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JASON FORD'S phone would not stop ringing. "I'd be trying to do homework, and a recruiting service would call," the senior running back, who rushed for 6,415 career yards at Althoff Catholic ( Belleville, Ill.), said of websites tracking his college choices. Coaches and sportswriters were also dialing his number. "Five minutes later I'd get another call, and 10 minutes later another call." Last June, after attending a camp at Iowa, Ford thought he had found the right school. He liked the campus, and the top two rushers were graduating, so he verbally committed to the Hawkeyes. "I wanted to get [recruiting] over with because it was getting really frustrating," Ford says. "I thought it was the right decision."
But after he attended the Syracuse-Iowa game on Sept. 8, Ford says, he didn't feel comfortable around the team. In early October he changed his commitment to a "soft verbal"—new recruiting terminology indicating that a player has expressed his intent to sign with a school but wants to keep his options open. Ford visited four more schools and in November said he'll attend Illinois—though he can't sign a binding letter of intent until the national signing period, which begins on Feb. 6.
Verbal commitments carry no more sway than a handshake agreement, but they are ideal for players who want assurance that a scholarship will be there on signing day and for coaches who want to plan the rest of their recruiting class. "I tell a guy, if you verbal to us, it's like we're going steady," says Purdue coach Joe Tiller. "I don't want you dating other people, just like you don't want me dating other people."
But many players who verbally commit as early as the spring of their junior years still go on recruiting visits the following fall, and some, like Ford, end up changing their minds. Thus the idea of an early-signing period for football, similar to the one for basketball, is gaining momentum among college coaches. Powerhouse programs are resistant to the prospect because they often swoop in with a last-minute scholarship offer; other schools want to lock in recruiting classes sometime between August and mid-December.
Cornerback Patrick Johnson of Ely ( Pompano Beach, Fla.), who is Rivals.com's No. 3 senior in the nation, grew up a Miami fan and committed to the Hurricanes last April. But he visited Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU and North Carolina, to the chagrin of Miami message boards—so many schools that the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel ran a story on Oct. 4 headlined UM FRETS OVER A TOP RECRUIT, wondering how hard his commitment was. Publicly, Johnson says he hasn't changed his mind about Miami, explaining that he "just wanted to see what other colleges had to offer," but his father, Patrick Peterson, indicates that his son's decision might not be so firm. "Basically he's open right now," says Peterson. "He hasn't made his decision."
No matter how firm a verbal commitment might seem, many coaches at other schools don't give up so easily and try to stay in touch. Notre Dame ( Sherman Oaks, Calif.) quarterback Dayne Crist, who threw for 2,178 yards and 16 touchdowns with only one interception this fall, first received letters from major colleges as a freshman and took the time to thoroughly research his decision, making unofficial visits to nearly 20 schools. After Crist verbally committed to the University of Notre Dame as a junior last April, he was certain it was the right decision and started telling other schools as much. That didn't stop them from badgering him. "It was still pretty hectic with a bunch of schools," he says, "but this fall it has dwindled."
It takes time for a jilted lover to recover from a breakup.
With the Feb. 6 signing day drawing near, here are the top seniors who are still weighing their college options.