Adjusting to college life becoming priority No. 1 for recruits
Justin King's arrival at Penn State was hardly routine.
For one, King chose to graduate from Gateway early and enroll for the 2005 spring semester.
Pennsylvania's top football recruit at the time also played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, missing the first few days of class, and returned to Penn State without the majority of his clothes or a jacket because his luggage was lost.
Still, King wouldn't have changed a thing.
Getting an early start on his college career, even if he wasn't going to win any best-dressed awards, was a move that afforded King the opportunity to get used to the rigors of BCS-level football without having to prepare for games.
It's the same leap that three prominent WPIAL recruits are performing now as well, as Washington running back Shai McKenzie (Virginia Tech), Blackhawk quarterback Chandler Kincade (Akron) and Gateway athlete Ricky Rogers (WVU) are forgoing their final semesters of high school to get a leg up on the competition.
Upper St. Clair's Rori Blair was afforded an extra semester of eligibility because of a stroke he suffered and started at Pitt for the second semester.
“It comes down to what's more important to you — getting a jump start on your college football career or enjoying that last semester in high school,” King said. “As a senior (in high school), you don't do too much. Leaving early put me in a position to play as a freshman.”
King played both ways as a true freshman and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the fourth round (101st overall) of the 2008 NFL Draft.
While those are still dreams for the local group, growing up in a hurry is something that had to happen sooner or later, McKenzie said.
“It was heartbreaking missing most of my senior year, but you learn that you have to grow up some day,” said McKenzie, who missed the bulk of his senior year with a torn ACL. “It's good to go to class and have expectations for yourself.”
McKenzie, who like the others shuffled his high school class schedule to ensure he met all of his core requirements, started spring-semester classes last week and marveled at the fact that he was surrounded by 300 others.
The sprawling campus also proved a bit of a shocker — and an annoyance for someone coming off knee surgery.
While King proudly walked with his graduating class and came back for senior prom, McKenzie isn't sure about graduation — Hokies camp starts a few days later — and will definitely not attend prom, his heart firmly planted elsewhere.
Enrolling early had monetary benefits for McKenzie, too. At home, he could rehab his knee three times a week.
The same thing happens nearly twice as often in Blacksburg, with McKenzie a financial investment the football program wants to see develop.
“I got to get into the system early and get my credit hours, so I can get a head start,” said McKenzie, who will stick to individual work — jogging, leg press, lateral movements and learning the playbook — during spring drills. “This time next year, I'll be a sophomore in the classroom and a freshman on the field.”
Monessen's Chavas Rawlins discovered a different kind of maturity.
After finding out he was going to be a father shortly before leaving for West Virginia midway through the 2012-13 school year, Rawlins, a quarterback-turned-receiver, knew he'd have to grow up fast.
The entire process humbled Rawlins, who later transferred to Duquesne.
“You basically go from being someone who everybody liked to being another kid in the system,” Rawlins said. “You have to get what's yours.
“It was very humbling. Without that, I wouldn't be as humble as I am right now.”
Kincade did not return voice and text messages. An interview request with Akron's sports information staff went unanswered. Blair could not be reached for comment. Rogers arrived at West Virginia Jan. 6, working out with the team a week later. And while he viewed this as somewhat of an acclimation process, those running the workouts clearly did not.
“As soon as you get here, you're thrown right into the fire,” Rogers said.
“You're expected to do the same stuff. They give you a little leeway, but not much at all; you're expected to work and give 110 percent every single time you step into the weight room, every single time you step into the field house for running.”
King learned quickly that college football was no joke.
During one-on-one drills, quarterback Michael Robinson “made it a point to run double moves. He got under my skin. We laugh to this day about it. He got to respect me because of how I responded.”
King held his own during one-on-one passing drills, against another NFL-bound player.
McKenzie, Rogers, Kincade and Blair can only hope for similar success.