The long, strange recruiting journey of Eddie Vanderdoes has come to an end. Maybe. Probably.
Vanderdoes, a Rivals five-star defensive lineman from Auburn, Calif., originally made a verbal commitment to USC. As Lane Kiffin’s 2012 campaign went off the rails, Vanderdoes was one of the many recruits who reopened his recruiting. On signing day this February, the big man chose Notre Dame and signed his national letter of intent (NLI).
Done deal? Not quite. Last month rumors started to swirl that Vanderdoes was getting cold feet about reporting to South Bend in June with the rest of the freshmen. A possible alternative was UCLA, which was one of his finalists back in February. Things remained pretty cryptic, with Vanderdoes saying he “would come out with a statement soon.”
Soon was today, as Vanderdoes texted the Sacramento Bee that he would be enrolling at UCLA this month:
"I would like to thank the University of Notre Dame for lifting the recruiting ban and allowing me to sign an athletic scholarship with UCLA," Vanderdoes' text message read. "Over the past four months, circumstances have changed for me and my family. For very personal reasons, I feel a strong need to remain close to home and be near those who are most important in my life.
"I am honored and humbled that Note Dame thought enough of me as a person and a football player to offer me a scholarship. They have been very gracious to recognize not only how difficult a decision this was, but also how important it was for me to be near my family at this time. I take my commitments seriously, but as circumstances changed, the most important commitment is the one made to family."
However, Notre Dame has declined to release Vanderdoes from his NLI. That means while the defensive lineman will be able to attend classes and practice with the Bruins, he won’t be able to play this fall. The “recruiting ban” that Vanderdoes mentions in his text simply means he was allowed to talk to other schools, something that isn’t allowed once you sign that NLI. For all intents and purposes, this is a transfer.
Head coach Brian Kelly released a statement Tuesday afternoon outlining the Irish's decision:
"Eddie Vanderdoes will not be attending the University of Notre Dame. We did not release him from his national letter of intent in order to protect the integrity of that very important program but we have worked with the Vanderdoes family so that Eddie can continue his education this fall at a school closer to his home. We understand Eddie’s interest in remaining closer to his family and wish him well.”
Notre Dame will almost assuredly face blowback for this, but they have a brother in ACC arms. Florida State has been doing this same dance with Matthew Thomas for most of 2013, as the five-star recruit signed his NLI with the Seminoles and then decided he wanted to enroll elsewhere (likely USC or Georgia). Last month, FSU athletic director Randy Spetman minced no words about their reluctance to release Thomas:
“We would be more than happy to release someone if there is a compelling reason,” Spetman said.
One such reason might be a family situation that makes it important for a student-athlete to stay close to home. But simply requesting a release because of a change in heart is something Spetman said he couldn’t remember happening at any point in his career.
“You’d get into a situation where if you release him, then people would be doing that every year,” Spetman said.
The natural instinct when following college football is to side with the players, but it’s hard to blame Notre Dame or Florida State in this situation. No one forces recruits to put pen to paper on signing day, as you’re allowed to wait. (Recent examples of post-signing day commitments include Seantrel Henderson and Davonte’ Neal.) Some top basketball recruits never sign their NLI, knowing that there will be a roster spot available for them. Elite football recruits haven't tried this yet, but it only takes one to start a trend.
If universities start releasing players simply because of changes of heart in the spring, it’s only going to make recruiting more of a circus, as even signing day will eventually lose its value. While other schools are thankful Spetman and Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick took a firm stance on this, the experience can also serve as a lesson to future recruits: Until you are 100 percent, totally sure about your college choice, stay away from that fax machine.