The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc around the globe and, in the process, altered the way we go about our day-to-day activities. One of the many institutions affected is the high school recruitment process.
Social distancing has halted college visits and shut down camps and athletic events nationwide. Student athletes seeking to play at the next level have had to make adjustments in how they’re evaluating and/or attracting potential collegiate suitors.
Tristan Leigh is a highly touted student athlete at Robinson High School in Fairfax, Va. As a rising senior, he planned to spend his spring and summer visiting some of the schools he’s been offered by, to find the program that fits best. But the national emergency has altered those plans.
“I was really looking forward to getting out to the campuses of my newer offers. I was planning to visit all the Florida schools: Florida, UCF, Miami and Florida State,” Leigh said. “I thought I was going to get to go to Oklahoma and Georgia. It’s disappointing that I may not be able to make those trips.
“When you’re under the impression things are supposed to go a certain way and it all gets changed so quickly, it's kind of frustrating to try to handle. Now I have to figure out a time to get to all of those schools — and I probably won’t get to see all of them.”
With face-to-face contact prohibited, college coaches have turned up the volume of their virtual communication. Doubling-down on efforts to reach student athletes via direct messaging on Twitter and/or Instagram has become the new norm. According to Archbishop Carroll head coach Rob Harris, there is no shortage in communication between the two sides, if anything, it has increased.
“The actual contact has not stopped,” Harris said. “The engagement through social media is prevalent. The engagement through phone call and text is up. They’ve [college coaches] still been reaching out. It’s not as close contact as we may want or that we’re used to, but everybody is just making the adjustment based on the situation.”
The inability to meet with coaches face-to-face has added uncertainty to what was already a complex process. Student athletes and families looking to make a decision before the start of next football season are forced to feel-out coaches over the phone.
“I ask them [coaches] as many questions as possible,” Leigh said. “I try to find the little differences between the schools and their coaching staffs.”
For parents who will be entrusting the care of their sons to a staff for the next four years, trust and reliability can be as large a factor as win/loss records.
“I need to know if I can talk to this person about things beyond football,” Leigh said. “I have to try to determine if he really has my back or if he’s just going to try to use me up. It’s always better to get a feel for someone face-to-face, but I’ve needed to learn how to read a person over the phone or FaceTime.”
The concern of many experts is no amount of phone conversations or virtual tours can replace physically stepping foot on campus. Official visits are a key component to the recruitment process and essential for student athletes looking to make their final decision.
“The inability to see other schools and take visits is what’s really hurting these kids,” said Rusty Mansell, recruiting analyst of 247Sports.
“Over the years, there’s a key phrase that I always look for — when these kids say, ‘it felt like home,’ that’s a trigger word. That’s when you know that school is either leading or they’re going to get that kid.
“To be truthful, if you peel it all back, there’s not a ton of difference [between major programs]. You got the nicest dorm room, you got the best meal plan, you got academic support and all the gear you want. What makes a difference is when you walk on campus, can you say, ‘man, this feels like home. I can be here.’ A lot of kids in this class won’t know because they’re not getting to take multiple visits to multiple places.”
Visits are only one aspect of the recruiting process that student athletes are missing out on. Social distancing has also prevented underclassmen from garnering attention at various camps and 7-on-7 tournaments — events that provide platforms for them to be noticed.
“This time of the year is so important for the underclassmen. When I see them at an event and put out a tweet on them, they may receive offers immediately, or schools might at least put them on their board,” Mansell said. “That’s why I feel so down for these kids who are missing these summer opportunities, because it’s such a big part of the process.
“The ‘22 class may not get new offers because they’re not being seen right now. There’s a lot of kids who just won't be seen.”
According to Mansell, there are still opportunities for student athletes to get on the radar of college scouts. With coaches spending much of their down time reviewing film and checking out prospects online, social media becomes a powerful tool to initiate conversation — so long as it’s used the right way.
“There’s a fine line between being active on social media and being overactive,” Mansell said. “If you work out five days in a row, cut that up into a 30-second clip and put that out instead of flooding timelines.
“Get you some workout stuff in. Get somebody to time you on the 40, and be sure to show the clock. Let somebody video you having your height and weight taken. That’s what these college coaches want to see. Make sure your Hudl is updated. College coaches are watching right now. They don’t have anything to do, so they’re watching tape.”
Welcome to the new normal of the college recruitment process.