The sign of the times for football recruiting wasn’t the National Letter of Intent that Deacon Hill submitted to Wisconsin last week.
Santa Barbara High’s senior quarterback had already committed to the Badgers 17 months earlier.
It was more those unsigned seniors whose season is getting voided by COVID. Several of Hill’s decorated classmates from their CIF-Southern Section finalist team of 2019 — All-Channel Leaguers such as Jake Knecht, Noach Wood and Ty Montgomery — have had their futures put into a state of suspended animation.
Their season now can’t start any earlier than March, and their coach thinks it may not start at all. Desperate times, J.T. Stone added, may require such desperate measures as giving those seniors a redshirt year.
“I’m not CIF, but there is a formula for that,” he said. “And if there’s a way, we’ve got to get back at least a semester for these kids. A kid can leave school in January, take spring off, and come back in the fall to graduate — maybe that’s the way to do it.
“But it’s hard because these kids are getting screwed big-time.”
For Knecht, a wide receiver who did accept a scholarship offer from Azusa Pacific, the economic repercussions of the pandemic had a more specific effect: On the same day that Hill signed with Wisconsin, the Division 2 school announced that it was dropping football altogether.
“When Jake told me the news, my heart dropped,” Hill said. “He’s worked so hard for that. He deserves a lot better than that. Personally, I don’t think they should’ve dropped football.
“For Jake, it’s crucial now to play this season.”
Knecht, a sprint champion on the Dons’ track and field team, was going to be Hill’s prime receiver.
“Any FCS (Football Championship Series) school out there needs to come after this kid because he can run, and he can catch, and he was definitely going to have a big year,” Stone said. “I was expecting him to be the top receiver in the area this season, by far.”
Wood, who won Channel League Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2019, actually became the first to feel the effects of the COVID void when last spring’s camps for football prospects were canceled.
“I had three Division 1 schools that needed to see him in camp and he could not get there,” Stone said. “It really hurt him.”
He said that, on paper, the 5-foot-11 and 250-pound nose guard didn’t have the height that major colleges prefer. But to see him in person is to love him, Stone added.
“Once this COVID thing is over, even if he can get him into a camp, and coaches can see him live — ‘OK, he is what we’ve seen on film’ — will benefit him,” he said. “We’re just going to keep pushing. We’re doing some live shots of him just so coaches can see some live video.
“But he’ll be OK. At the end of the day, he’s going to find a home. He’s a hell of a football player. Whomever gets this kid, I tell you what, it’s a steal. And with how hard he’s working right now, it’s crazy.”
Hill is hoping to get Wood in front of recruiters even before CIF’s tentative, spring season. The star quarterback is preparing to play in a tackle football club league sponsored by Corona’s Winner Circle Academy. His team, Prime Time Polynesian, will open a six-game schedule in San Diego on Jan. 2, with the playoffs to follow in Bullhead City, Ariz.
“It would be crucial for him to have a season,” Hill said. “He works out with me almost every day. I see how hard he works. He’s putting up 430 (pounds) on squat. He’s improved himself so much. Gotten faster. Stronger. More mobile.
“I don’t know why somebody hasn’t taken a chance on him yet. And Ty Montgomery, too. I think he’ll go somewhere, whether it’s as a walk-on or not, he’ll earn a scholarship wherever he goes.”
COVID has made Montgomery’s situation the most complicated of all the Dons. He was voted by the Channel League coaches as the Utility Player of the Year in 2019 for his performance as a rusher, receiver, defensive back and kicker. His versatility also played out for the Dons on the baseball field.
But pushing football season into the spring will have it overlap with baseball and force multiple-sport athletes such as Montgomery into making a choice.
“That’s the predicament the kid is in,” Stone said. “They’re going to have to choose at some point. Honestly, I don’t think pushing football back is the answer.
“It’s just a mess because the spring sports didn’t get the same opportunity to play the previous year. How can we, as football, sit here and push those guys out of the way again?”
It has the veteran coach torn about pushing the season to later in the spring.
“I’m on both sides of the fence because I want my guys to get out there and play,” Stone said. “But we have to do what’s right and what’s fair.”