Sixteen states (+ the District of Columbia) have postponed high school football until the spring of 2021, and another 15 have delayed the start of the 2020 season in hopes of playing it safely later this fall. The prospect of a significant portion of the country not playing games this semester, combined with the NCAA’s decision to extend the recruiting ‘dead period’ through at least September, would lead reasonable minds to conclude that college football programs may be behind the eight-ball, in terms of filling their 2021 recruiting classes, when the December signing period rolls around. But it doesn’t appear as if that will be the case. Brandon Huffman (National Recruiting Editor, 247 Sports) said, “At one point in June, there were 750 more players committed [to schools] than there were a year ago.”
Our Take: Coronavirus unexpectedly altered the spring contact and evaluation periods. As a result, college football coaches have enjoyed less than one month in 2020 to recruit on the road and/or host prospects on campus (a 2.5-week window in January and 12 days in March). That’s far less time than they would normally have with high school players. In a typical off-season, there are just seven weeks of ‘dead period’—at the most—between January and August. Huffman explained that the uncertainty surrounding when the current dead period will end had coaches “essentially panicking”—and trying to fill their 2021 recruiting class earlier than ever.
The current ‘dead period’ is slated to end on Sept. 30, but Huffman said a lot of coaching staffs are operating under the presumption that the NCAA will extend the term until at least mid-January, given that it still doesn’t sound safe to bring recruits from varying parts of the country onto college campuses in the midst of a pandemic. As a result, schools aren’t holding scholarship spots for prospects who would typically take official visits during the fall semester, expediting the recruitment timeline. “[Coaches] are working to get as many of their recruits signed, sealed and delivered [during the December signing period] as possible,” Huffman said.
The fear of losing the opportunity to play at the school of their choice is forcing “even the elite players—those that would typically wait until December, January or February—to make a decision [earlier than they otherwise would],” said Huffman. University of Arizona football Chief of Staff Dennis Polian didn’t dispute that notion but said players are also committing earlier this year “because they know there really isn’t an opportunity for them to go and visit anywhere else. If they feel strongly about a school, there’s really no reason to waste any time committing.”
It reasons to believe that with so many players committing sight-unseen and without having had the opportunity to spend quality time face-to-face with coaches and prospective teammates there will be an increase in transfers over the next few seasons. Arizona is doing their best to ensure that does not happen. Polian said the Pac-12 school—like many others—is using the additional time they have with the already 21 players committed and no fall season to “strengthen those relationships. Our goal is that when the [’21 freshman class] finally arrives on campus, the relationship [between the players and our coaches] is stronger than has been for past classes.”
Huffman said he would not be surprised if schools were pushing players to enter the transfer portal come December 2021, either. When coaches, “who based their entire valuation on junior [year] film and a workout video (think: pro-day workouts), finally get kids on campus and realize [the player] hasn’t developed or gotten any better, they might tell them, ‘Listen, you’re never going to play here, you might want to leave’.” Should a flood of players enter the transfer portal following the ’21 season, it could be the catalyst needed for the NCAA to finally alter their bylaws and grant kids the ability to transfer a single time without having to sit out a year.
Group of five and FCS schools should benefit from Power 5 recruiting classes filling up quicker than usual. Huffman explained, “Guys that normally would have been late Power 5 signings don’t want to be left without a spot, so they’re making reservations with Mountain West, Conference USA and American [Athletic Conference] programs.” Smaller schools should also have a better chance at retaining those commits as “the Power 5 programs simply won’t have the roster space to poach”—particularly those players that shine during a spring senior season (which will take place after the December signing period ends and the February signing period is slated to begin).
With coaches unable to get in front of recruits physically, platforms like Zoom and FaceTime are playing a critical role in the recruiting process. Third-party recruiting services (like National Preps and Underclass Report) and apps like GMTM Sports, Zcruit and Hudl are also helping collegiate programs navigate these uncharted waters. Huffman suggested that reduced recruiting budgets would likely be among the lasting effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.
“If a school can sign a class of 25 without ever letting their coaches go on the road one year, why couldn’t that same school sign a class of 25 the next year with a limited budget?” he said. “College athletic departments are taking a hit financially, so you’re going to see more schools looking for recruits to come to them [for camps and workouts] than coaches taking trips to see recruits [moving forward].” Polian agreed: “Moving forward, [schools] are going to be challenged to be creative and rethink how they approach all aspects of recruiting” (think: how coaches travel, how many coaches travel). Of course, the biggest and wealthiest athletic departments (see: Alabama, Texas) will likely continue to send coaches on the road in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.
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