Major programs are still figuring out all the ways the NCAA transfer portal has transformed recruiting.
How seasonal swings have become a year-round blitz. How to scout constantly for potential contributors. How an 11th-hour enrollee can reshape a roster or playbook.
Georgia basketball coach Tom Crean and his Division I-A colleagues across sports don’t have much experience in this fluid landscape. But Crean knows coaches at another level who have been thriving in an environment like this for years.
“The best thing somebody like me can do right now is talk to the people in junior colleges,” Crean said recently during the SEC’s spring meetings in Destin. “How have you been doing it?”
Good question. We posed it to three juco football coaches who are comfortable evaluating, vetting and signing players past the traditional February signing day and into August.
Here are five lessons from juco coaches that can apply to major programs in the transfer portal era:
Lesson 1: Understand your strengths and weaknesses.
The first thing to know about their year-round recruiting? It doesn’t have to be year-round.
“I don’t prefer that,” Blinn (Texas) College coach Ryan Mahon said. “It’s a waste of money in my opinion.”
It’s a waste of money (and time) because juco isn’t the goal for most players; it’s a backup plan if their D-I dreams don’t materialize. So Mahon doesn’t begin contacting high school recruits until November, as the traditional February signing day approaches. That helps maximize a school’s time and budget by eliminating inefficiencies.
Lesson 2: It all starts in high schools.
Like I-A programs, jucos have a big recruiting wave in February. The difference is that as juco coaches pursue prospects in that initial wave, they’re also identifying top I-A recruits who might fail to qualify at major programs.
“We’ll at least introduce ourselves to them,” Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College coach Rion Rhoades said. “We’ll tell them about our school and basically present kind of an insurance policy to them.”
Players begin cashing in on those insurance policies in early summer, when they learn they won’t be academically eligible at the I-A schools they signed with in December or February. That creates the second recruiting wave, with players like Diwun Black.
The four-star linebacker signed with the Gators in February. Three months later, he announced he would attend a community college because of academics.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s coaches had known about Black as a talented prep player in Mississippi, before he moved to Kissimmee for his senior year.
“We had kind of already been in the picture from before,” Mississippi Gulf Coast head coach Jack Wright said.
So they got back in the picture in May. Four weeks later, Black signed with them, thanks in part to the legwork done months earlier.
We’re already seeing similar trends with the transfer portal. When blue-chip early enrollee Chris Steele wanted to leave Florida in May, he eventually landed at USC — a program he was once committed to in high school. Offensive lineman Landon Dickerson exited Florida State this summer for Alabama, which earned one of his final recruiting visits as a top-50 recruit in 2016.
Lesson 3: Networking is vital.
The final transfer wave happens around preseason camp in August, which leaves little time to recruit and vet players before the season begins. That puts an extra emphasis on pre-existing relationships, like the one Rhoades had with longtime Georgia high school football coach Kyle Hockman.
Rhoades had been recruiting Hockman’s school for years, so Hockman knew the foundation of Rhoades’ program. That paid off last fall when Hockman’s son, four-star quarterback Bailey Hockman, decided to leave FSU after failing to win the starting job in preseason camp. He ended up at Hutchinson with Rhoades.
“It was really pretty quick and easy once we got connected,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades also stays connected with coaches across the country to help him figure out why a transfer is in the portal and whether he’s worth the risk.
“I kind of always ask this question: If you were in my shoes, would you take him?” Rhoades said. “When you’re talking to someone you trust and know, that’s a really good barometer to go by.”
Lesson 4: Stay flexible.
Because you never know when an elite talent will become available, juco coaches keep some spots open until August. Mahon still has five rooms available at Blinn; Wright doesn’t finalize his 55-man roster at Mississippi Gulf Coast until the day before his first game.
“You always want to give yourself room to add a guy,” Rhoades said.
Usually that guy fills a pressing need or improves a roster for this season, but Rhoades won’t turn down a special player who might star next year.
So much fluidity requires simple systems that coaches can teach quickly and players can learn fast. Rhoades was only comfortable adding Hockman so late because he knew the son of a coach wouldn’t need much time to pick up his spread offense.
It also means that coaches must be flexible with their Xs and Os. If a talented running back becomes available in August, don’t overthink it. Take him —and call more running plays.
“I think the best coaches always adjust,” said Wright, who led Northwest Mississippi to a juco national title in 2015. “I think the quicker you adjust, the better coach you are.”
Lesson 5: Know when to say no.
While late transfers can patch an immediate hole, they can also be risky if a coach reaches for a player who doesn’t fit.
On the field, it’s better to save a scholarship for later than to waste it on someone who isn’t good enough or might upset the chemistry of a fragile position group.
“Stick to your standards,” Rhoades said.
Off the field, be comfortable with the player you’re taking. That can mean grilling a prospect about his previous arrest, suspension or dismissal.
“You ask the tough questions,” Mahon said. “You put them on the spot because you have no time.”
But you also control that timeline.
Although Mahon has had players try to join the team a week before the start of the season, he isn’t comfortable with trying to ram the paperwork through that quickly. His rough deadline to take a player is two weeks before kickoff.
“As a head coach, I control my own destiny on this,” Mahon said. “And I don’t have to put myself through the heartache.”