against for months.
With social networks and Twitter providing access to everyone and anyone, it’s allowed recruits that have never known each other except for their Rivals profile and rating to become cyber-friends, members of the same elite club that instantly creates a bond that not many people can understand.
You might be too old to remember, but peer pressure in high school was a very real thing. After months of hearing from coaches and reporters pushing an agenda, talking with someone living in the exact same fishbowl helps you form an immediate kinship, and gives coaches and schools a line into the subconscious that would have the characters from Inception jealous.
Just over two weeks ago, Ronald Darby was firmly committed to the Irish, brushing off the questions coming at him from Rivals’ Mike Farrell when asked about his plans for college. But take Darby out of the Chesapeake Bowl, bring him down to Orlando where factions of players heading west to California or to the SEC, and you begin to see how easy it is for a kid that’s long been considered wobbly in his commitment to Notre Dame to get confused and open things up. Say what you want about an ace recruiter like Tosh Lupoi at Cal, but watching a guys like Bryce Treggs continually push Cal in the social media world (even while visiting Notre Dame), and then watching Shaq Thompson’s commitment lead to guys like Jordan Payton, and that’s how momentum gets rolling.
Notre Dame will rarely be the hometown favorite, simply because of geography, but its name also gets them in the door in just about every state across the country. While the swirling winds of recruiting seem to be blowing against Notre Dame’s efforts, three weeks also give the Irish the opportunity to let the excitement and mob mentality of these all-star games fizzle, and the idea of making a lifetime decision like picking a college take over.
In truth, nobody knows what’s going to happen with Darby until one lucky fax machine has a letter-of-intent roll in that first Wednesday of February. While these eleventh hour jitters (now currently effecting Taylor Decker, though for obviously different reasons) have fans wondering what coaches did wrong, sometimes it’s something as old-fashioned as peer pressure.
You might tend to forget it after following these blue-chippers’ every move, but they still just are kids.