But fate had brought the Colorado quarterback and Jacksonville State this far together in the recruiting process, so not even something as crippling as a polar express could have derailed him from seeing through his commitment to the Gamecocks.
“I took a picture when we got to the top of the hill at the house and it said negative 22 degrees,” Slota said. “It was freezing. The house was cold last night. We had a pipe break. They say we haven’t been this cold since 1951.
“But I’ve never been so excited in my life, expecially hearing Coach talk about winning conference championships and national championships. I wish I were heading there right now.”
Slota was among 16 players who signed with JSU Wednesday, producing a recruiting class coach Jack Crowe said would give the Gamecocks a chance to compete for a national championship on their current Football Championship Subdivision level and hold their own if the program turns its eye up to the next tier.
While the Gamecocks may not have signed as many players as other programs or even as many as they have in other years, they didn’t miss on many, either — and they were in the running with programs a lot bigger than theirs.
The only things missing from taking this class over the top was a pass rusher and another corner, but for what they went after and what they got, there don’t seem to be any complaints.
“It’s light years away from anything we’ve ever done before,” Crowe said. “They’re the kind of guys you recruit when you’re trying to win a national championship. If we go play Delaware, these guys belong on that field — every one of them. And, really, that’s all I was thinking about.
“Now, if they were to move this thing to the FBS, I think you could say two-thirds of them, maybe more, turned down Sun Belt Conference schools to come here, which I guess tells you they could play in the Sun Belt ... This is an FBS caliber (class). It’s not one of those years we went out there and had our first choice, second choice, third choice and sort of dreaming and hoping and looking for security in 1, 2, 3. We got our first. There’s not a second choice on here.”
One of the primary goals of this recruiting effort was to find players who would help the Gamecocks get back to leading their conference in rushing offense and rushing defense and Crowe envisions all six linemen signees being all conference picks as sophomores and juniors.
Gadsden City’s massive Jakari Kinnie could be dominant as a freshman defensive lineman if he trims his 6-1, 350-pound frame.
They also sustained their line of running backs with Demopolis’ DeMarcus James, an early Washington State commitment whose cousin Carlow played on Crowe’s first two JSU teams, and Jamal Young-like Floridian Rashod Byers.
Crowe was a little concerned when McAdory cornerback Brandon Bender, a cousin of Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson, took a weekend visit to Pitt, but Bender returned his paperwork within the opening hour of the day and he’ll bolster future secondaries with Piedmont’s Jamaal Johnson and North Jackson speedster Denzel Bynum.
The Gamecocks didn’t sign this quality of class to develop it. While neither of the running backs are projected to play as freshmen, Crowe expects several of Wednesday’s signees to play this season — some even to start in the opener against UT Martin, a conference game.
“My expectation is there are some freshmen who can play in this,” he said. “I think you’re going to look back and (see) seven out of the 16 will be in the two-deep depth chart as true freshmen. That is big. I see seven of them being able to do that, but whether they have the maturity ...
“Do you expect a Coty (Blanchard) impact out of any of these? I don’t know. But I think you have the credibility of a Coty in a lot of these.”
Slota’s inclusion in the class was a combination of fate and good timing. He was a versatile athlete who walked on then and off at Colorado and starred last season at DeAnza (Cal.) College. The Gamecocks are looking at him for any of a number of spots, including tight end and quarterback in the Wildcat.
With the help of a high school friend and trainer, he mass-mailed a highlight tape to Division I programs across the country, not really knowing what kind of response to expect. He was “just hoping someone” would call. Arkansas, Louisville and Alabama were among the more than dozen that did, he said, but they all fell away over time. His benefactor also talked with Florida coach Urban Meyer and Slota was planning a visit there before the former Gators coach re-retired.
A copy of the tape also landed on the desk of JSU receivers coach Matt Wannebo. One night late last season, Wannebo had a couple minutes to kill before heading home, popped a few tapes in the machine, one of which was 6-3, 220-pound Slota’s, and instantly was taken by what he saw. A few minutes later, so were the assistants that were still in the office.
The Gamecocks receive thousands of such tapes every recruiting season and might get to look at half of them. But if there’s anyone who could find such a diamond in so much rough, it’s going to be Wannebo.
“Matt can find more than anybody,” Crowe said. “He’s the only one who really does this to a science. He’s been like this forever. That boy enjoys finding players. And he doesn’t compromise. If he says I’ve got this guy you need to look at, go look at him, because he’s weeded through a bunch to find somebody.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.