On Feb. 28, the day before prospective college football players were allowed to start visiting campuses as part of the NCAA’s “quiet period,” an Alaska Airlines jet carrying three of the top 30 high school prospects in the state of Washington took off from Seattle and touched down in Pullman nearly an hour later.
Given the shortage of options travelers have when flying to the Palouse, it probably isn’t too uncommon for three high school players to find themselves on the same puddle hopper, especially during Washington State’s busy spring evaluation period.
But how this situation gets unique? All three players were from the same high school – 4A powerhouse Kennedy Catholic, of Burien – and happen to play the same position – wide receiver – for the Lancers.
And how this could get downright scary, at least for WSU’s opponents from 2021 on? If new coach Nick Rolovich and his staff are somehow able to complete a historic haul of in-state pass-catchers and secure letters of intent from each of Kennedy’s three coveted wideouts – four-star Lonyatta “Junior” Alexander, four-star Jabez Tinae and three-star Reed Shumpert – when the early signing period opens this December.
Given that the Cougars haven’t signed multiple players from the same high school in the same class since 2016, when Jahad Woods and Mason Vinyard joined from San Diego’s Helix High School, the odds seem relatively low that Alexander, Tinae and Shumpert will all be wearing crimson in 2021. Not just that, but WSU’s had multiple consensus four-star prospects sign in the same class just once since 2004 (Cammon Cooper and Rodrick Fisher in 2018), and the Cougars occasionally go multiple years in a row without snagging a signature from a four-star athlete.
But just because it’s implausible doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
“There’s a lot of things certainly working in Washington State’s favor that I think they’re absolutely legitimate threats for all three of them,” 247Sports.com national recruiting editor Brandon Huffman told The Spokesman-Review in an interview last month.
Like it did for almost everything in the sport, the novel coronavirus outbreak knocked college football’s recruiting calendar out of place and prompted the NCAA to implement an emergency recruiting “dead period” on March 13, eliminating players from any type of in-person contact with college coaches until further notice. Even as schools begin to map out scenarios for the college football season, recruits are still forbidden from visiting campuses.
Not only were Alexander, Tinae and Shumpert a few of WSU’s first visitors in early March, they were also some of the last, making the trip over with Kennedy Catholic coach Sheldon Cross, a former graduate assistant for the Cougars during the Paul Wulff era. Often, coaches have to delegate their time to entire swaths of visitors during the spring evaluation period – especially during junior days and spring scrimmages – but the Kennedy players were spoiled with an exclusive tour that offered more individual time with Rolovich and his staff, and gave them a more detailed look at the WSU facilities.
“It was great. It was just an opportunity for those guys to feel like, it’s an unofficial visit but it’s kind of ‘official-ish’ in a sense that there wasn’t anyone else around,” Cross said. “… So our three guys got a chance to really be with coach Rolo and the whole staff. They just got to be loved up by them and they got to really walk the campus and really get the tour of WSU, and really get a feel for like the whole facility and walking around and spending a lot of good time in the weight room with the strength staff.”
All three were vaguely familiar with the scenes and sights of Pullman, having taken individual unofficial visits at various points of the 2019 football season. Alexander and Shumpert also traveled to Pullman two years ago for WSU’s infamous “ESPN College GameDay” matchup with Oregon, and blended in nicely when they rushed the field after Gardner Minshew and the 25th-ranked Cougars sealed a 34-20 upset win over the 12th-ranked Ducks.
“That was definitely probably the most fun I’d had in a while,” Shumpert said. “We got to storm the field after the game, which was cool. It was super fun.”
Shumpert, theoretically, should be the easiest to capture for the Cougars, but first he needs to snag a WSU offer. Air Force and Army have sent offers, along with FCS schools like Bucknell, Georgetown, Idaho State and Montana. If WSU does pull the trigger, don’t be surprised if Shumpert’s immediate response is an oral commitment.
His father, Tony, has an undergraduate degree from WSU. Ever since Reed was a child, the two have made regular trips across the Cascades to watch the Cougars. Shumpert wouldn’t be starting a new collection of crimson clothing if he committed to WSU, but adding to the one that already makes up a large part of his closet.
“That’s been my childhood school since growing up,” Shumpert said, “especially watching them with my dad.”
Alexander has a larger pool of offers, but recently cut a few major Power Five programs like Oregon and Nebraska out of his recruiting picture while keeping Washington State, Washington, Arizona State, Cal and Utah in his top five. Huffman seems to think the Sun Devils have an advantage over the others, but the recruiting guru referenced Alexander’s appearance on the “West of the Rest” podcast, hosted by Huffman and 247Sports.com analyst Blair Angulo.
“He straight up said Washington State’s done a better job recruiting me than anybody and you really feel that family atmosphere,” Huffman said. “And I really think those three guys know how much of a need they are at Washington State. Whereas at Washington, maybe Emeka (Egbuka) is their top guy, Troy Franklin from the Bay Area’s maybe more their top guy. Those three are kind of the top three guys for Rolovich and for (wide receivers coach) Andre Allen.”
Tinae hasn’t offered many teasers or hints throughout the recruitment process and holds offers from all but two Pac-12 schools. The preeminent recruiting site, 247Sports.com, gauges a player’s interest in a school by using terms like “cool,” “warm” and “warmer.” WSU, ASU, Cal, Oregon, UW and Utah are all “warm” for Tinae, but unlike his teammate, he’s yet to reveal a list of the schools on which he’s focused.
After visiting WSU, the gifted slot receiver told Huffman, “The coaching staff gave us a warm welcome and really made us feel special,” and noted, “I could easily tell that they genuinely want us to be Cougs.”
There’s this as well: Tinae’s mother, a native of American Samoa, has bonded with new WSU defensive line coach Ricky Logo about their shared Samoan ancestry, trading notes about the respective high schools they attended on the South Pacific Polynesian island.
“There may be a few that, without going into names, that two of the three or some that only one of the three, or some have only offered one but not the other,” Cross said. “… So I think a big part of it is they would like to do that and yet they’re really pretty cool about also respecting each other’s journeys and just kind of figuring it out as well. But you could see there was a vibe that Wazzu’s the only one that’s in that realm that wants all three and that’s cool.”
If Alexander, Tinae and Shumpert can co-exist at Kennedy Catholic, which runs a version of the Air Raid that compares almost exactly to what the Cougars ran under Mike Leach, there’s reason to think they’d be able to do the same at WSU, which is adapting to another pass-based offense – the run-and-shoot – with Rolovich.
Some receivers at the same high school might scoff at the idea of playing college ball together, in fear they’d be jostling for the same jobs, either right off the bat or once upperclassmen left. Alexander, Tinae and Shumpert all play different positions within the wide receiver trade and seem to have skill sets that complement one another – not to mention make things a breeze for five-star Kennedy quarterback Sam Huard, who’s a UW commit.
“The whole group, all those guys they really have a bond, a brothership,” said Nolan Washington, the defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach at Kennedy Catholic and a former WSU cornerback from 2009-12. “They train at the same 7-on-7 facility and they’re always doing offseason work together. They’re always spending the night at each other’s houses, they all have Zoom meetings watching film, doing stuff like that on their own. So that’s a really tight class for sure.”
Alexander, the state’s No. 7 overall prospect per 247Sports.com, led the Lancers with 67 receptions for 1,328 yards and 24 touchdowns as a junior. The 6-foot-3 189-pounder usually lines up on the left side of the formation as an “X” receiver, and “probably won’t blow by you in speed,” Washington said, “but if that ball’s in the air, he’s going to be the one to probably come down with it.”
Tinae, the state’s No. 8 prospect, played in two fewer games than his teammates, but still posted 45 receptions, 959 yards and six TDs, averaging 21.3 yards per catch.
“We were at a team camp one summer, I think it was after his freshman year, and we were going into this team camp and he asked coach Cross to throw a screen play so he could block,” Washington recalled. “Like, how many receivers are asking to throw a screen so they can block? They normally just want the ball. He blocked and he took on their biggest linebacker and put him on their back. If you don’t come correct, he’s going to let you know.”
Shumpert, at 5-11, 175 pounds, comes in at No. 30 in the state and may be the most improved of the three, turning in 38 catches for 551 yards and 12 TDs from the “Y” outside receiver spot opposite Alexander.
“Our guys would be a great fit for that system and it’s really evident from their standpoint, too, because when those coaches are watching our guys’ film, even though it’s not the run-and-shoot, they’re like, ‘You guys already run this system,’ ” Cross said. “… So when they see our guys’ film, they’re like, ‘Man, they’d be really good playing for us,’ and that helps. It cuts out a lot of unknowns. I think that’s ultimately going to help, I think that’ll be a big part.”
The ties Cross and Washington have to WSU can’t hurt, either. Both Kennedy coaches assure there’s no agenda when it comes to helping their players choose colleges – and they’re absolutely sincere about that – but if their receivers do want to pick their brains about the Cougars, they’ll be well equipped to answer.
In jest, Washington said, “If it’s up to me, they’re all going to Wazzu. Sam’s going to decommit from UW and go to Wazzu. And (Huskies signee) Sav’ell (Smalls) is going to transfer there. It’ll just be the true pipeline from Kennedy to Wazzu.”
Alexander, Tinae and Shumpert may still be more than enough to lay down the groundwork.
In late March, Alexander posted a Twitter graphic of all three wearing WSU uniforms, with “The Kennedy Experience” covering the bottom of the frame in a graffiti font.
“@ReedShumpert @JabezTinae13 I swear nobody breaking this trio up!!!” Alexander wrote in the caption. “We come as a package”
Could that package land on WSU’s doorstep sometime soon? Don’t rule out the possibility just yet.