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In football recruiting, watch out for the reverse

January 31, 2008|Eric Sondheimer | Times Staff Writer

Charlie Weis came to town Monday to escape the cold Indiana winter but primarily to make one last run at landing one of the top high school football players in the nation.

The Notre Dame coach stopped by Lake Balboa Birmingham High to finalize a recruiting visit from running back Milton Knox, the City Section player of the year who long ago committed to UCLA.

"I think they're going to go after him as hard as they can," Birmingham Coach Ed Croson said of Notre Dame's bid for his Parade magazine All-American running back.

And this weekend, Knox is headed to South Bend, Ind., which shows once again that in the dizzy world of college football recruiting, a commitment isn't necessarily a commitment until a signature materializes on a national letter of intent.

Those letters can't be signed until Wednesday, so coaches across the country are busy this week shoring up their own "commits" while trying to poach top recruits from rivals schools.

In the last week, linebacker Sean Westgate of Oak Park switched from Arizona to UCLA and running back Brian Baucham of West Torrance went from Washington State to USC. Recently, running back Ryan Bass of Corona Centennial jumped from Arizona to rival Arizona State.

"It's definitely been a crazy year," said Sherman Oaks Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist, who is expected to sign with Notre Dame.

Not so many years ago, coaches rarely went after players who had announced a commitment, even though it was non-binding. But that has changed. Players have become more sophisticated and savvy in gaining information about schools through the Internet. Coaching changes add to the uncertainty, empowering players to have second thoughts and encouraging competitors to intervene.

Knox committed to UCLA before Karl Dorrell was fired as Bruins coach.

At one point, close to 10 UCLA recruits were said to be "soft commits," according to various recruiting websites, though one prominent site, scout.com, now puts only four potential Bruins in that category.

Los Angeles Dorsey safety Rahim Moore, who took visits to Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina after committing to UCLA, said, "They were the first to offer me, and I can't walk away from that."

Rick Neuheisel, UCLA's new coach, has been busy trying to keep his more than 20 committed recruits on board while also seeking others. He was at Ventura St. Bonaventure on Tuesday, trying to make a late bid for running back Darrell Scott, considered the nation's top prospect at the position. Scott has said Colorado and Texas are his leading candidates.

And Neuheisel is also challenging for Hemet offensive lineman Hamani Stevens, who has been considering offers from Oregon and Brigham Young.

Some college coaches have begun to support the idea of a letter-of-intent day for football players in December, similar to basketball's early signing date in November, which might help reduce the number of high school players changing their mind.

What's clear is that the growth of cable sports channels and Internet recruiting sites continues to raise the profile of signing day. ESPNU is airing a seven-hour recruiting show from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on signing day. That evening, FSN Prime Ticket will have its own signing special.

Some recruits commit early to avoid the craziness. Santa Ana Mater Dei quarterback Matt Barkley, who is only a junior but was named Gatorade's national player of the year, committed to USC on Jan. 23.

Others recruits want their moment of decision captured on live television, either at the annual Army All-American game or on local TV. Scott is planning to make his announcement in New York on ESPNU.

The fact that so many players are taking advantage of their allotted college visits might have as much to do with their appetites as anything else.

Crist took only one trip -- to South Bend -- and he said the Irish rewarded him for his loyalty.

"Notre Dame was very appreciative and made sure there was plenty of food," he said. "We probably ate six times a day. I ate the same amount as if I had gone on five visits."

The toughest part for every recruit is calling their suitors to deliver news of rejection.

"Being a kid," Crist said, "you feel so bad at saying no."

Correspondent Austin Knoblauch contributed to this report.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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