This recruiting season has been packed with even more craziness than usual, and Clemson has experienced more than their fair share of the ups and downs it entails. The nation’s #1 recruit, Robert Nkemdiche of Loganville, GA, originally committed to Clemson, only to decommit and indicate Ole Miss as his new leader. Now LSU joins the hunt and he’ll take a visit to see what the Gators have to offer. Ryan Jenkins, a wide receiver from Marietta, was committed to the Tigers where his brother is a defensive back, but flipped to Tennessee, his father’s alma mater. Then of course we experienced the turbulent ride of the #5 wide receiver in the nation, Demarcus Robinson, who ended up with Florida, but didn’t make his decision clear until he had practically finished moving in to his Gainesville, FL dorm room.
With all that going on, I asked our SEC and college football expert to weigh in, not on any specific player, but his broader experience with the recruiting process over the years. His unique perspective as a high school athlete and high school football coach allows him to bring to light some items, that to outsiders like myself, are rather shocking. Please note that his stories and insights are not specific to any one player unless indicated as such.
This inside look is something you can’t get from your typical recruiting update, and I have to give a huge thanks to Big Fudge for opening up. I hope you enjoy!
With all due respect to the weather, recruiting may be the most unpredictable thing in this world. To predict and understand the thinking of 17 and 18-year-old high schoolers is a crapshoot at best. Or is it?
As a former athlete, albeit a very average one, I did have my fair share of recruitment. This, coupled with my time coaching football, are what I will use as reference points when exploring the thought process of recruits. We will make an effort to understand what factors pull athletes to their schools, focusing specifically on college football recruiting.
The first factor to remember about recruits coming out of high school is that, like any 17 or 18-year-old, they love attention. This is not inherently a bad thing, as they have accomplished plenty in their young lives athletically–and hopefully academically–that would warrant the appreciation they are receiving from colleges, and they should be able to enjoy it. It is this attention they receive that will give them early ideas of where they would like to commit. They will always have a fondness for the first program that shows them interest and therefore you usually see that school in the running to the end.
However this attention is a double-edged sword. If you give a lot of it early on and less at other points during the recruitment cycle, the athlete may become frustrated after having grown accustomed to the initial level of contact. This attention factor is a very important one as the types of attention must be adjusted and changed regularly during recruitment, otherwise a school could fall victim to another flaw possessed by teenagers, they get bored easily.
Eventually the “shine” of the attention from the same schools fades, and new schools become the primary focus, because their message is new and different. This is often seen with late-blooming prospects that have been given attention by smaller programs for years and once they develop further and reach a higher level of talent the big boys come calling. The wonderful attention of the small programs becomes stale and the big school has fresh and flashy appreciation to be paid to the athlete. Needless to say it is only rational for a teenager to be enamored with this new attention and unless the original schools can change-up their messaging they may be left behind.
I have personally seen this many times in my coaching career. I had a star running back that was undersized to say the least going into his senior year. He had only three offers at this point and only one of these was a division one program. He went on to grow about four inches and put on twenty-five pounds while being the best player on the team. By week four of the season, seemingly every school knew of him. By the end of his recruitment he was between his first division one offer and three major programs. He chose that first school to offer him and when I asked him what made him choose this program he answered they gave him the most attention and they were first to believe in him. This school did not let up on him and when the bigger schools offered they turned up the heat even more. All of this attention and care paid to athletes is a huge part of recruiting but it must be handled carefully.
The next factors that pull recruits are their preconceived notions and their openness to new ideas. Growing up in the south, I am no stranger to being raised on a certain team or university. I grew up knowing my school was best and all others were just hoping to be us. I knew that the Big 10 was slow, the Big East shouldn’t have a BCS tie in, the SEC was overly arrogant, the ACC was soft, the Big 12 only had three teams worth anything (OU, UT, and back then Nebraska), and the Pac then 10 now 12 didn’t understand that defense was part of the game. Many of these up and coming prospects are also filled with these beliefs and have favorite schools. Whether or not the parents have attended a school or even gone to college doesn’t come into play as much as many think. It is only a factor in as much as the school is a part of the athletes upbringing. Athletes with parents that never went to college still have their teams, but they may just not have the same loyalty to that school due to lesser exposure and connection.
To use myself as an example, I was only offered by 10 schools coming out of high school and only two of those were division one programs. One of the programs was a very good school with great academics but they did not offer an athletic scholarship only a preferred walk-on status with partial academic scholarships to help with the lofty tuition price tag. The other program was a good school, but it had the misfortune of being a program that I knew a lot about and had distaste for due to my college football upbringing. Needless to say I did not give that school the time of day. In the end I am a rare sort of fool that passed up all of the chances laid before me and enrolled in college just to be a student. Looking back now, the school that I would not consider may have been the best opportunity for me, but my preconceived notions of it would not allow me to truly see the potential in it. This is something that recruits often enter the process with. It’s the athlete’s ability to be open to new ideas and schools that will determine how much these beliefs will factor in their decision.
The intangibles of each school are another big factor weighing on these young minds. Each school is unique and therefore brings different things to the table for each recruit. Many fans wonder why a recruit would choose to go to school X over their school, assuming the school itself is the determining factor, and the answer is never simple nor the same as different recruits are looking for different things. Let’s take a look at five different schools that are very successful and each have had excellent recruiting classes in the past few years: Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Ohio State, and Southern California.
Why would a recruit choose one of these schools, disregarding geography, over another? Each school has features that make it extremely attractive to recruits. Alabama has a history, both ancient and recent, of winning championships and plays in the SEC. Clemson has a unique campus and “family” atmosphere, this is what many recruits have been quoted as saying about the program throughout the years. Florida has the location, SEC, and facilities. Ohio State has tradition and name recognition in the North, and USC has the LA lifestyle. Each school has something that appeals to certain recruits and when an athlete is looking at schools some of these characteristics will speak louder to them than others. Larger, more prominent programs have more to offer than their smaller counter parts in terms of exposure and other intangibles as well. What is important to them is usually sculpted by their upbringing and those that are around them on a daily basis.
This brings us to the most important factor in recruiting, the decision makers. Believe it or not most 17 and 18 year olds are not ready to make completely independent decisions on their own, and they often look to a certain person to guide them in the right direction for their future. This person is different for every recruit and coaches are constantly scrambling to find that person. For me my decision maker was my father (who was happy in the end that I chose not to play college football) and I would look to him to gauge how interested in a school I should be and where I would fit the best. In many cases it is a parent or relative or maybe even a close friend that helps makes this decision–which is not necessarily unhealthy.
It’s when there is an outside person that has undue influence on this decision that a problem arises. Unfortunately this happens far too often in recruiting, and it is not talked about in the open as much as it should be. There have been many instances where high school coaches hold something over a recruit to be able to steer him to the school of the coach’s choice. Often times this is with the promise of a job for the coach if he delivers the recruit. Other times it is just to help out the coach’s favorite school. I have witnessed this first hand both when playing and coaching. I have had a coach I played for threaten to fail an athlete if he did not commit to the coach’s school at which he was promised a job. I have even seen a coach tell a player that he would not start a game if he did not consider his alma mater more in his recruitment. Regardless of who is pulling the strings and whether or not it is beneficial for the athlete, the decision makers are a key factor in the thought process of a recruit.
Even with a better understanding of all of the factors that go into recruiting, no one can still truly predict what an 18-year-old athlete will do. The amount of attention schools send the way of recruits and their preconceived notions and open-mindedness towards that attention is critical. Each school’s intangibles and the decision makers in the recruits’ lives also weigh heavily on their minds. It’s just a guess as to which of these factors makes the biggest impact and dictates decisions. In the end, we enjoy recruiting for its roller coaster like ride, and that won’t change.
However when you wonder why your school just couldn’t flip that big time recruit maybe you can now begin to understand the factors at play and look at the process in a different light. Happy recruiting season!
Thank you Big Fudge for this informative, revealing, and somewhat shocking look into the recruiting process. It certainly gave me a peer into the process and deepened my understanding. I hope it had the same impact on our readers.
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