By Corey Clark
NORCROSS - The first game of the year hasn't even been played yet and already 16 of the county's best football players have decided where they will be playing their college ball.
They don't have to sign, in fact they are not allowed to sign, until the first Wednesday in February. Yet here they are in the middle of August, so firm in their decisions that they've all verbally committed to the colleges of their choice more than five months before they can fax off their letters of intent.
The question is why.
Why has it become a growing trend for the best football players in the county, and the country, to end their recruitments so early in the process?
"I could go into my senior year without any of the worry," said Norcross receiver Devonta Bolton, who chose Alabama over schools like Georgia and Auburn at a press conference on Aug. 4. "I didn't have to worry about taking official visits or anything like that. And you can have your senior year so I think a lot of us are doing it because we don't want to be dealing with any college stuff right now. I mean, this is it for us. This is our last year and we want to enjoy it."
And as Bolton and fellow Norcross star Brice Butler found out, after being besieged by college coaches and Internet reporters for the last six months, the recruiting process isn't all that enjoyable.
Butler says he went ahead and committed to Southern Cal on Aug. 4 because he knew in his heart that's where he wanted to go and didn't see any point in delaying the announcement. He also wanted to have some peace and quiet in his life again.
"I was ready for it to end," said Butler, who chose USC over Florida State, LSU and Notre Dame among others. "And I didn't want to jeopardize my teammates by having all of this attention about where I'm going to school, as opposed to us winning games and trying to win a state championship."
The county commitment spree started on March 25 of this year when Grayson linebacker Tristan Strong verbaled to Vanderbilt.
Since then, 15 fellow Gwinnett stars have followed suit, with the latest commitment coming from Buford linebacker T.J. Pridemore, who chose Georgia Tech on Aug. 13.
Last year, the 16th Division I commitment in the county didn't come until well into January.
The preseason pledges of 2007 seem to indicate a strong shift in the entire recruiting process. Not too long ago, the best players in the country would wait until January or National Signing Day to declare where they would be playing their college football.
Most recruits wanted to take all five of their official visits, which are lavishly planned weekend trips paid for by the university, before making a formal announcement.
Not anymore. College coaches turn up the pressure earlier - "We've offered three linebackers for one spot," a recruiter might say, "So whoever accepts first will be the one we take" - and more and more kids spend the offseason and summer taking "unofficial visits," where they get a chance to see the university without the red-carpet treatment. Schools are only allowed to pay for meals and lodging when a recruit is officially visiting the school.
"Every college is wanting you to come to their (summer) camps and it's really shifted the cost to the parents," said Greater Atlanta Christian defensive coordinator Ken Robinson, whose son, Christian, committed to Georgia on May 29. "Mom and dad have to foot the bill."
Of course, the Robinsons could have waited until the fall to take the official visits. But then that interferes with the season, with schoolwork, with church. So they decided to forego the official visits and settle for the unofficial ones instead.
It turned out to be a good move for the entire family.
"I'm glad he got it over with," said Ken, who played collegiately at South Carolina and in the NFL with the Washington Redskins. "I think if you know where you want to go, get it over with."
By late May, his son definitely knew where he wanted to go. And he definitely knew he wanted his recruitment to be over.
"It's a lot of pressure," Christian said. "I'd be in school and my phone would just be buzzing, especially when I got the Georgia and LSU offers. It really started pumping up then. And it was just a lot of pressure."
The pressure is over for Robinson and the 15 other early commitments in the county.
They can go out and enjoy their senior seasons, concentrate on football, class work and having fun. They can also be thankful that they already have their minds made up and won't have to endure the last month of the recruiting season, which is notoriously insane.
"Yeah, it would be crazy," Butler said with a smile. "It would be real crazy."