Recruiting in college football is a game, but the playing field isn't exactly level. It's a game played between teenagers (the recruits) and grown adults (the coaches), with one side getting to play the game year-after-year and the other watching from the sidelines until they get their one shot to decide their own future. But the balance of power isn't level either -- and that's a good thing for top recruits, provided they know how to wield it.
Denver Kirkland is a top recruit. He is maybe not an elite recruit, but he has a handful of offers from major conference schools that compete in most years for a Top 25 ranking, making him part of a small group of high schoolers. Last night, of course, Kirkland had his scholarship offer to Miami pulled after he refused to tell Miami coaches that he would be a Hurricane. It is being painted as a tragedy by his coach Ice Harris, but as many people have pointed out, if Kirkland truly wanted to be a Hurricane, he could have said so yesterday. What it was instead was a pure power play by Miami's coaches in an effort to force Kirkland's hand, and Kirkland's undoing was not realizing that he still held all the power and leverage anyway.
Power and leverage is simply what recruiting boils down to. The coaches have some power -- they're offering scholarships -- but recruits at a certain level have more of it -- they're the talent. The key for recruits is judging their talent and recognizing how much power and leverage that affords them. Certain players have so much talent, and thus so much leverage, that they can wait until Singing Day -- or, hell, past Signing Day -- to choose where they want to play football. Others do not -- but they still have some power, too.
Coaches need security in recruiting -- even if they're leaving spots open down to the wire, they need to at least know that a certain number of players are guaranteed to be in a class. That's where that second group of players -- the ones that can't take their own recruiting down to the wire -- comes in. Let's use Alex Gall as an example from Miami's 2013 class. Gall is a solid prospect with a solid offer list, but he's not a player with enough talent to take a school like Miami down to the wire. If Gall remained uncommitted until today, it's safe to assume that Miami would have long ago found another offensive lineman to take his spot. Gall, of couse, recognized this early in the process and jumped on the Miami offer, securing his spot. That power Gall had was giving Al Golden security, and he used it.
Kirkland, in Miami's eyes, lied somewhere in the middle of those two groups. He was a prospect whose decision they could wait until Signing Day to hear -- until he wasn't. Kirkland sees himself as a pure Signing Day recruit (like his teammate and friend Matthew Thomas), and that lead to him making a fatal mistake: he told Miami that they would have to wait. What Kirkland failed to realize is that with a handful of days left in the recruiting cycle, he holds the leverage. If he wanted to keep Miami as an open option, he should have just told Michael Barrow that he was in the class, even if Miami made him say so publicly. It still would have allowed him to choose whichever school he wanted on Signing Day, even if that school wasn't Miami.
There would be some downside to that for Kirkland, namely whatever scorn he would have felt from Canes fans. But, on the other hand, the media celebrates kids that make "shocking" Signing Day switches, and he would have been held up in celebration by whichever new school he chose. And if he did end up sticking with Miami, then he would have had his spot secured and no one would have known that he was wavering. If he truly wanted to keep Miami on the table, then he screwed up by not just saying "yes," even if it was a purely false answer.
But once we recognize that dynamic, we have to ask ourselves the following question: Should we expect teenagers to process all this information, and then out-fox a bunch of grown adult professionals? Some kids have stable family situations, with people close to them in their lives that can provide solid advice. Others lean on their high school coaches -- men that look out for them, but also have their own set of priorities at play. It's a question I don't know the answer to.
It seems like Denver Kirkland understood the game, and by telling Miami's coaches that the school was merely in his top three, he hit when instead he should have stood. But what makes the situation so interesting is that we'll likely never really know what Kirkland -- a teenager -- was thinking. And that's why we follow recruiting.