Patience a priority in pandemic for college football recruits

As Joe Strickland drove up to Michigan’s campus in September, the four-star defensive end from Brebeuf Jesuit knew there would be limits on what he could see.

In a normal year, juniors like Strickland are welcomed to campus for “official” visits, shown around a football program’s facilities by coaches and players. But ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started last March, in-person visits haven’t been allowed. Strickland could drive up on his own and walk around campus. But he could only see the outside of buildings. Nothing more.

But a trip to Ann Arbor was at least something. So thatf weekend in September, when Strickland’s high school team was in quarantine because of the virus, he drove north. He just stood outside of The Big House, imagining there was more to see and feel.

“I tried to imagine it with 100,000 people,” Strickland said, “and tried to imagine playing in front of 100,000 people.”

Where a recruit will play his football is an important decision. But the process of gathering information for a decision has never been more complicated. It’s Zoom and FaceTime calls, trying to build relationships with coaches via screen time. It’s taking virtual tours of campuses or one-off trips in real life, hoping to get a feel for a college without being able to step inside its buildings.

For members of the 2021 recruiting class, the pandemic shut down in-person recruiting just as they were narrowing their lists. Those last few opportunities to comparison shop were stolen away. Some recruits, offered by Power 5 schools later in the process, committed to and signed with college programs they never visited in person.

The impact has been even greater on the 2022 class. Athletes like Strickland will go an entire academic year without being able to take an in-person visit because the NCAA recently extended its “dead period” through May. No games. No facility tours. Nothing in person.

Around this time of year, juniors usually start committing to college programs, and some still are. Of the top 200 players in 247Sports’ rankings, 53 have verbally committed to a school. But the majority are uncommitted, many of them in position to potentially take advantage of visits in June and beyond. The NCAA’s last statement outlined a “strong commitment” to using the next several weeks to make a “transition plan” back to recruiting activities after June 1.

Strickland, considered the No. 191 prospect in the 2022 class, will probably release a top 10 in the next couple of months. But if the NCAA is going to allow visits in the summer, he wants to take advantage. Just standing outside of The Big House isn’t quite enough.

“You just gotta be there to know if you want to be there the next four years of your life,” Strickland said. “Getting that feeling, you can’t do that over Zoom. Getting that feeling, you have to be there.”

It remains to be seen if most prospects take the same patient approach, especially as scholarships are claimed. For instance, Ohio State already has seven commits among 247’s top 200. Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas have five apiece. Texas A&M has four. Penn State has three.

Bigger programs with more robust histories are generally ahead of the pace. Indiana football, though, doesn’t have a commit yet for 2022. Nebraska and Northwestern have zero, as well. While OSU has 10 overall commits, and PSU and Rutgers each have seven, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Illinois each have two or fewer.

Just looking at last year’s haul, IU’s first 2021 commit came on Jan. 29, 2020, but it was Elkhart defensive end Rodney McGraw, who ended up flipping to Penn State. About half of IU’s eventual signees, seven, committed in April. If waiting an extra month or two gives 2022 recruits a chance to visit before pledging their intentions, many could opt to wait until June.

Just like Strickland, three-star offensive lineman Landen Livingston said he wants to keep his options open. The 6-foot-4, 280-pounder from Leo didn’t start getting Power 5 offers until last April, when Michigan State, Purdue, and IU entered the mix. As a sophomore, Livingston took unofficial gameday visits to Western Michigan and Toledo, but that’s all he’s ever experienced.

There is a big difference between schools in the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten.

“I don’t think I’d use that as a comparison, just because I haven’t been to some of these Power 5, Group of 5 schools,” Livingston said. “I’ve never seen it in person. That’s something when stuff starts to open up, I’ll really look forward to it. That’s one of the biggest things for me, getting to know the coaches well. It’s a big decision and you want to make the right one.

“Hopefully, I can build some better relationships with the coaches. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make a decision either by summer or, if I have to, push it back around the fall.”

Coaches and recruits alike yearn for that in-person contact, especially when relationships are at the core of what’s being sold. Allen has said as much, believing it’s hard to truly sell a “love each other” culture when a recruit is on the other end of a phone or computer screen. He also had a fear of more “misses” in recruiting, just players and coaches not having a good enough feel for each other before they met on campus.

But when calls became the only way, there were many, many made to recruits when the pandemic first hit, which Allen admitted was a grind. Just one after another.

“I was going until 11, 12 o’clock at night, talking to people every day, recruiting, which is great in some ways. But it’s also like, ‘Man, this is more than normal, and it’s a little intense,’” Allen said in September.

Recruits from the 2022 class have been on the other end of that barrage. The first day coaches could call junior recruits, Strickland received 15 of them. He had more than a handful of Zooms with football programs just last week. Once Strickland was on vacation, snowboarding, and he got a call while he was on a ski lift.

Strickland, who is considering IU, was an early riser in recruiting. He was 14 years old when he was pulled into Allen’s office for an hour conversation after a team camp. He’s luckier than most, because he’s taken a fair amount of gameday visits to this point.

He doesn’t mind talking to coaches, either, whenever they call.

“I always answer,” Strickland said. “It definitely takes a lot of time to get used to it. At first, I was, like, 14, answering calls from grown men, talking about football. But now I’m just casual about it. People think it’s crazy when they see my call list, but it’s just part of it.”

Livingston will oftentimes just be hanging out with friends when the calls come. They tease him, “There goes Landen on another phone call.” He always picks up — except for the time he was in the middle of getting a haircut.

“I didn’t pick up on that one,” Livingston said, “because I like to have good haircuts.”

But the calls have also been fun. Once, Allen texted to see if they could FaceTime, and Livingston was in the middle of a fantasy football get-together. One of Livingston’s friends, Gunnar, is a huge IU fan.

“I was like ‘Gunnar, Coach Allen is about to call me.’ He was like ‘No way,’” Livingston said. “Me and Coach Allen started FaceTiming, and we reached a point where I said ‘Hey, Coach, I have the biggest IU fan with me right now and he would love to say hello.’

“They had a long conversation about his life and what he was doing. He enjoyed it.”

But even if Livingston has found a way to keep the calls and Zooms in proper perspective, appreciating the opportunity to talk football with the heads of successful programs, there is still a desire for more.

Right after Christmas, Livingston and his family took a vacation. They spent New Year’s at the Grand Canyon, but the trip also allowed Livingston to visit Arizona State, one of the schools on his list. He couldn’t meet with the coaches or see the inside of the football facilities, but the trip gave an Indiana boy a chance to see Tempe.

The desert landscape, the mountains, the 70-degree temperatures in winter — it was something.

“The campus is super nice. I describe it as ‘clean,’” Livingston said. “We did go to the stadium and we did look around the outside of it. We walked around the whole campus, the business building, and all that. We just wanted to get a feel for Arizona State.

“It was something really nice, especially since we can‘t go and take these visits officially. It’s good to see.”

It gave Livingston something to consider, just as Strickland stood outside of The Big House and used his imagination to see the rest. Strickland took a similar visit to Penn State, standing outside of Beaver Stadium and picturing another crowd of 100,000-plus.

But, if possible, Livingston and Strickland want to be able to consider a little bit more. With vaccinations underway, and with an end to the COVID-19 pandemic just barely in view, hope remains that recruits in the 2022 class will have a chance to gather more information than their predecessors in 2021.

“I just don’t think committing somewhere without seeing the place in person is a reasonable thing to do or a logical thing to do,” Strickland said. “I know some guys signed and they didn’t see the place until they moved in. I don’t see me doing that. If the dead period gets pushed back again, I’ll drive myself to the school or I’ll go with my mom. I’ll see the place if I’m going to commit.”

6 comments

  1. The recruiting for 2022 class is limited and we will have to see how it works out for the Hoosiers. It is tough on the recruits but it also helps them focus on things that make a big difference for their college years. It is easy to fall in love with all the whistles and bells at some campuses but the reality is they won’t spend much time enjoying them but on education and training with coaches.

    I hope IU reaps the improving from the past two seasons but it may not happen as fast as fans want. I want to see the inroads our new coaches can make in recruiting even if it only happens in the next cycle of recruits.

  2. Schools like IU are at a disadvantage due to the restrictions implemented due to COVID. The restrictions favor the traditional powerhouse FB programs compared to the “on-the-rise” programs like IU.

    1. You are right H4H and I got a message on it too. I have not had the COVID19 do to living in a small town and small population in our country. People that have wedding groups and parties have had it but I stay away from those.

      I am not going to get a vaccine until everyone in danger gets it and then maybe not get it at all. I don’t get flu vaccines and haven’t had the flu in a couple of decades. Early on I did, but I think working in a school built up my immunity.

  3. I think the key for IU is to continue working the transfer portal vigorously. One or two talented and mature transfers every year, especially those with more than one year of eligibility, makes a huge difference.

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