Sitting inside the office of Stephen F. Austin head football coach J.C. Harper, Tyrel Stokes saw his dreams of playing college football evaporating if he didn’t make a decision.
So the Harker Heights senior all-state safety committed, giving his word that he’d sign with the Lumberjacks come National Signing Day.
Two weeks later, though, Stokes was sitting alongside University of Texas-bound teammates Darius James and Naashon Hughes sporting a Sam Houston State beanie and signing a national letter of intent to play football for the back-to-back FCS national runner-up Bearkats.
“I really didn’t want to commit to SFA, they just pressured me and I didn’t want them to pull my scholarship,” Stokes said.
Pressure from college coaches is one of many reasons high school prospects give for the growing trend of decommitals across the nation. Others include college coaches leaving for other jobs, change in philosophy, a better opportunity or simply a feeling.
Central Texas had five student-athletes — including Stokes, Belton tight end Durham Smythe, Temple quarterback Zach Allen, and Shoemaker running back Johnny Jefferson — each decided they erred with their original commitment and opted to sign with another program Wednesday.
“For me, when I first started getting into this whole process, people always told me, ‘Get committed before you get injured.’ That’s pretty much how I think some juniors think, probably most juniors think,” said Jefferson, who committed to Texas A&M in mid-February 2012 before flipping to Baylor after attending the Bears’ Pro Day on March 21.
“You rush everything before you get to see all the opportunities out there for you.”
Verbal commitments are nothing more than a non-binding verbal agreement between athlete and recruiter. Neither side is required to hold up their end of the deal.
Not that the decision to decommit is an easy one.
“It hurt me to decommit from somewhere I already committed, because I want to be a man of my word, but I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Stokes said.
Nothing is official until the high school athlete and their guardian — if under 21 — sign a National Letter of Intent, which secures the athlete at least one year of paid tuition and assures the institution of their attendance.
That’s why many who have been through the recruiting process recommend exploring all options before settling on one school, no matter how impressive it may appear.
“That is something I feel like I missed out on originally just visiting one or two schools,” said Smythe, a 6-foot-6, 230-pound tight end prospect who committed to Texas in March but signed with Notre Dame on Wednesday. “Getting that base to compare schools all around the nation really helped me out in the end.”
While many like Jefferson, Stokes and Smythe ultimately decided it was best to go back on their word, there were several area prospects who stood firm to their original commitment — most notably James and Hughes.
“At times it was hard, but at the end of the day, when I thought about it, I really wanted to be at UT and I stuck with them,” Hughes said.
Hughes originally committed to the University of Texas in late February 2012 despite not having a full scholarship offer from the Longhorns. Instead, Texas coaches offered Hughes — who’s older brother Camrhon is a freshman offensive tackle on team — a grey shirt. Texas coaches, though, eventually forked over a full scholarship — thanks in large part to several other players de-committing or choosing to sign elsewhere.
This year’s National Signing Day drama came from five-star linebacker Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala.), the nation’s No. 2 overall rated player and No. 1 linebacker according to Rivals.com.
Foster verbally committed to Alabama in July 2011, a month before the start of his junior season. A year later, Foster flipped his commitment to cross-state rival Auburn and even got an Auburn “AU” tatoo on his arm to prove his dedication to the Tigers.
But after Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn fired several assistant coaches from the previous Gene Chizik staff, most notably mentor Trooper Taylor, Foster de-committed and put himself back on the market. In the end, Foster went back to his original decision and signed with Alabama on Wednesday.
“It’s hard. It’s like your girlfriend, you propose to her and then you take it back from her,” Jefferson explained. “It wasn’t easy, but it had to be done because I wasn’t going to be happy there (during) my years in college.”
Decommittals can bring out the worst in fan bases. Sealy four-star receiver Ricky Seals-Jones received death threats via Twitter from angry Longhorns fans after he de-committed over the summer. Seals-Jones was one of five former Texas-commits who flipped from the Longhorns to other programs (Texas A&M), including Smythe (Notre Dame) and Lancaster defensive end Daeshon Hall, who originally committed to Texas before flipping to Washington only to sign with Texas A&M on Wednesday.
“The process today is pretty stressful and kind of crazy at times, but it is exciting when someone ends up where they are supposed to be,” Smythe said.
With a self-imposed deadline to make a decision on his future, Smythe committed to Texas on March 8 but re-opened his recruiting Dec. 12 after former Longhorns co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin — Smythe’s main recruiter for Texas — left to become the head coach at Arkansas State.
“I wouldn’t say I have regrets,” Smythe said. “If I could do it over again I don’t think I would commit that early, but all of the mistakes, the entire process and all of that has led to this.”