Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 | 9 a.m.
Fernando Carmona Jr. stepped in front of a pass for a steal and dribbled down the basketball court with opponents in quick pursuit. The Las Vegas High School forward outraced everyone to the basket and soared for a dunk.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore’s athleticism was obvious. Coaches say he has good speed for a post player, along with outstanding hands and hustle. It’s a great skill set for basketball, but his family felt he was squandering some of his abilities by sticking to one sport.
Carmona’s dad, Fernando Sr., is a longtime high school football coach in the area. His brother, George, was an all-state linebacker at Cheyenne High before playing at UNLV. They’re both now part of the coaching staff at Las Vegas High, and they pleaded with Carmona to join the football team, even it was just for one week.
Last summer, Fernando Jr. went to practice and fell in love with the sport.
His maiden season as a tight end produced 13 catches for 152 yards and one touchdown—not huge numbers, but not bad for a football newbie. More importantly, it produced game film to show to college recruiters. Coaches at San Jose State liked it so much that they offered Carmona a scholarship. New Mexico State and Portland State followed suit.
Carmona’s senior season was supposed to produce more stats and film, as he became a focal point of the Wildcats’ offense. But now, that has all be shelved by the pandemic, pumping the brakes on the recruiting process for Carmona and other class of 2021 hopefuls.
Even if the season resumes in the spring, it will be after the last college signing day in February. And that leaves Carmona, who was on the verge of earning a scholarship offer from a Power 5 Conference school, in a sort of limbo. His decision is more than picking a school; it’s determining whether to commit now to a lower-tier program or wait in hopes that a spot opens up at a school in a high-profile conference that offers athletes more exposure.
“A lot of the coaches looking at me can see the upside,” Carmona says. “They looked at my basketball tape and see that I am a hustler. They see the athleticism and how that could translate to football. They just need more football tape.”
The postponement of the season has left other local prep football players without any college offers. Many college coaches prefer to see prospects for themselves, flying into town to take in a game as part of their evaluation.
“Coaches want to see you in person,” Las Vegas coach Erick Capetillo says. “Those Division I coaches want to go through their checklist when looking at a kid.”
With many states having punted on the 2020 high school football season, athletes are verbally committing to college programs at a record pace, fearful that other recruits could take their scholarship spots. Even lower-conference schools are receiving pledges at a record pace.
“The kids don’t want the opportunity to disappear,” says David Hill, an assistant coach at Desert Pines who also helps athletes across the city find college programs. “This is the highest commitment rate in college football history. New Mexico had no kids committed at this time last year. This year, they have almost 20.”
Players typically use the spring and summer to participate in recruiting camps and take college visits, which allow coaches to see the athletes’ build up close. Instead, many are taking to social media for simple photos in a doorway to demonstrate their size, or by posting films of workouts at local parks.
With many college campuses closed and most events canceled, being creative in promoting oneself has become vital.
“Twitter has become my best friend,” Carmona says. “You have to put yourself out there. I have a lot of schools on the cusp [of offering]; they just don’t know enough about me.”
One of Carmona’s teammates, quarterback Ja’Shawn Scroggins, is in a similar situation. After passing for 2,600 yards with 39 touchdowns and just five interceptions as a junior, schools such as Southern and a few Division II programs have made him offers, some of which aren’t full-ride scholarships. Another strong effort during his senior season could have brought more possibilities.
Las Vegas athletes in other sports are also feeling the crunch of the cancellations. In basketball, whose high school season finished in February two weeks before the shutdowns, athletes missed the critical spring and summer club recruiting circuits. Most years, some athletes play more than 50 games with their club teams, including events during open recruiting periods scouted by hundreds of college coaches. That’s when the heavy lifting occurs in offering scholarships. Now, a lot is being handled—at least initially—through word of mouth.
“The pandemic has exposed the relationship with [college] programs and the track record that club programs have,” says Lamar Bigby, coach of the grassroots Las Vegas Knicks. “Coaches are forced to trust that relationship, because they can’t see kids. They go to programs that have produced multiple Division I kids.”
Bigby has a unique perspective on the process. His daughter, rising Centennial High senior Taylor Bigby, is a top-20 recruit nationally who has verbally committed to Oregon and plans to sign in the fall. Such elite players aren’t affected by the virus because they can handpick a school, or even wait to visit a campus before they sign. But the players on Bigby’s AAU team aren’t in the same boat, with many working toward more exposure. “The impact falls to those unsigned prospects who are starting to blossom now,” he says.
Games will return eventually, and recruiting will pick up. But for class of 2021 prospects, the window to prove themselves isn’t as wide open. Hill says there’s hope the NCAA will push back the football signing day from February into the spring. “You don’t want to remove all hope from a kid,” he says.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.