By Jason Huber. February 6. 2017. BOONE, NC — Most high school athletic careers evolve in stages. Watauga fullback Evan Suggs’ was different because he burst onto the scene as a sophomore and just kept going and going and going.
COVER IMAGE: Evan Suggs on the run. Photographic image by Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News
Getting an opportunity to start as a sophomore fullback against the Hickory Red Tornadoes in November 2015 when senior regular Zach Williams was forced to sit out because of an injury, Suggs made the most of it in rushing for 240 yards and two touchdowns on just 23 carries.
Just a year removed from playing on the junior-varsity team as a freshman, the game gave Suggs confidence that he could play beyond high school – and maybe way beyond.
“It wasn’t until my sophomore year against Hickory that I realized it was the real deal,” Suggs recalled. “That I had the potential.”
When it comes to college athletic scholarships, there is a lot at stake. Think: family finances, or “How are we going to pay for our kid’s college education?” Think: limited college resources, or “We only have so much money and so many scholarships to give out to meet our team goals of winning a conference or even a national championship.” Think: NCAA regulations, or “You can only give out so many scholarships and there has to be a gender balance for the ‘head count’ scholarship awards.”
According to a CBS News website, Market Watch, the odds of a high school athlete winning an NCAA college sports scholarship of any kind are pretty dismal, much less a full ride to a Division I school. Market Watch offers that only about two percent (2%) of high school athletes — that is two in 100 — win athletic scholarships of any kind or size and that the so-called “full ride” scholarships are even scarcer. Snagging one to any Division I school puts you in rarefied air.
Lynn O’Shaunessy, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price” (2012, Pearson Education, Inc., Upper New Saddle, New Jersey) confirms that bleak outlook for receiving a scholarship and concludes, “In most cases, it’s best if families assume that an athletic scholarship isn’t going to happen. Instead, teenagers should focus on being the best students they can and, if they do, they will increase their chances of earning academic merit awards which are much more plentiful. At private colleges and universities, 85% of students receive an academic scholarship or grant.”
So this is the scholarship environment into which Evan Suggs entered. As a star athlete and a good student academically, surely it was the proverbial “piece of cake,” right?
Suggs officially signed with Wofford College as a fullback on February 1st, the NCAA’s “National Signing Day.” By putting pen to paper, he achieved the first of his goals by signing with a Division I college — but the transition from being a high school star to a bona fide college football prospect did not go as smoothly as Suggs had hoped.
A Boone native, Suggs grew up a die-hard Appalachian State fan. He attended every game during the Mountaineers’ run of three straight national championships at the FCS level. And of course he admired 3-time All-American and 2-time Walter Payton Award winner, Armanti Edwards.
Just like Edwards, Suggs had dreams to become a star collegiate football player and get a shot at playing in the NFL.
If you want a good education, you should narrow your list down to those schools first.
From the very beginning of his high school athletic career, Suggs’ father told him, “Work hard. You will get what you want if you’re willing to put in the work.”
Suggs did exactly that, finishing his high school career as a four-year varsity letter winner, named to the 2015 and 2016 all-conference academic team, Northwestern all-conference first team running back selection and the 2016 Northwestern Conference “Defensive Player of the Year,” as a linebacker.
And yet, there was a problem. Not only is Suggs an elite high school athlete, he is also a very good student with an interest in math and science. He has a strong academic interest in engineering. But Suggs was not receiving any recruiting calls from colleges.
Part of the reason was because of the small amount of media exposure by playing in Boone, but Suggs also admits to not fully understanding the recruiting process.
“I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal because I didn’t know the system,” Suggs said. “It wasn’t until I began seeing other athletes against and with whom I competed getting signed to bigger Division I schools. I wondered how I could get like that. What did I need to do?”
Statistics were not a problem for Suggs. Rushing for a career 4,196 yards and 53 touchdowns at Watauga in addition to being a star defensive player, Suggs had all the attributes that college recruits usually look for.
Watauga head coach Ryan Habich understands that not everyone gets to play at the next level, but even if they do there is only a small fraction of athletes who make it as a professional. So the football ticket to an outstanding education should be the most important consideration for a high school prospect.
“It’s difficult and can be frustrating because there is so much competition,” Watauga head coach Ryan Habich explained. “You have to be the right speed and the right fit (for a particular college’s system). We tell our kids to control the things that you can control, but also to control your academics. A lot of schools will be looking at your grades. The academics are really what we tell most of our kids (to concentrate on).”
Control the things that you can control, but above all else control your academics.
Habich became the Pioneers head coach in 2013 when Suggs was a freshman on the JV team. He recognized Suggs’ potential and work ethic very quickly and brought him up to the varsity team as an emergency player towards the end of his freshman season.
“As a freshman he was a good athlete and a hard worker,” Habich said. “He was one of the better players on the team, but he was one of the hardest working players on the team, too. He was good in the weight room and a good team player.”
Habich says one reason for Suggs not getting calls was because many recruiters only rarely visit small schools in the mountains. But Suggs also thinks that if he had attended some summer football camps as a high school underclassman, the process may have been smoother.
“After I started learning about the process of recruiting, which I should have studied and learned about earlier, I think it would have been easier if I went to some of those camps,” Suggs said.
Getting exposure to college recruiters is of course very important. As a smaller mountain school, Watauga rarely goes very deep into the state playoffs where college recruiters are in abundance.
“My dad got frustrated with (the lack of exposure), as did I, and he threatened to move a couple times to Charlotte where media exposure is more likely,” Suggs admitted.
One Watauga coach who understands the frustrations of the recruiting process was offensive line coach Steve Breitenstein. Breitenstein’s son, Eric, was a star running back for the Pioneers in the early 2000’s and became an All-American performer at Wofford before receiving a training camp offer from the Carolina Panthers in 2012.
Suggs said Breitenstein, like Habich, is one of the coaches that reached out to schools and let them know that despite being in the mountains, there are good players to recruit in the High Country.
“A friend of mine once told me that you should shoot for a level one higher than you expected,” Breitenstein said. “Then you won’t be disappointed if you are playing at the next level down, because it is all good stuff.”
The more you can get your name on a prospective coach’s list of candidates, the more often he can keep running his finger over it.
Beginning to learn more of the recruiting process, Suggs and his coaches began to reach out to schools at the beginning of his senior year.
“The more you have your name on a prospective coach’s list of candidates, the more he can keep running his finger over it,” Suggs pointed out. “As a senior, you have to be diligent. You have to be in colleges’ hair and let them know you are playing and remind them you are there, waiting for them to express interest.”
Habich made sure to prepare Suggs and his teammates for the intense transition of high school to college life.
“We coached Evan pretty hard here at Watauga and he will be prepared for the next level,” Habich said. “Everybody in division one was a super star in high school and sometimes those players aren’t used to being coached hard or not being the best player on their team. He will do great and the level of competition will be so high that every rep will have to be his best because of the competition.”
Suggs quickly found out that some of the elite colleges he hoped would recruit him were not realistic. But Breitenstein told him that it isn’t all about what school is bigger or better.
“I tell anyone who wants to play college football that you need to find a place where if you weren’t playing football, you’d still like to go to school there,” Breitenstein said. “Coaches are going to change. Programs are going to change. There will be ups and downs and the chance for injury is there. It’s one of those things that if, heaven forbid, you suffer a career ending injury, you still want to go to class and get your education from that school.”
The appreciation of having the opportunity to even be a college football recruit settled in for Suggs and he visited seven schools before making a decision.
“I was always just trying to get as much (information) as I could get. My first priority was finding a good college,” Suggs acknowledged. “I wanted a good education and then athletics would come. I am using football as a tool to help me achieve getting into a college and get a less expensive college education because of that football scholarship.”
I am using football as a tool for receiving a less expensive college education because of that football scholarship.
Suggs reported that he found Emory and Henry College, a Division III college in Virginia, very appealing. He also received a preferred walk-on offer from Western Carolina. But in the end Suggs decided Wofford would be the best fit for him.
“If I wasn’t to play football anymore, I am completely okay going to Wofford and staying there,” Suggs said. “I met a professor who was extremely dedicated to his job and really wants to help the students and teach them. Not just get them through the class. He isn’t teaching to a huge class, he is teaching to you. They really care about their students.”
After a year of frustration and stress that he went through trying to let college recruits know that he had the potential, Suggs is especially thankful for his coaches, family and teammates that helped him during the process.
Preparing to head to Wofford on June 4, Suggs said that if he has the opportunity to talk to student athletes looking for a college, he would let them know that it is about more than just finding a football school.
“You really have to figure out where you want to play or where you think you want to,” Suggs concluded. “If you want a good education you should narrow your list to those schools first. Sometimes it might be a smaller school. I just wanted to go to college and get a good education. When you narrow your list down, you really have to be in that college’s hair. You need to attend their camps, visit them and really command the attention of that coach.”
SLIDESHOW By David Rogers, David Scearce, and Brad Batchelor for Blowing Rock News
UPDATE: After its original publication, additional information was added to this story about how challenging it is to secure a Division I college sports scholarship.