Playing at tiny Carrollwood Day School wasn't going to put Robert Davis on anyone's radar when it came to Division I football recruiting.
Davis, who is trying to break the all-time Hillsborough County record for rushing yardage, was hearing plenty from smaller colleges entering his senior season, but the major universities don't tend to look for running backs who are 5-foot-9, 170 pounds. Davis has the speed, but he seemed destined to go to a smaller school.
Instead, through the work of his coach, and himself, Davis got an offer he accepted to the University of Cincinnati, a Big East member that can conceivably compete for a national title as a BCS school.
Davis is one of many players at smaller schools who have to sell themselves to recruiters. It works, but it takes a lot of effort to get noticed. Big-time schools hover over programs such as Armwood and Plant, but aren't spending a lot of time at Carrollwood Day, a program that has enjoyed success, but usually doesn't have more than a few players who will ever play football at the major college level.
So Davis and coach Lane McLaughlin did some recruiting of their own. More than 100 videos of Davis darting in and out of traffic, rushing for 1,832 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, started catching the attention of some of the larger D-1 schools. So did his 4.3 time at one of the many combines that are offered to high school players as a way to showcase themselves to coaches.
When Cincinnati was the first D-1 school to make contact with Davis, he made the commitment – it is a verbal and he can still back out – but he said Cincinnati was the first to appreciate him and the efforts that he and McLaughlin made.
"We started putting together film during my sophomore year and it all worked out. I went to the combines and got recognized, I filled out some questionnaires and got a lot of help from the coaches. I don't know if they would have found me, but we made sure I was out there.''
To get recruited at a small school or a less-celebrated program isn't easy. McLaughlin said the key is for coaches to make plenty of contacts at clinics and with other high school programs. It makes it harder for McLaughlin since the Carrollwood Day schedule doesn't include many high-profile teams.
They might attract smaller colleges, but Division I coaches tend to spend their recruiting money at big high schools where they can see plenty of talent. In a special case, such as Davis, some of the big schools will stop by and take a look. Davis was offered by Florida International and Florida Atlantic, and also Ball State, which beat South Florida earlier this season.
"We had to send out a lot of film.'' McLaughlin said. "We went to plenty of combines and (Davis) is all over YouTube. It all comes down to making a lot of noise to get noticed, and a lot of networking.''
Mak Djulbegovic played offensive line at Carrollwood Day and was scooped up by South Florida. He redshirted last season, but made it to USF because of a lot of work on the part of himself and McLaughlin.
Coach Bob Dare at Cambridge Christian also has a solid team every year, but getting noticed is also a problem. He said academics are key to getting his players into smaller colleges, but he said that talent still counts for a lot, no matter the size of the school.
"If a kid is really a D-1 player, it's hard to hide him,'' Dare said. "Even if the bigger D-1 schools aren't looking, a good player with good grades is going to get recognized, so at our school, our kids have an advantage.''
Dare sends his kids to the combines and the recruiting fairs that are held throughout Florida. The fairs come at a cost, and it varies depending on how many drills and clinics the players want to go through. There are scouts from all over the nation that attend these clinics, so there are plenty of chances to be noticed if the players can come up with the money to pay for them.
"The kids at this level are not as big or as fast, so we send the films out, but they need to show it in person and the combines really work,'' Dare said. "It's all about the marketing.''
Playing for a big school, even one that loses often, is still a perk. Leto High hasn't won a football game since Nov. 3, 2009. However, Leto plays a schedule that includes Gaither, Armwood and Hillsborough, teams recruiters go out and watch often. Running back/cornerback Andre Simpson is getting calls and Leto coach Matt Kitchie said others are being noticed, as well.
"One of our biggest benefits is that we play in Hillsborough County,'' said Kitchie, now in his second year at Leto. "I have really great relationships with the other coaches in Hillsborough County. At this level, a lot of recruiting is word of mouth. The other coaches that we play are great at letting colleges know about our players who deserve a look. We aren't winning, but we get noticed because of them. I think it is up to all of us as coaches to talk up the players at other schools.''