Derrick Williams was on a recruiting trip 800 miles from home when he met a University of Florida fan in the lobby of a Gainesville, Fla., hotel. After the fan found out whom she was talking to, she immediately called her husband, who materialized from his hotel room in what seemed like "about three seconds" to Derrick's mother, Brinda.
The husband knew what position Derrick played and what part of the country he was from. He asked for Derrick's autograph, which was addressed "to my best, best friend." He asked for Derrick's father's autograph. He asked about Derrick's other college choices. And he revealed that he'd been following the 18-year-old's football career on the Internet "for a long, long time," according to Brinda Williams.
Derrick Williams, with father Dwight, prepares for one of many TV appearances. He could reveal his college selection live on ESPN or ESPNews in December.
(Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
Part 1: Eleanor Roosevelt's Derrick Williams is stepping carefully around scholarship offers and those who have offered them.
Part 2: Williams has surrounded himself with those that will best advise the decision for his future.
Part 3: The Internet has changed the recruiting process significantly in the past decade.
Part 4: Wins and losses hardly matter when it comes to evaluating prep football prospects.
Part 5: With all of the recent coaching changes in college football, Williams seeks stability with his school of choice.
In the eight years since Derrick's older brother, Domonique, was a highly regarded high school senior, family members say, the recruiting process has changed in one significant way: The national attention focused on prized recruits has increased exponentially. There are more interview requests and photo shoots, more rumors and more questions, and there is scrutiny of nearly every word they utter.
The biggest explanation for the change, family members say, is simple. "We got that Internet now, and information gets out so quick, so quick," as Derrick's father, Dwight Williams, puts it.
Two months into his senior year, Derrick -- a 6-foot, 190-pound wide receiver prospect who's considered the top football recruit in the country -- has already landed several national television appearances. He's been a guest on radio programs in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. He's given an ESPNews interview on his cell phone in the hallways of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.
On Wednesday, he conducted a telephone interview with Fox SportsNet South's "Countdown to Signing Day," which features an Internet recruiting analyst. On Thursday, he and his parents traveled to a Silver Spring studio for another ESPNews appearance, featuring a different Internet analyst.
And in the past year, Derrick has given interviews to scores of online reporters, from HokieHaven.com and USCFootball.com, from Penn State's BlueWhiteIllustrated.com and Texas's Orangebloods.com, from Nebraska's HuskersIllustrated.com, Michigan's TheWolverine.com, Oklahoma's SoonerScoop.com, Virginia's TheWagonOnline.com, Florida State's Warchant.com and Florida's GatorBait.net.
Recruiting Web sites list Derrick's time in the 40-yard dash, his bench press and his vertical leap. They send videographers to Derrick's games and put the footage on the Web. They rank Derrick's remaining college choices and assign dates for his official visits.
And they compete with each other for the latest Derrick Williams news, calling his house several times a week, sometimes two or three times a night.
"It's flat-out ridiculous," said Jamie Newberg, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com who, like several other online reporters, said he is trying to limit the number of phone calls to top recruits. "We stress that at meetings -- there's no reason to be calling these kids 18 times a month, because we're only cutting off the hand that feeds us."
Fans post their own opinions on message boards: "Derrick, sometimes a place, a situation, and a person come together to create something very rare and very special," one Maryland fan wrote this summer. "The person is you Derrick -- who can bring the national championship to your home town. So are you in or are you out??"
The Internet analysts say their daily recruiting coverage still has room for growth. Rivals.com has 43 full-time employees, more than 200 contract writers and editors in its network of affiliated sites, and claims it gets more than 15 million page views a day, according to publisher Bobby Burton. Scout.com -- which covers professional, collegiate and high school sports in addition to recruiting -- says it has 1.8 million unique users a month and syndicates its content to sites that reach 38 million users, according to Editor in Chief Glenn Nelson.
Longtime recruiting analyst Tom Lemming now provides rankings for ESPN.com, and Mike Farrell -- an analyst for Rivals.comand ESPNews -- has been contacted by 15-year-old high school students who want to know how to get into the recruiting industry.
"It's like the gold rush," said Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor for Scout.comand publisher of "SuperPrep" magazine. "You've got a lot of people who would like to carve a name for themselves. They're not even good. Sometimes the questions are barely answered. [The Internet's] really opened the door for anyone to get into it."