Fish Testing College Waters

FAYETTEVILLE -- Reggie Fish isn't much different than his Arkansas teammates.

He attends class each morning, participates in afternoon football practices and spends evenings kicking back with roommates Randy Kelly, Ernest Mitchell and Fred Bledsoe. Just like them, Fish survived off-season conditioning drills. Now he's trying to catch on at receiver, while rehabilitating the shoulder he dislocated last fall.

The 5-foot-7, 140-pound Fish is living the life of a student-athlete in every sense, striking a balance between studying his textbooks and Arkansas' playbook. But one element separates him from the rest of the Razorbacks this spring.

Fish still is waiting to participate in Mesquite (Texas) High's graduation ceremony.

"That's later this spring," Fish said Tuesday afternoon. "I'll go back home for that because my mom wants to see me walk."

Fish is the first Arkansas player since quarterback Gary Brashears to finish high school in 3 1/2 years, enroll in classes and participate in spring practices. While the rest of Arkansas' signees wait until the summer for their first taste of college, Fish hasn't minded skipping prom to get an early start on his career.

It's a bold leap, but coach Houston Nutt said Fish possesses the necessary traits to make a successful transition: Maturity, motivation and commitment.

"It's been real positive," Nutt said. "He doesn't miss a class. He's the first one down (in the Broyles Center) after school. He's anxious. He's mature enough to handle this change going off to college. He was ready."

Fish stressed that it wasn't an overnight decision. He discussed it with his family and began planning for the move during his junior year in high school.

He took extra courses last summer, earned passing scores on college placement tests and completed high school classes before Christmas.

"It was a long thought process," Fish said. "A lot went into it."

Fish said he made the decision for several reasons. First, he wanted to get an early chance to learn Arkansas' system in hopes of earning playing time next season. He wanted to become acclimated to college and get a head start on classes. The chance to gel with future teammates also was hard to pass up.

It made even more sense to Fish after he dislocated his shoulder during the third game of his senior season. He missed the rest of the year, but has gotten the opportunity to rehabilitate his shoulder with Arkansas' training staff this winter.

But Fish understands the early move wouldn't work if he wasn't committed because of the newfound freedoms that encompass campus life.

"You've got to be more of a determined person," said Fish, who earned a 3.5 grade-point average in high school and is currently earning 'A's and 'B's. "You've got to have that drive. You've got to know what you're here for. You've got to make the right decisions, because, up here, you make a lot of decisions on your own.

"College life is totally different. You're kind of like a grown man at an early age."

There were 40 players that tried it at major conference schools last winter. That number increased from 23 in 2003. This spring, Fish is one of six Southeastern Conference signees that graduated early and made the move to college.

For every success story, there are failures. Nutt's only other experience with an early arrival was Brashears, who had plenty of problems during his brief career.

That's why Nutt didn't encourage Fish to make the early jump.

"Usually I say, 'Stay in high school,'" Nutt said. "'Go through your graduation. Go to your prom. Finish it out with your guys. Don't hurry up. You're got five years of college if you want it. Four of those five you can play ball. What's the hurry?'

"But I sat down with the parents and saw how committed they were to it. They were 100 percent committed. He was a committed young man in school, mature and had everything lined up, everything in order. So we said, 'Come on.'"

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who estimated he has had a dozen experiences with early enrollees in 20 years, said he takes a similar approach. Tuberville never pushes for a player to enroll early and lets the family make the ultimate decision.

"I've always felt the negatives outweigh the positives," Tuberville said. "I think you're asking them to grow up a little too quick.

"The biggest transition you make from high school to college is being away from home for the first time. Maturity, being able to handle that. Being responsible for yourself, which is a major step. Most kids are able to do that, it's just a little different doing it with other (freshmen) doing it at the same time in the fall."

"It takes a special person to be able to handle it."

Nutt and the Hogs believe they've found that with Fish, who is limited to non-contact work this spring because of the shoulder injury.

He's strengthening his shoulder with Arkansas' training staff, while focusing on fundamentals, techniques and the system on the practice field.

Fish admitted the plays sounded like "gibberish" early on, but Shibest said his knowledge of the offense has rapidly improved.

"It's impressive for a guy out of high school to do the things he's done," Shibest said. "I've just been impressed with his maturity. He's smart and isn't intimidated. I can just see myself coming up here and being intimidated, but he's not."

Quarterback Alex Mortensen, who called the early jump a "big sacrifice," has been amazed by Fish's work ethic.

Mortensen got a small dose of what an early move was like last spring when he packed his bags and spent three weeks in Fayetteville. He was still in high school and couldn't participate in spring practices, but attended workouts, threw on his own and got a feel for his surroundings.

"It helped kind of getting a head start on the terminology," Mortensen said. "But the biggest thing is that it helped socially. Just getting to know guys and making your transition smoother when you get here in August.

"Reggie's got it even better. He's getting on the field and getting to practice and went through the 5:30 workouts. He's already earned everybody's respect."

Fish said there were a few moments earlier this winter when he wondered what was going on at high school. He went home to Texas during Arkansas' spring break where his decision was reaffirmed after realizing "nothing changed" at Mesquite.

His early arrival doesn't guarantee a place on the field next fall, but Shibest said Fish will be looked at as a punt returner and receiver.

If nothing else, Nutt believes the experience gives Fish an advantage over other incoming freshmen.

"He's ahead of the curve," Nutt said. "You're in the locker room, school, you're adjusting. When he comes back in the summer and that group comes in, he's more familiar with the way we do things here."

That's why Fish would recommend his path to anyone determined to make the early move to college work.

"I'd tell them to follow their heart," Fish said. "They know if they really want to leave or if they really want to stay. It takes a mature person to leave early and not get homesick after the first couple weeks that they're away.

"When you first come, everybody is excited. But after the excitement dies down, how much determination do you have to stay with it? That's what's important."

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