Amid pandemic, recruits pick D-I futures with less info

The longer he can’t get on a college campus for a recruiting visit, the faster Duce Taylor feels like he has to decide which school is his future home.

That may sound counterintuitive. But it’s true. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound junior from Fort Wayne knew it when one of his quarterback buddies, Tyler Macon, verbally committed to Missouri on March 13. Another one, Conor Easthope, announced a pledge to Western Michigan a week later.

Visits aren’t being made. But choices are. Out of 247Sports’ top 25 quarterbacks in the 2021 class, 18 have picked a college destination.

“A lot of schools are taking one or two quarterbacks. When you see some of the top guys are starting to commit, it’s like, alright, and you start to reach out to coaches a little bit more, just to see what’s going on,” Taylor said. “See what they are really talking about.”

It’s not unusual for quarterbacks to wrap up their recruitment by the summer before their senior year. But this is a novel recruiting cycle, complicated by the on- and off-campus recruiting bans brought on by COVID-19. For a three-star prospect like Taylor, ranked No. 104 at his position nationally, a lack of spring camps and junior days to attend has sped up his decision-making process.

Because without the possibility of face-to-face meetings, recruiters want to identify their likely 2021 recruits, not only to solidify this class but to clear time for pursuing 2022 targets in the fall. At the same time, recruits like Taylor are assessing their offers, keeping in mind that another recruit could swoop in and steal their spot if they think too long.

Taylor has unofficially visited Akron four times and Eastern Michigan twice. But programs that entered the picture later in his recruitment, including Illinois State, Purdue, and IU, may not have the opportunity to host Taylor, especially with the NCAA extending its “dead period” through May. And the cancelation of a regional Elite 11 quarterback event, as well as the possibility of no 7-on-7 tournaments this summer, will reduce Taylor’s chances to improve his recruiting stock.

Everything just is what it is. So a decision Taylor planned to make in July may be moved up weeks, or even months.

“I want to get on campus with the schools that are talking to me and build relationships with them,” Taylor said. “But if that’s not an option, I am going to have to make a decision based on the schools I have.”

It’s an odd scenario that recruiting analysts like Rivals’ Josh Helmholdt are seeing play out. With campus visits called off, Helmholdt expected verbal commitments to drop off in the short-term, as recruits waited for a chance to officially visit. But the number of recruits opting to lock in their choices this March and April has been comparable to 2019, with some recruits committing even earlier than anticipated.

Of 247Sports’ top 150 juniors, 61 are verbally committed.

“We’ve had several prospects, we expected their commitment to be a month or two out. They moved it up and committed now,” Helmholdt said. “There isn’t going to be new information between now and a month and a half from now, but their spots could be gone.”

Recruits went into this cycle with a plan for visits and showcases, checking off boxes and weighing their options. But those plans were shelved, creating a landscape where “virtual tours” and copious text messages and phone calls are the best recruiting methods.

This recruiting dead period shouldn’t have as much of an effect on highly touted prospects with a large number of solid offers. Then again, highly touted programs have more leverage than others in securing early 2021 commits.

For instance, Ohio State reeled in a commitment from running back TreVeyon Henderson on March 27 — and he never visited the campus. But there was an urgency for Henderson — the brother of former Indiana running back Ronnie Walker — to commit to the Buckeyes. OSU already has 15 players committed for 2021.

“They only had one more spot left at running back,” Helmholdt said. “Other schools that got off to a slow start and needed to generate some momentum, this hurts them now. They have to generate recruiting momentum without getting prospects on campus and evaluating in-person.

“Some are sitting pretty good. Others are going to be hurt and this will further stunt their progress in this cycle.”

IU has four verbal commitments following Monday’s pledge from Fort Wayne offensive lineman Vinny Fiacable. That’s not an underwhelming number, according to Helmholdt.

But even one of the Hoosiers’ most recent commits admitted the recruiting shutdown played into the timing of his announcement. Bloomington North tight end Aaron Steinfeldt had offers from Boise State and UCF, but those visits were supposed to happen in April.

Without shaking hands with coaches, it was hard to get a good feel for those programs. He tried googling their weight room facilities, watching videos of athletes working out, but it’s not the same as actually being there.

“It’s kind of like a window, and the window there is a little foggy,” Steinfeldt said last week, just two days before he committed to IU. “I don’t know what’s going on with on-campus stuff or what they are about. It’s just foggy.”

Steinfeldt decided it was better to commit to his dream school now, rather than wait and have another 2021 tight end commit on their offer and take the roster spot at IU.

Boise State may have that famous blue turf. UCF may have been to a pair of Fiesta Bowls in the last six years. But it’s hard to commit to four or five years at a school without stepping foot on its campus.

“You are, like, sort of guessing what’s it about and stuff like that. IU, I know everything about it. I live here,” Steinfeldt said. “It’s very much on the rise and they’re going to be a good team, and I hope I can be a part of that.”

The longer this recruiting dead period lasts, the more uncertainties that will arise for uncommitted prospects.

High school juniors have unofficially visited schools, paying their own way for travel and other expenses. But their first chance to visit officially, on the school’s dime, was supposed to occur from April 1-June 21. If those visits aren’t made, can the early signing period for the 2021 class, which was scheduled to start Dec. 16, actually go forward?

And if there aren’t team camps and combines this summer, robbing 2022 recruits of their chance to shine, how will late-blooming prospects grab the attention of recruiters?

And if there isn’t a high school season, how will under-the-radar seniors sell themselves to schools, particularly those who would have had a good chance to earn a scholarship at a non-Power 5 or non-Division I school?

“It’s hard to project because you have so many moving parts,” Helmholdt said. “The teams have their responsibilities that they have to address, and prospects are going through this for the first time and they had a game plan and it’s changed.”

Some recruits will inevitably be affected more than others. Luckily for a 2022 prospect like Gibson Southern quarterback Brady Allen, he’s an early bloomer.

The sophomore stands 6-5, weighing 200 pounds. He already holds offers from IU, Purdue, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, and Cincinnati. He also has interest from Notre Dame and Ohio State. Still, Allen was looking forward to competing at an Elite 11 camp and 7-on-7s, ready to show off his improved deep-ball accuracy and footwork.

He had a spring visit scheduled at Wisconsin, which offered in January. That’s not happening.

“I was really looking forward to going up there and getting to meet everyone and I haven’t been able to do that, so that was disappointing,” Allen said. “But I’m just staying in contact. Calling them on the phone is the main thing.”

To keep recruiting relationships solid, there are text messages and calls. To keep himself sharp, Allen is throwing routes with his teammates on a nearby baseball diamond, or sometimes in his mom’s dance studio.

He can only imagine what recruiting will be like a year from now, though, if things don’t open back up. He would have to collect a lot of information in a short amount of time.

“You look on ESPN and all this stuff and you see these NFL guys and college analysts saying football season is going to be canceled. That’s a scary thing with taking visits and all that stuff,” Allen said. “You hope that doesn’t affect things, not playing and recruiting and all that. I hope it stops here soon and things can get back to normal.”

While Allen has more time, there is no stopping the clock for Taylor. He’s throwing at targets planted in the grass surrounding his driveway. He pulls the collar on his fleece over his nose and mouth for protection.

As far as recruiting goes, he’s trying to get questions answered about the academics at his top schools. He would like to ask current players those questions, and it’s better to do that in-person. From a distance, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s a recruiting pitch.

“If I can’t get on campus, it’s basically a trust thing,” Taylor said. “You have to build trust with the coaches and build trust with the players there.”

Taylor has received about five or six “virtual tour” videos from schools, four- or five-minute clips where they showcase facilities, explain class offerings, talk about graduation rates. It’s supposed to be a substitute for what he would have learned on a junior day visit.

On April 3, he posted on Twitter a graphic he received from Eastern Michigan. It read “Duce, you are the missing piece.” Taylor will have to decide soon whether he believes that, because, wherever he goes, he wants to be a midyear enrollee. He wants to be on campus, his nose in a playbook.

Taylor wishes he had more time. He wishes the virus would go away and he could visit campuses. But everyone is just trying to make the best of a bad situation. He’s grateful, at least, for the visits he was able to take and the programs he did have a chance to get to know before the shutdown.

“I would say I’m very fortunate,” Taylor said. “No one expected this to happen, and getting to those places, getting to campus, I got a feel more than other players did. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, as times like this go.”

8 comments

  1. This article points out how social isolation effects things most people don’t think about. Football coaches and players do a lot in the spring and summer that most people don’t know about. Missing on this will have a big effect on 2021 recruits and even the 2022 recruits.

    I wonder if this change will keep more players committing closer to their homes because they have a better feel about those schools. The top players won’t be as effected but even those will be pushed to commit for fear of losing a spot on the team they dream about.

    This could also give teams like IU a chance to get some players they usually miss on as players get shut out on teams and are still looking for a school to go to. Like everything else with this virus, we won’t really know how things will work out for IU and other teams as players make decision without the usual info.

    1. V13,
      I think your comments are well taken. The isolation approach will have many unforeseen consequences which, as with all major initiatives, is usually the case. Did notice something interesting this morning regarding our Wisky friends. They have made the decision to not allow spring sports seniors the extra year.

      Wisky cited many of the concerns raised starting with the disruption to incoming classes. Additional concerns were roster sizes and budgeting problems. Apparently, the loss of revenue on the basketball tournament alone is creating major problems for athletic departments across the country. One can only imagine what the fallout from a possible loss of the football season would mean to collegiate athletics in general.

  2. Budget concerns…? Here’s an idea, cut coaching salaries by 50%. No football coach needs 6 million/year. No basketball coach needs 3 million/year to take a team to an occasional Sweet 16.
    If you want to save collegiate athletics, all the grossly overpaid will need to sacrifice. There will be more pandemics. Covid-19 may return in the fall. Maybe only own a 4 million dollar home instead of a 10 million dollar home? Maybe one less Porsche SUV parked in the garage? Maybe just one less Mediterranean vacation for the wife and kids every year?
    Sacrifice …..just a bit while many out-of-work Americans are on their last $65.00 to their name despite the generous offers from the government to have interest charges postponed on a mountain of debt in college loans.

    Stories of budget concerns in college athletics….? Are there any stories of the mega millionaires who have made fortunes in college athletics giving back to students, athletes, programs, etc. in order to ease some of the strain? Can we have some of those heartwarming stories? We are in this pandemic as a team. And when you are own a team, you give back some of your fortunate fortunes held in overflowing vaults for those now in dire need.

    Nothing is in financial trouble….Get away from my $65.00, Mr. Budget Constraints. Those on the top of the food chain just never want to relinquish. They believe in waterfalls up…and the smallest of trickle downs. Will this pandemic cause some reevaluations of the greed machines running sports? Doubtful. There will never be “distancing” of any sort from greed.

  3. The shut down hurts schools like IU a lot more than it hurts the traditional powerhouses like OSU, MI, PSU. If IU is now more reliant on getting kids that have seen IU’s campus, given that in relative terms the state of IN is not a High School FB hotspot, the shut down is likely to have a negative impact on IU’s recruiting. It will hurt our ability to expand recruiting efforts in the southeast (FL, GA, etc.) and other parts of the country outside the immediate region, since kids in those areas can’t visit IU and have less information about IU via the media.

    I applaud Wisconsin’s tough decision regarding Spring Sport Seniors. It sucks for those young men, but they’ve had their time and opportunities. The upside for the seniors is not worth the downside to the incoming freshman.

    1. Po, the seniors, through no fault of their own, lost their last chance to play a sport they love. I don’t applaud Wisconsin for this decision. Some of the issues would disappear if the NCAA would just come out and say seniors coming back won’t count against scholarship limits. Then the seniors can decide if they want to come back or move on with their lives. I just hate to see students that have put so much into their athletic careers have it end without getting to play their last season.

  4. I think this gives IU an advantage over other schools with similar records. Allen’s positive leadership of an excited, young, energetic and gregarious coaching staff will show prominently to someone only having audio and visual contact. The success story that has been IUFB for the past 5 years will be heard loud and clear. IU, Allen and staff are going to get some recruits they normally might not get a commitment from. 8-5 says a lot.

  5. Hope you’re right, HC. But too many kids from outside the area, the beautiful IU Campus and IU’s new & improved FB facilities are huge selling points. Not getting to see them in person tends to neutralize those advantages.

    V13, as I said, it sucks and it has affected a lot of HS and college senior athletes. But given the circumstances, IMO Wisc’s choice in favor of the incoming freshman is the lessor of two evils.

    Happy Easter!

  6. I’d say the high rated DB commit today is proving it. The dynamics of recruiting has shifted for the times and Allen and Co. are up to the challenge. Lots of others are going through the fog of the past. Their pockets will get picked.

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