SPARTANBURG, S.C. - The top seniors in the Carolinas were supposed to get a break from recruiting this week.
But, that clearly isn't the case at the North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl. Not with nearly 50 Division I recruits all practicing and competing against one another on a daily basis and certainly not with nearly 100 Division I assistant coaches watching from the sidelines.
The annual all-star game features several of the nation's top ranked uncommitted prospects and over the last five days, many of them have either decided to narrow the list of schools they are considering or expand it.
New official visits are being scheduled and others are being rearranged. Big-name coaches are calling some recruits for the first time and many of the players who have committed are trying to convince certain teammates to pick the same school.
NOTRE DAME'S NEW COACH MAKES FIRST RECRUITING CALL Montario Hardesty had eliminated Notre Dame from consideration until the Fighting Irish's new coach Charlie Weis gave the four-star running back from New Bern (N.C.) High a call yesterday night.
"(Coach Weis) told me that I was the first person he called and that he will take over at Notre Dame in 48 days," Hardesty said. "He said he told his staff that he wanted to go after the best skill players in the nation and they really wanted me.
"After Notre Dame fired coach (Tyrone) Willingham I cancelled my visit there, but I might go there on Jan. 21. I also might go to N.C. State or Clemson on that date, but I'm not sure if I will take a visit that weekend. I am definitely going to Tennessee on Jan. 14."
Hardesty had been listing Tennessee as his favorite for months, but heavy interest from North Carolina coaches in recent weeks and an official visit to UNC earlier this month has completely changed his outlook.
"At the beginning of the season I wasn't even thinking about UNC," Hardesty said. "But they won some big games and they are recruiting some good players.
"Tennessee and North Carolina are my leaders now. Tennessee is probably a slight No. 1, but UNC is right there. It's 50-50 and it's real close. Virginia Tech is right behind them."
THREE-TEAM RACE FOR 4-STAR RECRUIT Four-star defensive end/tight end Everette Brown (6-2, 240) also includes North Carolina among his leaders. Brown recently eliminated N.C. State and Georgia from consideration. The prep star from Winston-Salem, N.C., is looking at Florida State, UNC and Virginia Tech.
"I don't have a leader right now, but it is down to those three," Brown said. "I have two official visits left at UNC (Jan. 14) and Virginia Tech (Jan. 21) and then I will make my decision."
Unlike many other big-time recruits, Brown says getting early playing time isn't a major factor. Other aspects of the prospective schools are much more important to him.
"Redshirting is a possibility, but more importantly I would like to go to a college town," Brown said. "I am not a big city guy, and I want to major in business.
"Distance is also a big factor. FSU is an 8 ?-hour drive away from my home, but I would be willing to make that sacrifice for FSU. They are the exception. I took my first official visit there this past week and it was my first time there. It's a pretty place and Bobby Bowden, who had come to my house the week before for an in-home visit, had us over for his house for dessert. They had my favorite banana pudding so that was fun.
HANNAH'S BIGGEST WISH - PLAYING TIME Distance is a big factor for Everette Brown's partner on the North Carolina defensive line, too. But, four-star defensive end/tight end Jonathan Hannah, who cancelled an official visit to Oklahoma earlier this year, won't settle for sitting on the bench next season.
"A coach from Penn State told me that if I don't play next year something is wrong," Hannah said. "I'm a very impatient person and I don't expect to start, but I do think I can contribute right away at any school I choose."
Hannah will choose between a growing list of schools that includes Florida State, UNC, Virginia Tech and a pair of recent additions - Georgia and South Carolina. He has visited UNC nearly 15 times.
Some recent talks with Shrine Bowl teammates Joe Cox and Mohamed Massaquoi (Georgia commits) likely increased his interest in the Bulldogs and several phone calls by new South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier have increased his intrigue in the Gamecocks.
"Joe and Mohamed are master recruiters, along with a lot of the UNC guys," Hannah said. "Plus the idea of being part of game day at Sanford Stadium is amazing. I think I am going to take an official visit to Georgia. "I am going to South Carolina on Dec. 22. Coach Spurrier left a voice mail for me a couple weeks ago and I couldn't believe it. He sounded just like he does on his press conferences. I called him back and he said they really want me."
BAKER STILL THE MYSTERY MAN Five-star recruit Toney Baker, who is ranked the No. 3 running back in the nation, is the biggest star at the annual all-star game. The prep legend from Jamestown, N.C., who finished with over 10,000 career rushing yards, continues to insist that he is considering the same five schools he has been for months - N.C. State, Tennessee, UNC, Virginia and Virginia Tech. He plans to announce where he is going at halftime of the U.S. Army All-American game.
"I'm not sure where I will take my other visits right now," Baker said. "But, it will be irrelevant when I make my decision. I've already visited all the schools I am looking at least twice so I know what they are like. It will come down to where I know I can feel comfortable for four years."
Baker recently took his first and only official visit to N.C. State, who recently lost star running back T.A. McLendon to the NFL.
"The visit went pretty good and my host was DeMario Pressley from Greensboro, which is close to where I live," Baker said. "McLendon's decision to go to the NFL won't affect me. I would go there whether he was there or not if I liked it the best."
SOONERS LEAVE GREAT IMPRESSION ON CROUCH Curtis Crouch is among the most sought after offensive lineman in the nation. He is looking at four programs, including Clemson, N.C. State, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech.
"I took an official visit to Oklahoma already and it was wild and much more than I expected," Crouch said. "It was a very big surprise and it made me think I want to play for them.
"Distance is not a factor with me and I also really like Florida. I know I wouldn't mind blocking for a guy like Chris Leak."
NEAL NAMES A LEADER Four-star athlete/cornerback J.C. Neal has a new favorite and has some new found interest in South Carolina thanks to a handful of calls from Spurrier. Neal is heading to South Carolina (Jan. 7), N.C. State (Jan. 14) and Clemson (Jan. 21) for official visits.
"N.C State and Virginia Tech are my leaders," he said. "N.C. State is No. 1 by a little bit right now. I went to a game there this year and my adrenaline got pumping right when we stepped onto the field. "South Carolina is coming on, too. Coach Spurrier told me he runs a spread offense and that I could get the ball a lot."
VIRGINIA COMMIT NOT DONE LOOKING AROUND Three-star receiver Brandon Woods has committed to Virginia, but he hasn't shut out other schools.
"I think I am going to officially visit South Carolina and Virginia Tech in January," Woods said. "Coach Spurrier called me and that was a big surprise. He said he considered me one of the top receivers this season."
ROBINSON DETERMINED TO REACH NFL Four-star defensive back Jamie Robinson has been one of the most talked about players this week on either roster and he will take official visits to Florida State (Jan. 7), Clemson (Jan. 14) and Virginia Tech (Jan.21). Like many top defensive backs, he idolizes a former Seminoles cornerback.
"Dieon Sanders," said Robinson with a big smile when asked who he patterns his game after. "All the schools recruiting me think I can be a lockdown corner similar to him. I've taken unofficial visits to all of them."
The school that has turned out the most and best pro players may just get rewarded with a signed letter-of-intent from Robinson.
"I do look at what NFL players each school has produced and that plays a major role for me and my decision," he said.
HOLLIDAY'S DEPARTURE NEWS TO N.C STATE COMMIT When asked about his reaction to the news that coach Doc Holliday joining Urban Meyer's staff at Florida Friday, three-star receiver and N.C state commit Levin Neal said he had no idea that that Holliday (his main recruiting coach) had left.
Neal said he remains firmly committed to the Wolfpack and thinks prep teammate Geron James will be part of the same recruiting class.
"I think Geron will pick N.C. State, but he is talking about Georgia and Virginia Tech, too," he said.