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February 5, 2010

Getting a jump on their collegiate careers

TUSCALOOSA _ University of Alabama quarterback Phillip Sims has a message for everyone back home in Chesapeake: He's fine and not missing the last months at Oscar F. Smith High School at all.

"This is a bigger stage in my life," said Sims, who is already on the Capstone and getting a head start on his collegiate career. "I'm moving on to something more important.

"I get out of school here in May. Back in Virginia they don't get out of high school until June. I'll be home for a whole month so I can go to graduation. I'll miss prom, but prom is nothing but a big party. Trust me, when you're in college there's a whole lot of parties."

Granted, that'll almost certainly change a couple of weeks from now when Alabama begins its the rigorous offseason conditioning program, but Sims is anything but alone even though he's a 17-year-old adapting to campus life.

Including the three who grayshirted from last year's class (offensive lineman Darius McKeller, defensive lineman Antony Orr and linebacker Petey Smith delayed their enrollment to help make the numbers fit), Alabama has 11 new players enrolled this semester who will be eligible to participate in spring practices and A-Day.

"I think you see more and more players that are interested in doing that," Saban said. "I think from our perspective the advantage is that the guy can make an academic, social and athletic transition in a semester that's not starting right in front of the season. These guys have been here since school started and haven't had to do much but lift weights, go to school, academically and socially adjust and adapt, learn how to use the academic support center and the services that are available to them."

While this is the highest number of spring additions Saban's ever had by a wide margin, other programs are doing likewise in what's become more than a trend. Overall, there are 47 players enrolled early this spring among the Southeastern Conference schools, the lone exception being Kentucky.

The breakdown is as follows:
Eastern Division: Florida 11, Tennessee 8, Georgia 2, South Carolina 2, Vanderbilt 2, Kentucky 0;
Western Division: Alabama 8, Auburn 5, Ole Miss 3, Mississippi State 3, LSU 2, Arkansas 1.

Sims didn't initially plan to be one of them. Although he originally committed to the Tide last April, and helped recruit other players through the Under Armour All-America Game, the idea of finishing high school early wasn't brought up until the summer.

"My coach asked did I want to do it because in the state of Virginia it's not really allowed," he said. "You have to get it approved by the school board, the principal, teachers, everyone has to approve. So I figured it out over the summer and told everyone what I want to do.

"You get leg up. You get a chance to compete early. You get accustomed to the life before football season comes around, before things get really hectic about it … Any 17-year-old will tell you you're not going to learn it all overnight."

Also attending classes this semester are kicker Cade Foster, running back Jalston Fowler, cornerbacks John Fulton and DeMarcus Milliner, defensive end Brandon Lewis and offensive linemen Chad Lindsey and Austin Shepherd.

Of them the cornerbacks might have the best chance to make an immediate impact with Alabama looking to replace seven players in the secondary including three starters and the nickel back. Considering the size of the playbook alone, the extra time can only help.

"I don't believe I have enough fingers to do that, it's pretty thick," Milliner said when asked to show how big it is. "I'm still at the beginning, the first page."

Of course, Saban has had success with early enrollees before, including cornerback Kareem Jackson in 2007, who all but immediately won a starting job, and junior-college transfer James Carpenter at left tackle last year.

About the only obvious drawback to early arrival, minus missing prom, is that the players have to declare well before National Signing Day, which in turns makes them open season for other coaches to try and steal them away. Saban's always had a "if you shop, we shop" attitude with his commitments, but still doesn't like how easy it is for the opposition to take aim.

"When a guy commits early to us, to me then we just become the target," Saban said. "Every other school keeps recruiting them and they know the kid wants to come to Alabama, so now they're bashing Alabama every day. Whether it is taking our depth chart out and saying we have too many players at that position, I don't know how all these other schools know about our team because I know nothing about third-team and they know more about our team than I know about our team. They get the depth chart out and they know how good players are that haven't even played before, haven't even been on the field, haven't lettered, haven't done anything. It's amazing to me. I'm talking about convincing, being an expert.

"We don't do that."

A way to counter the negative recruiting is to declare early and then stick to it, but many high school players enjoy the attention that's become year-round.

"You have the in-state school saying 'You don't want to go all the way down there. You're going to go down there and do nothing but sit on the bench 12 hours from home where your parents can't see you,' stuff like that," Sims said. "Then you have schools across the country saying, 'Well, Alabama is an up-and-coming program, but we're here.' No, you're not here. You haven't won the national championship.

"It's good to be here. I'm glad I'm here and I wouldn't trade it for the world."


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