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Somewhere within the crowd of 18,000 people, Connor Shaw eagerly awaited the buzzer that finalized the University of South Carolina’s 68-62 upset win over then No. 1 Kentucky on Jan. 26 at the Colonial Life Arena.
And when the horn went off, he knew just what to do: storm the court with the rest of his peers.
“That was insane,” Shaw said. “People everywhere were just rushing the court.”
Those people — primarily students — cost the school $25,000 because storming the court is against Southeastern Conference rules, which Shaw thought was bogus.
“That was a historic win against the No. 1 team in the nation,” he said.
And to think, he would have never seen it live had he not enrolled early.
With a desire to get a jumpstart on his college football career, Shaw decided to graduate early from Flowery Branch High and enroll at the University of South Carolina.
Early enrollment is a growing trend among high school football players, and according to Rivals.com, around 150 student-athletes have chosen to head off to college before their peers.
Among those 150, are 13 from the state of Georgia, including Shaw, Gainesville High’s Tai-ler Jones (Notre Dame), and Buford High’s Jessel Curry (Auburn) and Kolton Houston (Georgia).
“I’m actually enjoying it,” said Shaw, whose been at South Carolina for four weeks. “It’s going great and I’m getting a routine in.”
And what a taxing routine it is. Shaw heads to the weightroom at 6 a.m. and is in class until noon. Afternoon workouts begin at 3 p.m. every day and are followed by a mandatory dinner at 5 p.m. and study hall at 7 p.m.
It’s hard to imagine how he found the time to attend a basketball game.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came here,” Shaw said referring to the structured schedule. “I can’t ask for a better opportunity than the situation I’m in.”
Although Shaw said enrolling early was “the best decision,” one college coach believes that it takes a certain level of mental fortitude to make that choice.
“It’s very much an individual matter,” Georgia State coach Bill Curry said. “There are very few young people that are mature enough at 17 or 18 to skip the last months of their senior year without suffering homesickness and regret missing out on prom and graduation.”
But that’s the price you pay to get a headstart on the learning curve.
“Being able to participate in spring practice and the offseason program is a tremendous advantage if you’re going to play,” Curry said. “It’s a big advantage over the other freshmen.”
That edge comes in the weightroom, classroom or dorm room studying the playbook, and according to Curry, that advantage isn’t worth it.
“Selfishly it might be an advantage,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
To prove his point, Curry told a story of how he once had an athlete approach him about enrolling early. This player was “very mature” and ready to begin his college career, yet Curry discouraged that decision.
“I just looked at him and asked if he was sure he wanted to miss prom and skip graduation,” Curry said.
That player didn’t, and chose to return to high school and graduate with his classmates.
Shaw, Jones, Curry and Houston went the other route, and bypassed their final days in the hallways of their respective high schools. More than likely, the foursome got the same message that Gainesville coach Bruce Miller gives to any of his players that ask about enrolling early.
“I just tell them if they’ve done everything they want, then to go ahead and enroll,” Miller said. “But they have to understand that they’re taking a chance of being there for a year and a half without even playing.”
How many snaps, if any, those four play in their first year is yet to be determined, but Shaw said that South Carolina hasn’t mentioned anything about redshirting.
“They want me to come in and compete,” Shaw said. “Hopefully, I’ll do my best.”
Jones could also see some playing time as a freshman, since he’s playing for a new coach and in an offensive system that he is familiar with. Due to academic responsibilities, the former Gainesville wide receiver was unavailable for comment according to Brian Harden, director of football media relations at Notre Dame.
Miller recently spoke with Jones and said he’s gained nine pounds and is adjusting well to the college life.
“Programs that have those types of resources will surround them with plenty of support,” Curry said. “I imagine that those guys that qualify for early enrollment are mature.”
While Curry couldn’t comment specifically on Jones and Shaw due to NCAA restrictions, he did state that he does not like early enrollment.
“I think at some point, a kid should be allowed to be a kid,” he said. “I think this trend will be a lot like the other things in this country where kids see other kids doing things and they’ll want to imitate it.
“It’s going to be good for some kids, but not everyone.”
Even Shaw knows that, and he said that he would tell prospective early enrollees to “consider it and look into it,” before making that big decision.
“I don’t regret my decision one bit,” Shaw said. “I’m loving every minute of it.”