TAMPA — Like most high school football players in Tampa Bay, Jeff Keil grew up dreaming about playing for a big-time college program.
One of the most talented running backs in the Tampa area this past season, the Wharton High senior’s elusiveness and speed led to 15 touchdowns and 1,470 total yards for a state playoff program.
Yet today, while dozens of athletes in the area sign letters-of-intent to play for schools like Florida State, Alabama and South Florida, Keil still will be debating his college career options, which may be playing at the Division II or III level.
“I know football has an expiration date, so it’s about getting a degree,” Keil said. “Every high school football player wants to be a D-I athlete. I want to play college football somewhere and get a good degree that will get me a good job.”
For some high school football players, choosing to play at a lower NCAA level creates a better situation.
“It’s more of a family atmosphere,” said Brandon Misener, the creator and executive editor of D2football.com, a comprehensive news website for Division II football. “There’s no million-dollar salary for coaches, so it’s less of a business. Budgets are smaller. At Division II’s, the coaches invest more into the entire student-athlete experience.”
The academic setting at a lower-level university might also be more ideal. The requirement for an incoming student-athlete to qualify at a Division II school is less than at Division I. And while some might think spending two years at a community college to qualify for a Division I program is the right choice, college coaches like Al McCray, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Division II Fort Hays State University in Kansas, say a university setting can’t compare.
“Are the academic resources at a junior college as good as a university?” he said. “The thing I tell them is to go to a university and get a degree. At the end of the day, it’s faster getting a degree at a university than going the junior college route.”
McCray and Misener said high school players, and fans in general, have a misconception of the quality of play at the lower NCAA level.
“We’re a fully funded Division II program,” McCray said. “The (Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association), our conference, is known as the SEC of Division II. I have to go after kids Division I schools said they can’t because (of the athlete’s) test score.”
Today, Fort Hays will sign two players from Miami Booker T. Washington, the national high school champion.
“That thought process is very heavy in the state of Florida. All we know about is Division I football in Florida,” said McCray, who grew up in Miami and spent more than a decade coaching in Hillsborough County at Chamberlain, Middleton and Hillsborough high schools. “We get Division I transfers. There is some serious talent.”
Misener said between 55 and 75 Division II players make NFL rosters each year, like San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead or the late O.J. Murdock, the former Middleton High star who signed as an undrafted free agent by the Tennessee Titans out of Fort Hays State.
“The funny thing about Division II is, people think it’s not very good, but D-II is very diverse,” he said. “Many of the better teams could easily compete in (Football Championship Subdivision) without a problem.”
It is true that if an athlete is determined enough, he could earn a walk-on position at Division I schools like South Florida, Florida or Florida State, but is it worth passing on a scholarship?
“I could definitely go to one of those schools and try to get on, but that’s a lot tougher than securing a spot on a D-II team,” Keil said.
Said Misener: “Division II schools win championships by convincing 10 kids a year to accept a scholarship rather than walk on to a Division I school.”
And the difference between a Division I and Division II player?
“An inch shorter and a step slower,” Misener said.
Keil has made an official visit to Davidson, a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) program, but he did not feel comfortable making a commitment. He’s considering Division III Oberlin College in Ohio. After playing in the Hillsborough County Senior All-Star Game at Raymond James Stadium in December, a terrifying thought passed through Keil’s mind.
Could this be my last football game ever?
“I don’t care if it’s Division I, II or III, I just want to play football,” Keil said. “I’m just trying to play from freshman to senior year and leave with a degree.”