The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From freshman to senior year, here’s what recruitment looks like for prep-school QBs

With Gonzaga's season now over, five-star quarterback Caleb Williams can intensify his focus on his recruitment. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)

A few minutes after 7 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday in Northeast Washington, Caleb Williams emerges from the Gonzaga football locker room carrying two backpacks — one with Oregon’s logo and one with Georgia’s, one for football and one for school.

He has a phone call to make. Georgia Coach Kirby Smart wants to talk.

“Hey, Coach,” he begins, and they chat for a few minutes about Gonzaga’s schedule, cold and snowy playing conditions, and Williams’s plans for college visits, which have paused for the time being.

The Gonzaga junior, rated as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2021, has tried to take his focus off his recruitment, but that often proves difficult. When he checks his phone after practice, on an ordinary November weeknight, he has five text messages and one missed call from college coaches, plus his appointment with Smart.

Williams is emblematic of a college selection process with more traps and layers than ever before. Pressure?

“Nah,” Williams shrugs. “No pressure.”

The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game is Sunday between St. John’s and Good Counsel, and all season, in a different type of competition, there have been battles among college programs to recruit the top players from the elite private school league. At the same time, the WCAC’s top schools battle to recruit top middle school players and manage their prep careers, all battles that end up intertwined.

The Washington Post spoke with the quarterbacks from the four top programs — each in a different grade level — to try to capture how recruiting looks at each stage.

A freshman just getting started

Cameron Edge, a freshman at DeMatha, is only beginning the journey his older friends know well. It starts with a couple of understated offers — from Massachusetts at a seven-on-seven camp and from Maryland after an early-season game.

Almost 10 years ago, Southern California offered a scholarship to 13-year-old quarterback David Sills V, and it became a national story. Now teams offer kids in their early teens all the time, and players such as Edge are forced to be educated: “Offers” handed out at that stage don’t mean much more than phone calls. Schools can’t contact recruits directly until after Sept. 1 of their junior year, so DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor and his staff handle most of the interest in Edge.

It can be awe-inspiring for a young player to have a brush with a famous college coach, such as when Edge met Penn State Coach James Franklin at a camp.

“I’ve always seen him on TV,” Edge said. “I met his hand, and it was a deep moment, not only for me but for my family. It really hit me.”

Edge, 15, already fits the profile of a quarterback whose recruitment will be crowded. After middle school in Smyrna, Del., he enrolled at one of the country’s top football programs and crept into the discussion for playing time. By the end of the regular season he was splitting time with senior Malakai Anthony, and he played all of the Stags’ WCAC playoff loss to St. John’s on Saturday.

Edge is a couple of years from serious decisions, but the thoughts have crossed his mind.

“It kind of shocked me,” he said, “but now it’s becoming reality.”

Sophomore year competition

If Chase Williams one day finds himself in a heated college quarterback competition with implications for both players’ futures, he will be comfortable. He has already won one.

Williams joined Good Counsel for his freshman season in 2018. Midway through last fall, though, the Falcons added Trace Campbell, a transfer from DeMatha.

A quarterback competition can bring out the best in both players, but it almost always means one won’t play as much as he desires.

“At first, it was kind of trying to me because it came as a shock,” Williams said. “But I think it was good for me in the long run.”

Good Counsel Coach Andy Stefanelli hears the concerns all the time: If a kid doesn’t start, how will he put highlights on film? If he doesn’t have film, how will he earn a scholarship?

One of the dominant story lines in college football is the “transfer portal,” which has allowed players — often ones dissatisfied with their playing time — to signal they want to change schools. In high school there is no transfer portal, but the desire for playing time similarly sparks player movement.

“Realistically, a lot of these kids, especially because they’re viewed as the top quarterback recruits, they have choices because they have other schools,” Stefanelli said. “And the other schools may be telling them, ‘Hey, you can come here and play right away or play early,’ and that may be the truth.”

Williams and Campbell split time for almost half the season before Williams took over and Campbell moved to wide receiver and linebacker.

With Williams under center, the Falcons reached their first WCAC title game since 2015, which should only ramp up the hype surrounding their quarterback and their team the next two years.

No easy decisions for a five-star junior

The crown jewel in the Washington area is Caleb Williams, who already has offers from dozens of Power Five Conference schools.

By now, Williams is a pro at this. Yes, people at school ask him every day where he will go to college. No, he does not yet know. Recruits handle their decisions in various ways. Williams has been inconspicuous.

“I don’t have a list or a numbering or anything,” he said.

For young prep school quarterbacks, private training is now seen as essential

With his list of offers, Williams can afford to wait and let his Gonzaga film speak for itself. But he and his father, Carl, have scrutinized this decision, hoping to find a situation that won’t require a transfer once he is at college.

It may seem like a needless concern for a player of Williams’s caliber, but top-flight prospects get bumped all the time at major college programs.

Trevor Lawrence won a national championship as a freshman at Clemson last season, taking control of the quarterback position for the next two seasons, so two of his backups transferred. Tua Tagovailoa took over at Alabama, leading Jalen Hurts to move on to Oklahoma. And with Jake Fromm blocking him at Georgia, No. 1 quarterback prospect Justin Fields left for Ohio State.

Caleb Williams already made one tough call when he chose Gonzaga from a list of high school suitors, including IMG Academy (Fla.). But during that process, he notes, his dad handled most of the communication with schools.

Now, Caleb is in the driver’s seat, and he understands the stakes. Asked about any urgency to choose the right school the first time, to avoid being blocked by a star player for two years, Williams first says no player should hesitate on a school that feels right.

Then he adds: “I think [the depth chart is] definitely a consideration. You should look at that before you commit there and go there and go to the transfer portal and go to some other school that you should have committed to before.”

End of the road in senior year

Not long ago, the most important offers and commitments transpired in the final year before graduation. But Sol-Jay Maiava is sitting on a ledge outside the St. John’s locker room, and his recruitment is over.

Maiava committed to Brigham Young in June. He has not taken a visit elsewhere since. In fact, 44 of the top 50 quarterbacks in the 2020 class have announced decisions. Part of that is the creation of the early signing period in December (when Maiava plans to make his BYU choice official). Part of it is a push for players who can qualify to enroll early (Maiava hopes to do so, too).

As the veteran of this group looks back on his recruitment, Maiava says: “It was pretty hard. It had its ups and downs for me, the recruiting.” The low points? “Just stressing over where I want to go, trying to get this and that together, trying to get a free education.”

In hindsight, his recruitment was a marathon: He first spoke with BYU coaches three years ago, and relationships can date back even further than that.

Maiava’s profile expanded when his family chose to move from tiny Laie, Hawaii, to Washington so that Maiava could attend St. John’s and have better access to college exposure. With all of that pressure in the past, Maiava calls that choice “the best move of my life.”