College commitment makes a lane for Evanston seniors to savor final season

Evanston Township's Naquan Jones and Matt Little are both top 30 Illinois recruits. (Brooke Rayford/Medill)

By Maddie Lee

Naquan Jones’ mom wouldn’t stand for it anymore. She snatched his phone from his hands. Homework first. Jones could talk to college coaches later.

“I was so attached to it, with coaches calling and messaging [me],” he said. “It took me away from my school work a little bit, and even having a social life.”

The end of the recruitment frenzy allows Jones, a 6-foot-4, 310-pound defensive tackle for Evanston Township High School, and teammate Matt Little, a 6-4, 230-pound quarterback, to approach the rest their senior year like regular high school athletes. They have verbally committed—Jones to Michigan State and Little to Western Michigan—and plan on signing their letters of intent in early February.

Together, Jones (No. 2) and Little (No. 26) made Evanston the only Chicago-area school in Illinois with two top-30 recruits in the senior class, according to 247Sports composite ratings. Separately, when they talk about the current stage in the recruiting process, each mentioned first his relief that the chaos is over.

Matt Little (left) and Naquan Jones (right) soak in their last season at Evanston Township, while looking forward to their college years playing at Western Michigan and Michigan State respectively. (Brooke Rayford/Medill)
Matt Little (left) and Naquan Jones (right) soak in their last season at Evanston Township, while looking forward to their college years playing at Western Michigan and Michigan State respectively. (Brooke Rayford/Medill)

“Being able to focus with my team more, and about high school football, that’s probably the best thing that’s happened,” Little said. “Because last year was rough.”

He laughed, thinking back to the daily phone calls and messages on social media.

Evanston coach Mike Burzawa estimated that Jones, Little and a third top-50 Illinois recruit, wide receiver-defensive back Travion Banks, helped lure three times as many recruiters to the high school than usual in the fall.

Spring recruiting, Burzawa said, was “out of control.”

A total of 75 to100 colleges came, according to Burzawa. He couldn’t keep up with all the phone calls.

“Naquan was a national recruit, so he brought in schools that literally have never been in the doors of Evanston,” he said.

Jones said he personally received four or five calls from coaches a day last year. If he tweeted about an offer, that number would increase to nine or 10.

“They’re both big-time players,” said Tom Lemming, longtime college football recruiting expert and host of the “Lemming Report” on CBS Sports Network. “I think Little just improves with every game, and Naquan has the physical skills to stand out at Michigan State if the work ethic will be there once he gets to college, both athletically and academically.”

[vimeo 143165729 w=1000 h=150]

Jones and Little have been friends for more than a decade both on and off the field. For more coverage of Jones’ decision-making process, watch Brooke Rayford’s video. (Brooke Rayford/Medill)

Jones said he is already working on both areas.

“You want to play as well as you can so [your college] coaches don’t have any reason to doubt you or take your scholarship [away],” he said.

While Jones said he still gets one to two calls per week from coaches, the decrease has allowed him to dedicate more time to studying. Last year, he said, his grades slipped into the C or C-minus range. Now, he said, he has all A’s and B’s.

Meanwhile, Little is taking a full schedule this semester — including two honors English classes — so he can graduate early, leave for Western Michigan in January, and start learning the playbook, he said.

Lemming said he has seen high school seniors act in one of two ways after committing to colleges.

“Some kids feel like they are already in college and sort of take it easy,” he said. “I see that all the time. And then other kids get more motivated by the offer and commitment and want to prove [to] everybody that they are the great player that people say they are.”
[field name=”recruitment map”]

A total of 27 schools showed interest in Naquan Jones and/or Matt Little, according to 247Sports. Click to see which colleges. (247Sports, Maddie Lee/Medill)

Jones and Little developed into top prospects side by side; they played football together for the first time in Peewees. They went to the same elementary school and have been friends ever since.

When it came time to pick colleges, they could lean on each other for advice, according to Little, asking, “Is this a good fit for you?”

“We could be really upfront and honest with each other,” Little said.

Little was the first to commit. He chose Western Michigan in November, he said, before anybody else had shown interest in him. A dozen did, according to 247Sports. Jones announced his commitment to Michigan State seven months later.

The two friends didn’t coordinate their choices, but are excited to be attending colleges that are roughly an 80-mile drive from each other. In the past three years, Michigan State and Western Michigan have played twice in nonconference play, and Jones and Little hope they get a chance to face each other.

Even if not, Jones and Little are guaranteed at least one more game on the same field.

Evanston improved from 3-6 last season to 6-2 so far this year. The Wildkits are 3-1 in the Central Suburban South Conference, tied for second with New Trier. Evanston will face Maine South on Friday in the regular-season final, with a chance to tie for the conference title. If Evanston wins, tiebreakers would decide the automatic bid to the state tournament.

It would be the perfect way to cap a senior season both Jones and Little have savored. Little has enjoyed hanging out more with his teammates. Jones has appreciated watching his grades soar.

And if his phone isn’t as busy these days, so much the better.

Photo at top: Evanston Township’s Naquan Jones and Matt Little are both top 30 Illinois recruits in their class. (Brooke Rayford/Medill)