13 Things You Need to Know About College Football Recruiting

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Here are 13 things to know about recruiting.

13 Things You Need to Know About College Football Recruiting

There are the hats and the star rankings, the Signing Day ceremonies and the fanbase hopes that are rewarded or dashed with each announcement. February’s National Signing Day, as it’s known across the country, is the conclusion of a long cycle that’s complete with living room visits, phone calls and countless bags of mail.
 

A signature is just the beginning. College football recruiting is almost an entirely different sport — outside the hashmarks, complete with its own etiquette, rules, and regulations. Here are 13 things you need to know about it.


Players Commit to a Coach But Sign With a School


When James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State earlier this year, he took with him eight Commodore coaches, four Commodore administrators and three Commodore strength coaches.
 

And, perhaps most controversial of all, he took five recruits who had been committed to Vanderbilt.
 

Verbal commitments are non-binding, but that certainly didn’t stop people in Nashville from accusing Franklin and the Penn State staff of poaching players.
 

“I didn’t see it that way,” says Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who made the move to Happy Valley with Franklin. “These kids were calling him, asking, ‘How can we come with you?’ It was kinda awkward at the time.”
 

Idealistically, recruits choose and enroll in schools. But they build personal relationships with those schools’ coaches, who check in with them about their grades and their lives and have sit-down conversations with their families in their living rooms.
 

It follows, then, that those recruits would wish to tag along with the coaches who sold them on the school to which they originally committed. Still, those who take advantage of the relationships they fostered are roundly criticized if the end result is recruits jumping ship after a coach changes jobs.
 

“It’s kinda hypocritical,” Shoop says. “I watch some get recognized as great recruiters for flipping guys, then we were criticized when guys said they wanted to come with us to Penn State. Coach (Franklin) got a bad rap for that.”


The Best Recruiters Are The Recruits Themselves


When consensus four-star quarterback Drew Barker, a native of Burlington, Ky., committed to Kentucky in May 2013, he revived the Wildcats’ credibility in the Commonwealth. Barker’s commitment was an initial piece of evidence that the new Kentucky staff, led by former Florida State assistant coach Mark Stoops, would be one to reckon with on the recruiting trail.
 

But just being a potential cornerstone for a struggling in-state program wasn’t enough. Barker wanted more; specifically, he wanted more players, as talented as himself, to join him at Kentucky.
 

So he grabbed the digital megaphone that is Twitter and challenged his peers to join him. He created a Twitter account (@UK2014Class) and sent out tweets like, “THE 2014 UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY RECRUITING CLASS WILL GO DOWN IN HISTORY!” and, “Come be a HERO.”
 

Recruits sift through letters and endure countless monotonous phone calls from college coaches. When a committed (literally and figuratively) recruit has another prospect’s ear, it can be a valuable asset for coaching staffs.
 

“(Drew) became the face of the class,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown says. “The class kind of gravitated to him. He took it and ran with it himself. He took the reins with the whole class.”
 

With an assist from Barker, perhaps, Kentucky’s 2014 signing class was its highest-ranked in the history of Rivals, at 17th overall — better than Ole Miss, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.


Recruits sift through letters and endure countless monotonous phone calls from college coaches. When a committed (literally and figuratively) recruit has another prospect’s ear, it can be a valuable asset for coaching staffs.
 

“(Drew) became the face of the class,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown says. “The class kind of gravitated to him. He took it and ran with it himself. He took the reins with the whole class.”
 

With an assist from Barker, perhaps, Kentucky’s 2014 signing class was its highest-ranked in the history of Rivals, at 17th overall — better than Ole Miss, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.


Unofficial Visits Are More Important Than Ever
 

One of the universally accepted facts of recruiting in college football is that unless you can get a prospect on campus for an unofficial visit — i.e., on his own dime — chances are, the prospect won’t choose your school.
 

There are two types of visits in recruiting: One is the official, which one Pac-12 staffer calls “sacred.” Under the official visit guidelines, schools are permitted to pay for things like transportation, hotel rooms, food (three meals a day) and entertainment. Each Division I prospect is allowed to take five such visits beginning in September of his senior year.
 

But, in the age of booming scouting websites, football coaches can’t wait until a prospect is a senior — which is why the unofficial visit has taken on more and more importance in today’s recruiting world. Prospects can take as many unofficial visits as their hearts desire. Many times, these happen in the form of Junior Day camps, where schools work hands-on with hordes of junior prospects in the spring.
 

“Everybody is basing their decision off of the experience of the unofficial visit,”

Tennessee assistant Mark Elder says. “Unofficial visits are unbelievably crucial. You go and look at recruiting rankings, and half the kids are committed by Sept. 1 of their senior year (the first day they can take official visits).”


Official Visits Are Not All-Expenses-Paid-Vacations


On a recent spring afternoon from his office in Tempe, Ariz., Patrick Suddes could only marvel at the weather.
 

“It’s perfect, man,” Arizona State’s recruiting coordinator said. “78 degrees. Slightly windy. It’s just perfect.”
 

With that kind of beauty, though, comes a challenge for Suddes and his coaching cohorts. They heavily research and vet prospects before inviting them to come to campus for an official visit. The Sun Devils don’t want to simply be a temporary vacation spot for a recruit; they want to ensure that there’s legitimate interest on the recruit’s end in attending the school.
 

“We don’t want guys to come in just to see the palm trees,” Suddes says. “So you do as much research as possible.”
 

Though places like Arizona State, Hawaii and Miami are some of the more aesthetically pleasing locales in the country, the problem isn’t unique to them. When Suddes was at Alabama, he said prospects took official visits just so they could get a taste of the environment at Crimson Tide home games.
 

“No matter where you are, if your school has a certain niche or is on some kind of bucket list, you always kind of experience that problem,” Suddes says. “You try to do as much on the front end, but you can’t tell a top kid he can’t visit for the experience.”


Letters Can Be More Headache Than Heartfelt


Drew Richmond is a consensus Top 50 junior offensive lineman prospect from Memphis University School. That being the case, he gets heaps upon heaps of letters from just about every school in the nation. One day, he came home to 200 pieces of mail — most of it sprawled out on the street — from an SEC school. For Richmond, hand-written equals hassle — because where could all this mail possibly fit?
 

“You get so much mail,” says the 6'6", 315-pound lineman, who has offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and more. “That stuff doesn’t really mean a lot. I’m more of a Twitter guy.”
 

Richmond prefers his written interactions with college coaches be condensed into 140 characters (or less). That way, he can sift through recruiting pitch after recruiting pitch with one swipe and not have to worry about finding a place to stow them.


Not to say there haven’t been pieces of mail that stuck out. The University of Memphis, Richmond’s hometown school, sent him a mock newspaper article that laid out a detailed scenario in which the Tigers, led by Richmond in this fantasy world, could make the College Football Playoff in 2016.


Early Commitments Aren’t Always Firm Commitments


Tennessee assistant coach Mark Elder likens committing early to a college — as, say, an underclassman — to getting married at 19. It might work if you’ve found the right person. But, more than likely, you haven’t had enough life experience to know if you’ve found the right person.
 

If Elder were a relationship therapist, he would recommend more relationships. Since he’s a college football coach, he recommends that a prospect take as many visits as possible before settling down.


“If you’ve got a kid willing to commit that hasn’t been a lot of places and is just sort of wanting to commit to the best place he’s seen to that point, it’s too early,” Elder says. “You haven’t seen places and you haven’t had the experience.”


Those are the prospects, Elder says, who get cold feet — though there are exceptions. Legacies and local players who grew up Volunteer fans are always welcome. It varies case-by-case; when Tennessee makes the decision whether to accept an underclassman commitment, they properly vet the committing party beforehand.


“Early commitments can be very beneficial, especially if you can get a guy who can get involved in recruiting other kids,” he says. “The tough part is if you don’t feel it’s a strong one — if it’s more reservation than commitment — he can be difficult to hang on to for a long time.”


Location, Location, Location Still Matters Most


For as much as Nebraska has to offer, with its tradition and unrivaled state support, there are recruiting stigmas the Cornhuskers must face. Nebraska’s biggest battle, unfortunately, is one it can do nothing about: its location.

In an age when unofficial visits are more important than ever, it’s a constant challenge for a program like Nebraska’s — smack-dab in the middle of the Midwest — to get recruits on campus on their own dime. The recruiting pool in the state is shallow at best.
 

“If you drew a four-hour circle around every school in the Big Ten, we would have the least population,” Nebraska director of recruiting Ross Els says. “It puts us at a disadvantage, purely on numbers.”
 

It’s not like Nebraska is exactly going without on the recruiting trail; its 2015 class is currently ranked No. 17 by Rivals, and three of the last four Huskers classes finished in the top 25.
 

Once prospects set foot on campus officially, the program sells itself. But, for Nebraska, the official visit tends to be more of a culmination of the recruiting process. And what precedes it.
 

The Huskers coaches first must debunk myths for their targets: It’s not, in fact, simply a cornfield where they play football. To facilitate that cause, the coaches in Lincoln have a program in place called “Teach Nebraska.” They start recruiting players as early as possible, sending them waves and waves of information through social media, mail and every medium available to them.
 

A prospect may or may not be able to make it to Nebraska for an unofficial visit — but this way, at least, he’ll know exactly what the school has to offer.
 

“We do have a lot of contacts throughout the country,” Els says. “We develop those relationships and the trust factor and send kids as much information as possible so that they can realize just what a special place we have here.”


High School Senior Seasons Are An Afterthought


With the explosion of combines, camps and websites like HUDL, which allow prospects to upload their own highlights, college coaches agree: As it concerns top prospects, the senior season is obsolete.
 

Recruiting works at hyper-speed in 2014. Coaches race to get to a prospect first simply to call dibs. The prevalence of unofficial visits and online scouting websites has sped up the cycle. By early May, 33 of Rivals’ Top 100 2015 prospects were committed to a school.
 

Bob Shoop, the defensive coordinator at Penn State, says he and his staff have already watched film of 150 safeties in the Class of 2015 and a “significant” number of local 2016 prospects in the region. These days, coaches can’t afford to wait for senior film; they have to evaluate prospects and determine if they’re good enough much earlier.
 

“A significant portion of evaluation is done well prior to the senior year,” Shoop says. “It’s sort of become, ‘Let’s get an offer out to this guy, let’s get one out to that guy.’”
 

As always, there are exceptions. As a junior at Katy High School in Texas, Andy Dalton didn’t even start full-time at quarterback. He split time and wasn’t handed the reins until he was a senior. Now an NFL starting quarterback, Dalton had just two offers in high school: UTEP and TCU, where he ultimately ended up.
 

“Sometimes people can get overlooked,” says Memphis coach Justin Fuente, who coached Dalton at TCU. “We take a little bit more of an old-school approach to it. We try to slow down just a little bit.”


Dead Period? What Dead Period? There is None


By definition, the dead period in college football recruiting keeps a coach from making any evaluations or basic in-person contact with a prospect. Telephone calls are allowed. The next dead period in the 2014 calendar, for example, goes from June 30 to July 13.
 

When asked about the existence of a dead period, however, more than one college coach laughed. You follow the rules, of course, but make no mistake: For a good recruiter, dead period does not mean days off.
 

On Christmas Day, there are Merry Christmas texts to be sent. Don’t you dare forget about birthdays, either.
 

“There’s always recruiting going on,” Tennessee assistant Mark Elder says. “You have to be constantly recruiting. If you’re not, somebody else is.”
 

The dead period isn’t the only contact period coaches have to navigate. There’s the quiet period, which allows coaches to make in-person contact in addition to phone calls with a prospect and his family provided it’s on campus. The evaluation period gives coaches the freedom to visit prospects for practices or games to assess their skill level.
 

While the dead period regulates in-person contact, the NCAA’s restrictions on social media use are far less stringent, giving coaches another way to circumvent the limitations of the recruiting calendar.
 

“You’ve got to stay in constant contact,” Nebraska’s Ross Els says. “Recruiting never stops. Never, ever, ever.”


Don’t Forget to Recruit Coaches and Family Members


There is a growing concern among college football coaches that their sport’s recruiting is becoming more and more akin to college basketball, where AAU coaches and self-serving family friends with the self-applied label of “mentor” suddenly find themselves with influence over a college recruit’s decision.
 

There’s no AAU football, but there are traveling 7-on-7 tournament teams. And it’s those organizers and outside influences that concern coaches like Memphis’ Justin Fuente.
 

Fuente encourages and expects parents and high school coaches to be involved in the recruiting process. As a man who spent several years in Texas, where high school football is part sport, part religion, Fuente is used to high school coaches having a say. He’s not, however, a fan of the grey area that handlers and mentors sometimes represent and exploit.
 

“It’s part of our charge as coaches to keep it within the family and high school coaches in football recruiting,” Fuente says.
 

Two years ago, a 7-on-7 coach based in Nashville named Byron De’Vinner was at the center of an NCAA investigation when he was said to have witnessed a Mississippi State booster hand money to then-Bulldogs recruit Will Redmond.
 

The increased presence and influence of characters like De’Vinner is what disappoints Fuente and other coaches the most.
 

“Are we going the direction of AAU with these handlers?” Nittany Lions assistant coach Bob Shoop says. “It’s just another piece and another angle. It’s become challenging.”


Today’s Recruits Are Savvier Than Ever Before
 

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University of Memphis offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey has coached in Division I since 1985. His career has taken him everywhere from Memphis to New Mexico and back to Memphis again. No part of college football has changed more in the last 30 years, he says, than recruits’ awareness.
 

Thirty years ago, coaches used to have to explain the recruiting process to parents and kids. Those days are no longer. Nowadays, recruits know everything from depth charts to contract extension statuses.
 

“Used to, in December, you’d go in the living room and have to explain they have five official visits,” Dickey says. “They know all that now. They’re much better educated than they used to be. Social media has had a pretty big impact on recruiting — and it’s not just us keeping up with them.”
 

Drew Richmond, a four-star offensive lineman, studies depth charts. He knows what recruits are coming in and what players are graduating or leaving for the NFL. If avoiding a transfer down the line is the goal, poring over as much information as is available is the key.
 

“Coaches will tell you anything,” Richmond says. “You believe (some of) it to a certain extent, but I’d rather have more proof for myself.”


Recruiting Budgets Vary Widely Within Conferences

 

There’s a common denominator with every coach at every school in the country: Coaches want full support and commitment from their administration. Whether it’s as big-picture as facility work or immediate as a recruiting budget, it’s difficult for coaches to operate without resources.
 

Tennessee spent $2.4 million on recruiting in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Kentucky spent $1.7 million. Ole Miss spent $1.2 million. Mississippi State spent just over $1 million.
 

There’s a wide range of recruiting budgets throughout the country, but the expenses are generally universal: Mail, coaching visits and official visits.
 

Earlier this year, Kentucky grabbed headlines when it sent 182 letters in one day to 372-pound defensive lineman Matt Elam.
 

One American Athletic Conference coach, however, downplays certain aspects of an engorged recruiting budget.
 

“People can out-mail you and out-propaganda you through spending dollars,” the coach says. “There’s always someone out there with a bigger stick.”
 

A long expense sheet in recruiting doesn’t always correlate to a huge recruiting class, just as a more modest budget doesn’t doom a program to mediocrity. Florida State, for instance, spent a hair over $1 million — less than most of the SEC — and still finished with the No. 4-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals.


An Offer is Not an Offer Until the LOI is Signed
 

It’s an instant-information, instant-gratification recruiting world we live in, and nothing has proven to be more ambiguous than the scholarship offer. Prospects get lost in coach-speak and half-hearted overtures, oftentimes confusing interest for a concrete, all-expenses-paid invitation to join the program.
 

In taking steps to avoid misinterpretation, assistant coaches Mark Elder and Darrell Dickey say they try to be as crystal-clear as humanly possible.
 

“We don’t deal in committable vs. non-committable,” Elder says. “We’re not offering someone that (we wouldn’t accept) on the same day. That’s not how we do business.”
 

Dickey, the former head coach at North Texas, says he tried to avoid casting an overly-large net knowing he had only 25 spots to fill.
 

“There’s places out there that have 150 offers out and only so many spots,” Dickey says. “I never felt very comfortable having thousands of offers out there and then all of a sudden you’ve got to tell kids you can’t take them.”
 

There’s an important difference, however, between rescinding an offer and a prospect being misled.
 

Unlike in basketball, where coaches can afford to ride out an elite-level prospect’s recruitment until the end due to smaller numbers on the roster, the task for college football coaches is more complex. Every year, there’s a (usually) set number of holes to fill. If a prospect waits too long and a school takes another player at the same position, it’s not that he was lied to about having an offer — he was simply beaten to the spot.
 

“The offer is good at that moment,” Elder says. “But it may not be good all the way up to Signing Day, because we may offer, for example, a couple of other tight ends. It’s good until we fill up at that position.”

Written by John Martin (@JohnMartin929), columnist for 92.9 FM ESPN Radio in Memphis, Tenn. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 College Football Regional Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.

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