STILLWATER — It was football recruiting's holy day of obligation — national signing day — and Austin Hays sat in accounting class at Reagan High School in San Antonio, waiting, hoping, perhaps praying for a phone call.
And before you wonder why a kid would answer his phone in class, well, there was good reason.
“That was an important call,” Hays said of his one shot at a Division I scholarship offer in February of 2012.
Besides, his mom, Robin Hays, was the school's assistant principal, and she and the teacher are best friends … so it's all good.
All great, as it turns out.
Eventually the call came from Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who told the under-the-radar receiver that a letter of intent to play for the Cowboys had been faxed to the school office. With a scholarship to give, OSU took a flier on Hays based on a strong endorsement from his high school coach.
And he became a late, great find in a business that no longer practices patience, with Hays emerging from an otherwise hyped class of receivers to contribute, leading the freshmen in every receiving category.
The trend in college football is to collect commitments early and often — OSU claims 20 already for its February class — regularly leaving the senior breakouts and late bloomers with few, if any, options. Still, there are exceptions, like Hays, who have kept Cowboys coaches searching and working well after the classes appear complete.
“I'd almost rather not fill up, in some situations,” said OSU receivers coach Kasey Dunn, “and leave a couple of scholarships for guys who show up their senior year and become the guy everybody expects them to be.”
Almost, Dunn said, except he knows that's not the way the game is run these days.
Cowboys assistant Van Malone recalls a different time, when players were pegged more for their continued play, than potential. But lately, there's a snooze-and-lose sense to recruiting.
“Recruiting back in the '20s when I was playing,” Malone said with a chuckle, “it happened slowly. You didn't get offered until you went and sat with the head coach.
“Nowadays, you're going to offer them when they're born. And if you don't offer them when they're born, then you're behind.”
Circumstances, however, can crack the door for a sleeper prospect. So evaluations and maintained relationships can prove fruitful when such circumstances arise. And staying ready has benefited the Cowboys, with Hays and Jhajuan Seales, another receiver in that 2012 class; possibly with running back Rennie Childs or linebacker Dawson Bassett in last year's class.
In 2005, Andrew Lewis was an afterthought signing, and he became a mainstay on the offensive line. Levy Adcock had no offers as an undersized offensive lineman out of Claremore-Sequoyah, spent a redshirt freshman year at Northeastern A&M, then was brought to OSU, where he was a two-time, first team All-Big 12 pick.
“I think you can find a lot of good football players who haven't committed in their senior year,” Dunn said. “I think there are a lot of excellent players who mature as seniors, either through confidence or opportunity.
“A high-school coach may say, ‘You've got to come and see this kid next fall. He may be a guy.' Man, if you don't do that, you're missing out. A high-school coach knows if a guy has ability, but it's just not all there yet to be a player.”
Seales has drawn raves from Gundy since last August, when he and Hays were the “other” receivers in a class marked by more high-profile recruits at the position. A two-star prospect and another late take, Seales had to wait his turn down in Port Arthur, Texas, at Memorial High.
“My junior year, we had a lot of stars on the team, they didn't really showcase me that much,” Seales said. “But my senior year, I really got it together. I had a great senior year.
“It was kind of frustrating, but God always has a plan for you. And he had a plan for me to show up my senior year.”
Eventually, the Cowboys showed up, too, offering a scholarship.
It was a similar situation with Childs last winter. OSU running backs coach Jemal Singleton liked Childs, but the Cowboys didn't have room for him in the class, until Joseph Randle opted to jump to the NFL. Now Childs is in play for some touches behind Jeremy Smith and Desmond Roland.
“Jemal Singleton stayed in touch and told me they really wanted me,” Childs said last February. “He said, ‘As soon as we have a scholarship available, we're offering it to you.'
“And as soon as Joseph Randle decided to go in the draft, he called me the same day.”
Hays had to wait even longer.
“I woke up, watched all my friends sign,” Hays said. “I always thought I was going to be up there signing, too. And I wanted to play Division I football, so I didn't sign with somebody else.
“I knew if Coach Monken called, it would be to offer me a scholarship. When he called, I just ran out in the hallway. I got an adrenaline rush.
“I called my dad, he came up and we signed the (letter of intent) and faxed it back in about two minutes. It was cool.”
Hays had been hurt in his junior season, when players typically solidify their stature, leading to commitments the following summer.
As a senior, he produced, turning 55 receptions into 1,060 yards and 14 touchdowns for a Reagan team that advanced to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs. He earned Class 5A All-State notice by the San Antonio Express-News, yet scant notice from major college recruiters.
“I was trying to get him to walk on for god's sake,” Monken said.
Yet on signing day, with a scholarship to give, Monken called Hays out of class.
“It's unfortunate that they're offering kids so early and don't get to see kids all the way through their senior year,” Hays said. “But that's how it is nowadays. I think the best thing to do is keep playing and do as much as you can.
“And sometimes it works out.”