Recruiting is an inexact science, a reality that was graphically illustrated on national television during Monday’s college football national championship game.
Amid all the former five-star prospects that dotted the rosters of both teams, it was Hunter Renfrow — a former walkon who didn’t receive a single Division I offer out of high school — that scored the game-winning touchdown with one second remaining to give Clemson its 35-31 win against Alabama.
East Carolina has also had its share of diamonds-in-the-rough, most recently with the record-setting pass-catch duo of quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy.
This isn’t to suggest that all preferred walkons turn out to be breakthrough stars, just as all five-star prospects aren’t proven to be overvalued. But rather, you just never know how players will pan out until they get out onto the field and start performing.
That’s why the winners and losers of national signing day can’t truly be determined until at least two to three years after the players actually arrive on campus. So the book is still out on the quality of the recruiting class Pirate coach Scottie Montgomery is currently putting together.
That having been said, the work put in by Montgomery and his staff can already be deemed a success in one important area.
By bringing a school-record 11 early enrollees at the start of the spring semester, the Pirates’ coaches have not only protected some of their top recruits from being poached by other schools in advance of signing day — a growing practice in college football these days — but they’ve also given themselves a head start in evaluating the readiness of those players to make an immediate contribution.
Players that enroll early and start school in January are eligible to participate in spring practice. That could be a major benefit in helping ECU add reinforcements to position groups that are in the greatest need of help, as cornerback Colby Gore did a year ago.
Chief among those areas of need is the pass rush, where highly-touted junior college transfer Tyree Owens — a former West Virginia signee and Texas A&M commit — three-star freshman defensive end Taijh Alston and outside linebacker Ben Norris will all get the chance to learn the ropes and adjust to their new surroundings well in advance of preseason camp.
At quarterback, three-star prospect Kingsley Ifedi could put himself in a position to challenge semi-incumbent Gardner Minshew and redshirt freshman Reid Herring for the starting job next fall depending on his grasp of the playbook and his adjustment to the speed of the college game.
The other early enrollees are three-star wide receiver Leroy Henley of Deerfield Beach, FL, the highest-rated freshman in this year’s class, fellow three-star receiver Jayden Borders of Shelby and offensive tackle Matt Morgan of Wendell, along with JUCO transfers Cannon Gibbs (inside linebacker), Marcus Holton (cornerback), Dqmarcus Shaw (offensive tackle) and Eric Weber (tight end).
There is, of course, a downside to the mid-year addition of players to the college roster. By leaving high school a semester early, the newly minted players miss out on senior perks such as the prom, graduation and in some cases, basketball or baseball season. At the same time, though, they get an opportunity to start accumulating academic credits and getting used to the rigors of college classes without the pressure of juggling games and practice.
There’s no guarantee that any of those players will be ready to make an impact in 2017 or at any other point in their ECU careers since as we’ve already ascertained, recruiting is an inexact science and each player develops at his own pace.
But by bringing in such a large number of early enrolling recruits, Montgomery has at least given himself and his staff a better chance of speeding up the rebuilding process and returning the Pirates to their winning ways.
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