National Signing Day was approaching, and North Carolina’s football coaches were growing anxious as they wooed Jared Cohen at his home. The offensive lineman from McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md., was, at least publicly, split on his decision between the Tar Heels and Maryland. They wanted an answer now.
For some time, Cohen wasn’t even sure himself. He had been pledged to the Terrapins for 10 months, the first player of their class of 2014, spreading the word to fellow prospects about the program’s homegrown movement. Then he reopened his recruitment to evaluate an offer from Penn State — his top choice, he called it — only to get rebuffed by the new coaching regime there.
That’s when North Carolina started courting him, too. After returning home from an official visit to Chapel Hill, Cohen was leaning toward the Tar Heels but wanted to wait before deciding. He had always been careful to act on emotion. He thought the excitement might settle and wanted to sleep on it.
Forty-eight hours later, with two members of the Tar Heels staff – defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic – scheduled to visit on a Tuesday night, Cohen felt the time was right. In their English class together at McDonogh, he told Josh Woods, his close friend and teammate on the football team who had committed to Maryland. He asked his mother to buy sparkling cider and Popeyes chicken for Gilmore, a treat for a coach whose wife forbade the stuff when he was home. And when the coaches begged for an answer, Cohen bounded upstairs, grabbed a snapback North Carolina hat and returned to the living room, where Tar Heels Coach Larry Fedora was on the phone, wanting to say congratulations.
Over lunch one recent afternoon, Cohen reflected on the arc of his recruitment, which reached its conclusion on National Signing Day when he officially signed his letter-of-intent to play for North Carolina. The journey had lasted nearly a school year’s length and had seen Cohen bounce between schools like a pinball. But it has also left him happy and, in the end, for a 17-year-old kid deciding his future, isn’t that what matters most?
“People need to understand that this was the first big life decision I’ve ever had to make,” Cohen said. “And I wanted to make sure it was 100 percent the right decision.”
Jared Cohen grew up in Hampstead, Md., a small town of less than 7,000 near the Pennsylvania border. Only one Division I football player ever came from North Carroll High School — former Maryland special teams standout Steve Suter — so Cohen knew the odds were stacked against him.
Cohen started out at North Carroll, having chosen the public school route because his friends did, too. But he had been recruited by private schools while in youth leagues and those doors were still open, so eventually he transferred to McDonogh to challenge himself in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, one of the top private school conferences in the region. Before his college commitment, it was the last major choice he ever made.
Soon, blocking future Division I defensive linemen like Roman Braglio (Maryland) and Allen Jackson (Duke) in practice helped Cohen improve his technique and increase his recruiting profile. He added 100 pounds onto his bench press and squat between his sophomore and junior seasons. He was the starting left guard and thought to himself, “Whoa, this isn’t as far-fetched as I thought it was going to be.”
College coaches backed up that confidence. One night in the winter of 2012, Cohen was playing Xbox when he received his first scholarship offer, from Maryland. It was validation of his hard work, acknowledgment that kids from Hampstead could reach the next level.
“At the time,” he said, “I guess you could say I was on top of the world.”
Months passed. He attended junior day in College Park, in attendance as the men’s basketball team beat Duke and fans stormed the floor. “Absolutely insane,” Cohen calls it, and that’s a good thing. He left impressed and feeling comfortable that he wanted to commit to the Terrapins.
At this point, over lunch, Cohen looked down. He bobbed his head, like he was acknowledging the thoughts in his head. “If I had to take one thing back,” he said, “even though I felt completely comfortable, I probably should’ve waited.”
Cohen didn’t wait. He gave a non-binding oral commitment Maryland in February 2013. His father, Barry, had played college football at Towson, but his recruitment was entirely different, so the family had little experience in today’s world. With Jared, they wanted to act fast.
“Ultimately,” Barry Cohen said, “we jumped in fear that maybe the scholarships wouldn’t be there in a month.”
But something still tugged at Jared. He had attended junior day at Penn State and his step-aunt coached the women’s lacrosse team, so the Cohens drafted an e-mail to Penn State, wondering if the Nittany Lions would be interested in taking a look. They didn’t think much of it, just keeping their options open and seeing what else was out there.
A month or two later, Nittany Lions Coach Bill O’Brien and assistant Larry Johnson visited McDonogh and offered Cohen a scholarship. They wanted him to take an official visit, so Cohen approached Maryland with a proposal: He would stay committed but take the Penn State trip, just so he could make an informed decision. The Terps said no. Visiting another school while committed to another, they said, was like telling your wife that you’re going out on a date.
Jared thought for several days. He understood Maryland’s policy and recognized that watching a committed recruit visit another school would be tough. But he had to do this, so he called Maryland, decommitted and made plans to visit Penn State.
That’s when the hate began. Some fans wished him luck, hoping he would return to the Terps. Others lashed out on Twitter, calling him things like “a coward, a liar, a traitor” or worse, Cohen said. He tried his best to ignore it all, but some messages stung.
“I was surprised more people weren’t nicer to him, trying to persuade him to come back to Maryland,” said Woods, who is projected to play cornerback for the Terrapins. “That’s doing nothing but pushing him to another school.”
Cohen swears that the decommitment was water under the bridge, a feeling Maryland reciprocated by continuing to recruit him hard, often calling every day. But then O’Brien left Penn State to coach the Houston Texans. The new Nittany Lions staff, led by former Maryland coach-in-waiting James Franklin, wasn’t interested in a guard like Cohen. They wanted a tackle instead.
“It obviously doesn’t look very good now that Penn State isn’t an option,” Cohen said.
Then something unexpected happened. North Carolina called. The official visit went great. Cohen felt he had connected enough with the players and coaches to commit. On Wednesday, he made it official.
And here’s the thing: If Maryland had allowed him to stay committed while visiting Penn State, Cohen said, he probably would have faxed his national letter-of-intent to the Terps instead of the Tar Heels. He doesn’t think North Carolina would’ve ever entered the picture. But he wouldn’t want to be somewhere without knowing it was exactly where he wanted to be.
“It’s at least good I got on the ride instead of watching others on it,” he said.