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August 7, 2012
Stay together, play together
He had hoped that he could play major college football with his high school teammates. He always wanted the chance to play with his friends and they wanted the same.
So when his offer finally came in -- the last of the group -- they all committed together, as a package deal, to Arkansas.
Fayetteville (Ark.) High safety Alex Brignoni did not care one bit that he was last.
"I jumped out of bed when I got the offer," Brignoni said. "I knew I was committing there, there was really no choice for me; I hoped those guys would, too. It would be just like we always wanted."
The trio will make seven players from Fayetteville on the Razorbacks roster when they get to campus next year.
It is often like that when the primary FBS-level football program in the state is located less than one mile from a top talent-producing high school.
"Once we all had the offers, we knew were committing together," Ellis said. "It is a comfort to know that it is behind us and that we will all be together in our backyard."
It was not always clear that the school would offer Brignoni. The three-star player is ranked as the No. 5 overall player in his state by Rivals.com, but that did not get him the early offer that his teammates received.
His Arkansas offer did not come until after the scandal that cost Bobby Petrino his job and new coach John L. Smith had taken over.
Fayetteville head coach Daryl Patton said that he was surprised the school had not already offered Alex and called him the best pure athlete he has coached while at the school.
Patton added that there was no coincidence in the timing of the offer.
"When Petrino got fired it was like a floodgate at our school," he said. "So many schools came in to play for Austin and Brooks.
"Until then we had talked about the possibility that they would not end up at the same school together. I told them that they needed to understand it may not happen."
And then it did.
"I always figured that they would offer Alex if they spent some time looking at him," Patton said. "Once they did offer him it was a done deal that all three would pull the trigger."
Just how each had always hoped it would.
Same but different
In July, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, ranked as the No. 1 player in the country by Rivals.com, made headlines when The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a story saying that he would be a "done deal" to Clemson if they offered his teammate, Ryan Carter.
Grayson athlete Wayne Gallman had been a Clemson commit since April 11.
Teammate David Kamara, a defensive back, committed on June 13.
Nkemdiche committed on June 14.
"We all are really tight. Me and Ryan have been friends since sixth grade," Nkemdiche said. "We all need each other and we want to go to the same school."
Nkemdiche said that he is not wavering on his commitment and that if Clemson chose not to offer his friend, it is not going to be a deciding factor in his recruitment.
Mickey Conn, the head coach at Grayson, said that the initial reports are inaccurate and do not put his players in neither a positive nor a fair light.
"Robert is his own man," Conn said. "But I know for certain he is not going to put an ultimatum on anyone."
He added that the interview was more hostile than he would have liked.
"The reporters were asking him the same question in different ways until they got him to say what they wanted," Conn said. "The bottom line is that they are all friends and they have always wanted to go somewhere together, but they are not going to put demands on Clemson, or any school, to offer anybody.
"What is worse is that Robert is a strong man and this will not stick with him long, but it will cast a shadow on the accomplishments of his teammates and that is not fair as they are earning everything they get on their own merits."
The newspaper has since amended the story with a comment from Nkemdiche stating that he had not implied to Clemson that his commitment was contingent on an offer to Carter.
"Going to the same school is a dream come true for us," Gallman said. "We have talked about it since we I can remember. It was always going to be us."
A package deal.
According to Conn, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has done a magnificent job of recruiting.
Conn and Swinney were teammates, and roommates, at Alabama. The two remain friends aside from their professional paths crossing.
Neither of those facts, according to Conn, had anything to do with this situation.
"Dabo and his staff have done a great job building meaningful relationships with these kids," he said. "It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the relationship he and I maintain. He has not had one kid from Grayson go to his school since I have been here and trust me it's been over 13 years and I have been trying."
The school has sent 29 players to FBS- and FCS-level schools during the Rivals.com era beginning with the Class of 2002. None went to Swinney.
"We have been friends a long time," Kamara said. "We push each other and we need each other to be there. We try to hold ourselves accountable but it is good that one of the others are there to push."
Playing the game
As for Brignoni, his high school teammates weren't above pushing for him.
Neither did, but they weren't opposed, either.
"We didn't ask for Alex to get an offer, but we would have if it came to it," Allen said. "I think you cannot blame anyone for trying to do what they can to help their friend.
"You want to play with your friends, there is a comfort level there, and so long as the guy earns it I don't see what is wrong with telling a school to give your friend a look." Their head coach also did not put in a word.
"It never came up," Patton said. "No one ever made the pitch that if they didn't offer Alex, the other two would go elsewhere. Everyone, including Alex, wanted to earn that offer.
"My job is to be a middle man and not a salesman. I don't try to push kids to a school and I don't try to push kids on schools. I tell each side the positives and negatives."
Until Brignoni did earn his offer, the other players were preparing to go elsewhere.
Ellis was ready to go to Stanford.
Every school in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big XII, SEC, and Pac-12 (except for Vanderbilt) has taken at least one pair of high school teammates in at least one recruiting class since 2008. It has happened more than 200 times in the past five classes.
Some 36 times since 2008, a program from those major conferences has taken at least three players from the same high school class.
"I don't think Arkansas, or any school, would have offered if they didn't think someone was able to contribute," Allen said. "Alex is a great player and he earned his offer."
Even as the top prospect in the country, Nkemdiche doesn't want to be surrounded by strangers.
"We are confident in our abilities," he said. "We can succeed wherever we go but we want to be together."
Conn acknowledged that other players may be following the beat of his stars. But, he said,they were united in the message that staying together was important.
"All of those guys have worked incredibly hard for everything they have got," he said. "Robert, we knew he was special since ninth grade and try to make sure there was support in place for all of the attention. The other guys are lucky to be out of the spotlight because he draws so much attention, but sometimes you cannot protect everyone. They all want to go to school together and they have the chance to do that. Many times kids are not that lucky, but this is a special group we have here."
Groups that want to remain close to one another as long as possible and are seemingly willing to do whatever each is able to do to make it happen.
"It isn't against the rules to take all of us," Brignoni said. "If it were wrong there would be a penalty. We just want to play football and we want to do it together."