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Top recruits have 'friends' in virtual places

POSTED: February 1, 2011 10:11 p.m.

When Ray Drew opened an account on Facebook three years ago, he joined for the same reason millions of other users do: to network with friends and family. His account grew to 200 friends or so by 2010, but within the next year, his popularity rose to much larger proportions.

By January 2011, his friends list eclipsed the 4,000 mark. He was no longer just “Ray Drew,” a small-town kid born and raised in Boston, Ga., he was now “Ray Drew, five-star college football recruit.”

Just about every major college in the country, from Southern California to Georgia, was interested in bringing the 6-foot-5, 245-pound defensive end from Thomas County Central High to its football program.

As if the recruiting process wasn’t stressful enough on its own, he now had the input of more than 4,000 “friends,” trying to sway him to their school of choice. In a matter of months, Drew became immersed in the social network epidemic so many other recruits have suddenly found themselves in.

“It’s crazy,” said Drew in a recent phone interview, his iPhone constantly going off in the background with multiple Facebook alerts every minute. “I’m glad I came to the realization early that this is a very stressful process. Friends outside of your inner circle don’t understand what it’s like being 17 or 18 years old having to make this decision.”

Drew receives more than 100 friend requests a day. Hundreds post on his wall each day. In the weeks leading up to his decision — he ultimately chose Georgia last Friday — his “friends” were telling him which school to attend, and depending on Drew’s status updates, those “friends” quickly became unfriendly.

He recalls making the Facebook community aware of an upcoming visit to Clemson, and receiving a warm message from a Clemson fan, hoping Drew would “join the family.” After the visit, Drew said in a status update Clemson wasn’t what he was looking for academically, and that he dropped the Tigers from his list. The same Clemson fan again messaged Drew, this time saying, “We heard you dropped us. (Expletive) you, Clemson doesn’t want your kind here anyway.”

That type of negative interaction on social networking sites can become overbearing, as in the case of Philadelphia (Miss.) High linebacker C.J. Johnson, who deactivated his Facebook account after harassment made his recruiting experience a “living nightmare,” as he said on his final status update.

Drew, on the other hand, takes the fan interaction in stride, even having fun with it at times. Before deciding on Georgia, Drew sent mixed signals in his updates, acting as though he was leaning toward Auburn or Florida State on some, denouncing Georgia on others, and acting as if a mystery school had entered the picture late.

“Waaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrr eagle HEY!!!!!!!!!!,” one Drew update said, referring to Auburn.

Before Valdosta High tight end Jay Rome’s news conference, where he was expected to commit to Georgia, Drew posted, “I would go to Jay Rome and Tampa’s announcement but Im not because i fear they will pick the wrong hat........if there was no red and black (Georgia’s colors) i might have gone.”

Finally, one week before Drew’s own scheduled press conference to announce his decision, he posted, “There will be a huge surprise on Friday........no auburn, no Georgia, no lsu......time to shock the world baby.”

Keeping his Facebook friends on their toes by making a mockery of the recruiting process was the healthiest approach for Drew, he believes.

“If you (are on Facebook), it’s going to be what you make of it and if you don’t make it interesting, it will overtake you,” he said.

But social networking sites go far beyond recruits and their interactions with fans.

Chad Simmons is South Football Recruiting Regional Director for Scout.com, where he’s worked for the past seven years. He’s seen first-hand the evolution of recruiting over the years and how social networking sites have impacted the process.

“Things have definitely changed,” Simmons said. “The Internet has changed everything in the game, from how kids handle the process, to coaches recruiting — everything is so public now. Everything is so fast-paced; schools want to be the first to offer a kid because the public finds out sooner.”

As of now, the NCAA doesn’t have clearly defined rules concerning Facebook, and both Simmons and Drew have said it’s been a way for coaches and players to keep in contact. Simmons has heard instances of coaches making scholarship offers over Facebook.

“Facebook is another line of communication,” Simmons said. “It’s like an e-mail, except (a coach) can get information about the kid and monitor their character, who they hang out with — that’s going on much more this year.”

Georgia State football coach Bill Curry has been active in college football recruiting more than four decades, dating back to his days as offensive line coach at Georgia Tech (he eventually became head coach of the Jackets in the 1980s).

Curry’s Panthers just finished their inaugural football season. As of now, he doesn’t believe his program is far enough along to incorporate social networking into the actual recruitment of players, but he thinks there will come a time it will be necessary. Curry said Georgia State is recruiting at a different level; the Panthers aren’t competing with Florida or Alabama, but smaller schools. So the old school coach who once played for Vince Lombardi, recruits the old-fashioned way.

“(The Georgia State football program) is very modern when it comes to our technology,” Curry said. “We have the software to blanket Facebook and e-mail recruits, but we send hand-written letters to the guys we want. From a recruit’s perspective, when you’re looking at 800 emails a day, how attentive are you? If you’re highly recruited, you get at least that many, so you eventually just quit reading them.”

Curry does use Facebook to monitor the activity of recruits.

“Do you remember,” said Curry, “the things you said when you were 17 years old? Would you want your mother to hear that? Now these knuckleheads just put it out there and not knowing how we’ll respond. We can check what our guys write, and we’re working with our (current) players to add us as friends so they’ll think twice before they just put something out there. We talk to them about that a lot.”

Curry also spends a lot of time talking to his recruiting staff about social networking.

“We’ve got to be careful of the influences of our staff and our team,” Curry said. “If a recruiter sees a bad game and reports on it, 100 people see it and spread it, then thousands of people read it and it’s decided he’s a bad player. He may be a great player who had a bad day. ... Attention span has been shortened, and we’re becoming accustomed to brief messages and sound bites.”

When coaches monitor recruits on Facebook, they often discover those recruits are friends with other recruits.

Facebook has united many student-athletes, who in some cases have joined forces to become package deals for a given university.

Drew said he became friends with Avery Walls on Facebook. Walls, ranked the nation’s No. 27 recruit on Scout.com, played for Eagles Landing Christian Academy in McDonough and recently committed to California.

“That’s the big thing, being able to talk to (recruits) you normally wouldn’t,” Drew said. “I knew Avery on Facebook before I met him. I got to know him and when we met in San Antonio (for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl), we hung out and were like best friends.

“That all had to do with Facebook.”

For future recruits who are starting to see their inbox flooded by fans and other “friends” from around the country, Drew offers simple advice:

“Keep in mind the decision (to attend a school) is yours,” he said. “You’re going to be the one going to class, going through the financial aid process, so do what is best for you and don’t do anything else.”



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