Sideline Scene: Local standouts navigated chaotic road to Signing Day -- Observer Preps
When the college football coaching landscape changes, high school athletes are sometimes left in limbo — an experience Ocoee's Dorian Jones and Dr. Phillips' D.J. Charles encountered and overcame.
| 4:30 p.m. February 14, 2017
As call after call went unreturned, the reality of the situation Dorian Jones faced set in.
Jones, a senior defensive back at Ocoee High, originally committed to Georgia State in June 2016. And — for five months — nothing about that was in question as Jones helped lead the Knights to the program’s first district championship.
Then, on Nov. 13 — just two days after Ocoee’s season ended — the head coach at Georgia State was fired. With that move, Jones’ future was plunged into uncertainty. He was still committed to Georgia State, sure, but commitments and scholarship offers have little real value until a National Letter of Intent is signed and faxed to a school.
A few weeks later, Shawn Elliot was hired to coach the program at Georgia State, and Jones at least figured he would be able to learn whether he still had a home as a college football player.
But phone calls to Elliot and the new staff largely went unanswered.
“It was a real stressful time — it almost makes you feel worthless in a way,” Jones said.
The situation wasn't unique to Jones, either.
As college football fans, we so often watch the coaching carousel that the sport invites with great interest: Who's on the hot seat? Who's the leading candidate for that job?
What’s lost in all of it is that, with every hire and fire, the futures of real kids are thrown into limbo. It happened to a number local kids this past recruiting season, including Jones and Dr. Phillips’ standout D.J. Charles.
Charles, a member of the Panthers’ vaunted Class of 2017, committed to Florida Atlantic in October and, for three months, that was what it was. But, the plan for Charles began to unravel. First, Charlie Partridge was fired as the head coach at FAU in late November. Then, Lane Kiffin was announced as the new head coach for the Owls in mid-December.
At first, it appeared Charles may still have a home with the new staff. The assistant that had recruited him was kept around, but only for a time. When he, too, was let go, the communication went silent — and Charles, who thought he had had his next step figured out, was suddenly in the cold.
“I felt kind of bad … kind of down,” Charles said. “I was kind of shocked, like, ‘I’m not going to sign on Signing Day.’”
“Especially for a guy like Dorian, who does all the right things and works super hard, (you have to tell him), ‘It’s not your fault’ — it’s part of college football.'"
— Ben Bullock, Ocoee football coach
Lost amid all the hoopla of National Signing Day is the reality that there is not a ton of accountability. That goes for the high-school athletes, who sometimes are prone to change their verbal commitment with the changing wind direction, as well as the coaches, who may over-recruit a position, take a new job or be fired — all circumstances that could lead to a player no longer having a place to play.
For Jones, when he finally realized Georgia State was no longer an option, he encountered another problem that doesn’t get much press. Many of the schools that had shown interest in him or offered him a scholarship earlier in the recruiting process were, at that point, out of spots.
“Spots fill up, people start committing and you don’t have a spot anymore from schools that you had offers from,” Jones said. “You kind of get tossed up in the air.”
Such uncertainty can be a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a high-school senior.
“Especially for a guy like Dorian, who does all the right things and works super hard, (you have to tell him), ‘It’s not your fault’ — it’s part of college football,’” Ocoee head coach Ben Bullock said.
Jones said he relied on his family and his faith during the chaotic weeks of uncertainty.
“When God closes one door, He opens another one, so my dad (Bruce Jones) just told me to keep my head up and stay open to everything,” Jones said.
The same thing went for Charles and another teammate of his, Emare Hogan — a former USF commit whose uncertainty stemmed from former coach Willie Taggert leaving for Oregon, with the opening eventually being filled by Charlie Strong.
When athletes find themselves on the market late in the game, relationships can matter as much as times in the 40-yard dash. That’s where having a coach such as Bullock or Dr. Phillips head coach Rodney Wells can help.
“I teach my kids that everything is about relationships,” Wells said.
Those relationships come in handy when trying to scramble to find a home for a talented football player, with phone calls and tape being being sent out by the minute.
“It’s extremely hectic, but the good thing that we have at Dr. Phillips is a good reputation of our players being successful at the next level,” Wells said. “So when it got out that these guys didn’t have a home where they were originally supposed to go, a lot of colleges came in.”
“It’s extremely hectic, but the good thing that we have at Dr. Phillips is a good reputation of our players being successful at the next level. So when it got out that these guys didn’t have a home where they were originally supposed to go, a lot of colleges came in.”
— Rodney Wells, Dr. Phillips football coach
When athletes such as Charles and Jones suddenly become available late in the game, coaches will shop them around — often to programs who had not previously recruited him and are unfamiliar with him. At that point, trust in the coach advocating for the kid can weight heavily on a college recruiter.
“That’s a big reason why you always want make sure to be honest with a college coach, so they believe your evaluation,” Bullock said.
As it turns out, the seed for Jones’ eventual college football home — Campbell University (N.C.), where he signed Feb. 1 — was planted on a visit that had nothing to do with him. Staff for Campbell was on campus to see another Knight, but with the Georgia State situation in limbo at the time, Bullock figured he would at least introduce Jones to the recruiter.
Later, as Jones’ new options came into view, he recalled his positive meeting and chose Campbell as one of his official visits in the final days leading up to National Signing Day. Once he arrived on the campus in North Carolina, he was sold.
“The players made me feel like I was part of the brotherhood as soon as I got there,” Jones said. “Once I got to see the academic side of the school … everything they were showing me kind of fit.”
Thanks to lobbying by Wells and others, Charles and Hogan went from being out in the cold to once again having their pick of suitors before each signed a National Letter of Intent Feb. 1 on Signing Day. Hogan chose Southern Illinois, a place where former Panthers such as Daquan Isom and Deionte Gaines have had success. Charles chose Campbell, joining Jones and Foundation Academy’s Lester Axson.
Now, the three West Orange-area standouts have a group chat going and are excited about the next step of their careers.
For Jones, the feeling of faxing his NLI made the whole process worth it.
“It was the monkey off your back; it was a big sigh of relief,” Jones said. “(During the process) things went up, things went down, things went kind of stale for a minute. I’m glad it’s over. I found my home, and now I get to go play college football.”