Ever since he began playing football during his sophomore year of high school, South Forsyth’s Jalen Camp has been at the center of a tug-of-war between not only his position coaches, but—eventually—college recruiters.
Three years later, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson was the last man standing at the end of the rope.
Camp signed his national letter of intent as part of the national signing day ceremony at South Forsyth High School Wednesday morning, wearing a white, honey-comb patterned hat with a ‘GT’ monogram adorning the front. He never wasn’t smiling. It was proof—Camp was finally at peace, and ready for the next step in his football career.
It never always seemed that way. Originally, the 6-foot-2, 220 pounder was slated to play defensive back for Turner Gill at Liberty University, a private, evangelical, FCS powerhouse located in the shadow of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Liberty won Camp over, beating out Illinois State and Mercer, before the start of his senior season at South. While all three schools were FCS, only Liberty would provide full cost of attendance, and Camp liked that.
Relatively speaking, he liked it. Liberty was his best offer on the table, but Camp had unfinished business—three month’s worth.
Fast forward to the end of his senior year, and Camp was torching defenses. He caught 47 passes for 819 yards and scored 15 touchdowns for the War Eagles, and looked far beyond someone who was in their third year of football. More importantly for him, he looked far more like an elite receiver than a tackling machine.
He had a career game against Colquitt County, the eventual Class AAAAAA state champions, and was an honorable mention for all-state at receiver in a state that had Archer’s Kyle Davis (Auburn), Central Gwinnett’s Major Bellamy (Tennessee State) and Colquitt County’s Kiel Pollard—formerly committed to Arkansas, but headed to South Carolina.
Just as his coaches described him in the summer, recalling him as a 5-foot-11 basketball convert, Camp was a late bloomer.
Johnson, the polarizing coach of the team on the flats who is well known for his run-based, triple-option offense, saw something in Camp. He saw the same attributes that made great receivers out of Demaryius Thomas (who plays in the Super Bowl on Sunday), and recent NFL draft picks in DeAndre Smelter and Darren Waller.
Camp is already bigger than most college defensive backs. He’s already more muscular than most college defensive backs. He can jump, catch, and run, well, better than a lot of receivers already in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
So Johnson wandered into South Forsyth High School in early December to let Camp know that if he wanted to play receiver, he could at Georgia Tech, rather than play defense at Liberty.
“Coach Johnson said I’d fit in their offense, and my Dad kind of stopped like, ‘What? Him, for offense?’ We were so used to being looked at for defense. It was a shock,” Camp said. “That was what I wanted to hear for a while. A lot of schools wanted me for the other side of the ball, but I knew I’d rather play receiver.”
While Camp’s Dad was shocked about his future position, Jalen couldn’t believe he was having a sitdown conversation with the Paul Johnson.
“A Power 5 head coach was asking for me? He was interested. It was really amazing.”
This is why athletes flip. This is why it’s okay for athletes to flip.
“I realized I’d be closer to my family, rather than six hours away. Then, the academics—that’s huge. That was the biggest thing. Knowing what types of jobs lie beyond college there, it’s the perfect fit for me.”
When Camp was first offered by Johnson, he spent a week processing the situation. He first thought it would be silly to play wide receiver in such a system, but a few YouTube videos of Thomas making plays in single coverage while at Georgia Tech changed his mind.
“I was concerned about the receiver’s role in that offense at first, but once I realized the guys they have gotten drafted, I thought to myself about how that’s my ultimate goal.”
It’s easy to speculate that the chances of Camp making it to the National Football League as a receiver in an ACC school are better than playing safety or linebacker at Liberty, away from television cameras. Nevertheless, he sees the prospects of getting an ACC football career and a Georgia Tech education as a win-win.
He had to get through the hard part: calling the Liberty coaches.
“I just didn’t want to do it,” Camp said. “It was stressful, but once I got them on the phone, they were cool. They were supportive. They know it’s a business and wanted what was best for me.”
Camp, along with teammate Alex Barbir and Lambert High School’s Sean Bailey, were the most high-profile seniors in Forsyth County this past season. All three flipped their commitments in the weeks leading up to national signing day, staying true to what has become a national trend—a trend scrutinized by some; a trend that offers intrigue for others.
Barbir, like Camp, didn’t just change his mind over superficialities, as critics would like to allude to be true.
Flashback to the summer, and Barbir, one of the most sought after kickers in America, had just returned from a kicking camp at Rutgers. One month later, on July 24, he committed to Rutgers. He had family ties to the New Jersey area, and Penn State, who made an earlier impression with him that spring, already had a kicker commit on the books.
Then things changed. Not only did Penn State’s other kicker back out, but Rutgers’ program was engulfed in controversy. Disciplinary problems raked through the program, causing negative media attention and the eventual firing of head coach Kyle Flood in late November.
Barbir stood up for the incoming Rutgers class, providing a flame of hope to a rather dark scene in Piscataway, but when Penn State came calling again, he realized that his familiarity with head coach James Franklin and company was much stronger than his unfamiliarity with Rutgers’ new coach, Chris Ash.
So Barbir, on Jan. 26, made the switch.
“It was pretty crazy,” Barbir said about the past year. “I’m obviously so thankful for what Rutgers gave me, but at the end of the day I just have to do what’s best for me. I didn’t even meet the new Rutgers coach until a week and a half ago, and I’ve known Penn State much longer.”
Like Barbir, who moved from one Big Ten Conference school to another, Bailey made the brave decision to move his commitment from one American Athletic Conference school to a division foe.
Bailey was committed to Cincinnati through the season. He appeared a hard commit. He had taken a visit to Florida for a camp, but wasn’t recruited heavily by any major schools. Purdue was also in the picture, but he felt at home with the Bearcats staff.
That all changed in the last week. Like a scene out of Harry Potter, Bailey showed off a gigantic stack of letters from ECU last week. There were too many count, and probably many duplicates. Nevertheless, they stuffed his mailbox.
On Jan. 30 he took his official visit to East Carolina, which plays in the same division as the Bearcats, with his mother and father. An offer from ECU to Bailey’s high school teammate, Anthony Ratliff, added fuel to the fire. However, it all came down to a better opportunity than what Bailey had with Cincinnati, where he would likely wait his turn and learn a new position.
"ECU wants me at left tackle, which I've played at Lambert," Bailey said. "They also plan on giving me some playing time right away, which is huge. I like the area. Cincinnati is more urban, wheras ECU is kind of like a miniature SEC school. It has kind of an Athens feel to it, and I really liked that."
Bailey had the most theatrics of the three big time commit-flips in the county. He sat at the signing day table at Lambert high school Wednesday morning with an ECU hat, a Purdue hat and a Cincinnati hat.
He hadn’t made a peep about a change, but the assortment of hats made it pretty clear that something was up. He picked up the hat with the state of North Carolina outlined across it, and announced he’d join his line-mate in Greenville, N.C.
Even so, the decision was hard for Bailey.
"I was committed there for close to nine months. You build a relationship. It's almost like breaking up with a girlfriend. It's different. It was one of the harder phone calls I've had to make."
If you’re wondering, the AAC hasn’t released its 2016 schedule yet, but the Pirates play at Cincinnati this coming season.
This isn’t entirely a new environment in college athletics. Rather, with social media and dozens of alternative media outlets devoting time to recruiting coverage, the pressure on athletes to make decisions in public are greater than they have ever been before.
Barbir surprised the crowd at South’s signing event in the morning by knocking out a short, fun video interview with Franklin on his phone, on stage, with his teammates in the background. Even head coach Jeff Arnette got to exchange words, once again, with Penn State’s coach—and South Forsyth’s newest friend from the other side.
“This day, what’s important to remember is that, for the kids, it’s a culmination of a bunch of work and sacrifice that they go through to get to where they are today," Arnette said. "They’re young, but so committed. For me it’s a joy to see these guys get the opportunity, because about one-percent of high school kids get to play college football at any level.”
The ECU football Twitter account couldn’t wait to share its announcement that it had stolen Bailey from across the conference (although it kept that detail on the low). Georgia Tech, without being direct, had some words that got South coaches, students, parents and teachers pretty excited.
“I think we really helped ourselves there with the receivers group, with some really athletic players,” Johnson said on Twitter.
Well, yeah. The folks at South Forsyth certainly think so. Jalen Camp, he's known so for a while.