Utah has its share of great high school athletes. In football, probably more than its share. And local and out of state colleges come flocking when elite prep athletes emerge, to a degree that is almost overwhelming.
It’s called the recruiting process. Players field phone call after phone call, text message after text message and receive reams of letters, packets and brochures in the mail, all while trying to also focus on schoolwork, games and practices, and their social lives.
What is life like for a highly recruited, four-star athlete in Utah? The Salt Lake Tribune talked to three football players and two basketball players — all juniors and uncommitted — to find out.
Lander Barton, outside linebacker, Brighton
Barton comes from a University of Utah family. Both of his parents played sports there. His older brothers, Cody and Jackson, played football there. His sister, Dani Drews, plays volleyball there.
But the four-star linebacker keeps his ideas of where he might go to college close the vest.
“I kind of keep it personal,” Barton said. “I don’t even talk to my parents about what schools I’m seriously deciding about.”
His parents, Barton said, are pushing hard for him to choose the U. So far, the majority of the his offers have come from Pac-12 schools. He’s also received offers from Utah State, Virginia, Notre Dame and Nebraska. He estimates the total offers to be in the teens.
Like Kohler, Barton is constantly talking to college coaches. And his schedule is so regimented that he’s having to field calls and texts in the in-between moments of his daily routine — like in the car on the way to school or lunch or basketball practice. He said it was overwhelming at the beginning, but he’s now become accustomed to it.
What Barton deals with now, though — other than people constantly asking if he will pick the U — is the looming day when he will have to tell a bunch of coaches he didn’t choose their programs.
“I don’t like to let people down or disappointing people,” Barton said. “So I would say the hardest part for me is deciding where I’m going to go just because I’ll feel bad for turning other people down. But then also that’s part of it. You have to do that. It’s the real world. So I know I have to do it.”
Barton has received input and advice about the recruiting process from his two brothers, who now play for NFL teams. After watching his brothers go through the process, it’s “surreal” that it’s now happening to him, he said.
One of the most impactful lessons Barton has learned through being recruited is a personal one. His other family members, he said, describe him as “shy,” whereas they are the opposite. But having to speak with so many coaches at all hours of most days has helped him with that aspect of his personality.
“Throughout this experience, talking to all these different people, it’s kind of helped me come out of my shell a little bit and just talk more, if that makes sense,” Barton said.
Jaxon Kohler, center, American Fork
Since as early as he can remember, Kohler has wanted to come a professional basketball player. He has seen home videos of himself as a 2-year-old shooting on a miniature basketball hoop.
When he became serious about the sport, he was in third grade. On the advice of his father, who said Kohler would grow to be quite tall, he sought out videos of players who exhibited exceptional footwork. He discovered Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale.
Now 17, Kohler fields calls and text messages practically every day from programs all across the country. Texas A&M, Arizona, Iowa, Gonzaga and Cal are just some of the big colleges in regular communication with him. He’s already received offers from BYU, Utah State, Saint Mary’s and UC Santa Barbara.
Kohler said his first offer came from Southern Utah University in the summer before ninth grade. And while some of his peers become “a little lazy” when they start getting attention from colleges, he’s just grateful for all the offers and tries to keep an even keel.
“The most important thing is just to not let it get your head,” Kohler said.
Still, Kohler is competitive. When he plays at camps with other four- and five-star recruits who have gotten offers from school like Kansas and Duke, his mentality is proving to those coaches that he has what it takes to get offers from them.
“I’m trying to beat those guys out,” Kohler said. “So I’m not focused on mine. I’m just focused on beating theirs. … It’s always a competition to me. Whatever this person got, I’m trying to get that, too, or even more.”
It’s been a while since Kohler has received a new scholarship offer, he said, but he attributes that mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic and the NCAA’s inability to travel or have athletes make official visits.
Cavemen coach Ryan Cuff coached Isaac Johnson, who went to Oregon to play basketball and was constantly saw college coaches at his practices. With the coronavirus pandemic, that hasn’t been the case for Kohler, but Cuff believes the junior’s time will come.
“Jaxon is going to have those same opportunities,” Cuff said. “He’s going to finish really strong his junior year. It’s going to open up more doors for him. And I think down the road as he continues to get stronger and he continues to develop into that complete player, that’s just going to continue to open doors for him.”
George Maile, offensive lineman, Bingham High
Although Maile suffered a torn ACL in the sixth game of his junior season with the Miners, he’s still getting attention from several big names. Among them are Utah, Utah State, BYU, UCLA, USC, Baylor, Tennessee and Nebraska. In all, he has more than a dozen offers.
“He could pretty much go wherever he wanted,” Bingham coach Dave Peck said.
But Maile is feeling the pressure of all the attention he’s getting. He said coaches call or text him “every day, every hour,” and is not shy about saying how stressful the recruiting process has been for him thus far.
Maile, who is the nephew of former Utah State interim coach Frank Maile, takes the edge off by working out, seeing friends and playing video games. He wants to enjoy the attention but also, in a sense, not lose his adolescence too quickly.
“I still want to go to college and everything, but I still want to be a teenager too,” Maile said. “I still want to experience life.”
Maile received his first scholarship offer when he was just a freshman. It was at a University of Utah camp after he fared well against more experienced players. All he could do in the moment was excitedly express his gratitude.
In the years since, he’s kept track of his all his offers by keeping an updated list on his phone. He hasn’t started whittling down the contenders just yet.
But Maile does have a clear idea of what he’s looking for in a program. He said he’s considering education first and foremost, and wants a college that offers his “backup plan,” as he will major in construction management. From there, he wants a program that will develop him well as a player, and also one that “feels like home.”
Since his ACL surgery in November, Maile’s rehab has been going well, he said. He was recently selected as an All-Star for the 2022 Polynesian Bowl next January. It’s been a goal of his to play in that game since eighth grade.
Peck described Maile as a hard worker and a “leader in the room” among his teammates.
“He’s really a coach’s dream,” Peck said. “He’s the whole package. There’s a reason he’s a four-star guy.”
Peck also said Maile has felt some of the pressure of being a highly recruited athlete, which makes the junior train so hard that sometimes he has to suggest Maile take it easy. But the longtime football coach sees big things for Maile’s future.
“I think George is a potential NFL guy,” Peck said. “I think he’s got everything that you would want out of a potential guy that’s going to go play for a lot of years.”
Richard Isaacs, guard, Wasatch Academy
Isaacs might be the most high-profile prospect of the five merely because he attends Wasatch Academy, arguably the premier basketball program in Utah. He’s had so many offers from colleges that he stopped keeping track.
Among the schools he said have offered him scholarships are Kansas, Oregon, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Illinois, Arizona State, Arkansas and Florida State. His recollection June 15 of last year was when the calls started pouring in.
“Ever since that day, I just knew that the process would be stressful,” Isaacs said.
Isaacs’ first offer was from UNLV when he was in eighth grade. He got it from the school’s assistant coach when he saw Isaacs win MVP at a camp in his hometown of Las Vegas. Although, he couldn’t do anything with that first one because college coaches are prohibited from talking to athletes that young.
Isaacs — whose nickname is “Pop,” given to him by his father for the noise the basketball made as a kid when he dribbled — said he has difficulty reconciling with the idea that he will have to tell so many schools “no,” especially because “so many great schools that are recruiting me, so many good head coaches out there that I know I could play for.” He doesn’t talk to his high school coaches or friends about the recruiting process, he said, but does get plenty of help from his dad, who is well-versed in the goings-on of college recruitment.
“A lot of these kids have great parents, so their parents do a good job navigating who comes in and out of their lives, who gets their phone numbers and things like that,” Wasatch Academy coach Paul Peterson said.
Peterson is in his first year as head coach of the Tigers after two years as an assistant under Dave Evans, who now coaches at Real Salt Lake Academy High School. He’s seen many players come through the Wasatch Academy program and go on to prestigious colleges to continue their careers.
“The hardest thing is keeping them hungry because they do know that they are very good and and they’re being contacted by a lot of schools, a lot of reporters and stuff,” Peterson said. “The biggest thing is just trying to get them to always help others.”
But, Peterson said, Isaacs is not the type of player he needs to keep hungry. The junior guard does that himself.
“He kind of keeps a chip on his shoulder at all times,” Peterson said.
Carsen Ryan, tight end, American Fork
Ryan is a little further in the recruitment process than the other three uncommitted athletes in Utah. From 18 offers, he’s whittled down his list to six choices: BYU, Colorado, Nebraska, UCLA, Washington and Virginia.
The common theme among those six, he said, is their history of developing players at his position.
“They’re all big tight end schools,” Ryan said. “All those schools in past history have developed tight ends into the NFL and they have good tight end coaches and coaches I really like and connect to.”
Ryan’s first scholarship offer was when he was a sophomore at Timpview. Before he narrowed his choices, he at times felt overwhelmed with the amount of calls he fielded from coaches and the work it takes to short through all the schools.
“It dominates your life a little bit,” said Ryan, who transferred to American Fork. “It’s a lot to kind of keep track of. You have to put a lot of research into the schools that are looking at you and have offered you to kind of figure out where you want to go. And it’s a pretty stressful choice, but it comes with it.”
Now that he’s down to just six schools, Ryan will start getting further dissecting each one. Who is the strength coach and what is that program like at each school? Who are the tutors for the football players? What is the team’s average GPA in recent years? Those are all questions he’s looking to answer before making his decision most likely sometime during his senior season with the Cavemen. He is also looking to graduate from high school early.
Ryan has had some help from high places during his recruitment. He said his dad coached Garett Bolles, now a left tackle for the Denver Broncos, at Snow College, and the two families became close. So he and Bolles have had conversations about what to expect from college coaches and also how to talk to reporters.
Ryan said his mother has been one of the most helpful people during his recruiting process because she keeps tabs on the coaches’ presentations.
“When they’re pitching their programs, she’ll always make sure to remember everything they say,” Ryan said. “That’s a big help too — kind of having someone there to kind of have it all down and help you made a decision. It takes a lot of weight off your shoulders. You don’t have to worry too much about it.”
In all, Ryan has enjoyed the feeling of being wanted.
“I’m extremely grateful for it,” Ryan said. “Being able to talk to the head coach at a college football team and getting to know all these different players from around the country, going on campus and stuff, is really cool to me.”