Maybe it was the wink.

Maybe it was the other obvious reasons.

But when Tom Savage orally committed to Rutgers on April 19, the Cardinal O'Hara High quarterback was falling in line with other top-ranked recruits who were deciding their football futures without having played a down as a senior.

In the world of college recruiting, all the rage is committing early. And if you're a major Division I talent - such as Savage - there is seemingly almost no reason to wait - unless you believe the college and high school coaches who are sounding the alarm as the process quickens and threatens to overrun what they call common sense.

By the time he decided, Savage had been charmed by schools from Miami to Michigan and offered almost 20 scholarships. And yet, one moment stood out.

In October, Savage was visiting Rutgers for the game against South Florida. The Scarlet Knights were playing the No. 2 team in the nation. But just before game time, coach Greg Schiano took time to chat up the 6-foot-4, 230-pound prospect.

"And then right before kickoff as I was sitting on the 50-yard line, he winked at me," Savage said. "It gave me the chills when he did it. Right then I knew, if he stays, I was going to Rutgers."

Sincere or not, Schiano's wink illustrates the attention lavished upon teenagers as programs vie for top recruits in a battle almost as competitive as the games themselves.

"This is just the beginning," said Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for the Web site scout.com. "Colleges are under massive amounts of competitive pressure to get the best athletes into their programs. And they'll do whatever it takes."

As of yesterday, 46 of the top 100 recruits from the Class of 2009 have committed, according to scout.com. Four of the top players from Southeastern Pennsylvania - Northeast's Je'Ron Stokes to Tennessee, Neshaminy's Paul Carrezola to Rutgers, St. Joseph's Prep's Mark Arcidiacono to Penn State, and Savage - have announced their plans. Meanwhile, national signing day, the first day recruits can sign binding letters of intent, is more than eight months away.

"We've gotten earlier recruiting, earlier recruiting and earlier recruiting," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said a few weeks ago.

The Nittany Lions, credited with starting the craze more than a dozen years ago, have nine early commitments. Rutgers has five, Ohio State has 14, and Southern Cal's first commitment came

last

May.

"Where does it stop?" O'Hara coach Dan Algeo said. "College football is almost getting like college basketball."

Earlier this month, Kentucky basketball secured a commitment from an eighth grader. It wasn't the first time a middle school student was offered a basketball scholarship. However, at a football forum held in Dallas two weeks ago, Washington football coach Ty Willingham acknowledged he recently offered a full ride to a freshman.

"I'm hoping we don't get into the eighth- and ninth-grade deals," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said at the forum, "but everything in this world is getting faster."

Written offers cannot be sent until Sept. 1 of a recruit's junior year. But Corey Brown - a sophomore running back from O'Hara - already has oral offers from Penn State, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Illinois.

"I've been warned about the craziness," Brown said.

One-sided contract

While some college coaches lament the early-commitment craze, almost everyone is sucked in. It's either participate or don't survive, coaches say, especially in football.

With 110,000-seat stadiums, television and apparel contracts, and fund-raising on steroids, college football has become a cash cow. Some say the universities are milking the rabid fan bases that become so engrossed that their interest extends to the next big thing. That's where the recruiting Web sites enter the fray.

Whether they're reacting to the market or fueling the fire, scout.com and rivals.com - the most viewed recruiting sites - are magnets for diehard fans. Coaches, whose contacts with recruits have become increasingly limited, have few options but to monitor the sites for bits of information.

"There's a lot more knowledge of players now than there was, say, just five years ago," Prep coach Gil Brooks said. Colleges "get to know players soon because of the cottage industries - the Web sites, the combines - that have sprung up."

Last year, the NCAA banned coaches from attending garden-variety combines. That does not include the many camps college football programs hold for high school players or the prestigious Nike camps that a precious few, including Penn State, use to lure top recruits to their campuses. There is little, however, that can be done to curtail the Web sites.

As the fourth-rated quarterback in the nation, Savage has a rivals.com page with photos, videos, statistics and close to 50 stories chronicling his recruitment. For Savage, committing early was a no-brainer. He had watched his older brother, Bryan, go through the process when he committed to Wisconsin four years ago (he has since moved on to Hofstra). When it was his turn, Tom already was ahead of the curve.

"There wasn't a reason to wait," Savage said. "You don't want to rush it, but I knew everything I needed to know. Plus, I liked the idea that everything was over."

It helps that recruits are as savvy as ever. Savage monitored what other blue-chip quarterbacks had done as he narrowed his choices. Now he's hoping to follow another early-commitment trend by graduating from high school early in order to enroll at Rutgers by January.

For Stokes, who gave the Volunteers his pledge April 6, committing early made sense after he visited Knoxville and fell in love with the place. Penn State pushed hard and from all accounts is still on the make, but Stokes says he's 100 percent committed.

Of course, many recruits have made similar claims only to switch in the months, days and hours leading up to signing day.

"I know some guys that have admitted that if something happens that would affect their futures on the team, they would have to consider de-committing," Stokes said.

"You have to remember the decisions aren't binding," Wallace said. "They don't mean anything if they don't want them to. It's the greatest one-sided contract I've seen."

Innocence lost

It's a powerful position for a 16- or a 17-year old. With round-the-clock media attention and scholarships in hand, it's hard to keep the head-swelling in check, high school coaches say.

"As a coach you don't let it happen," Brooks said. "If someone was to have a big head about it, they're going to get a foot up their rear end. I don't care about it. I don't care where you committed. I'll bench you."

Still, Willingham concedes there's a contradiction.

"How does a high school coach

coach

a freshman who's been offered a full scholarship to the University of Washington?" he said.

Brooks, who has had many players move on to Division I schools over the last decade, says there are other traps that come with recruiting earlier. For one, what about the late bloomers who don't even get a sniff during their senior year? Two, what about the early bloomers who never live up to the hype?

"I guess the colleges would say that for every one bust they're going to get enough hits," Brooks said.

Aside from innocence lost, there are risks for recruits. The most notable involves the college coaches themselves. How many times in the last few years has a recruit committed early only to see his future coach jet for a better job?

"Most of the time, the only time the kid changes his mind is when there is a coaching change," Algeo said.

That's one reason the NCAA has still not adopted an early-signing period, so that recruits have until after the season before they can sign a letter. The NCAA has tried to limit recruiting, adding a few wrinkles to the already confusing list of regulations. The most topical is being labeled the "Saban Rule" after Alabama coach Nick Saban.

Head coaches no longer can visit high schools during the May evaluation period, a move applauded by Paterno. But Saban, who used to log more miles than US Airways, and a few other coaches have found ways around the system, employing Web cams to woo recruits.

Meanwhile, Brown, the O'Hara sophomore, expects to receive his four unofficial offers in writing come Sept. 1. While he didn't rule out an early commitment, he said he was trying to take the attention in stride.

"College is one of the last things I'm dealing with right now," Brown said. "I'm more concerned about the upcoming season."

Of course, there are a few trailblazers. Illinois, Clemson, Brigham Young and Oregon already have received their first commitments from the Class of 2010.

"It's hard to put the genie back in the bottle," Wallace said. "How do you do it? I don't see a way unless there is some rule. And I don't see that happening."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.