After all the fanfare died down, and the phone calls from college coaches and reporters waned, Rodney Southern sat his star tight end down and changed the game.
Sitting in his plush office on the top floor of the new, $5.6 million Belton field house, the Tigers athletic director laid it out for the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Durham Smythe, who had just committed to the University of Texas.
“I told Durham, ‘I’ve got to be tougher on you now than I was before, (and) you’ve got to understand that and you’ve got to take it,’” Southern said.
Smythe is one of nearly a dozen “star” players from the Central Texas area who will face expectations as Division I prospects.
But for a select few, there’s an added dimension to the albatross already hanging around their necks because of where they committed to — Texas.
“You’re playing for THE school,” Southern said. “No matter what people want to say or agree about, kids in this state — yeah, there are people that want to grow up Baylor Bears or Texas A&M Aggies — but when you think football, you’re going to think the University of Texas first.”
Earlier this summer, in the span of a week, Smythe joined the Harker Heights duo of 6-foot-5, 320-pound center Darius James and 6-4, 210-pound linebacker Naashon Hughes to form an area triumvirate to verbally commit to playing on the 40 Acres.
This year’s trio brings the area’s Longhorn contingent to a half dozen, joining starting sophomore quarterback David Ash (Belton) in 2010, and last year’s class of freshman defensive back Orlando “Duke” Thomas (Copperas Cove) and freshman offensive tackle Camrhon Hughes (Heights), Naashon Hughes’ older brother.
“It (says) that we’re not just all hype. We’re actually out there proving ourselves and being the best,” said James, rated the nation’s No. 1 center prospect by multiple recruiting services.
Before Ash did it two years ago, the most recent Texas recruit to come out of the Cove-Killeen-Temple area was Shoemaker defensive tackle Roy Miller in 2005, who’s in his fourth year playing professionally for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But the area’s 2013 recruiting class is not just reserved for Texas commits. According to Rivals.com, there are nearly 20 area prospects who have drawn interest from Division I programs. That includes seven who have already made commitments to prominent programs such as Baylor and Oklahoma State. Shoemaker tailback Johnny Jefferson chose the Bears in late March after originally committing to Texas A&M, while Killeen defensive back Deric Robertson picked Oklahoma State in mid-May, following commitments from Temple quarterback Zach Allen (Syracuse) and offensive lineman Freddie Johnson (SMU).
With the excitement of committing to a major Division I program comes the potentially overwhelming pressure that follows — pressure to be better, pressure to prove the college recruiters right and the critics wrong, pressure to help the team accomplish its goals while at the same time accomplishing their own.
“That definitely drives us every day at practice. Whether it comes from getting that extra rep in or making that extra tackle, going 110 percent, that definitely drives you,” said Naashon Hughes, who committed to the Longhorns despite nothing more than a greyshirt scholarship offer.
For some of the local Texas commits, though, the most difficult part passed when they decided on a college.
“It adds a little bit (of pressure), but it also doesn’t add any because we’re just out there playing the game,” James said.
Of course, there’s a balance to be had, both for the athletes receiving extra attention from media and colleges and for the coaches who have to prepare an entire team to take on the challenges of a three-month season.
“You have to coach them through it like with anything else,” Harker Heights head coach Mike Mullins said. “You can see people make mistakes every day and it’s like we tell them, they’re profile kids, they’re noticed everywhere they go; and from that standpoint, you have to represent yourself, your school and your community the best way you can.”
On the field, that means producing at a greater level than before, and leading the team to where it’s capable of going. For most area teams, that is the playoffs and beyond. It also means dealing with being “the guy” every other team is focused on.
“When you do commit to a school like Texas, that immediately takes you out of the shadows,” Smythe said. “And that’s kind of flattering, knowing all these teams are going to be keying on you. I’m going to try my best to still get open, but if nothing else, it’ll help my teammates.”
That extra attention can be just the boost a top-tier recruit needs, especially on the field.
“As D-1 caliber players, we have a target on our backs, and everybody wants to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I beat him. Yeah, I did this to him,’” James said. “So it makes it that much more fun for us to go out and have them trying their hardest and we’re trying our hardest and we’re actually getting their all.”
But even for the kind of upper-echelon talent that programs like Texas recruit, any added pressure can be a double-edged sword.
That’s why proper guidance is needed to put it all into perspective.
Or as Southern told Smythe the day he committed: “Your job at this point is to be the best tight end you can be for this football team. But your job is also to play well in order for the other people on this team to have the same opportunity you’ve gotten.”