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In the money-making machine of college football, athlete compensation has been limited to the dangling carrot of NFL possibilities and the certainty of a free education.
Recently the recruiting cycle has put more emphasis on the student portion of student-athlete because players and coaches alike are doing more studying. Getting an offer to play at your dream school can only be brought to life with the grades to gain the approval of the admissions office.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said his staff does as much legwork on prospects' classroom habits as it does on their football fundamentals.
"A big part on our end is academics," Malzahn said. "We have to do our homework on these kids.
"You can put in film to see if they can play, but it takes more to check in on their character and grades. We have to figure out that part very early in the process so we aren't wasting our time."
Auburn has been ranked in the top 50 nationally among public institutions for providing a quality education. It was named a best value university by Kiplinger. The average high school GPA of the 25,000-plus enrolled students is 3.78.
Its recruiting class finished the class of 2013 cycle ranked No. 9 by Rivals.com. Two signees were ranked as five-star prospects and nine as four-star recruits.
So far in the class of 2014 the program has landed only one commitment -- from Prattville (Ala.) High running back Kamryn Pettway -- but the Tigers have nearly 100 offers out.
One of the seven defensive tackles the school has targeted is Hollywood (Fla.) Chaminade Madonna prospect Khairi Clark. The 6-foot-2, 325-pound lineman, who participated in the Miami stop of the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour, said he is in good standing for whichever school he chooses.
"Academics come first -- before football," he said. "Without the academics, you don't have football."
Clark was not alone in hitting the books.
Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High athlete Brandon Powell has maintained a 4.1 grade point average and is on pace to graduate early and enroll in college for spring practices next year. He plans on majoring in business management and is preparing for life after football.
"Every time I tell a coach my GPA, they don't believe me," Powell said. "They think I am telling them a lie or something."
California is among the 16 schools that have offered Powell a scholarship; his GPA and ACT scores would gain him entrance to the Pac-12 public school -- but he would fall below its 4.19 median GPA.
Golden Bears head coach Sonny Dykes has to use academics to his advantage.
"There is no question that our biggest obstacle will be recruiting guys who fit academically, much more than athletically," Dykes said. "But the good thing for us is that usually the people who have that initial interest in Cal football know that going in and aren't wasting our time, either.
"This is a place that looks hard at academics, but when you see the success that has been had here recently, it also shows that it is committed to athletics."
Dykes and his staff have extended 69 offers to prospects in this recruiting cycle, and they have landed one commitment -- athlete Koa Farmer of Sherman Oaks (Calif.) Notre Dame. The Bears have lost the pledges of 11 others to various programs across the country.
Dykes said the players who can get into Cal are prepared to succeed. The first-year head coach and his staff just need to mold them into what they want.
"I think what has been obvious so far is that the kids who meet our requirements are just hard workers at their core," Dykes said. "If you are going to have good work ethic in the classroom, we believe it will translate into good work ethic with the weights and on the field.
"Kids who have those grades are ready to be leaders, and I feel good about bringing in a group of kids who have those intangibles."
Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck uses his personal account of college to his advantage in recruiting.
He played receiver at Northern Illinois before a brief stint in the NFL. He was an academic all-American.
"There will not be anything expected of these kids that this staff -- myself included -- cannot say we did ourselves," Fleck said. "No one is going to say, 'Well, Coach didn't have the grades,' because I did.
"Academics are very important, and we want our players to work hard in the classroom."
The Western Michigan website said the school does not have explicit minimum requirements but its average freshman GPA is 3.3 combined with a 22 ACT composite score.
Another first-year coach, Todd Monken of Southern Miss, said academics as a general term may be overblown but they are not unimportant.
"Academics are playing a larger role in where kids decide to go, but I don't think it is as generic as that," he said. "If you don't have the major a prospect wants, then he isn't going to your school -- that is pretty simple -- but just having a great academic reputation isn't going to get you all the top players in the country. If so, MIT should start a football team because they would be great."
Southern Miss has 142 undergraduate plans from accounting through tourism. The academic requirements for full-term admission are loosely defined by the university website in four acceptance levels, with the lowest being full qualifiers as defined by the NCAA.
Monken said academics play a role for his staff, but he acknowledged that recruiting to Southern Miss does not come with the same hardships as other schools.
"We look at grades because it is a good indicator of work ethic, but it is not an end-all for us," he said.
"Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Stanford are all on the rise and all are recruiting well, so there is something to be said for kids wanting to get a good education, but there are also enough guys who want to play football and be with winning programs. You have to sell what you have and what the kids are buying."
The three programs that Monken listed have been seeing gains in recruiting.
Stanford had the No. 5 overall class in 2012. Vanderbilt rose to its highest ranking ever to finish with the No. 19 class in 2013. Northwestern had its second-best recruiting class in Rivals.com history with the recent signing of the No. 53-ranked class. The Wildcats' best class was in 2005, when the program finished at No. 52.
Miami receives nearly 28,000 applicants a year and admits just 2,000. The average GPA for incoming freshmen is 4.2, and nearly 70 percent of those admitted are among the top 10 percent of their graduating classes.
Notre Dame received nearly 17,000 applications in 2012 and admitted just less than 4,000. Nearly 90 percent of its enrolled students were in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes.
The two are battling for the services of Rivals100 prospect K.C. McDermott of Wellington (Fla.) Palm Beach Central.
The 6-foot-6, 285-pound offensive tackle is set to announce his decision on Tuesday, and he said his parents push academics and would not allow him to play football if he had a C on his report card.
The focus on academics has helped him in the recruiting process.
He shares a philosophy that many true student-athletes have embraced.
"I push myself to work harder every day," McDermott said, "not only on the field but in the classroom."
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