By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
Now whenever Durham Smythe or Darius James log onto their Facebook accounts, it's not rare to see a little red bubble on the top of the screen indicating that they have unread messages.
The difference between them and everyone else?
Their messages are scholarship offers from all-too-eager college football coaches trying to recruit them.
"Several schools now have offered through Facebook actually," said Smythe, Belton's 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior tight end who holds more than 15 scholarship offers from top-tier BCS programs. "That's really a big point in the recruiting process - messaging on Facebook - because obviously texting is illegal. But coaches can message you so that's really (becoming) the main source of contact."
Social media has taken on a life of its own inside the big-money arena of college recruiting, with participants on each side - from the student-athlete to the coaches to fans and the media - using the new technology to gain an advantage.
According to NCAA rules, college institutions are not allowed to use their official social media pages to include "photos of prospects, and messages cannot be sent to recruits using these social media technologies other than through their e-mail function."
But the rather ambiguous rules say nothing of individual coaches using their own personal accounts to send such messages, a loophole that many are exploiting in light of the NCAA's stringent limitations on direct contact by phones.
"Football coaches - and I'm talking all of us: high school, college, everybody - we've been wired to walk right along the line," said Belton athletic director Rodney Southern. "If this is what's legal, and this is what's illegal, I'm going to walk right on the edge because if I don't somebody (will to their) advantage.
"I think social media has become another way for college coaches to push the envelope and in this case in terms of communicating with kids."
More than fun
Whether it's through Facebook, Twitter or more recently Voxer, a new walkie-talkie application, social media has transformed the way athletes experience the world of recruiting.
For James, Harker Heights' 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive lineman, the freedom of expression that social media creates is a good thing.
"It's basically all fun and games," said James, who is rated the nation's No. 1 center according to ESPN.com and has more than 15 Division I offers. "It just helps me express myself."
In two months since he joined Twitter, James has already garnered nearly 1,800 tweets.
"It helps everybody else know what kind of person you are, it helps them get a better feel for you, so the more of that stuff you put on there - and it's good stuff - everybody's going to think that much more of you," James said.
While most of James' tweets are relatively harmless, usually involving playful updates on his thoughts in the day and conversations with friends, others have been more productive with their posts.
Smythe, who has offers from Texas and Stanford, uses his Twitter account as a platform to dispense and control the release of his own recruiting news, including everything from the new scholarship offers to visits he's making - including Thursday's official visit to Stanford.
"Offer from Miami today, Palo Alto tonight! #excited," Smythe posted Wednesday.
"Now you have to realize that when you tweet something it can become news, and that's something that's serious, you have a lot of responsibility," said former Shoemaker standout Roy Miller, now entering his fourth year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Of course, the ability to express oneself isn't limited to athletes. Many college football fans seek out and follow big-time recruits, often in an effort to influence their decision of where to go to school.
"It's a curse and a blessing, I guess," said fellow Knights junior recruit Naashon Hughes, who Tuesday committed to Texas. "It scares me a little bit that grown men are paying that much attention to me and I don't even know them.
"But then again, with recruiting and all that, a little hype isn't too bad."
Except when the interaction crosses an invisible boundary into direct involvement in the lives of 16- and 17-year-old student athletes.
"It just shows you how crazy some people are that they'd actually follow you, and like when I'm talking to Darius or someone, they'll try to hop in the conversation," Hughes said. "It's happened a couple times. They'll retweet me and then take that whole conversation and add their extra something to it."
For many high school coaches such as Southern or Harker Heights' Mike Mullins, the challenge ultimately lies between protecting their players and helping them along with the process. Of course, none of that means they need to get in on the social media craze.
"If you want to follow me, you're going to have to follow my jeep, 'cause you're not going to be able to follow me on Twitter," Southern joked.