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May 25, 2012

Academics still can play role in recruiting

Shamire DeVine plans to spend his college years helping Georgia Tech retain its customary status as one of the nation's top rushing attacks.

But the Rivals250 offensive tackle from East Point (Ga.) Tri Cities was more impressed with Georgia Tech's position in a different set of rankings.

DeVine, the No. 19 offensive tackle and No. 162 overall prospect in the 2013 class, wants to major in computer engineering. Georgia Tech's computer engineering department was rated sixth nationally by US News and World Report in 2011, but Devine said he was surfing the Internet recently and found a service that ranked the Yellow Jackets a few spots higher.

"Georgia Tech was No. 3 in the entire nation for computer engineering," DeVine said after announcing his verbal commitment last week. "The other two [schools ahead of Georgia Tech] didn't even have a football team."

DeVine isn't the typical recruit.

But his story isn't as unique as you might think.

While most recruits cite football-related reasons first when they explain their college choices, a few prospects will pick a school mainly because of its excellence in a given field of study. In turn, some schools do get a recruiting benefit from their high ranking in a particular academic department.

"The ones who do mention it are the sort of kids who are focused on academics as much as football, which isn't a high percentage of prospects," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "Most talk about the facilities, winning, the depth chart, the NFL. The ones who do talk about academics and mention specific majors at specific schools, those are the ones who are going to be academically inclined."

Of course, those academically inclined kids often can become outstanding football players as well.

For example, Ndamukong Suh was a Rivals100 defensive tackle with a keen interest in engineering when he was picking schools as part of the Class of 2005. Suh, the son of a teacher and engineer, got a one-on-one visit with the dean of Nebraska's engineering school as part of his recruiting trip. Rather than merely sit and listen to the dean while daydreaming about football, Suh pulled out a list of questions and spent his session asking the dean about various aspects of the engineering school.

The meeting apparently had an impact.

Not only did Suh cap his Nebraska career by finishing fourth in the 2009 Heisman Trophy balloting, he also graduated with a degree in construction management from Nebraska's engineering school. After turning pro, the Detroit Lions first-round draft pick donated $2.6 million to Nebraska - $2 million for the athletic department's strength and conditioning program and $600,000 to the college of engineering.

One of the most notable examples of a 2013 prospect choosing a school based on a particular academic strength comes from Woodbridge (Va.) C.D. Hylton linebacker E.J. Levenberry, the nation's No. 15 overall prospect.

Levenberry was torn between Florida State and Michigan. He believes both programs have bright futures. So his decision came down to something other than football.

Whenever he's done playing football, Levenberry wants to become a federal agent with the FBI or U.S. Marshals. He made his college choice based on which school would prepare him better for that career.

"Just like in football, I like to help my teammates become successful, I like to help other people," Levenberry said. "Helping find cyberbullies or finding sexual predators of little kids, I might be helping someone and their family. That's something that would make me feel great."

Michigan has a better overall academic reputation than Florida State. The 2012 U.S. News rankings rated Michigan 28th and Florida State 101st among national universities. But Florida State does have a renowned criminology department. In fact, Florida State's criminology department was ranked No. 1 for faculty research last year in an article by the Journal of Criminal Justice Education.

The strength of that department led Levenberry to Florida State.

"That basically was the deciding factor because Michigan and Florida State were so close," Levenberry said. "They were basically identical for me. The only way I could choose a school was by what would be best for my future. Florida State had criminology. That's what I want to do. They had the major in the exact field [computer forensics] that I want to work in."

Florida State isn't the only football program to get a recruiting benefit from its quality criminal justice department. Cincinnati and Maryland also have gained an edge from their strength in that particular field.

About half of the players on Cincinnati's roster are studying criminal justice. Maryland players majoring in criminal justice include starting offensive tackle Justin Gilbert and starting linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield. Wesley Jefferson is a former five-star recruit who recorded 110 tackles as a starting linebacker for Maryland in 2006 before leaving with a year of eligibility remaining to begin a career as a state trooper.

Jefferson clearly followed up on his interest in criminal justice.

What about the other recruits who cite a particular field of study as a reason for picking a school?

Farrell cites criminal justice as a field of study that can offer a recruiting benefit because prospects realistically can balance that major with the demands that come from playing big-time college football. He noted that time constraints make it much tougher for a football player to study engineering, pre-med or any of the other most notoriously demanding majors.

"Trying to [study to] be a doctor while also playing football, it's virtually impossible to do both really well," Farrell said. "Business, criminal justice, things like that, you can do if you focus. But engineering and all those other studies take so much time, it's really just not realistic. Colleges won't say this, but they want you focused on football. They want you focused on spring practice and weightlifting in the offseason and all those things. If you're in a major that takes up all of your time - and some of those majors like engineering and kinesiology are very, very time consuming - it's just so hard to do both."

Some recruits might dispute that theory.

Rivals100 linebacker Doug Randolph of Richmond (Va.) Woodberry Forest comes from a family of doctors. His father and older brother are radiation oncologists. His mother is a dentist and his sister is an ophthalmologist.

Randolph, who has verbally committed to Stanford, doesn't plan to continue the family tradition. He intends to study business at Stanford. But his choice wasn't based on any worries about whether he could balance football and a pre-med courseload.

"My interests were just elsewhere," Randolph said. "Coming from Woodberry, I have pretty good time management skills, especially with sports, so that's really not a factor for me. That played no part. If I really wanted it, I'm sure I could make it happen."

DeVine also believes he can handle the challenges that await him in college. He has managed to balance athletics and academics in high school. He thinks he'll be able to do the same at Georgia Tech.

He savors the opportunity to study computer engineering so much that he said Georgia Tech's strength in that field played a critical role in his college decision.

"It was a big factor," DeVine said.

To at least a few prospects, academics remains the biggest factor.

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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