When Rob Likens was hired this offseason as the University of Miami’s receivers coach, one of the jobs he was most looking forward to was recruiting one of the most talent-rich regions in the country.
“I was excited to go out to some practices and watch some kids run around, man,” Likens said. “I’m not going to be able to do that.”
No one is. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down college football’s pivotal spring evaluation period. Recruiters like Likens can’t crisscross the country scouting players in person. Prospects can’t show how much bigger and faster they’ve become. Sleepers can’t have breakout spring practices if they can’t practice at all.
“It’s really not good for anybody right now,” said Antez Brinson, the director of football operations for Unsigned Preps, a local non-profit that helps high school players get recruited.
It’s not as bad for big-name recruits; their biggest problem is the restriction on campus visits that prevents them from narrowing down their dozens of offers.
But recruiting insiders say it’s worse for three types of prospects, starting with borderline players. If a college likes but doesn’t love a player’s junior film, that staff will use the spring to confirm how big and quick the recruit is in-person before offering him a scholarship.
“Now they can’t confirm that,” Unsigned Preps founder Ricky Sailor said.
And if recruiters can’t confirm it, Sailor fears, they might not be willing to give the player an offer.
The same holds true for the second group of recruits — boys whose physical traits have exploded since December. Maybe they hit a growth spurt or trimmed their 40-yard dash time.
“Over a five-month period, they get bigger, they develop a little bit more,” long-time south Florida recruiting analyst Larry Blustein said. “That’s what the spring is all about.”
When Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Joey Ivie finished his junior year at Pasco High, he weighed 245 pounds. By the time he started spring practice, he was up to 270. He went from a half-dozen mid-level offers in March to 20-plus by the summer before signing with Florida.
But if a player makes that same type of physical transformation this year with no one around to see it?
“A staff is not going to be aware of that,” said Bud Elliott, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
The good news is that a staff can still find out about those changes later. That might not happen for the last group, the sleepers.
Recruiters routinely discover prospects by accident — especially at powerhouses like Armwood High.
Last spring, many of the 100-plus schools that visited came to evaluate a pair of top-tier 2021 prospects, four-star athlete Charles Montgomery and three-star defensive lineman Desmond Watson. During practice, recruiters would notice some of their talented teammates, like defensive backs De’kwan Hughes (who signed with Marshall) and Aamaris Brown (Kansas State).
“We were able to point out some of those other kids, like, ‘Hey, this is what this kid has,’ and ‘Hey, this is what this kid has,’” Armwood coach Evan Davis said. “And it really kind of blows up because of that spring eval.”
So if it doesn’t blow up for those sleepers this spring, will it blow up for them at all?
How colleges are affected
While the recruiting dead period hits players the hardest, it will also have profound impacts on college rosters, beyond a staff’s ability to uncover sleepers and late bloomers.
As important as film is in evaluations, it doesn’t have all of the information a staff wants. How does a player interact with his teammates? How does he accept coaching? How does he react to getting burned on a play?
“All of those things, you can’t see on film,” Likens said.
You can, however, see them in person, which is why in-person evaluation is so critical.
While that lack of face-to-face scouting will affect every program in the country, other challenges are hitting first-year staffs (like Florida State and USF) especially hard.
New coaches need their first springs to introduce themselves and their values, especially if they’re recruiting outsiders (like much of Mike Norvell’s FSU staff). Dan Mullen wanted the Gators to hit every high school in the state during his first spring to start building relationships and to make sure they weren’t overlooking any prospects. Norvell’s Seminoles are limited to video chats.
“(First-year coaches) are trying to set the tone, trying to spread their message, trying to show their vision to recruits,” Rivals national recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said. “That’s just not possible to do the same way over Zoom video or a virtual tour.”
What we still don’t know
Although we don’t yet know all of the long-term effects the pandemic will have on college football, there are two interesting theories about how it could reshape signing day.
The economic crisis probably won’t dent schools’ recruiting budgets much or their ability to pay for prospects’ official visits to campus. But players will still have to pay for unofficial visits themselves. That could be impossible for some families in a period of historic unemployment.
“If you’re a school like Nebraska, what’s the chance you get a kid from Miami or Tampa to come to your campus two or three times after the visit ban lifts?” 247Sports’ Elliott said. “It’s probably not that likely.”
And if those recruits are less likely to visit faraway campuses, there’s a better chance they sign with FSU or USF instead of Michigan or Minnesota.
If schools want them to sign at all.
With the spring evaluation period already gone and summer camps likely to be grounded, too, schools won’t have as much reliable information on this year’s prospects. Their algorithms are incomplete. Less data means more risk.
Elliott said staffs are spending more time than usual vetting a recruit’s character to “reduce their uncertainty any way they can in a very uncertain time.” The easiest way to do reduce uncertainty: Sign fewer high school prospects.
Sailor saw some colleges already doing that during the last cycle to save a few extra roster spots for the transfer portal. Add in the unpredictability from the pandemic and the constricted timeline with the December signing period, and it’s easy to envision schools signing 21 or 22 prep prospects instead of 25.
But for now, recruiting hasn’t seemed to slow down at all, even during this dead period. Rivals’ Gorney said he hasn’t seen a dip in the number of offers flying out. Miami has offered almost as many prospects in this class (237) as it did during the entire 2020 cycle (253).
“It’s almost like looking at the stock market,” Gorney said. “When there’s blood in the street, that’s when you want to buy.”
Times staff writer Mari Faiello contributed to this report.