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The Zone: East Texas football players in high demand

By Hayden Henry
Aug. 23, 2014 at 11 p.m.

East Texas has long been a hotbed for college football recruiting. It's a relationship that dates back decades. It's a relationship and landscape that's dramatically changed for both the high-profile recruits and their high school coaches.

<strong>A single piece of mail started it all</strong>

"It was the little camp packet that I got directly from a coach. It was definitely a cool moment and one I'll always remember."

A simple beginning that ends with Daylon Mack in the national spotlight. The letters still arrive. The phone still buzzes. The trips span from coast to coast.

All of which are earned from a prowess on the field that led to that first piece of mail.

It can be demanding at times, he admits. But it's something he's enjoyed since his coach handed him that letter with his hand-written name inscribed on the outside.

"It's been a lot of fun overall," said Mack, who has given a verbal pledge to Texas A&M. "It's nerve racking at times and overwhelming at times too but as I've been through it, I've learned how to handle it.

"It's been a good process."

It comes with the territory these days when an athlete has reached the heights of a blue chip recruit.

Longview's JaMycal Hasty - a Baylor verbal pledge - agrees.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience," Hasty said. "I take it all in. It's all exciting."

It all begins with the talent, something the duo and countless others throughout East Texas possess. The simple letter symbolizes what is to come. It turns to a phone call then to a visit. For some, the official offer arrives and the race begins, the finish line being a scholarship with a football powerhouse.

East Texas and college football recruiting go hand-in-hand. The number of athletes that advance to the next level is a staggering figure. Year in and year out, countless athletes rise to new heights, propelling themselves into the spotlight and 2014 is set to add to that storied list of East Texans representing at the next level.

From Gladewater to Sulphur Springs, from Nacogdoches to Carthage, area athletes are in high demand.

The recruiting process has turned into a phenomenon rivaling the actual games played on Friday nights across the state.

"People always say 'You must get a thousand phone calls a day' and I do but it's a once in a lifetime experience and one you'll miss sometimes," Mack said. "There isn't a part that I don't like."

Soon they will all leave their high school fields where the skills have been cultivated to reach such heights.

But before that happens, there's one more year for East Texas football fans to revel in the talents these athletes possess before they're thrust deeper into the national spotlight.

"Last year, we had people around town saying that when we beat Gainesville it was one of the finest hours in Gladewater history," Mack said. "The atmosphere is great and we feel like we have the chance to do something that hasn't been done in a lone time."

Marshall's Chet Munden, a North Texas pledge, agrees.

"It makes me want to go work even harder. This is just extra motivation," the offensive lineman said. "It's my senior year, the last time to put on that Mavericks helmet. I'm ready to go out and have the best time of my life. I'm ready for it."

<strong>Process that's changed</strong>

They return to the fields that sparked that letter, that interest and began the recruiting process, something of which has dramatically changed over the past few years.

"I couldn't imagine dealing with it like they are," John Tyler head coach Ricklan Holmes said. "When I was getting recruiting attention, Dave Campbell's magazine was the big deal. If you were in that magazine, you were one of those top guys.

"It's always been a big deal, but these days, it's huge."

It's comes with the territory in being recruited in the digital age.

"The biggest difference in recruiting is social media. It's Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so many websites," Gilmer head coach Jeff Traylor said. "Used to, you were dealing with a few newspapers. These days, you're dealing with so many recruiting websites, sports websites and even colleges have such access to you.

"We all want national recruits because that means you've got great teams but at the same time, you're taking on a whole other monster because it's non-stop what these kids have to do."

Area coaches echoed the sentiment that social media has dramatically changed the landscape of recruiting.

"Social media is what's really exploded with the exposure these kids get across those networks," Kilgore head coach Mike Wood said. "There's so much more contact with these kids these days."

It's a double-edged sword in that regard. The big three of social media provides that exposure, which can be a positive for an athlete looking to put his name on the map when they could otherwise fall through the cracks.

"A lot of kids are getting noticed because of Twitter," Holmes said. "They can post pictures on themselves in games, stats from their season or link HUDL accounts to their page. It makes them accessible to schools across the country."

Stories emerge every day about the negativity that stems from social media. Penn State offensive line coach Herb Hand was the most recent collegiate coach to come out saying that a potential recruit's social media presence removed him from the list.

Hand tweeted on July 30: 'Dropped another prospect this AM due to his social media presence…Actually glad I got to see the 'real' person before we offered him.'

It's a recurring theme in today's recruiting news cycle. One click and the message is out for the world to see.

"Every move they make is exposed," Wood said. "We've talked to our kids about what they do and say on the Internet – the stuff is worldwide, it's not just their friends seeing it.

"They may not know you personally and they may form an opinion on you on what you put out there."

Like most high school seniors, Mack and Hasty have a social media presence and both said they are conscience of what they say before they click send.

"I like using Twitter – I find out everything on there and if you use it for what it's there for, then it can be a great resource," Hasty said. "I definitely think about what I tweet. It's all on you on Twitter. Everything you do is looked at so you have to be careful about things like that."

Mack added: "It's a big part of the process more than it was in the past. A lot of people watch that thing. I'm not the type of guy that tweets anything negative or use profanity. I see some people doing that but I'm not that type of guy. I'm usually replying to a friend, commenting on something – like a new Derek Jeter commercial or something like that."

There's positives and negatives and an added responsibility to the life of a 17- or 18-year-old recruit.

"The way the NCAA has set up the way coaches can communicate with them through Facebook or Twitter, it's like they are their own agents in a little way," Holmes said. "It makes the whole recruiting area much bigger than it already is with the different avenues that that are allowed to communicate"

It's prompted area coaches to become proactive when it comes to how their player portrays themselves via the Internet.

"I knew all my kids would follow me and most of my tweets are to my kids – just another way of being able to reach them," Traylor said. "I get to follow them and make sure they're not talking dirty, posting dirty pictures and I'll get on them about their accounts."

The NCAA permits college coaches to contact recruits through the inbox on Facebook or direct messages on Twitter, which has removed high school coaches from the equation in some way.

"What I see more of is that high school coaches are not in the mix as much anymore. There's recruiters that show up unannounced that have already been in contact with a kid," Longview head coach John King said. "There's scholarship offers that I used to get a direct call from a head coach about and now sometimes I find out through word of mouth. On the other hand, there's some that continue to do it the right way and keep everyone in the loop. Those are the guys that have winning programs."

"That's the biggest thing that's changed is that not all of that comes through this office anymore," Wood added.

<strong>Too much, too fast, too soon</strong>

While social media has indeed changed the landscape, another big change to area coaches is the amount of combines and camps that have arisen, where athletes are competing in an arena where test scores are the driving factor.

"They're running combines for kids as young as 10, maybe even younger," King said. "Some of these kids haven't even hit puberty yet and they're getting a 'national ranking' and I think that's bad for amateur athletics. Of course, they want to be a great football player and keep working on their skills but kids develop at different rates. I think it's too much, too fast, too soon."

King used former Lobo standout Travin Howard, a four-sport letterman at Longview, as an example.

"You've got kids like Travin that get under recruited because he may have got seen as a running back earlier in his career and not at safety where his skills grew and now has a chance to be a top defensive back at TCU," he said. "Here's a kid that's a four-sport athlete at the time. He's not going to combines every week, he's doing things for his high school and got missed by some potential programs. I think it takes away the purity of the sport. The whole thing smells to me."

Traylor is leery about letting his players attend combines and camps, saying that it adds a potentially dangerous aspect to an athlete's already heavy workload.

"I don't allow my kids to do much testing when they go to all these camps, these combines and everything," he said. "They're doing a 40, a vertical jump, pro agility drills – all these things that are dangerous because of the explosiveness. They're working out for me, doing 7-on-7 and now all these camps. You've got to be careful because they can quickly get overworked and that's why we don't allow them to test. It's great to compete but when they're going out there every day, every week and running, exploding and trying to compete for the best 'score,' it can get dangerous."

Through everything that the recruiting process entails in this day and age, it has forced athletes to grow up and handle major decisions and major exposure while being a high school student. It's created a rock star persona for some.

"First and foremost is that they're offering kids earlier and earlier just trying to be the first ones in – to wine and dine them so to say and baby them the longest," Carthage head coach Scott Surratt said. "I think it takes the whole luster off the process. I wish they couldn't commit until signing day."

That leads to verbal commitments and then decommittments, something that is becoming more and more common.

"Commitment doesn't mean anything any more other than your name may come across the bottom of ESPN or on some website then it's right back on there when you decommit and have decided to go somewhere else," King said. "I'm not sure some of these kids are mature enough to know what a commitment is."

A chance to play at the next level is the dream of every athlete that steps onto a football field. The first chance to do that can lead to a premature decision when the player doesn't weigh all of the options.

"I've heard some coaches talking about adding an early signing day and I'm not in favor of that," King said. "They're asking a kid in high school to make a big, tough decision too fast.

"Some of these kids get awestruck about getting an offer from a big time coach. They see these guys on TV and the next thing you know, they're sitting in this man's office and they're told they've got a scholarship offer for two guys and they've got one spot. What are you going to do? A lot of people jump and commit and they're really not sure. It's starting to choke itself out."

Then the process ends. National Signing Day has passed. High school graduation has come and gone. The fanfare is over. Once a big fish in a small pond, the table is suddenly turned.

"Some of these kids get pampered so much by all of this – recruiters, unofficial visits, official visits – you name it and then all of a sudden, they're saying they're getting treated differently," King said. "Sooner or later, that honeymoon is over and that coach is going to light into you and you're not getting all this attention like you were. That time to put up or shut up is coming fast.

"However many years of the recruiting process is over and you go from not being told no to being told no in the biggest way."

While they all admit that the process has changed in a big way for a slew of different reasons, area coaches agree that the process, whether or not they agree with every aspect of it, is one that is a dream come true.

"It's such an exciting time and I don't mean to sound like a Debby downer about it all because it's what they all dream about," Traylor said. "It's just a lot to deal with."

"It's a process and it's all about how well they handle it," Holmes added. "We're here to help."

A single piece of mail remains the tipping point.

A chance at a future of playing a sport they all love. Soon, they'll leave East Texas for bigger and better things but with the high school season kicking off, it's about home. Soon it'll be about the Aggies, Longhorns and Bears but for the next several months they are still high school kids.

"It's 100 percent Mavericks football," Munden said. "After the season, it's North Texas but now it's about the Marshall Mavericks."

<em>(Follow Hayden Henry on Twitter: <a href="https://twitter.com/hayden_h" target="_blank">@hayden_h</a>)</em>



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