When college and high school programs across the nation were preparing to start spring football practice this past March, no one thought football, or any other sport, would be canceled for months.
But that’s what happened. And the COVID-19 pandemic did more than just sideline athletes. It sent the high school football recruiting world into a frenzy.
Usually, the spring is an important time for coaches and recruits. During the fall, while football is in season, it’s difficult for college recruiters to hit the road to watch high school games on Friday nights. They are usually preparing for Saturday games.
Most years college coaches are allowed to meet face-to-face with recruits on their campuses beginning March 1. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, calls this a “quiet period.” It was scheduled to run through April 14 this year, but was cut short due to the nationwide shutdown.
On April 15, the “quiet period” should have transitioned into an “evaluation period,” a time when college football coaches could have caught flights to evaluate prospective athletes on their home fields. That period was lost too.
While the lost time has certainly shaken up the way college coaches are recruiting and evaluating talent, those carrying most of the burden are rising high school juniors and seniors.
The prospects who have received college offers were looking forward to using this period to visit schools and meet coaching staff.
But with the NCAA-mandated “dead period,” which forbids in-person or on-campus meetings, in place through August 31, an unprecedented number of student-athletes have been making their college decisions sooner, and with less information, to hold spots due to the uncertainty.
By the end of May, nearly three months after the pandemic shut things down, 936 high school prospects nationwide had already announced which college they planned to attend. In 2019, only 477 prospects had made their decision by then.
Miami Columbus High School senior Ryan Rodriguez discusses the impact COVID-19 has had on recruiting.
Rodriguez was being evaluated by Louisiana State University, the reigning national champions, and the University of Florida, and was hoping to land offers from the two Southeastern Conference programs before the COVID-19 pandemic. The rising senior also had visits planned to Louisville and Wake Forest, but they were canceled. Rodriguez wound up giving his verbal pledge to Miami, which he had already visited twice this year.
“The pandemic made me have to secure a spot somewhere not knowing if I was going to be able to visit later on,” Rodriguez said. “If I ended up not committing, I still wouldn’t have been able to visit anywhere. I’d be left not visiting any schools and not committed anywhere. So, it sped the process up and I think everyone is feeling the same way because most recruits have committed early.”
These verbal commitments are non-binding and, over the last four recruiting cycles, roughly 18% have resulted in decommitments, which means opting to re-explore options.
Some in the industry believe that, because of the large number of early pledges, this class could yield a historic number of decommitments as coaches see players and recruits later this year.
There’s going to be a really big reshuffling of recruiting boards for schools,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Andrew Ivins. “Normally, in traditional cycles, these kids will visit campuses and the college coaches will be able to measure them and meet them face to face. If they don’t do that on campus, they’re out on the road evaluating these kids.”
The evaluation process that would have taken place in these past few months will happen at some point if there is a college football season and Ivins thinks when that time comes, college coaches will truly make their decisions about certain prospects.
“Assuming that there is a football season, I think at some point, a lot of schools are going to look and be like, ‘Hey, maybe we don’t like you as much as we did,’ and that’s going to kind of create a mass shuffling on top of what we normally see every year,” Ivins said.
And the success a program has in their upcoming season, or lack thereof, is another factor that will impact the way recruiting goes for a school. A winning football season would result in a better-recruiting class and a bad one would naturally negatively impact the incoming class.
“A team could be hot right now, but in November, after a disappointing season, kids kind of change their mind, so I think it’s going to be a bit of a snowball effect,” Ivins said.
While many prospects have safely secured their spots in college classes, experts know that recruiting is fluid — especially this year. Tough decisions will have to be made by both coaches and recruits and any movement could send ripples that affect the next person, which in turn affects the next.
Whether that be coaches electing not to take a prospect anymore, a recruit selecting a school he has never visited, de-committing and going to a different school or just simply falling back on a school they’re comfortable with in order to secure a spot like Rodriguez did.
“I’m grateful to even have offers,” Rodriguez said.