Demarcus Walker, an early enrollee, has yet to be able to practice this spring. So, what’s the story?
It all started back in January, when prized defensive end commit DeMarcus Walker flipped from Alabama, who had just won a national championship, to Florida State.
Many viewed the decision as a response to Alabama defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt replacing headed-for-Kentucky defensive coordinator Mark Stoops. It made sense, given that Pruitt was in charge of his recruitment.
“I prayed,” Walker said. “I just had to follow my heart. I am committed to Florida State University.”
And that was supposed to be that. Walker would enroll early at FSU, to participate in spring football and to get a head start on getting playtime next season and learning the defensive schemes Pruitt would be installing.
But when spring finally rolled around, Walker was standing on the sideline, much to confusion of the media in attendance. He wasn’t listed in the injury reports by Jimbo, and there was no discernible reason why he wasn’t on the field.
When it was revealed that it was NCAA Clearinghouse (the body responsible for determining eligibility for incoming high school athletes) issue, things suddenly got a lot more drastic. After the online music class scandal in 2009 that saw the NCAA strip 14 wins from Bobby Bowden, academic scandals aren’t a favorite in Tallahassee.
Then things took an even more unexpected turn.
That unexpected turn is where things are getting very, very messy. AthleticScholarships.com has broken down this story (while also advising rising high school athletes):
DeMarcus Walker, a four-star defensive end who switched his commitment from Alabama to Florida State, is currently sitting out awaiting certification by the NCAA Eligibility Center. According to a series of tweets by Walker, the NCAA is reviewing a potential “fake class” and may have been tipped off to the fake class by Alabama. So two questions: why is this just coming up now and what are the chances that Walker’s accusation against Alabama is credible?
Walker participated in offseason conditioning before missing spring practice and being removed from the roster for the time being. That timeline can be explained by the NCAA’s 45-day temporary certification period. Between the timing of his commitment and FSU’s need to fit in the eight weeks of student-athlete discretionary time, the opening week of practice might have been the first activity Walker missed. Hence it is only now he is speaking out.
The timing of Walker’s certification also explains why it might be taking so long. The NCAA Eligibility Center is focused on two time periods: July-September and November-December. There is not the army of additional temp workers that help with the fall certification crush. Walker’s case is also likely not considered urgent by the Eligibility Center since he has no pending competition until next fall. And if the problem is a suspect course, Walker’s case would be with the High School Review team, not working through the standard academic certification process.
Which brings us to Walker’s emoji accusation against the Crimson Tide. Graduating early from high school is not always as easy as it sounds. School lose tax revenue when pupils leave early, so some districts are reluctant to allow prospects to graduate in December or January. The NCAA’s requirement of four years of English means in most cases that after the fall semester of senior year, an athlete is still short one English course.
What this means is that early enrollee football recruits often take the type of nontraditional courses or graduate from the type of nontraditional high schools that draw NCAA scrutiny. If Alabama was advising Walker on how to graduate early, they would know whether he was enrolled in any nontraditional courses, the nature of those courses, and likely Walker’s progress in those courses. If Alabama was not working with Walker toward early enrollment, that fact alone would raise red flags with the NCAA, if Walker was on track to graduate and qualify after the spring but enrolled in January at Florida State.
The logical leaps to Alabama having the information that would hold up Walker’s certification are short. Whether they used that information is pure speculation though. If they did, it would be foolish though. Midyear enrollee football players are already scrutinized by the NCAA. The High School Review team does not need additional help catching nontraditional courses taken to graduate early. No reason to risk interfering with an athlete’s certification when the NCAA is likely to dig deep on its own.
But as 2016 approaches and initial eligibility requirements go up, schools get better at advising and counseling their prospects through the academic certification process, and assuming football recruiting stays the same, expect more of these cases.
Traditionally programs have withheld some help from recruits before the sign precisely because of what happened to Alabama in this case. Why invest the time and effort to help an athlete qualify if he ends up playing for a competitor? Rule changes have forced coaches’ hands though. Outlawing quick fixes and reducing the number of courses an athlete can take his senior year mean athletes must be advised before they sign.
Accusations of retaliation are likely to start flying more regularly. Schools will have more information about the academic status of athletes, including the potentially suspect but ultimately permitted methods used to catch up with eligibility requirements or get ahead for early graduation. If football recruiting continues to be defined by decommitments and flipping of recruits, expect schools to use that information to go on the offensive against their former commits.
This is bad. I wouldn’t, honestly, jump to any conclusions. As frustrating as this must be for Walker, I don’t think he should have published this story on such a public platform. FSU has to tread carefully and should advise the players to keep their private issues off public platforms. No matter who is right or who is wrong, this is an issue that needs to be resolved behind closed doors.
Jimbo Fisher was on the radio a few weeks ago, and what he had to say was very interesting:
While on KFAN in Minneapolis, Fisher was asked how anyone beats Saban, and why he’s so successful.
“We beat them my first year we were at FSU,” Fisher said. “I went against him every day in practice. We were together for five years. He’s done a great job of organizing. He’s got the structure. People don’t realize he’s got the infrastructure really stet up.
“That’s why we’ve been able to make our jump at Florida State. We’ve got our infrastructure set up where can keep replacing guys, and I think we’ll be in that national title hunt every year, just like they are. But he’s done a great job.”
That infrastructure at Florida State will be put to the test this season, as Fisher has had to replace six assistants.
Another tie to Alabama, Fisher’s wife, Candi, grew up in the state as a Crimson Tide fan. She said marrying a football coach was great, since she grew up a fan of the game. She also reflected on her memories of the death of another legendary Alabama coach.
“I know exactly where I was the day Bear Bryant died,” she said. “I was in the eighth grade when Bear Bryant died. Everybody at my school was crying. It was crazy. He was a superstar in the state of Alabama. It was devastating for us.”
It would be interesting to hear Coach Fisher’s perspective on Alabama now. Regardless of what Alabama, or any other school did or did not do, we have to, as FSU, need to be a model of professionalism. And I trust Jimbo to do so.