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Speaking facts: Gainesville football coach Heath Webb explains to his players the complexities in earning a scholarship with changes by the NCAA
With less opportunities at bigger schools, grades are just as important as good game tape
Heath Webb
Gainesville High football coach Heath Webb observes his players during Thursday's practice on the Bruce Miller Field. Photo by Bill Murphy

Gainesville High football coach Heath Webb gave a timely talk to his players Wednesday. 

He was throwing a lot of numbers at them in a hurry to make a point: it’s becoming harder, a trickle-down effect from NCAA rules changes, but not impossible to get a chance to play college football. 

Some of the numbers the fourth-year Red Elephants coach threw at them were 2,000 (the estimated number of players in the Division-I transfer portal, which allows for one-time moves at the FBS level), 15,000 (the approximate number of yearly prospects who receive letters from any given school), 25 (a rough estimate of scholarships available for new players at Division-I or Division-II programs), 6.5% (amount of high school players who go on to play in college) and 3.0 (a nice round number to show a player who is in good standing academically). 

Gainesville’s coach felt like it was important for his players to know the facts. 

It’s a message that has gained traction throughout Hall County, even though every school has varying levels of talent and players who are good enough to suit up in college. 

The squeeze has been further put on players with the extra year of eligibility granted to players, due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, the bigger schools are more apt to fill available spaces with players who are eligible in the transfer portal, and already have a few years of college experience under their belts, as opposed to a player who only recently crossed the stage for his high school diploma. 

NIL (Name, image and likeness) endorsement opportunities for players, that went into effect July 1, will likely keep more players in college longer and further diminish premier scholarship opportunities.

“The changes in the recruiting rules have made it harder for the high school game,” said West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery, who played at Division-1 Bowling Green State in Bowling Green, Ohio. “Twenty years ago, for example, schools relied more on the relationships with the high school coach. Now, kids are training combines, weight room and 40-yard dash times.”

Now, more than ever, academics can be the determining factor as to how many options players have at the next level. 

With the diminished demand for new college players, Gainesville’s coach wants his players to be proactive in getting their name out there to school and never burn bridges with a college coach who is expressing interest. 

Plus, the recruiting process starts so early, many players know early what kind of opportunities are on the table. 

“Now kids know in the eighth or ninth grade if they’re going to be recruited by a Division-I program,” said Flowery Branch coach Ben Hall, who played at Furman University. “If coaches see an eighth grader who blocks out the sun, he’s going to be recruited.”

Webb didn’t give the talk to scare players. 

Quite the opposite. 

He wanted his players to be aware of the harsh realities that come with getting lined up to play in college. 

It is, in almost every sense, a meat market.

The Red Elephants coach used his own background to get his players’ attention and how playing football can be the great equalizer. 

Webb said he was never the best student, but did whatever it took to remain eligible to play at Presbyterian College, a private school in Clinton, S.C.

Average tuition runs about $40,000 annually to Presbyterian. But because of football and other scholarships, Webb said he came away with a college diploma and only $9,000 in the hole.

“We can use football to get where we want in life,” said Webb, who has sent three linemen (Jordan Williams, Makius Scott and Ced Nicely) to Division-I programs since 2020. 

Gainesville’s coach plainly breaks it down for his players when contacted by a college football program: make sure to follow up. 

Now, more than ever, schools will first look at a players grades before evaluating game tape. 

The high school coach still has a lot of say in which players on his team should be worth recruiting, Webb said. 

His message came with a ‘Silver Lining.’

These days, players have more opportunities to earn a scholarship to play at a smaller school. 

The Netflix hit ‘Last Chance U’ highlighted the divergent paths of former Division-I standouts, who through bad decisions or had academic troubles, were forced to find an off-the-radar school to play, in order to keep the dream alive. 

Webb said that Kansas, home to Season 3 and 4 at Independence Community College ‘Last Chance U’ is the true hotbed for these opportunities. Those schools have available money for scholarships and not bound to limits on signing out-of-state players.

Despite the stories told on the show, players are able to go on full scholarship, the Red Elephants’ coach said. 

Recent Gainesville High graduate Gionni Williams, a quarterback, went this same route and will play in 2021 at Garden City Community College in Kansas. 

It’s one of many paths a player can take to keep a college education through football. 

Webb wanted his players to be aware it is vitally important to keep their options open and grades in good standing. 

If so, playing college football for talented athletes is still very possible. 

It’s now just a more complex web of having good grades, displaying tremendous football talent and being proactive in the recruiting process. 

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