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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC coach Rusty Wright, who has been in charge of his alma mater's football program since December 2018, has learned that having athletes take a careful approach to making recruiting announcements on social media can keep higher-level schools from poaching prospects before signing day.

In a Jan. 7 post on his Twitter account, Javin Whatley, a senior football player at Rockmart High School in Georgia, announced his intent to "continue his athletics and education" at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Although he did not specifically say he had committed to the Mocs, Whatley's full text read similar to countless social media posts made by athletes to reveal their plans to join a college program — whether by transferring from another college or signing from the prep level — by making what the NCAA refers to as a "verbal commitment." In contrast to officially signing with a program, such commitments are nonbinding, and in the world of recruiting, players sometimes make multiple commitments — and decommitments — before being bound to a specific school by official documents.

What the public did not know when Whatley made his announcement early in the new year was that he had already signed with UTC a week before Christmas during the NCAA's three-day early signing period. Launched in December 2017, the early period was intended to offer an alternative to national signing day, which since the early 1980s had made the first Wednesday in February the culmination of months of recruiting hype for college football.

Almost from the start, the early signing period became the more popular time for athletes to make their commitment official, though the players and the schools don't always choose to reveal that at the time.

That's what happened with Whatley, and by the time he mentioned UTC on Twitter on Jan. 7, there was nothing opposing schools could do to sway the talented 6-foot, 175-pound athlete who had 2,683 yards and 36 touchdowns as a junior while leading Rockmart to a 35-4 record over his final three seasons.

On Wednesday, this year's national signing day, the Mocs announced six signees in addition to the eight revealed during the initial period on Dec. 16-18. Among the additions announced Wednesday, three players — Whatley, defensive back Demetrius Coleman and running back Reggie Davis — never made their intentions known on social media before signing, and not until last Friday did defensive back Josh Battle post that he would be signing Wednesday. In addition, defensive lineman Kelvin Morris and Louisville transfer Telly Plummer stayed quiet about their decisions until signing with the Mocs in December.

Part of that could just be the nature of the signees, some of whom are either quiet by nature or choose other social media platforms to reveal their college sports plans. In some instances, it's truly a case of an athlete not deciding where he's going until the last minute.

Yet there's also a certain level of slyness to how UTC coach Rusty Wright and his staff operate when it comes to finding new players.

Recruiting is a tough process, especially for coaches in the Football Championship Subdivision — the lower level of NCAA Division I football, behind the higher-profile Football Bowl Subdivision, which can also be subdivided by its 10 conferences into the second-tier Group of Five and the top-flight Power Five. Athletes must consider multiple factors before choosing a school, though, and as the recent Senior Bowl exhibition of NFL prospects showed, professional football talent comes from all levels of the college game.

And when a recruit announces his commitment, even if it's to a program from outside the top tier, it can lead to programs from the higher levels showing interest. Wright, a former UTC player and twice an assistant before becoming head coach at his alma mater in December 2018, is aware of the potential for recruits who have committed — but not signed — to be poached. There have been times when the Mocs lost recruits to larger schools simply because of the announcement of a commitment to UTC that put them on the radar.

"When we do talk to the kids, we tell them to make a big splash when you do it," Wright said Wednesday. "You're going to shock folks by saying, 'Hey man, I'm coming to Chattanooga.'"

A year ago, Quay Wiggles, who was at one point committed to Georgia Tech, waited for signing day to reveal he would join the Mocs. It seems the plan has worked again, with UTC having pulled in a 2021 class capable of helping immediately and in the future.

With Plummer and receiver Tyler "Smoke" Smith, the Mocs have two transfers who will be eligible to play during their spring semester schedule, the result of the Southern Conference delaying its schedule this past fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all of UTC's prep signees (Battle, Coleman, Davis, Morris, Whatley and Javon Burke of Bradley Central) would have undoubtedly had FBS offers had there been a normal summer for players to go to camps and be evaluated. Just the same, Coleman had five Southeastern Conference offers, Davis was once committed to Florida Atlantic and Battle had multiple FBS offers.

How was UTC able to pull in such an impressive class? Wright and his staff never gave up, and there was no coddling of egos to pull in impressive players who ultimately end up transferring elsewhere because of unhappiness.

"I think that signing day is important to get guys that want to be here and want to understand what we're trying to do," Wright said. "We lose some guys because we tell them the truth. I told one kid I wasn't taking him because he wanted to play another position when we recruited him the whole time to play this position. I said, 'I'm not going to bring you here because you're not going to be happy. Go where you want to go if that's what they're going to let you play.'

"That's part of it. I think some kids in this group enjoyed hearing the truth."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

NOW THEY’RE MOCS

UTC football signees for the 2021 signing cycle, with position, height and weight, hometown and high school or previous school:

Announced Wednesday

Josh Battle: DB; 6-0, 180; Hoschton, Ga; Mill Creek

Demetrius Coleman: DB; 6-0, 175; Hogansville, Ga; Callaway

Reggie Davis: RB; 6-0, 190; Montgomery, Ala; Robert E. Lee

J.D. Harris: DB; 5-10, 180; Columbus, Ind; Northern Illinois

KeShawn Toney: TE; 6-3, 250; Williston, S.C.; South Carolina

Javin Whatley: ATH; 6-0, 175; Rockmart, Ga; Rockmart

Announced in December

Christian Anderson: OL; 6-7, 270; Lithonia, Ga.; Cedar Grove

JaMario Blige: DB; 6-0, 180; Savannah, Ga.; Windsor Forest

Javon Burke: ATH; 6-0, 170; Cleveland, Tenn.; Bradley Central

Blake Mitchell: OL; 6-1, 289; Franklin, Tenn.; Austin Peay

Kelvin Morris: DL; 6-2, 250; Hartselle, Ala.; Hartselle

Jason Pierce: P; 6-3, 215; Powder Springs, Ga.; Jacksonville State

Telly Plummer: DB; 6-0, 185; Riverdale, Ga.; Louisville

Tyler Smith: WR; 6-0, 185; Ellenwood, Ga.; Western Kentucky

 

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