McDonough’s Na’Ty Rodgers and Friendship Collegiate’s Derwin Gray became fast friends on the offseason football camp circuit, often competing for top honors among linemen and attention from recruiters representing the nation’s top college programs.
Both hulking players had accumulated numerous college scholarship offers when Gray called in mid-June with news that surprised Rodgers. More than two months before the start of his senior season, Gray had given his oral commitment to the University of Maryland.
“I was like ‘What? What you mean?’ ” said Rodgers, a 6-foot-5, 280-pound All-Met offensive lineman. “He was like ‘I’m committed. All these [local] dudes are coming, too. Just jump on board.’ . . . It’s hard to say no sometimes, but you’ve got to do what’s best for you.”
At a time when Football Bowl Subdivision programs seem to fill their recruiting classes with unofficial commitments earlier each year, Rodgers has bucked the trend with a measured approach to his recruitment. On the advice of his former NFL lineman father, he narrowed his list of suitors systematically in recent months, trimming to a final three, each of which he has visited on campus at least four times.
Rodgers, rated a four-star recruit by Rivals.com, had planned to announce his college decision on national television during Friday’s Under Armour All-America game in St. Petersburg, Fla., but on Thursday night announced via Twitter that he needed more time to make his choice. He’ll pick from among South Carolina, Maryland and Washington, confident he’s done his homework to find the proper fit.
“Right now, no choice is a bad choice,” said Rodgers, who planned to finalize his decision by Christmas. “Regardless of where I go, everyone is going to support me and everything. This is my first real, actual, big choice I get to make in my life, so [my family] just wants me to take my time and make it worthwhile.”
In seven combined years as a high school head coach at the Pomfret school and in Michigan, McDonough Coach Luke Ethington has never coached a player as widely coveted as Rodgers. He credits a strong family support system for the player’s maturity as he navigated toward a decision.
Rodgers’s father, Tyrone, 43, started his college career at Oklahoma and moved on to Washington when the Sooners were put on probation by the NCAA after the 1988 season, reinforcing the importance of making an informed college pick for the right reasons. The defensive lineman went on to play parts of four NFL seasons and nine years in the Canadian Football League.
The younger Rodgers, 17, lives full-time in Southern Maryland with his mother, Nana Bailey-Thomas, and stepfather, Tommy Thomas, who played college football at New Mexico State. The family set a few ground rules for the recruitment, saying Na’Ty had to make at least three official visits and wait until after his playing season to commit, which turned off a few schools.
Rodgers visits his father, who owns a security company in California, for a month almost every summer. Those stays are no vacation, featuring daily 5 a.m. workouts, often directed by Tyrone’s friend Jackie Slater, the NFL Hall of Fame offensive tackle.
In July, Rodgers and his father used the time to make unofficial recruiting trips to UCLA, Southern California and Washington. On campus at his alma mater, Tyrone Rodgers made sure to give Na’Ty space, so his son would not get any special treatment that might cloud his judgment of the school.
“I’ve seen him grow up a lot through the process,” Tyrone Rodgers said by phone last month. “He’s really manning up. This is the most important decision he’s making in his life right now, and we’re not making it for him.”
With Friday’s announcement, Na’Ty Rodgers aims to close a process more than two years in the making. He began gaining notice among recruiters during his sophomore season when he helped the Rams to the 2010 Maryland 2A state title. He picked up a scholarship offer from North Carolina during his first offseason camp that year, and ultimately piled up 34 offers. In the beginning, Rodgers thought it would be cool to earn offers from as many states as possible, but he quickly realized that he’d have to narrow his focus.
Of the schools that showed interest, Rodgers picked about 20 to talk with beyond the initial recruiting pitch and then cut it down to 10 from there. He made unofficial campus trips to nine schools across the country, and he continues to list South Carolina, which he has visited six times since April, as the front-runner.
“Like any kid, I think you learn the process as you go with a little trial and error,” Ethington said, “but with him, I think there was more trial and less error.”
Football players cannot sign binding letters-of-intent until National Signing Day, which falls on Feb. 6 this year, and early oral commitments can come into question for any number of reasons.
Unlike basketball, there is no early signing period for football, and Jeremy Crabtree, ESPN’s Senior Coordinator of Recruiting, said the long gap between oral commitment and signing can leave coaches feeling as if they must “baby-sit” recruits to keep them happy through the process.
Last year, the top recruit in the state of Maryland, Good Counsel’s Stefon Diggs, waited until a week after signing day to announce his plan to play for the Terrapins, but it has become common for players to race for coveted spots in a recruiting class. Football Bowl Subdivision schools can allocate up to 25 of their allotted 85 football scholarships for incoming recruits in a given year, according to NCAA rules, but that number is often lower based on the number of returning scholarship players.
Recently, Briar Woods linebacker Matt Rolin, who was selected for the Under Armour game but will not play because of a knee injury, flipped his commitment to Florida from South Carolina. All-Met linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, who will play with Rodgers for the White team Friday, was one of three Friendship Collegiate players to pick Maryland in a two-day span over the summer, but he has since de-committed and will decide between Maryland, Miami, Florida State and South Carolina.
Currently, Rodgers, rated by Rivals in the preseason as the sixth-best Class of 2013 prospect from Maryland, is the top uncommitted player on the recruiting site’s top 25 list for the state. In all, 21 of the 25 listed players are currently committed and two of those had previously made oral pledges.
“If you talk to college coaches across the country,” Crabtree said, “they’d certainly like to see more kids like that who make a lot of visits and do the diligence that it takes to make sure the decision is solid.”
In part because of the number of offers he accumulated, Rodgers felt comfortable waiting out the process, wading through a daily barrage of phone calls and messages on social media from coaches and fans from around the country.
During the football season, Rodgers attended three games at South Carolina, two at Maryland and another at Oklahoma. Rather than picking a trip that included a glitzy game-day experience as his favorite, he talked about his official visit to Washington last month because he could relax and hang out with a few players he’d competed against at national combines.
After all the deliberation, Rodgers said he’s ready to take the final step and get ready for his college career. He will make his commitment, believing he got the most out of the recruiting process.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Rodgers said. “Yeah, it’s hard sometimes with all the calls and all the Facebook messages, but you know, it’s not really that bad. Some people say ‘I’m tired of the process. I’m just going to commit.’ I’m relaxing and trying to enjoy it.”