Roquan Smith never wanted to be a trailblazer, a revolutionary. He never set out to be the next Curt Flood, challenging college football’s version of baseball’s reserve clause.
All he wanted to do was play some college football.
And, by all accounts, he’ll be quite good at it. He’s a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker from Macon County High School who runs a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash. The Class AA Defensive Player of the Year, Smith’s projected as one of the top linebackers in the entire nation.
But a funny thing happened on National Signing Day, when Smith appeared live on ESPNU to announce he’d be taking his considerable talent across the country to UCLA.
The coach who recruited him since his sophomore year was moving on. Reports surfaced that Jeff Ulbrich, UCLA’s defensive coordinator and a friend of new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, was going to join his buddy in Atlanta.
Smith, already torn between UCLA and Georgia, had a problem.
“He was confused,” Larry Harold, his high school coach, told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. “Just at a loss for what had happened. We decided at that point not to sign any letter of intent or scholarship, just sit back and review his options.”
“Roquan didn’t do this… to become some trendsetter. We’re amazed at how big this story has become. It’s just an act of God, a coincidence.”
The National Letter of Intent officially binds a player to a school. It officially ends the recruiting process. But the document binds only the player, not his school of choice. The contract is so one-sided that the NLI website refuses to allow a copy of it to be printed.
It does, however, enable examination of several salient provisions. Here’s one of interest to Smith: “I understand I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or coach. If a coach leaves the institution or the sports program (e.g., not retained, resigns), I remain bound by the provisions of the NLI. I understand it is not uncommon for a coach to leave his or her coaching position.”
Not at all uncommon. Nor is deception.
Ulrich and Quinn have been friends for years. Coached together. Quinn’s hiring as the new Falcons coach had been a done deal for weeks, official announcement delayed only because Quinn coached in the Super Bowl.
Yet, the weekend before Signing Day, Super Bowl weekend, not a soul in Los Angeles mentioned a word of Ulrich’s potential departure to Smith.
Nor did anyone on the Ohio State staff mention to running back Mike Weber that coach Stan Drayton would be coaching the Chicago Bears running backs next fall. Weber told Kilgore that he felt “betrayed.”
Feeling worse was Du’Vonta Lampkin, who signed with Texas, and then learned that defensive line coach Chris Rumph was leaving for Florida. Lampkin tweeted, “I guess I was lied to in my face.”
Is this any way to begin a college career? Of course not. But Weber and Lampkin had no choice. They had already signed the NLI.
“We just went through it here,” Oklahoma center Ty Darlington told Ray Glier of the New York Times. Darlington is one of 15 student-athlete representatives who vote in the new autonomy structure the “Big Five” conferences recently adopted.
“Our D-line coach left for the Packers right after Signing Day. It is an issue to be addressed. You shouldn’t have to sit out a year. Being from Florida, and going to Oklahoma to school, I can see where parents say to a coach, ‘You are in control of my child. I know you.’ And then, the coach is gone.”
“If the coach that personally recruits you suddenly leaves a school right after a player signs, the NLI should be void,” Tom Lemming, a long-time national recruiting expert, told Glier. “That should be a rule. It is a betrayal. It is a lack of integrity by the school.”
Two schools of thought are at work here.
“Love the school, not the coach. I am a coachable player, for any coach,” Antwuan Jackson, a junior at Cedar Grove High School, told Glier.
“That’s dumb,” Smith told Glier, “for people to say you build the relationship with the school. You build the relationship with a person, and that’s what happened in my situation. People who have never been through it don’t know. I was comfortable going that far to school because of him.”
The vast majority of recruits will still need to wrap themselves in the security seemingly offered by the NLI. But what of the elite athletes? Like the 200 or so who are invited to participate in the two annual All-America bowls? Athletes for whom schools would be willing to hold scholarships.
Suppose they got together and decided that none of them would sign the NLI? Might that push the NCAA toward a more equitable agreement? One that provides athletes with insurance, medical care and a four-year scholarship commitment?
That’s where this could lead. And that would be just fine with Roquan Smith.
“Stuff happens,” he told Glier. “Things come up in recruiting. So I think the rule should be changed to protect some kids.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears weekly.