The SouthLake Christian Academy (Huntersville, N.C.) teammates just finished their freshman years, but both have multiple scholarship offers and have already made verbal commitments to Mississippi State. Still, they also understand that things can change and change quickly in college football, so the pair will continue to go through the process.
O’Donnell’s father and SouthLake Christian head coach Geoff O’Donnell said they viewed the offer from Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs as a blessing, but also realize recruiting is a business.
“The caveat at the end of that rainbow is that if Coach Mullen leaves for any reason, your scholarship goes with him and it’s up to the new staff to decide if they want you,” Coach O’Donnell said. “That’s a pretty big if when you’re three years, three and a half years away from that date.
“Then our recruiter left and went to Florida State. At that point, we said, ‘Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s good with Mississippi State, we just have to make sure we have options in case it happens.’ These coaches could move two or three times in three years. Mississippi State’s been great, but most people would acknowledge that you could have a coach come and go in that time.”
The families are trying to manage the recruiting process as much as possible for both Washington and O’Donnell. Both 2016 prospects have received early offers from the Bulldogs, UCLA and Akron while Washington also has offers from Syracuse, Ole Miss and Arizona State. O’Donnell is drawing legit interest from Syracuse, Washington State, Arizona, Arkansas and Georgia.
“I know we’ve got something that’s unique and we’re just trying to do the right thing by the boys and also the schools,” Coach O’Donnell said. “Our recruiting plan is to take all of these schools, I think there are 34 schools that have expressed interest, and we’re going to narrow it down to 10 by the end of their sophomore year.
“We’re not interested in trying to collect 50 offers and trying to be a media celebrity. We’re interested in narrowing it down so we can take these choices at the end of four years and make an informed decision.”
Part of that process will bring the prospects to South Bend later this month.
“They are both coming up to camp at Notre Dame the 23rd through the 26th of June and that is with our team,” Coach O’Donnell said. “I think 14 or 15 of our players are going to get on a bus and go up there.
“Whether you go to Notre Dame or not, getting a chance to live like a Notre Dame football for three or four days is a great life experience. That’s why a lot of these parents on our team jumped in and said, ‘Heck yeah.’ Some of these kids aren’t aspiring to even play college football, but this is a chance to experience Notre Dame.”
Washington and O’Donnell certainly aspire to play at the next level and Notre Dame is a school they have legit interest in.
“Right now for both, Notre Dame is a top 10 school and that’s just based on reputation alone,” said Coach O’Donnell. “We haven’t been there, we haven’t experienced it, but I think if you’ve got any kind of pulse and you’re a football fan, you have to look at Notre Dame.
“The kids are really excited. They’re going to go up to Michigan too, they got invited to a private workout. It’s Notre Dame, it’s Michigan. You’re going to say no?”
Both have been playing for Team USA for years and will continue to do so while making trips this summer.
“We’re looking at great opportunities for the kids to get some life experiences at great schools thus Notre Dame, Michigan, Florida State and Georgia,” Coach O’Donnell said. “Those are the four this summer that we can work into our Team USA schedule.”
The young duo helped lead SouthLake to an 11-2 season in 2012 and a trip to the Independent School Division III State final.
“The first thing you look at is they’re well-traveled for just finishing their freshman years,” Coach O’Donnell said. “When you look at what they’ve accomplished in 12 months, it’s a full high school career.”
Washington rushed for over 1,000 yards on just 89 carries, averaging over 11 yards per carry, and scored 11 touchdowns.
“The thing that stands out – and this is from talking with college coaches – his vision is uncanny,” Coach O’Donnell said of Washington. “He has a knack for putting that foot in the ground at the right, exact split-second and heading in a little bit of a different direction, not cutting all of the way back, but zoom. His vision is incredible. Not to mention, he’s 5-11, 195 and he’s still a baby face. He just hasn’t hit it yet and his lower body is incredible.”
O’Donnell caught 38 passes for more than 900 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman.
“Conner’s thing is just route-running and hands,” his father said. “He’s one of those kids who is just always open. Conner just never dropped a ball. When you look at him on film, he runs great routes, he catches what’s thrown to him and he always catches away from his body.”
Each has also posted impressive combine numbers for their age.
“Their measureables are what you’d hope they’d be and you have to remind yourself is they’re freshmen,” Coach O’Donnell said.
“The hardest thing to do is get the coaches to look at their film because they’re freshmen, but when they watch the film, they’re like, ‘Geez.’”
They’re also standouts away from the field.
“Conner has a 4.1 GPA and has already taken the SAT twice as a freshman,” Coach O’Donnell said. “He took it in seventh grade and he took it in ninth grade, so he has a 1590 SAT already.
“Robert’s got a 3.5 GPA and they go to a school that is extremely difficult. They’re just exceptionally good kids and they stay on the straight and narrow.”