Shea Patterson, a senior quarterback for IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), has committed to two colleges and racked up frequent-flyer miles looking at colleges, but has yet to make an official visit.
Patterson, the No. 1 player in the 2016 football recruiting class according to Rivals.com, committed to Arizona as a freshman, then de-committed two years later. Then in February, he committed to Mississippi, after he made several unofficial visits last winter to Ole Miss, Texas A&M, USC, Notre Dame, LSU, Georgia and Auburn.
His father, Sean Patterson, said the family cut corners so Shea could make those visits and other visits to camps. The expense of unofficial visits also meant that schools in the Northeast and a possible visit to Clemson were knocked off the list, he said. Patterson transferred to IMG for his senior season by lives in Louisiana.
“We didn’t go on a lot of visits because we couldn’t afford to go,” Patterson said. “Each of those trips costs $500 to $1,000 and I scrambled. I did things like have a garage sale and went on Kayak.com to find the cheapest flight with three stops. At the time, I was working for Hertz, so we spent a lot of time driving to places. Shea stayed in plenty of Motel 6’s.
“We didn’t do high class. We did what we had to do to go there.”
Of the top 100 players in the 247Sports.com composite football recruiting rankings for 2016, roughly 70 percent committed to a school before they made an official visit. The key word in that sentence is official.
As the recruiting timetable has moved up, pressure is on players to use unofficial, sometimes expensive visits, to help make their decisions.
NCAA rules allow prospective Division I and Division II football recruits five official visits with transportation, food and entertainment costs paid for by colleges. The problem, some recruits and parents say, is the official visits can’t begin until the student begins the first day of class his senior year of high school, when the athletes and their families have the least amount of flexibility to make such trips.
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St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) running back Sean McGrew committed in May to Washington after making several unofficial visits to schools on the West Coast.
“I visited Cal, UCLA multiple times, USC, Washington and both Arizona schools,” McGrew said. “Pretty much half the Pac-12. I used those visits towards my decision, so now I really don’t need to take my officials.”
McGrew said allowing official visits earlier would be fairer to those who struggle to pay for unofficial visits, particularly those players who aren’t necessarily top 100 players.
“I think it would be a good thing if you could make officials earlier, as soon as you finish your junior year, or even earlier,” McGrew said. “It’s a lot of money to make these trips.
“Recruiting starts a lot (earlier) now, in freshman or sophomore years, and sometimes people can’t commit until they take their official visits because they can’t afford unofficial visits and some of the spots are taken up by guys who go on unofficial visits before them.”
That concern, of potentially losing a spot to another player, might have driven Imhotep Charter (Philadelphia) tight end Naseir Upshur to commit to Florida State on Sept. 1, about a week before he could make his first official visit. Though he still plans to make official visits to FSU, Michigan and Arizona State, he committed to the Seminoles less than a month after he visited Florida State, one of three schools he unofficially visited this summer.
“I would love if they allowed officials earlier, but my mom, my dad, my uncle and my grandmom and my brothers, you know, they do whatever for me,” Upshur said. “So they put their money together so I can go on these trips.”
Wide receiver Austin Mack, from Bishop Luers in Fort Wayne, Ind., says he wanted to be an “early decision guy” so the opportunity to take his official visits sooner would have helped. Mack committed to Ohio State in June.
“I think it’d be better if you could take your officials earlier,” he said. “For me, I had to pay my way to visit down south and I could’ve visited a lot more schools if that was the case. … Since recruiting is starting to pick up when guys are younger and younger I think it should change.”
Allowing official visits earlier might also benefit schools in more remote locations, said ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill.
“I believe it would even the playing field for more programs when you consider the proximity of certain programs to the player pool,” Luginbill said. “Some programs have players right in their back yard. … Programs like Alabama, South Carolina or Ohio State have kids 150 miles in every direction and they can come to your campus and experience the whole nine yards. How can a program (that doesn’t have the geographic advanatage) keep up with that when they can’t get a kid to campus without him paying his own way?”
NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford said the possibility of allowing earlier official visits was discussed in 2009, but the legislation was defeated by membership vote. The possibility was again raised last June when a vote to allow an early signing period in December for football was tabled for a year by the Collegiate Commissioners Association.
“I think the NCAA has to decide whether they’re going to fight the acceleration of the recruiting process,” 247Sports.com national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons said. “If they are going to throw their hands up and say the process will accelerate regardless of what we do, then it makes a lot of sense to allow official visits earlier and allow those prospects to take visits on the school’s dime, but if the NCAA is going to continue to dig their feet in and try to resist the acceleration, then allowing official visits earlier would make that a tougher battle.”
Moving official visits sooner might also mean fewer de-commits. With so many recruits committing before official visits, that leaves plenty of opportunity for the athletes to be swayed once they take official visits.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me to have to wait until Sept. 1 of senior year (for an official visit), when we could make it January of their junior year and they could then see spring practice,” Sean Patterson said.
Paramus Catholic (N.J.) defensive tackle Rashan Gary is ranked as the No. 1 overall player in the 247Sports Composite rankings, but he plays in a state that is among the last to start the school calendar and also plays many Saturday games.
He has only taken one official visit thus far to Michigan on high schools bye week and has another scheduled for Alabama the week after his high school season ends. But he said a campus visit on a game weekend makes all the difference.
“I like to be able to see the game environemet and how it is during game day instead of practice,” he said.
JSerra (Gardena, Calif.) defensive back C.J. Pollard agrees. He committed to Southern Cal in July after a handful of unofficial visits.
“I went to USC, Arizona State, Utah and Oregon,” Pollard said. “We kind of rounded up our money with whatever worked best with the cheap flight we could find.
“It would have been nice if we could have done that with official visits. That would be pretty tight.”