Recruits leave the glory days of high school to get a leg up

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2012 - 6:37 AM

The Gophers are part of a trend in which prep players -- such as Jordan Hinojosa -- graduate early and start college in time for spring practice.

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Gophers recruit Jordan Hinojosa is part of a trend in which prep players graduate early and start college in time for spring practice.

Jordan Hinojosa will start college and join the Gophers football team this week, several months ahead of other freshman-class teammates, and it's an achievement that required some sacrifice. In order to graduate from Miami Central High School a semester ahead of schedule, while also turning himself into a Big Ten-worthy recruit, the defensive lineman basically had to forgo ... wait, what exactly did he give up again?

"Basically, being a teenager in Miami," said Jordan's father, Norton Hinojosa. "Jet Skis, pools, hanging out with friends. He didn't get to have much fun."

No, and it's not exactly a party from now on, either. Hinojosa is willingly trading breezes off Biscayne Bay for a Minnesota winter, pad-the-transcript electives for college prerequisites, big man on campus for the freshman dorm. And the payoff won't come, he understands, for months, maybe years. It's a passionate attitude, an impressive commitment, and one that more recruits are making all the time. Hinojosa is one of at least four Gophers recruits who have chosen to speed up their graduation, pass up a victory-lap semester in high school and sign up for college classes and winter workouts.

"I want to be the best," Hinojosa said resolutely. "I'm sacrificing a lot. Last summer was grueling -- I had practice, lifting or class from 9 to 7:30 every day, so it felt like I was giving up my life. I never got to kick back. But I'm absolutely dedicated to football. To the victor go the spoils, and I know someday that will be me."

In addition to the benefits, tangible and otherwise, of starting college a half-year early, it's a remarkable demonstration of the players' zeal for college football.

"I can't wait to play. That's the biggest thing to me -- doing whatever it takes to get on the field as soon as possible," said Mankato West quarterback Philip Nelson, who moved onto campus over the weekend. "I told Coach [Jerry] Kill, 'How soon can I start?'"

The answer is: Today, when Nelson attends his first class on the Minneapolis campus even though signing day isn't until Feb. 1. But the fact that the prep star asked the question was crucial, too, because Kill is aware of the sacrifice required from the early entrants.

"We never talk [recruits] into it. The ones who do it are kids who mention it to us," said Kill, speaking generally because he is prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting on specific recruits. "Sometimes a parent will go, 'What do you think?' I may say, 'Hey, this could be a good opportunity if you want to do it,' but they have to be sure, because you're asking a lot."

'Spring football, that's huge'

The players believe they're gaining a lot by doing it, too. Once they are enrolled, they can take part in strength coach Eric Klein's offseason workouts. They can adjust to college life away from the craziness of two-a-day fall practices, settle into a routine and tackle the normal freshman homesickness. They can bank a semester's worth of credits, lightening the academic load later in their career. They can take part in spring practices, absorbing the playbook and the football staff's routine.

"Spring football, that's huge," said Mitch Leidner, who graduated last month from Lakeville South and now is a roommate of the fourth early arrival, defensive tackle Scott Ekpe of Lewisville, Texas. "As a quarterback, learning the offense, getting some reps right away, it's definitely an advantage."

It's an advantage that the incoming freshmen believe might help them avoid a redshirt. "I'll be a step ahead of the other commitments at my position," Hinojosa said. "I fully intend to play as a freshman, and this gives me a chance to do it.''

Kill has seen mixed results

That chance worked out for receiver Marcus Jones, who followed the same academic path a year ago. Jones, who graduated early from Wake Forest-Rolesville (N.C.) High School, caught Kill's attention with a strong spring, and was on the field for every Gophers game until injuring a knee against Nebraska.

"It worked out pretty well for Marcus, but it's not for everybody. We had a quarterback at Southern Illinois who tried it, and it didn't work out," Kill said. "Last year, [offensive lineman] Tommy Olson could have done it, but he wanted to go through his senior year, and I was OK with it. You see more and more kids trying it now, but I don't blame anybody" for staying in high school.

That's because of all the activities that prep players forgo. For Leidner, "it meant giving up basketball, which is hard," he said. "But I just decided, I love football, so it's worth it."

And at least in-state recruits still can take part in commencement exercises in May, should they choose to. For out-of-staters, high school is officially over.

Hinojosa's graduation ceremony, the teenager said, will amount to "stopping by [Miami Central] over spring break and picking up my diploma." His senior class trip with friends has been reduced to "probably just saying hello over the summer, between workouts." And the senior prom?

"I'm missing it," Hinojosa said. "My girlfriend gave me some grief. But she understands. This is my future."

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