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April 13, 2011
SEATTLE - What were you doing after just turning 18?
I'm betting you weren't as productive or as challenged as Austin Seferian-Jenkins is this month at UW. I know I wasn't.
One of the nation's top-two rated tight ends in this year's recruiting class is towering over older linebackers and safeties during Huskies spring practices, easily plucking passes for touchdowns as if they were apples hanging from a tree.
His new coaches are even using the teen with just seven college practices of experience to motivate the veterans. Tuesday, I heard him being used as an example of film preparation and playbook study that Huskies four years older than Seferian-Jenkins should be emulating.
Before and after football, he is walking a campus he barely knows, going into buildings he's never been in for classes in lecture halls perhaps bigger than all his high-school classrooms put together. The comparison is as boggling as it is timely - he was in high school last month.
He may not be quite sure which way it is to University Avenue. And he's just turned old enough to vote. Yet throughout this unique - and jarring - life change, one of the youngest Huskies ever keeps smiling.
"He's got a little spark to him," UW running back Deontae Cooper told me Tuesday, describing the 6-foot-6, 250-pound force who has enrolled at Washington six months early, in time for spring practice. "It's always good to see your new teammates coming in smiling."
Cooper, redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Montana, tight end Victor Burnett and sophomore running back Jesse Callier have a bond with Seferian-Jenkins. They are the five early enrollees since coach Steve Sarkisian took over Washington's program in January 2009. (Thomas Vincent, a walk-on quarterback from Seattle and King's High School, also enrolled early and is practicing with UW as a freshman this month).
Cooper says his biggest impact on Seferian-Jenkins, a two-time all-state tight end from Gig Harbor, Wash., so far has been "just helping to find his direction around the place, pointing him where to go.
"He's a good guy, man. He's learning."
To meet the NCAA's requirements for high-school graduation and early enrollment at UW, Seferian-Jenkins took online courses on top of his regular Gig Harbor curriculum to get enough credits. He sent his transcript to Washington and the NCAA's eligibility center, and got approval for early entry last month about a week before the Huskies' spring practice began.
He had a few days to pack his clothes, his belongings and his high-school life and head up the freeway to grow up. On Monday, March 28, he attended his first college classes, went to the bookstore to get his first college texts and settled into his dorm with roommate Thomas Tutogi. The sophomore transfer from Chula Vista, Calif., and Southwestern Junior College is also in his first days at UW.
A day later, Seferian-Jenkins was practicing with the first-string offense, wowing coaches and teammates with the ease at which he is handling this jolting life change.
"I'm really impressed because, you know, for us these first five days of installation (of plays) is never easy," Sarkisian said. "And for a kid who is a week and a half into school now - (the coach laughed here mid-sentence while trying to fathom that) - with everything else that is going on and moving away from home, he's really handled it with a sense of maturity.
"He's a bright kid, and he's mature. He's not too emotional one way or the other. All in all, he's performing at a really high level."
This practice of early enrollment in big-time programs dates to at least 1991, when Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier entered college before the rest of his freshmen classmates. That worked out OK for Zeier: He started four years for the Bulldogs, broke Southeastern Conference passing records and was a third-round draft choice of the Cleveland Browns in 1995. He played five years in the NFL.
The trend has mushroomed in the last half-dozen or so years as schools have sought creative ways to attract top players.
The benefit is two-fold: The player gets a jump start, sometimes starting as early as January; and the program gets to manage its scholarship numbers. There is no NCAA limit on the number of early enrollees a football program can have in a year, if it has scholarships available. And the NCAA's annual limit of 25 scholarships for a given year applies only to players signed between signing day in February and May 31.
In 2002, there were 12 early enrollees among the nation's big-time programs, according to a USA Today survey. By 2009, more than 100 did it. Last year, a record 141 enrolled early. Even more were expected this year. USC had nine of them enroll in January. Alabama and Florida State had eight each.
The most prominent early enrollees have been, like Montana, quarterbacks. Tim Tebow enrolled early to Florida. Christian Ponder of Florida State, about to join Tebow in the NFL, arrived months early to Florida State a few years ago.
"I got a jump start on the offense, started to learn all the terminology," Montana said. "I mean, you've got to start (sometime). I'm glad I started then, because I didn't know what was going on. It helped me a lot through last year's camp, and now I feel like I've got a big jump. It was great."
I asked him what he learned about campus life, what Seferian-Jenkins is learning right now.
"I learned to go to class, that's for sure. They will find out," Montana said, chuckling. "Just my way around, I was helping them out. I had a lot less to think about (in fall camp) than my classmates did.
"Austin is doing an awesome job. I mean, he acts like he's been here for a while. He's really mature. I don't even think he's asked me anything with anything on campus. He obviously has a few things with the plays because we are moving fast with the install, but he's doing great."
This isn't an accident. Sarkisian picks his players who might enroll early carefully, and Seferian-Jenkins showed maturity throughout the recruiting process. He handled offers with a level head as they came in from USC, Oregon, Stanford, Texas, Florida, Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, UCLA - basically every big-time program in the free world. Throughout that circus, he somehow maintained a 3.5 grade-point average at Gig Harbor High.
The rest of UW's 21 recruits who will arrive on time for the fall quarter will get a couple weeks of orientation in Washington's renowned summer program for incoming freshmen. Early enrollees? They arrive, move in, go to their first class and make their first football practice - simultaneously.
"They don't quite get that acclimation time," Sarkisian said, "so I think there is a specific kid that can handle that."
Nationally, coaches have been debating the wisdom of 17- and 18-year-olds starting college and big-time college football before their classmates are done with high school. The grandest coach of them all, Penn State's 84-year-old Joe Paterno, has called it a "lousy trend," saying players are only young once and should "go to prom."
Sarkisian is sensitive to that. The Huskies' coach has told Seferian-Jenkins he wants him to participate in the capstone moments of his high school experience such going to his final prom in the coming weeks.
Even with his opposition, Paterno is having freshmen enroll early, to stay competitive in recruiting. Penn State had seven Nittany Lions join early in 2010, the same number as Big Ten-rival Michigan that year.
Florida had 11 last year. Texas had 17 combined in 2008 and '09.
Montana, Cooper and Burnett, who enrolled early last year out of Culver City High School in Southern California, all said joining college ahead of their classmates forced them to grow up - which in turn allowed them to handle the heavy, concurrent commitments of college academics and football much better than they might have while enrolling on time.
Huskies running back Chris Polk enrolled at UW early, for winter quarter in 2008. That is why the junior is now closer to graduating than his classmates. When his mother assured me during last season that her son wasn't leaving for the NFL this spring, she cited Polk's accelerated progress toward graduating as the primary reason.
Burnett said enrolling early "helped me mature a lot. I came from living at home. Just coming up here on my own, coming from Los Angeles, it helped me grow as a person and academic-wise it helped me be proactive. Just to take care of things on my own."
I asked the linebacker what the toughest part was about essentially being a high school kid in college.
"Ha," Burnett cackled, "being away from my mom. And just keeping so much on a time-schedule basis. Everything was a time schedule, time schedule. In high school it was just, you go to school, you had practice after school, you go home. Now, it's meetings, you have to lift - your home is here.
"It took me a little while."
Cooper used enrolling early to become the star of last year's spring game, when he rushed for more than 100 yards. Then he shredded his left knee in preseason drills in August and took a redshirt season. He still wears a knee brace and is being limited from contact this month.
He is a big supporter of enrolling early, which Huskies coaches presented to him as a possibility during an early recruiting trip to Citrus Hill High School in Perris, Calif.
"It got me used to the schooling," Cooper said. "Coming straight out of high school, it was teachers telling you you've got to do your homework. I mean, when you get up here, you have to look online and find out when your due dates are. It forces you to be responsible, basically."
Cooper met NCAA eligibility center requirements and accelerated his graduation from Citrus Hill High by doubling up on his English classes, taking an additional economics class and a government course. He took seven courses in his final term to be in compliance with the NCAA and become the first player in his four-year-old high school to graduate early to start college.
"I was excited for it," he said. "I was ready for a new start, and I was ready to run for it."
Seferian-Jenkins is obviously ready for it.
Hasn't it even been a bit tough for the youngest player on the team so far?
"No," Montana said.
Then he added wryly, knowing fall camp and the real season are still months away: "Not yet."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.