By Andrew Stark
It might be the offseason for high school football teams throughout the country, but for college recruiters looking to attract the next stars to their schools, this is one of their busiest times of the year.
Take a recent Friday afternoon at Independence High School, for example, when coaches from Clemson and N.C. State were on campus eager to see the Patriots’ morning weightlifting workout.
But that’s a common occurrence for Independence and Butler, who are two of North Carolina’s most successful high school programs and feature top-notch college prospects, such as Isaiah Robinson and Isaac Stewart.
Robinson is a rising senior at Independence. The bruising-yet-nimble 5-foot-10, 224-pound running back gained more than 1,500 yards rushing for the Patriots and scored 17 touchdowns during his junior campaign.
Robinson received his first scholarship offer, from East Carolina, shortly after the season ended. Since then, however, he’s received offers from Wake Forest, Louisville and Ohio University.
Stewart, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound Butler linebacker, recorded 103 tackles and four sacks as a junior last fall. Since the season ended with the Bulldogs claiming the Class 4AA state championship on Dec. 1, he’s amassed 11 scholarship offers after receiving his first from N.C. State.
Stewart’s offer list now includes North Carolina, Louisville, Mississippi State, East Carolina, the Charlotte 49ers and Appalachian State. But much like Robinson, there’s reason to believe many more suitors are headed Stewart’s way.
Stewart has a bit of an advantage in the recruiting process, as his older brother, Austin, has been through the same situation and is currently a junior safety at Texas Tech after starring at Butler.
“My brother’s a football guy,” Stewart said. “When he got (video software tool) Hudl, he’d sit down with me and point out what I was doing wrong.
“He also gives me (recruiting) advice because he’s been where I am. Right now, I’m not pursuing anything or calling recruiters because I have a good amount of offers. I used to call recruiters myself, but now I’m focusing on my grades and letting things go.”
Stewart said he plans on making official visits and attending camps at several of the schools that have offered him scholarships this summer.
Robinson, on the other hand said his recruiting process is a little more of a challenge. Instead of hitting the recruiting trail hard this summer, Robinson said he will try to get a job while keeping his skills and body in shape. He said he might participate in a few college camps but mostly will stay around his home.
“It’s kind of been overwhelming,”
Robinson said of the process. “A lot of the colleges want you to contact them, and we have people coming here a lot who tell you to call a certain coach or they’re making their pitch to you on their school. It’s really kind of a lot to take in.”
Robinson added that he thought he wanted to make his college decision before the upcoming season begins but now isn’t sure if he’ll wait to see which school offers the best mix of football, academics and coaching staff.
Although Stewart and Robinson are heading down similar recruitment paths in different ways, each rising senior is facing stepping into leadership roles with their new-look high school teams.
The Bulldogs are replacing 13 players who signed with college programs and return only Stewart, sophomore Jalen Cousar and junior Todjrei Graham as full-time defensive starters.
“The biggest thing for us last year was we had a bunch of leaders,” Stewart said. “We had guys that would lead on and off the field, and we had confidence that everyone was going to be in the right spot, play the whole play and do their jobs.
“I know now going into my senior year that I have to step up and be more of a leader. My brother tells me that all the time. He says the one thing that can help or hurt a football team is leadership. One guy can inspire a whole team. That’s always in my mind.”
While Stewart’s replacing a team filled with college-bound players, Robinson is part of a rising senior class that’s loaded with talent and expectations. However, replacing guys such as N.C. State signee Jack Tocho and receiver
Dequan Barnes leaves a void in the leadership pecking order, something Robinson will, in part, be tasked with filling.
“I know I’m going to be one of the guys who leads vocally and by example,” Robinson said. “I think I’ve stepped up in those areas and done a better job of being more assertive.”
Patriots coach Joe Evans agreed.
“He’s turning into more of a vocal leader,” Evans said of Robinson. “He’s always been a leader by example and shown he can do the right thing on the field, off the field, in the class or in the hallways. But he’s taken a lot more ownership, and it shows.”
On a collision course
On Nov. 8, Robinson and Stewart will likely square off against each other in their teams’ regular-season finale.
“I like to get after it,” Robinson said. “I like to get to the box any way possible. If I have to run someone over or make a move to get around someone, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to get the ball where it needs to go.”
Stopping Robinson and other Bulldog opponents is where Stewart comes in, and that, Butler coach Brian Hales said, is one of his strengths.
“The biggest thing with Isaac is his tackling,” Hales said. “He gets himself in position to make tackles. Whether it’s in the open field or he’s in a pile, more often than not he’s going to make the play.
“He can cover so much ground. He has long arms, can bat the ball down and make the plays that maybe other kids wouldn’t be able to.”
Let the games begin
Both Stewart and Robinson expect to add to their gaudy junior statistics and their total number of offers to join college programs next season. And it’s a safe bet that each player will be making lots of noise for their respective teams on Friday nights this coming season.
Stewart said it’ll be a different-look Butler team, but he expects the defense that features Graham and Cousar, Chad Garrett, Darryl Brown, Jordan Huntley and Clifton Duck to anchor a talented but young group. “Coach Hales said it best,” Stewart said. “We’re not a young team, we’re just inexperienced. It’s going to be a little different this year. We have a lot of guys who played on varsity but were kind of in the shadows. But now it’s our turn, and we’ll be ready.”
Robinson feels he’s ready, too. And he has help. Joining Robinson among the key returnees are receiver Workpeh Kofa, sophomore quarterback Kelvin Hopkins and the entire offensive line, led by Tony Adams. The Patriots also are expected to benefit from the addition of 6-1, 190-pound rising senior receiver Jamiek Davis, a Brooklyn, N.Y., transfer who thus far has scholarship offers from Pittsburgh, Toledo, the Charlotte 49ers, Appalachian State and Buffalo.
“It’s my senior year, and I know we have a really good team,” Robinson said. “All I want is a ring. I’m not focused about any of my individual stats or how many offers I get. It’s just about the championship.”
Evans praised Robinson’s dedication and said he expects a big year from his star running back.
“His recruitment’s well-deserved,” Evans said. “Everything he gets, whether it’s four (scholarships) or he ends up with 35 offers, he’s earned every one of them. His work ethic has always been unmatched, and his competitiveness and will to win is amazing. We’re expecting a big year from him.”
Hales has a similar assessment of his latest star linebacker.
“Isaac’s going to have a lot more responsibility with making the play calls and being a leader in the middle of our defense,” Hales said. “But he’s going to be ready for it.”