Roquan Smith never intended to be a pioneer. He planned to choose his college like any other high school football recruit, with the pomp that has become standard for a top-ranked linebacker who weighs more than 200 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.55 seconds. In a ceremony broadcast live on ESPN from the gymnasium of Macon County High School, Smith appeared to declare his intentions by pulling on a hat adorned with UCLA’s logo. Since then, both his world and perhaps the future of college football recruiting changed – a potentially drastic shift brought by an accidental act of rebellion.
“It was all the perfect storm,” said Larry Harold, Smith’s high school coach. “Nothing but an act of God.”
At issue is the National Letter of Intent, the contractual agreement that effectively binds a high school player to the college he chooses. Once a player signs his National Letter of Intent — the act that makes National Signing Day a televised event and a celebrated occasion among college football fans — he loses the right to be recruited by other schools. If he opts to switch schools, he loses a full year of eligibility. The school, however, can dump a player at any point between the moment he signs and the start of preseason practice.
Smith had been torn throughout his recruitment between UCLA and Georgia, his hometown school, and even on the morning of Signing Day (when he had agreed to announce his choice on ESPN), Smith wavered between schools, according to Harold. At Harold’s advice, Smith didn’t make his announcement official by faxing his NLI to the school. Harold had convinced him to wait until he felt 100 percent certain. In the hours after Smith’s announcement, UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, Smith’s primary contact at the school, accepted a coaching position with the Atlanta Falcons.
The circumstances led to Smith’s potentially seismic choice: Not only did he not sign an NLI with UCLA, he does not intend to sign one with any school, according to Harold, choosing instead to accept a scholarship and become an official recruit once practice begins. Smith seized leverage at a moment in the recruiting cycle when schools typically hold all of the power. The move could prompt future players to eschew signing NLIs, which many experts view as one-sided contracts that give coaches and schools too much sway and leave players exposed to deceitful coaches.
“It’s just the norm, is what it is,” National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma said. “And this particular norm gives all the power to the schools and none to the players. The Letter of Intent does absolutely nothing for players but bind them to a school that is not giving them anything in return in that document.”
Ohio State running back Mike Weber felt betrayed when running backs coach Stan Drayton bolted the Buckeyes for the Chicago Bears the day after Weber signed his NLI, which prompted Weber’s high school coach to blast OSU Coach Urban Meyer. Another recruit, Du’Vonta Lampkin of Texas, tweeted that he felt “lied to” after defensive line coach Chris Rumph left for Florida. But because both Weber and Lampkin had signed NLIs, they had no recourse.
The NLI had grown so embedded in the recruiting process that coaches and players rarely bothered to consider its implications. Smith, who is now reportedly set to announce his college choice Friday, tipped the balance with a decision that could open eyes, even though he never thought he would.
“Roquan didn’t do this for that reason, to be some trendsetter,” Harold said. “We’re both amazed at how big the story has become. It’s just an act of god, a coincidence.”
Smith had just committed to travel 3,000 miles from home to play for a coach who had wooed him for the past year – and then watched that coach leave.
“He was confused,” Harold said. “Just at a loss for what had happened. We decided at that point not to sign any Letter of Intent or scholarship, just sit back and review all his options.”
As Smith stepped back, Harold researched. Back in his playing days, Harold had signed a Letter of Intent to play at Southern University. Over his years as a coach, he had sent about 75 players to play college football. And still, he didn’t grasp the legal difference between accepting a scholarship and signing an NLI.
“My eyes were really opened,” Harold said. “We saw that’s where the recruit would lose all power.”
Harold consulted with an attorney friend, and he and Smith decided it would be in his best interest to wait and not sign an NLI at all. Harold planned on keeping the matter private until he saw critical reaction to Smith not sending UCLA his NLI. He watched an ESPN recruiting expert and read blogs decrying Smith’s waffling, venting about how players should commit to schools rather than to coaches – which Harold found wildly unfair.
Coaches never sell recruits on the school, Harold said; they sell them on relationships. They tell kids why they’re qualified to develop them into NFL prospect, and they tell families how they will care for their son.
“How can you commit to a school?” Harold said. “The school is building and material. If you’re married to your wife, you don’t commit to a house. You commit to your wife in that house.”
Harold explained Smith’s decision publicly Monday to Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Michael Carvell, and the resulting story launched speculation about the future of recruiting.
Smith’s decision, almost certainly, will change how top recruits handle the process. No coach would turn away one of the best players in the country, even on the player’s terms. Lesser players may face pressure from coaches who tell them to sign an NLI or risk losing their scholarship offer to a player who will. So it may affect only the top tier of high school players.
“At the same time, I was talking to another recruiter about it,” Harold said. “He said, ‘What if every kid gets together and refuses to sign the [letters]?’ ”
Huma, who played linebacker at UCLA, called that scenario “possible.” But pressures will remain on players to sign the NLIs. Coaches can, and do, make verbal promises to kids and parents who have no experience with the process, and who put their trust in them. Players will always be afraid to buck the process and risk losing a scholarship.”
“The mind-set of most high school players and parents is, they won the lottery,” Huma said. “They don’t think about how they can be taken advantage of by the schools. … Some people, they don’t want to rock the boat. They may not realize if you don’t rock the boat, you might be hit by the boat.”
Huma hopes that top-tier recruits like Smith can apply pressure to schools to make the NLI more equitable. In order to convince the best players to signing binding agreements, they could offer written assurances in return: medical care, a four-year scholarship, the option to break the agreement if a certain coach leaves the program.
“I hope that this is the beginning of a new norm, so the Letter of Intent is modified so it protects the players as well,” Huma said.
Harold and Smith –don’t necessarily want to blow up the recruiting system. But Harold does want more parents and kids to understand what it means when a recruit puts pen to paper.
“What I’m hoping for the 2016 class and beyond is to be more educated,” Harold said. “Ask questions. Just be educated about your options. Ask the schools to be up front.”
Smith has attempted to avoid the spotlight as he re-chooses his school. Harold described him as a “leader” and “outgoing” even after a challenging childhood. His parents are separated, and he lives in small Montezuma, Ga. with his aunt and uncle. He remains upbeat, but the uproar over his college decision hurt him.
“When he went through all that last week, he was a shell of himself,” Harold said.
Smith stopped following Twitter and Facebook so he could avoid the nasty messages from outraged college football fans that flooded his feeds. This weekend, he went hunting and fishing with his family, detaching himself, at least for a moment, from the situation he found himself in. “He’s back to being his normal self,” Harold said.
But because of Smith’s bold choice, there may be a new normal in college football recruiting.