HARRISONBURG — Andre Booker said all the standard things recruits say when explaining why they verbally committed to a certain college. The defensive lineman from Manchester High School in suburban Richmond, who has committed to play football for James Madison, said he likes the campus, the coaches, and facilities.
But for Booker, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound junior, there is more to Madison’s appeal. He said JMU’s potential move up from Division I-AA to I-A, and coach Everett Withers addressing that possibility with him, was a significant factor in his decision to pick the Dukes.
“When he told me that,” Booker said, “I felt like I might go here ’cause if you’re going to jump to I-A, I mean, that’s awesome.”
Booker said Withers mentioned the Mid-American Conference as a possible destination.
“He told me when I came up with my dad and my granddad, he told me they were thinking about going to the MAC,” Booker said. “I was like, ‘That sounds good.’”
Booker made it clear, though, that Withers never guaranteed a move to the MAC or any conference, and that the Dukes’ new coach was just addressing the persistent rumors that JMU will move to I-A in the near future. These are obvious concerns for a recruit and his family.
Withers, when asked after the spring game last month if he had told recruits that JMU was going to the MAC, said he had not.
“No,” Withers said. “We don’t know. Nobody’s told us we’re going to the MAC.”
JMU officials have said they do not have an invitation to a I-A league, which is an NCAA requirement before teams can move into college football’s top division. Conference USA and the Sun Belt are seen as the only other somewhat logical destinations for the Dukes. If Madison does not receive and accept an invitation, it likely will remain in the Colonial Athletic Association.
While conference realignment is a popular topic for fans, it also is a popular topic for recruits — and it’s one that, even if the speculation turns out to be all smoke and no fire, is helping the Dukes.
Rivals.com ranks Booker as a three-star recruit. JMU’s was Booker’s first scholarship offer, and he got it in February. But Booker and his high school coach, Tom Hall, both said BCS schools, notably North Carolina, also are very interested.
For JMU to get a verbal commitment from a three-star junior in April is extremely rare. This is the time of year when juniors are committing to I-A teams, and Rod Johnson, who covers recruiting for Virginia Preps, said Booker is worthy of his three stars.
“He’s a kid that would probably pick up some interest here in the next month or so,” Johnson said. “I do think that’s a little surprising [he committed to JMU] because you figure that as a three-star kid, you would think that Virginia and Virginia Tech and Old Dominion, the FBS programs, would come through in this next month and they’d say, ‘Hey, we want to see you in a camp,’ or maybe clarify their position with them a little bit.
“I think it will be interesting to see: Is he committed to the point where he’s not going to speak to anybody else, or is he committed to the point where, what happens when Virginia Tech, Virginia, Old Dominion, North Carolina still want to speak to him?”
Typically, JMU gets its first recruits for a class around mid-July and have only a small handful by the end of the summer. Recruits who receive stars – recruiting services rank the best prospects 1 to 5 – are just as rare on signing day.
Booker said he committed early because he wanted to get the decision out of the way.
“My dad and I had a talk. He wanted me to commit now so I could be focused on my team and get myself better instead of looking around and still trying to visit colleges and all that,” Booker said. “He wants me to focus on improving my GPA, getting faster, getting bigger and helping my team do the best they can.”
Hall said a reason JMU snagged the commitment from Booker — and days later, his teammate, 6-2, 313-pound junior defensive tackle Dexter Brown, who also received I-A overtures — was that the coaches just did a good job. Booker said he was recruited by JMU secondary coach Jules Montinar.
“They were just super aggressive with talking to him,” Hall said.
Hall said he never heard a guarantee from a JMU coach about going to the MAC or another I-A league.
“No,” Hall said. “They’re not going to force their hand. They’re always going to talk about the potential, but they’re never going to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ until it’s finalized.”
Johnson said he hasn’t heard many reviews of Withers and his staff yet from high school coaches, but he has heard a considerable amount about JMU and I-A.
“I would say it definitely comes up when you’re talking about JMU, probably half the time or so,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if it’s a No. 1 selling point for [JMU] right now just because, I think, in general, high school coaches, when they hear recruiting stuff, a lot of it is a ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of thing. And it’s not to say that anyone’s doubting that JMU’s going to Division I, but I think a lot of the things you hear [college] coaches say in recruiting, you realize they’re doing the best they can to make their school look the best.”
Matthew Hatfield, who focuses on the Hampton Roads area (the recruit-fertile “757”) for Virginia Preps, said the I-A rumors definitely won’t hurt JMU’s recruiting and that the biggest effects are still to come. But he has heard early reports on Withers, a former Ohio State and NFL assistant, and his staff.
“There are some pretty good vibes,” said Hatfield, who also hosts a Saturday radio show on WVSP 94.1, an ESPN affiliate in Virginia Beach. “They’re just trying to get to know them now. … We’re starting to get to know some of those coaches. Nothing negative that’s come out. It’s been pretty positive.”
Hatfield and Johnson said this month and next, when NCAA rules allow coaches to visit players in person, are crucial for the new regime.
“I think the question, what we’re trying to see, is how coaches with this staff establish an identity. ‘Who are we?’” Hatfield said. “‘What are we out to do? What are we selling?’”
For Booker, a selling point was Withers’ experience. Before spending the last two seasons as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator, he was the interim head coach at North Carolina. He’s also been at Texas and with the Tennessee Titans.
“Coach Withers’ résumé is like, gosh — he shown me when I went up there, he showed his office and he has all the helmets from all the teams he coached for,” Booker said. “That’s the type of guy you would want to listen to — and he ain’t no scrub coach.”