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National Signing Day: College football recruiting still comes down to production
Flowery Branch QB put together solid senior year to land with North Carolina
Flowery Branch High quarterback Kanler Coker has graduated from high school and will be attending North Carolina in the fall. - photo by Tom Reed

A lot can change quickly in the world of high school football recruiting. Kanler Coker is living proof.

Despite his 6-foot-4 frame and prototypical quarterback size, Coker entered his senior year without a scholarship offer from any upper-echelon Division-I football schools.

That was August.

Today, less than six months later, he'll sign a letter of intent to attend the University of North Carolina with a full athletic scholarship.

Coker played his way into this position over the course of 13 Friday nights last fall, leading Flowery Branch to an 11-2 record and the quarterfinals of the Class AAAA state playoffs.

His is a textbook case of the one thing in the wild game of recruiting that the experts seems to agree on: Despite the prevalence of scouting combines and highlight tapes, in football, it's the games that matter most.

"College coaches weigh everything when deciding if they are going to recruit a player or not, but ultimately football is a game played in pads at full speed and it's a different game when it's live," said J.C. Shurburtt, national recruiting analyst for "I think the biggest misconception out there is that players can earn offers by going to camps that aren't at the specific colleges and run by the college coaches. That type of stuff is great for publicity and word of mouth, but most good college recruiters want to see for themselves, either on film or in person."

‘A change of heart'

For much of his life, Coker wanted to be a college basketball star.

To make it happen, he needed to get noticed by college recruiters in summer camps and AAU ball, the staples of high school basketball recruiting.

Then, the summer before his senior year, Coker changed his mind.

"Just a change of heart almost, I remember just telling my dad that I was going to focus on football," said Coker, who graduated from Flowery Branch High School in December.

"Up until last year I was always real focused on basketball, and then I realized I loved football and I switched."

At that moment, his senior year of football became crucial to his future, because unlike basketball, baseball, soccer and most other sports, there is no offseason league for football players.

Of course, having Coker's prototypical size doesn't hurt when trying to catch the attention of college coaches.

"For every quarterback out there, you've got to pass the looks test," Coker said. "That helped me a little bit."
Prior to his senior season, Coker transferred from North Hall to Flowery Branch, in the process switching from a wing-T to a spread-option offense.

The Falcons' system fit him well, as Coker racked up 2,833 passing yards and 31 touchdowns, along with 837 rushing yards and another 15 scores.

"I'd say that definitely helped, to be a dual threat. I had never really run the football until this year," he said. "Then this year, I did a lot of zone reads, and half the time I'd keep it. I'd say each game I'd run a little bit more, kind of learning how to run."

Late in the season, schools started taking notice, from East Carolina to Ole Miss and, eventually, the Tar Heels.

Having graduated early from high school, the soon-to-be North Carolina quarterback is now training and preparing to embark on the next stage in his football career.

The eye of the beholder

One of Coker's opponents in his senior year, Habersham Central's Kevin Ellison, has also recently verbally committed to his college of choice.

But the Raiders quarterback had much more time to make his decision.

"I really had my mind set on (Georgia) Southern," said Ellison, who recently made the decision to join the Eagles as a quarterback.

He had the offer from the start of his senior season, a season in which, like Coker, he had the best performance of his career.

Ellison was named the Class AAAA Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 2,183 yards, 10.3 yards per carry and 32 touchdowns, along with 1,025 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception while leading Habersham Central (6-5) back to the playoffs.

Before the breakout year he had already received offers from Air Force and Georgia Southern, among others.

"I had a couple of schools offer, and it made me play a bit better," Ellison said. "I had two big offers, so I thought I had to improve my game. But I thought I'd have more offers."

A big year didn't bring in more big college teams, but Ellison's spectacular senior season confirmed what those schools saw in the option quarterback.

"I think senior year is an important piece of it," said Eagles coach Greg Monken. "We do junior evaluations, but we're not going to get early commitments.

"For a lot of guys, there's a big change between junior and senior years. You find a lot of guys like that."

Clearly Georgia Southern, not to mention Air Force and some of the smaller schools that offered Ellison, had an idea at how much better Ellison could get, but his stats were just one part of the equation.

"They're going to ask about their grades right off, not going to pursue many players who aren't succeeding," said Habersham Central coach Stuart Cunningham. "The résumé as a player is transcripts, attendance at school and game film."

College coaches say they're diligent when looking for a potential recruit.

"I think you look at the whole picture," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "We're not worried about stats as much as athletic ability, and character is also important. It's not just enough to get them here; can they function here?

"And sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder with certain players. One team may like a player that another doesn't, or one player might fit a certain system."

Ellison, running the option, would seem to be a good fit with Georgia Southern.

And Coker said that his dual-threat abilities will help him running an offense similar to Flowery Branch's spread option at North Carolina.

A combine and measurable stats for speed and strength don't generally take into account a player's familiarity with a scheme.

It's another reason why football is still one of the few high school sports where college coaches still place a tremendous value on the actual games.

"High school football is still what everybody's looking at," Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller said. "It's still how they make decisions."

The college coaches agree.

"Absolutely," Monken said. "That's where we get most of our evaluations is off of high school game tape."

The more things change

Recruiting has changed tremendously in recent years with the advent of social media and the proliferation of recruiting sites, which provide updates every step along the way in a process that can last years.

Johnson remembers seeing an online report that stated he had just had a great meeting with a potential recruit.

Only Johnson said he didn't even know the player.

"It used to be there weren't any stars," Johnson said, referring to the denotation bestowed on athletes by recruiting sites as a means of ranking the players. "It's crazy that people hang on that stuff."

During his time at Gainesville, Miller has seen a lot of the recruiting process thanks to coaching such prized recruits as A.J. Johnson and Blake Sims, both who are now on Southeastern Conference rosters.

"One of things I've had to do is get someone on the staff as a recruiting coordinator," Miller said. "Once you have a big-time prospect, it can take up the majority of your day."

The Red Elephants coach added that the changes since he started coaching have helped out recruits in ways, like getting little-known players noticed, and Shurburtt said camps and combine can be especially helpful to linemen.

But for all high school football players, one fact remains: Play well on Friday nights, and you will get noticed.

"In football," Coker said. "It's all about the game."

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