“The Journey” is an eight-part, eight-day series that takes you behind the scenes of the college football recruiting process as South Florida's best make the biggest decisions of their lives. To read other installments of "The Journey" visit SunSentinel.com/Journey.
Deerfield Beach running back Brandon Powell thought his recruitment was over. After committing to Miami in August, it had been a tumultuous five months, but on Wednesday, Jan. 8 he was finally moving into his Coral Gables dorm.
Powell had a closet full of 'Canes T-shirts, a roommate lined up, and a family excited that they wouldn't have to travel to Tennessee — where he originally committed — to see him play.
Then, two days before the move, Florida called.
Powell hadn't heard from the Gators in nearly two years, but the coaches offered him a scholarship and a chance to be the No. 2 running back in spring camp.
Powell and his family spent hours debating whether he should stick with his non-binding verbal commitment to Miami, or take a chance with Florida.
When Powell and his father pulled out of the driveway Friday morning, the trunk of the car filled to the brim with boxes and belongings, they didn't turn on to I-95 south and head to Coral Gables, they drove north. Powell moved into his dorm at UF that same day.
Powell's situation is common in the South Florida recruiting landscape. Every year, kids flip their commitment from one school to another, and it's becoming a growing trend.
With National Signing Day approaching on Feb. 5, non-binding verbal commitments are being tested. For players like American Heritage cornerback Juwan Dowels and St. Thomas Aquinas quarterback Wade Freebeck, that test might go until the last second.
The process of changing commitments has become so diluted that the stigma involved with "flipping" has washed away. Thirty-five percent of the top-ranked players in the class have decommited at one point during the process, and that number could rise significantly on National Signing Day.
Powell's flip to Florida wasn't his first, he originally pledged to Tennessee the summer before his senior season, but switched his verbal commitment to Miami two months later, citing a desire to be near his family. Powell's commitment wavered when Miami's coaches hesitated about him playing running back, a position where Powell amassed 1,339 yards and 20 touchdowns during his senior season.
The Hurricanes saw Powell, who played both ways in high school, as a top-flight cornerback.
The uncertainty gave Florida a chance.
"When [Florida] came in that Monday before he was suppose to leave for Miami, and said they wanted him right now ... that does something for a kid," Deerfield Beach coach Allen Jackson said. "That's the school he wanted to go to, I could see it in his eyes right then and there, that's what he wanted."
By enrolling early at Florida, Powell never had to sign a National Letter of Intent, and was able to end his recruitment on his own terms. For both Freebeck and Dowels, a National Signing Day ceremony will put their final decision, and the days leading up to it, in the spotlight.
Freebeck thought he knew where he wanted to play college football, that is, until coaches from Vanderbilt showed up to his school less than two weeks before signing day. Freebeck committed to Pittsburgh in June, but the lure of playing for an SEC program perked his interest. The quarterback wanted to see what Vanderbilt was about, and he took a surprise official visit to campus on Jan. 24.
"I was fully committed to Pittsburgh, so I wasn't entertaining other schools, but when [Vanderbilt] came it was different," Freebeck, said over the phone while taking his official visit to Pitt this weekend.
Freebeck remains committed to the Panthers for now, but Vanderbilt could still land his signature. He's slated to decide on Monday.
Dowels has already changed his commitment once, flipping from Northern Illinois to Syracuse, but another change isn't out of the question. Rutgers visited with Dowels at his home last week, and the Scarlet Knights have been selling the Sun Sentinel Defensive Player of the Year on a chance to play in the Big Ten conference.
On National Signing Day, both Freebeck and Dowels will have multiple letters of intent in front of them. While the plan is to honor their respective commitments, they both will be presented with one last chance to flip.
"I feel bad for even being in this situation," Freebeck said. "But I'm just taking everything and making the best decision for me."