They are going to have to bring in extra tables again for football signing day at Stephenson High.
The Class AAAAA school in DeKalb County is proving to be no one-year wonder with stockpiling college scholarships.
Somewhere between 20 and 32 of Stephenson’s senior class of 34 players will sign letters-of-intent Feb. 2. Last year, the Jaguars had 29 of 32 huddled around tables in the school auditorium, with each standing up to be recognized for their future college destination.
“It’s such a blessing, especially with the economy,” said Patricia Sheppard, whose son, Jeremy, has a pair of small college offers.
“I just sent my daughter off to college last year, and with Jeremy coming right behind her … it’s a huge financial relief for our family. These kids work hard, and the coaches work hard with the kids to make it happen with the colleges. It’s a wonderful thing.”
This year’s class is well-respected among scouts, but doesn’t have the star power of its predecessor. Last year, Stephenson sent eight players to FBS (formerly Division I-A) schools, including five to the SEC. Defensive tackle Mike Thornton got a standing ovation at the signing ceremony when he pulled out a Georgia baseball cap to reveal his long-awaited decision.
Stephenson’s current seniors watched the ceremony from the seats below, filled with pride and great anticipation.
“It was a surreal day, seeing all these guys I grew up playing football with in the neighborhood signing to play in college,” said defensive back Eric Dulin, who is considering offers from Tusculum and Mars Hill. “I couldn’t wait for my chance to [accomplish] the same.”
This year, nine seniors are committed to FBS schools, led by defensive back Kadetrix Marcus (South Carolina), offensive lineman Tarik Cook (Central Florida), and defensive end Preston Smith (Mississippi State).
“A lot of people talked about the 29 from last year and some still do,” Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell said. “I think a lot of people thought it was a one-shot deal — and it’s not. We’re committed to trying to get everybody who gets on the field for us the opportunity to play on the next level.”
Stephenson always has sent a steady flow of prospects to major colleges, including former Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball and NFL rookies Jermaine Cunningham and Perry Riley. Last year, Stephenson boasted one of the largest signing classes (29) in state history after Gartrell made a personnel change within the coaching staff: He assigned Corey Johnson as Stephenson’s recruiting coordinator to serve as the liaison between players and colleges.
“With allowing Corey to do what he does best, our number of kids signing has pretty much doubled,” Gartrell said. “Where Corey has made the biggest difference is getting the smaller colleges involved in recruiting our players.”
It’s a labor of love but a time-consuming task for Johnson, a private businessman who has volunteered to coach at Stephenson for the past eight years. Since last February, Johnson estimates that he and other assistants have clocked in a combined total of 3,000 hours leading to this year’s ceremony.
They met with parents to explain the recruiting process, and they reviewed transcripts to make sure the players took the proper classes and signed up for the SAT and ACT tests. They hauled the kids to a dozen camps, providing scouts the chance to personally meet the kids and work them out. They maintained a website that was routinely updated with video clips of players during the season.
They make sure the kids keep in touch with the colleges on a regular basis. Johnson has the phone numbers and e-mails of more than 800 college coaches, and sometimes contacts them two or three times per week with player updates.
“It’s just a way to give back to the kids,” Johnson said.
There’s still a lot of recruiting drama to unfold over the next three weeks. Johnson said he won’t know until the morning of signing day if Stephenson will break last year’s record of 29. If not this year, then Johnson has high expectations for the future.
When asked how many Stephenson kids could sign in February 2012 or 2013, Johnson said, “My target every year is the entire class.”