For many, those final few months are the last time they will have to be adolescents before being thrust into college life.
But for six early enrollees at Alabama and other incoming recruits around the country, those few months will be spent attending college classes, mixing with older students, enduring college football workouts and getting accustomed to life away from home.
It’s a transition Alabama coach Nick Saban said is tougher than the jump from college to professional football.
Alabama has eight incoming players enrolling early, which includes two players from junior college. For the players, it’s a matter of weighing a short-term sacrifice against a potential long-term gain.
“It’s real tough,” said Alabama signee Shaun Dion Hamilton, a linebacker from Carver High in Montgomery. “Just getting calls from my friends, missing prom and all that kind of stuff, it’s real, real tough. You just have to go big picture and know that it will all pay off.”
While the trend is certainly nothing new, it has boomed in recent years for Alabama under Saban. Including the eight early enrollees for the 2014 class, 50 players have enrolled at Alabama early since the 2008 cycle, which was Saban’s first full class at Alabama. Some came from junior college, but most from high school.
But in Saban’s first two classes (2008 and 2009), just six players came to Tuscaloosa early. Since then, at least eight players from each class have been mid-year enrollees (2010-2014).
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that when you’re a mid-year guy your transition to college is a little smoother transition because you have more time to make the transition,” Saban said.
The 2008 class had two early enrollees, and neither made a major impact on the field — place-kicker Corey Smith and receiver Chris Jackson. But Alabama has had such stars enroll early as linemen Chance Warmack and James Carpenter (2009), cornerback Dee Milliner (2010), defensive lineman Jesse Williams and defensive back Vinnie Sunseri (2011), and running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper (2012).
Last year, running back Derrick Henry and tight end O.J. Howard enrolled in January – in time to go through spring practice and offseason workouts in Tide strength coach Scott Cochran’s demanding Fourth Quarter program.
Regardless of whether a player becomes a star or a career reserve, the benefits of leaving home early seem to outweigh the negative.
“When you come in the fall, you start practice, you have school, and you have the first game, all in a month,” Saban said. “Now, our guys (who are enrolled) will be able to be here three or four weeks before we do anything at all in football. We lift weights for a couple of weeks, then we start the offseason program. Then we have spring practice, then they have a month off in May, then we go through it in the summertime in summer conditioning and then in the fall, they’re kind of going through things for the second or third time.”
Being able to get a jump on the playbook, strength and conditioning program, classes and other phases of college life and football entices players to give up those final months of high school.
“It wasn’t necessarily tough for me,” Tide signee Cam Robinson said. “I had to think about the long run, how it would benefit me when I get to college. So it wasn’t a tough decision at all.”
Robinson, a consensus choice by recruiting analysts as the nation’s top prep offensive tackle, is one of the players expected to compete for the starting left tackle job. Cyrus Kouandjio, a two-year starter, is forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
“Just getting acclimated to campus, get started, develop a relationship with my teammates early,” Robinson said. “And getting to know the campus and getting a jump start on my classes and everything. I’ll have that under my belt when the other freshmen come in.”
Tide quarterback signee David Cornwell, a four-star prospect from Oklahoma, is one of about a half-dozen players who’ll compete to replace three-year starter AJ McCarron. Cornwell is also recovering from knee surgery and has the opportunity to rehab with Alabama’s trainers while also building chemistry with teammates. He said he’s adjusting well to his new surroundings.
“It was tough. At first you’re a little homesick, but now you’re getting into it,” Cornwell said. “You realize why you’re here — getting better each day, lifting with Coach (Scott) Cochran. Relationships with the players are probably the most important thing in this whole experience, and I love every minute of it.”
Wide receiver signee Cam Sims enters an Alabama team with a crowded depth chart at wide receiver. But the extra workouts and other team activities will provide him with an opportunity to showcase his abilities to the coaching staff.
“It was real tough because you have family and friends back home, but you have to make a business decision,” Sims said. “That’s what my mom and dad always told me — it’s all about business. It lets me get classes and stuff like that over with faster.”
Still, enrolling early isn’t for every player. While Saban recognizes the benefits of being a mid-year enrollee, he said he never pushes it with any player.
“I don’t ever try to talk a guy into coming in as a mid-year guy,” Saban said. “I think you make a sacrifice to do that. You give up half your senior year. So that player has to want to do that, to me. If he wants do it, we’re fine with him doing it, but it’s not something that we go out there and encourage guys to do, but it does have its benefits in terms of transitioning into college life socially, academically and athletically.”