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Three of the region's biggest players have been recruited heavily by some of the top major college programs.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
“The day I committed I think I got 2,000 Twitter followers. Fans are very passionate.” -- Fort Chiswell’s Coleman Thomas, committed to Tennessee
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
“Football won’t last forever. There will always be the one last time you put your pads on.” -- Rockbridge County junior Austin Clark
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
“It’s awesome to have that attention, but at the same time it’s hard to stay focused and humble.” -- Northside junior Chance Hall
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Like many high school students at the end of an academic year, Coleman Thomas grabbed a couple of buddies in June and headed to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
As they strolled one day on the Grand Strand, the Fort Chiswell teens were suddenly stopped by a group of strangers.
The group approached Thomas and wanted to chat, maybe snap a few pictures.
"Me? You want to talk to me? You know me?" he thought.
Strange, right? A group of vacationers from western North Carolina recognizing a kid from Max Meadows, Va.?
You see, Thomas is not like many high school students.
Three months earlier, the 6-foot-6, 295-pound Fort Chiswell High junior had given a commitment to join the football program at the University of Tennessee.
The people on the beach were University of Tennessee football season ticket holders. Thomas - wearing orange swim trunks, a Tennessee T-shirt and a UT hat - was an easy mark.
Of course, Thomas was not really surprised.
When he announced March 9 that he had chosen Tennessee over seven other major college programs including Virginia Tech, Virginia and West Virginia, the 17-year-old offensive lineman knew he was being followed.
In the modern-day sense of the word.
"The day I committed I think I got 2,000 Twitter followers," Thomas said. "Fans are very passionate."
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Three players from Timesland schools already have been thrown into the recruiting maelstrom with full scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision - formerly called Division I-A - programs.
All three are offensive linemen.
Thomas has committed to Tennessee. Rockbridge County 6-foot-6, 280-pound junior Austin Clark has seven offers. Northside's 6-foot-5, 298-pound Chance Hall has three offers including one he received in December from Maryland.
Their world already has changed.
Do an Internet search on just about any player who has received recruiting interest from and FBS or FCS school.
He will have a recruiting profile, complete with ratings from one of several national scouting services. There might be video, photos, a list of colleges and the player's level of interest.
High school coaches can use a service called "Hudl," where highlight videos of any player can be uploaded.
Hall heard from Maryland shortly after his sophomore season concluded. He understands that the microscope he is under is only magnifying.
"It's gotten pretty big," Hall said. "A lot of reporters are calling me. I like the attention, but I'm not big into the Twitter stuff.
"I was really surprised. I was just shocked that they offered me early."
Clark also has experienced a measure of fame.
"Just in our scrimmage the other night, I had some players and fans from other teams saying, 'Hey, I know you,' " the Rockbridge County standout said. "That was pretty cool."
Thomas' father, Richie, received a full scholarship from Liberty Baptist - now called Liberty University - after he graduated from Patrick Henry-Glade Spring High in 1984.
As a 6-foot-4, 260-pound offensive lineman, he had no recruiting profile online.
There was no "online."
"Everything has changed to the point where everybody knows who you are now because of the Internet," the elder Thomas said.
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Galax head coach Mark Dixon wishes he could have grown up in the social media age.
When Dixon was a hot recruit out of Ragsdale High in Jamestown, N.C., in 1989, the NCAA did not have limitations on telephone calls from college coaches to high school players.
College coaches are now allowed to personally call a prospect once a week beginning Sept. 1 of the player's senior year.
"You would get driven nuts with the phone ringing all day and night," said Dixon, who became an All-American at Virginia and played in the NFL for Miami. "If it started early enough, by the time you were a senior the phone rings and it just sends shrills down your back.
"You're tired of talking to old men. You're 17, 18 years old. They don't know you but they act like they do. I'd have felt more comfortable if I could have just Facebooked them back.
"If a kid can handle it right, he's better off today."
Richie Thomas, who is the human resources director for the Wythe County school system, said he expects some phone calls from other colleges this fall even though Coleman has committed to Tennessee and plans to enroll in college in January.
"I imagine some of them will call because they still can," he said. "Auburn has been really hard here lately, sending messages. I can say this, they're all legal with their recruiting. They don't call, but that doesn't stop the mail. The mail still rolls every day. Auburn's still hammering. They're still inundating with mail.
"I've kept all of it for him. I'm sure he'll appreciate it one day that Notre Dame and Alabama sent mail. A lot of it's been personalized. Last week he got nine letters from [Tennessee] coaches.
"There are just a couple negatives. There were a couple of people I didn't think we'd hear from that were like, 'We thought you liked us,' or 'You played us.' I won't identify any of them, but that was disappointing that some would be so negative."
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Today's recruits must be hungry, and not just because they weigh nearly 300 pounds.
The proliferation of one-day tryout camps on college campuses across the country affords high school players even more exposure, essentially serving as tryouts.
Northside coach Burt Torrence said he spent much of the summer hauling his players back and forth to one-day camps throughout the Southeast. It paid off for senior lineman DeAnthony Muse, who earned a scholarship offer from Richmond and committed to the Spiders.
"Coaches really want to see your level of commitment," Torrence said. The way you show that is by attending one of their one-day camps. That gives them a chance to see how hard you go. They get you on their clock running a 40.
"If you're a I-AA kid, you're going to have to be on their campus. You've got to get out there and be seen."
Clark said he experienced the same feeling when he attended a one-day camp at Tennessee.
"When I went to the Tennessee camp, they didn't even know about me," Clark said. "It was the first time they'd ever heard of me."
Clark has offers now from Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Penn State, Virginia Tech and Maryland.
Hall said the pressure to perform in front of college coaches - often alongside other elite athletes - can be daunting.
"I feel a lot of pressure when I go to them, but if you want to succeed in life, you have to go through pressure," Hall said. "Sometimes I feel like pressure just makes me better."
One-day camps were not in vogue when Dixon was in high school.
"I went to prospect camps after I was already recruited," Dixon said. "You were invited to those. You didn't go to all these camps trying to get recruited.
"It's tough on parents. I think the expectations get blown out of proportion on what these services can provide you. If you can play, they'll find you."
Torrence believes players must market themselves.
"The University of Michigan is coming down here to see Chance," Torrence said. "That would have never happened without the use of Hudl and these one-day camps."
Thomas received his first scholarship offer on the spot from West Virginia after attending the Mountaineers' one-day camp under the watchful eye of head coach Dana Holgorsen.
Others soon knocked on Fort Chiswell coach Stephen James' door.
"I took him to WVU for a one-day camp," Richie Thomas said. "They offered him right then and there. He went to the Tech camp and Tech offered him eventually after the camp.
"Some people looked at the tape and just offered him blind off the tape. Maryland had never laid eyes on him and they came by and told Stephen, 'We just want to get in on the sweepstakes.' "
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Torrence won't forget the day Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer walked down the hallway at Northside when the Hokies were recruiting two-way end Dakota Jackson.
"Frank Beamer came in here after Dakota verbally committed and you would have thought Elvis was in the building," Torrence said.
To date, the three Timesland recruits say the recruiting experience has not gone to their heads.
Richie Thomas hopes he has prepared his son for the attention and adulation that comes with being a high-profile recruit.
"They're telling you you're great, but I don't think it's affected him in a negative way," he said.
Hall recognizes a danger in being treated like royalty as a teenager.
"It's awesome to have that attention, but at the same time it's hard to stay focused and humble," the Northside junior said.
In picking a school, all three Timesland recruits said there is often one overlooked part of the recruiting process - school.
"Football won't last forever," Clark said. "There will always be the one last time you put your pads on."
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