THE BOLD COLLEGE TRY
In order to reach his goal of playing college football, RJ Morgan realized he had to take matters into his own hands. It's a trend that has become increasingly popular, marketing yourself to potential college programs in hopes of finding a future home.
In Morgan's case, the climb was as uphill as it gets, yet the final destination couldn't have been more appealing.
Despite a lack of all-conference acclaim, season statistics or buzz-worthy status among college scouting services, the Crater High senior recently landed a scholarship offer from the University of Arizona.
And it all came through hard work, perseverance and the guts to dream big. "My mom has always told me to dream big and don't ever limit yourself," said Morgan. "When I was putting together my highlight video and sending it out, I picked all the Pac-12 (Conference) teams because I thought that was the best of the best to go to and believed I could play to that level of football."
It was that highlight video, combined with a good off-field impression, which ultimately landed Morgan with the Wildcats.
"I might have gotten a scholarship without it but probably not for the highest level," the linebacker/safety said of marketing himself. "If you don't take the time to show the college what you can offer then the college won't take the time to do anything with you, unless you're just that outstanding athlete they always hear about."
In reality, those national-level recruits who have colleges drooling for their services are few and far between. Typically, it's the unheralded recruits like Morgan who are out there just begging for a chance to show they belong and can wind up anywhere from the NAIA to Division I level based on their ability to stir up enough interest in them.
The list is long and diverse on Rogue Valley student-athletes and their parents who have taken it upon themselves to stoke the recruiting fires. Few involved have been more passionate on the subject than Bill Storey, whose daughters Carlee and McKenna Storey are currently playing women's soccer at Division I Georgia Southern.
"I knew that Carlee and McKenna were both interested in playing at the next level and I also knew as a coach that unless you're a blue-chipper at a high-profile school, colleges are unlikely to contact you," said Storey. "Especially non-local colleges, they'll never hear about you."
"There's no doubt in my mind that, at best without actively marketing themselves, they probably could've drawn Division II interest but definitely not close to the monetary assistance the girls were able to get," he added. "The critical factor is that there's a really finite amount of schools around here. They get their absolute pick of the local kids and then there's the attitude that if you're just good and not great and from Oregon, then you can walk on and they give scholarships to the out-of-state kids. We've got some good athletes from this area who are not getting what I would consider a fair shake."
Taking a page from those who came before him, Storey began to promote the scholarship opportunities available for those willing to go the extra mile among his friends and peers on his daughters' sports teams. Everything took off with the help of Sean Burke, who for five years ran a side business that produced marketing packages for student-athletes, and now Storey has even produced and willingly shares an outline of the ins and outs of how to navigate the recruiting process.
"I was totally ignorant going into it and I really owe a lot to Ashley Chambers' dad for getting me on the right track and introducing me to Sean," said Storey. "From there I just ramped it up. I think if someone follows that list I generated it will be simpler for them and they'll do a better job than I did."
"I think the key is to start earlier because the earlier you start the less intensive time you have to put into it," he added, "but that's not to say you can't secure something if you don't start until their senior year. You've got to be willing to consider what comes up. If a kid's willing to travel and experience something new, that can really increase their chances because around 75 percent of Division I schools are east of the Mississippi, but it has to be what they want to do."
Carlee Storey, who like her sister was also a softball standout, began the process by catching the eye of the Samford women's soccer coaches at a summer camp in Texas. McKenna Storey found a home at nearby Georgia Southern, and one year later the girls were reunited at that school when Carlee Storey was allowed to switch schools. The elder daughter will be a senior in the program while the other enters her junior year this fall, and Bill Storey said it's been an overwhelmingly positive experience for both girls despite being so far removed from home.
Financially it's been a boon as well, with Storey noting that all but about $6,000 of tuition costs and fees per child/per year has been taken care of thanks to showing some initiative.
"I think parents think that these colleges have scouts out there who are scouting every corner," said Burke. "For Division I football or basketball, maybe they do, but that's not how it works for most sports. Still, there's tons of opportunity out there if you just let the coaches know that you're interested and try to get on their radar."
Morgan wasn't aware of Storey's recruiting outline but he still followed many of the key steps along the way, including showing an open mind about wherever he might land.
"It didn't matter to me, I didn't have any colleges where I had to go to this one over another one," he said. "If I wanted to get my college paid for, I would be happy going anywhere."
He started the process by attending some football camps for exposure the past two years, most notably the Nike Combine and a Football University Camp in California. A few weeks after his junior season, Morgan went about compiling clips for his highlight video with the help of his parents, Teresa and Bob Morgan, and Crater football head coach John Beck.
Morgan was coming off a season in which he played limited minutes on offense, pulling in one pass during the regular season, and couldn't approach leading tackler status thanks to the likes of linebackers Garrett Alner and Derrick Turituri and defensive back Corey Wynant roaming the field. Still, he played a key role on a defense that allowed 121 rushing yards and 330 yards overall last year.
"The most challenging part was trying to find the right plays to put on the highlight film," said Morgan, who spent about an hour per day going through his game clips on the Hudl system used by the Comets and several others in the area. "There would be ones I would absolutely love but then someone else would come in and say they didn't like something about it and have a different perspective on it."
After narrowing it down to roughly 30-40 clips of all varieties, be it a bone-jarring hit or simply good speed and intuition shown on special teams, Morgan said he sent his DVDs out in late January. About 25 went out to a list he had developed that involved schools which had already been in contact with Morgan, from the Division I level to Division III. Another 25 or so were sent out to colleges tabbed as a good fit for Morgan's abilities. All were accompanied by an email alerting that the DVDs would be arriving soon and directions on how to see more on Morgan's Hudl page.
"I believe that was the best approach for me because all coaches talk and even if you're a coach at the Division I level, maybe they don't think I'm good enough for them but they know someone else who might be interested," said Morgan. "I just wanted to get my name out there and then maybe have it spread among the coaches."
With best friend Turituri already carrying a buzz for his abilities as a strong side linebacker, Morgan simply wanted to accomplish the same by getting his own name out there and showing the potential he has after adding about 20 pounds in the offseason to go with what is now a 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame.
"I knew I didn't have all that all-league stuff and that might come into play but I knew that if I was a good enough athlete then that doesn't matter," said Morgan, who was bumped up to two-star recruit status to join Turituri after he verbally committed to Arizona. "The coaches around here pick who gets all-league and I believe that last year I was one of the better players in the league but the coaches didn't think I was. I still believed, though, and coach Beck believed I was so I just put my leap of faith on that and did everything I could to prove I was as good of an athlete as anybody else."
Responses to his highlight video slowly began to trickle in during the spring, with Arizona coming into the fold in May — much to Morgan's delight.
"They really liked his highlight film because it showed the things they liked to look for, things like the physicality and playmaking ability when he has the chance," said Beck. "Watching his highlight film I thought it really showcased him well in what type of player he is."
Still, Beck said he was a little taken aback by the Wildcats' determined interest in not only recruiting Turituri but Morgan as well.
"I was a little bit surprised," he said. "That was my hope but you don't know. I think he could be a guy for them but I don't know that's what their going to think, but (the Arizona coaches) do their homework. That coaching staff is pretty meticulous."
"It's like the college coaches say, it's not an exact science and you never know," added Beck. "Sometimes it just depends on the scheme, too. Some kids don't fit a scheme and some kids do."
That's where Morgan seemed to make his mark with Arizona, his ability to roll back to safety and also drop down as a linebacker — especially given his increased size. With the Wildcats running a 3-3-5 defense, Morgan fits the mold of their bandit position with his ability to be flexible in coverage or run support.
And thanks to making such a bold first move, it appears he'll get his chance.
"What I really learned from all this is if you want something bad enough, you have to work hard enough to get it," said Morgan. "You can't really take a break away from it at all. With recruiting, you always have to be thinking what can I do to improve myself next year for the video. What can I do to make myself faster, stronger or whatever I need to get better and how can I get them to notice me."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry