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How are College Football's Top Recruits Handling the Changing Coaching Landscape?

Ed Oliver, Houston Cougars Football

Ed Oliver, Houston Cougars Football

Ed Oliver could’ve gone to almost any college in America, at least any college with a football program.

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That’s the luxury afforded to 6'2", 277-pound blue-chip defensive tackles who are blessed with enough speed to break gaps and chase down skill-position players in the open field. Oliver was a consensus five-star recruit in football-frenetic Houston, Texas — but he shut down his national recruitment before it ever started. 

He knew he’d be a Houston Cougar. He knew he’d play for Tom Herman and with his brother Marcus, already an offensive linemen at UH. And he also knew Herman, the superstar-in-the-making head coach, had a better than decent chance of leaving UH before Ed would become an upperclassman.

“Coming in, yeah, you obviously had to know there was at least a slim chance he might leave. But you can’t fault the man for wanting to better himself,” Oliver says. “And I congratulate him on wanting to do that, wanting to better himself. You’re supposed to accelerate and strive for more.”

With college football coaching positions at an all-time high rate of turnover and college football recruiting at an all-time high level of importance, something has to give: Coaches who are promising the world to future stars also have an eye on a job down the road. 

How does a recruit cope with the coaching landscape? While they’re being asked to make a semi-permanent decision on Signing Day that can’t be undone without a loss of eligibility or a step down to a lower class of football, coaches are free to jump to other jobs, and athletic directors are under more pressure than ever to fire the men making lifelong promises to 17-year-olds.

To an outsider, Oliver seemed to be facing an existential crisis before Signing Day: Should he go to a major power like Texas or LSU? He loved his home city, but Herman was being rumored for jobs from Texas to South Carolina even before Oliver graduated high school. 

“Man, it wasn’t even about that. I made my decision and knew I’d be happy no matter what, ” Oliver says. 

Here’s how Oliver did it, and some advice for future blue chips:

When Recruiters Come Calling, Ignore the Name of the Coach. Study the Name of the School

“That’s the biggest thing — look at the school, not the coach. That’s the most important thing. That’s why I picked the University of Houston. Because I couldn’t see myself leaving my city. Whether Coach Herman was here or not, this was always going to be my city,” Oliver says.

Oliver’s recruitment came at a crucial time for Herman’s development as a head coach — his first year saw a headline-making Peach Bowl win over Florida State and a conference title. Snagging Oliver, who committed May 21 and remained a strong verbal throughout the 2015 season, created even more buzz. 

According to Oliver, his recruitment was misread by the national media. Outsiders might’ve confused this as causation, but Oliver was focused less on the rise of Herman and more on the value of UH.

“I just had it set in my head before then that I was going to play with my brother and see him graduate. And if he graduated and I didn’t like the school anymore I’d go transfer,” Oliver says.

“The comfort level you feel with a coach creates a comfort level with that school,” says 247 Sports college football recruiting analyst Barton Simmons. “Even if you know a coach might be leaving, that doesn’t change the particular way that coach helped you connect to that university. I can’t imagine that Ed Oliver is shocked that he’s playing for a different head coach in Year 2, but it might not matter, because throughout the recruiting process he fell in love with the message and not necessarily Tom Herman, so that now that he’s gone that connection with the school remains.”

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Ignore the Hype as Much as Possible

It’s more difficult than ever, but it’s best for the recruit not to get caught up in the hoopla of the recruiting game. The calmer and more private your communication with potential suitors, the more informed you’ll become. And the more informed you are, the better the chance that a real relationship will develop between the coach and player. And, hopefully, the less you’ll be surprised if a coach leaves.

“I definitely lived a quieter life than some other guys. I was probably the most under-recruited five-star ever. I just did what I did, played the game and let that speak,” Oliver says. “If you looked at my Twitter, you wouldn’t see a scholarship offer on there.”

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Oliver set limits early on to maintain a sense of calm during his junior and senior seasons of high school. He picked a few coaches from a few schools he had genuine interest in, and the rest of college football had a hard time finding him. 

“I talked to who I wanted to talk to. My experience wasn’t about having your phone blown up 24/7. There was a certain number of coaches who had my number and knew how to contact me. I had set it up to where certain coaches could talk to me and certain coaches couldn’t, or they just didn’t have a way to talk to me.”

“The longer a kid is out playing the recruiting game at a higher level, the better the chance he buys into something false,” a Power 5 head coach says. “That’s not a knock on the intelligence of the student athlete, that’s just probability. If you’re sought after and you entertain that attention, you’re going to hear more and more and more, and most of it isn’t real. It’s what you think you want to hear.”

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Share Information With Other Recruits, or Have a Brother Already Playing College Football

Not every blue chip has a big brother already on an FBS roster, and Oliver’s brother Marcus obviously influenced his decision. But it also gave Ed and his family a preview of big-time recruiting and built a network of information and connections. He also had two teammates who had been through the process —  Cordel Iwuagwu (TCU) and Toby Weathersby (LSU).

“Marcus had already been through the recruiting process,” Oliver says. “Cordel and Toby, those guys probably had 20 offers each. So from learning from them, it wasn’t nothing for me to act like a pro when the time came.”

Because recruiting cycles start earlier and earlier, prospects have years to examine the landscape of college football and potential coaching changes. Knowledge has become equity, but there’s still a nagging instability.

“I can’t overstate how harmful it is for recruits to even think that there’s a chance I’m losing my job,” one Power 5 head coach says. “Obviously that’s the nature of the business and I get that, but a little bit of uncertainty amplifies 10 or 20 or a 100 fold in recruiting. Not so much by the recruits or their families, either, but by the schools recruiting against us.”

“I think that kids are more cognizant than ever,” Simmons says. “Kids are more educated on the process than ever and the people around them are alerting them that it’s highly unlikely you’ll play for the same position coach your entire collegiate career and it’s possible you won’t play for the same head coach. That’s something kids are much more aware of.”

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New Changes to Early Signing Periods Can Trap Prospects, Making Their Decisions that Much Tougher

In April, the NCAA approved a recommendation for early signing periods for college football. And in early May, the changes to the signing period were made official. A 72-hour window in the third week of December is open for early signings in 2017.

This new timeframe seems advantageous for programs looking to lock in signatures and reduce the cost of official campus visits in January. For players, it could exacerbate anxieties about a coaching staff either leaving for a new job or being fired. 

Most major programs’ firings happen earlier than the third week of December — for instance, Herman was in Austin on Nov. 26 — but the ladder of coaches in the second- and third-tier P5 jobs and below can take weeks to sort out.

“It’s entirely possible in this current proposal that a kid could now sign in December at a [Group of 5] school and then his coach takes a job that suddenly opens,” one head coach says. “What’s even more interesting will be watching to see which coaches hold off on early signings because they’re looking to jump. This could create a kind of poker tell for guys wanting to leave. At least guys who are smart enough not to sign kids and then walk out the door a day later.” 

Except that most prospects aren’t recruited by head coaches, at least not solely. Recruiting coordinators and assistant coaches live in a state of uncertainty, but especially in December and January. Plenty of major programs, including LSU, Oregon, Tennessee and Georgia, made key staff moves after Signing Day 2017. By creating a signing window for prospects at the peak of coach-hiring season, a secondary market could emerge.

“There’s no doubt that [assistant] coaches are going to try and leverage players when they’re looking for jobs. If you hear a guy is getting a head job first week of December you’re making calls to that guy saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got this kid wrapped up. I’ve been on this kid two, three, years. You take me, and I’m bringing you this signature immediately,” an SEC coordinator says. 

That situation can only happen if a player has bought in with a coach, not a program. Oliver’s advice: Commit — or sign — early if you’re confident in the school as an overall experience. But in a system that increasingly favors one side at the negotiating table, you get only one shot as a player.

“Just stay focused and let your heart lead the way. But then after you commit shut it down. Don’t play around talking to other coaches or guys going to other schools. Let your commitment be the real final word, and I promise you, your life will be easier,” Oliver says. “If you’re really in love with the school, nothing else should be able to sway you. I don’t believe in decommitment and all that dishonesty. You put other people in a bind. You have to think about more than yourself.”

Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) of for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 National College Football Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.