Some benefits exist to early enrollees with Nittany Lions

ASSOCIATED PRESS Penn State players Grant Haley, Saquon Barkley and Lamont Wade dance during charity kickball event with the Children's Cancer Network and HopeKids, this past week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Senior year! Hanging out with all your high school friends. Easier class load. Going to prom. Lifetime of memories — especially for star football players, who often rule the school their senior year.

Why would a football player give all that up to go to college early?

As recently as a decade ago, it was still somewhat rare for a high school star to leave following his senior season to enroll in college a semester early. Nowadays, it’s much more common at big programs such as Penn State, which usually takes on between four and eight early enrollees each year and will have six new ones coming to campus in a couple of weeks.

“Football was partially the reason,” Penn State freshman cornerback La­mont Wade, an elite recruit, said of his decision to enroll early. “Another reason, I just wanted to get out of high school,” he added with a laugh.

“I had an art class and a gym class and just sat around all day, and I was like ‘I’ve got to get out of here.'”

The benefits for Wade and others who enroll early are clear.

“The benefits are you get here to get acclimated to the academics, get acclimated to the standard structure of the daily life of a student-athlete,” Penn State assistant coach Terry Smith said. “You also get spring ball and an extra 15 practices in there to learn and understand the system. And you get a semester plus early summer of weight training and training table, where you can put on some good muscle and good weight.”

All of that early work can help a player develop faster, with the goal of getting on the field and making big contributions as a true freshman. Just as Wade did this season.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Many players who enroll early still wind up redshirting their first year, such as redshirt freshman offensive lineman Alex Gellerstedt.

“From a football standpoint, coming in from high school, you don’t have the same techniques that you need to compete in college,” said Gellerstedt, who enrolled early in January 2016. “Obviously from a strength and conditioning perspective, it’s great to come in and get that full offseason work in before the season starts.”

Everyone who spoke about enrolling early said that being mentally prepared to do so is a bigger element than being physically ready.

“It’s not for everyone,” said Smith, a former high school coach in Pittsburgh who has seen both sides of the issue. “I feel the kid has to be a mature kid being able to handle coming in in January because there are some challenges because the class isn’t as big in January as it is in the summer. There will be four to eight kids typically in January, and they’re coming in in the middle of the year.”

Smith’s stepson, Justin King, enrolled early at Penn State 12 years ago, and that was a positive for the young man as a player and the program. But not all of the kids Smith coached in high school were ready to leave for college early, so he gave them different advice.

“It depended on the individual based on what I thought their maturity level was,” Smith said. “Obviously Justin King left school and went early, and it worked out for him. I had some other kids that played at Ohio State that I just didn’t feel like they were at that point mature enough to handle it.”

One thing that made Wade’s decision to enroll early a bit more difficult was that he’d have to miss out on playing basketball, baseball and track his senior year at Clairton.

“Yeah, it was kind of tough because I had my senior year of basketball coming up and track coming up, and I was looking to go back up to states and win states,” Wade said. “So it was kind of tough, and I took all that into account.”

Then again, playing all those sports could have come with risks for Wade, or any other star high school athlete.

Penn State recently signed one of the top five players in the nation in Harrisburg’s Micah Par­sons, who will enroll early in January and play middle linebacker for the Nittany Lions. Wednes­day night, Parsons suffered an ankle injury during a high school basketball game and was seen walking around the gym on crutches.

Parsons has said he doesn’t think the injury is serious, which is good news for him and Penn State. But the bottom line is that if any star recruit gets hurt playing another sport, it could drastically impact his future, so it’s possible more and more such players could decide to skip playing some additional sports.

While enrolling early has become more popular, far more players still do finish out their senior year of high school and go to college in the summer.

“I briefly thought about (enrolling early) when I was going through the process, but I’ve heard how crazy life gets once you get up to college, so I just thought the time was valuable to spend with my friends and family,” offensive lineman Michal Menet said.

“I knew once we all went to college our lives were going to get a lot crazier. Playing football, you really don’t get to go home a ton. I had a lot of really good, lifelong relationships with them, so I just thought it was valuable to be there and hang out with them.”

Offensive lineman Will Fries also said he considered enrolling early but opted to stay and finish high school.

“I just didn’t think I needed to rush it, just enjoy my time with my friends and family the last couple months in high school and just graduate with my class,” Fries said.

Going to college early doesn’t necessarily mean the young man has to miss out on every aspect of the end of senior year. Geller­stedt said his situation “actually worked out pretty well” in that regard.

“I got to go prom, and I came back for my graduation,” he said.

Smith believes “the benefits outweigh the challenges” for a player who decides to en­roll early. And once the player does get to school, there are things in place to help make sure he is comfortable and can get acclimated.

“We pair them up with mentors, and depending on the position that they play, the coach of that position will pair them up with another older guy in the room,” Smith said.

“Lamont Wade came last year, and I paired him up with Grant Haley. So Grant was in charge and responsible for Lamont and his growth. I held Grant responsible for Lamont, so if Lamont had an issue or problem, I’m looking at Grant to help solve that situation.”

Wade didn’t have any major issues off the field, and enrolling early ultimately did help him get in position where he could play as a true freshman. To him, that far outweighs missing prom and other things he could have done had he stayed in high school.

“No regrets,” Wade said.