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Coronavirus makes no exception for national signing day recruits

With no in-person visits, high school athletes had to settle for a virtual recruiting process this year.
Armwood cornerback Noah Biglow (28) celebrates an interception with his teammate linebacker Chris Davis (18) during a 2019 game against Lakeland in Seffner.
Armwood cornerback Noah Biglow (28) celebrates an interception with his teammate linebacker Chris Davis (18) during a 2019 game against Lakeland in Seffner. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2020
Updated Dec. 16, 2020

Expecting a high school senior to commit to a college or university he or she has never visited is a big ask.

But for those who want to continue their playing careers at the next level, it’s the only choice most had in 2020.

Just ask Armwood’s Noah Biglow, one of at least 30 student-athletes in the Tampa Bay area expected to sign a national letter of intent this week during the early signing period for football.

Biglow, a 6-foot, 175-pound cornerback, will officially commit to Pittsburgh Wednesday morning in Armwood’s auditorium.

Related: National signing day is Wednesday. Here are 5 things to know

The past several months have been anything but easy for Biglow and his family. Pitt was one of 16 schools that made an offer to the three-star recruit.

Biglow’s father, Danny, struggled with how different the recruiting process was during the pandemic compared to when his older son, Daniel, signed with Florida Atlantic in 2018.

Ultimately, Biglow’s decision came down to the way Pitt’s coaching staff made him feel at home without him ever stepping foot on campus.

“I’ve never even seen snow,” Biglow, 18, said with a laugh.

Coaches Pat Narduzzi of Pitt and Evan Davis of Armwood were constant sources of reassurance, helping to keep Biglow’s uneasiness at bay. Zoom conferences, phone calls and text messages helped Biglow feel a connection to the school that went beyond his ability to contribute on the football field.

Similarly effective communication helped Armwood teammate Chris Davis, a 3-star prospect, find a home at Georgia State.

Davis, a 6-3, 220-pound linebacker, spent his junior year considering schools he might want to visit during his senior season, not knowing that wouldn’t be possible in 2020. That’s where the Panthers’ coaching staff came in.

Coach Shawn Elliott and his staff rarely talked about football, Davis said. Instead they focused on off-field opportunities Davis would have at Georgia State, such as internships and tutoring.

“It was about who made me feel most at home without being there,” Davis, 17, said.

Meanwhile, Wiregrass Ranch’s Gabriel Thompson, who will accept an appointment to attend West Point and play football, opted to do his own research in addition to talking to Army’s coaches and players. He wanted more information than was available in a Zoom call or virtual visit.

“If you get the answers, you don’t learn anything,” Thompson, 17, said.

Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end, wanted to know what a day in the life of a cadet looked like. He said the players he was able to get in touch with made him feel like he already belonged.

Like their players, high school coaches knew this season would be unlike any other for recruits.

Bloomingdale coach Jake Coulson spent many late nights helping his players navigate their individual recruiting processes. No in-person visits meant more time on the phone, with conversations lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

“I would be on the phone at 9 o’clock at night all the time talking to coaches, and my wife would look at me and say, ‘Now? You have to do this now?’” Coulson recalled. “I would say, ‘Yes, I have to do it, because that’s the only way I’m going to get it done.’”

Anything that couldn’t be done over the phone was accomplished via Zoom.

“Everything was on Zoom. Zoom calls, Zoom campus tours, Zoom everything,” Coulson said. “The kids really didn’t seem to have too much trouble with it, because they are up to speed with the technology.”

Plant City coach James Booth said he sympathizes with recruits who couldn’t visit schools in person. There is no way to replicatethe feeling of excitement recruits experience seeing first-hand that their dreams are about to come true.

“There is nothing like that live experience of walking into the stadium and the locker room and visiting with the players,” Booth said. “When you can talk to the players face to face, you can get a better sense of what the real campus experience is like. There is something about that feeling you get when you are there in person.”

Still, coaches tried to send the same message to their players: Stay positive, and trust the process. If it’s meant to be, it will happen.

Armwood’s Evan Davis said he thought the remote process slowed things down enough that student-athletes and their families could ask more questions without the rush or pressure of a typical recruiting visit.

He said the players agreed, too.

“We tried to do as much on educating kids, trying to be involved with it as much as possible in terms of being another outlet for them to bounce questions off of and ideas on what they were seeing and hearing from the (college) coaches,” he said. “We really pushed them to get as much information as they possibly could.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.