Luke Montgomery and his family huddled around the computer for two hours in March hoping to learn more about Oklahoma’s football program.
Montgomery is a Class of 2023 defensive lineman from Findlay, Ohio, who was utilizing technology as much as possible to try to navigate the recruiting process. College football recruits have been unable to take any type of visit to college campuses since last March, because of an NCAA-created dead period that has been extended through May 31 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roughly 15 coaches and staff members from Oklahoma entertained Luke and his family on Zoom, giving them a virtual visit of the facilities. They did their homework — they knew what Montgomery liked outside of football, they knew he had played basketball on a LeBron James-led AAU team and put on a full presentation to try to convince him that Oklahoma was a school he should consider.
That use of technology has become the norm for college football coaches and personnel directors who have been unable to see prospects in person for over a year. That could all change very quickly, though, as the NCAA Division I Council is set to vote Thursday on whether the dead period should be lifted.
The feeling among college coaches is that the dead period will end and in-person visits will resume in June. If that happens, there are still questions about what the recruiting process will actually look like, factoring in COVID-19 protocols, travel and the new practices and procedures schools have taken this past year of adaptation.
How do coaches and personnel directors navigate this new recruiting landscape if visits open up? It won’t go back to normal, when prospects could visit whenever they want and as much as they want.
Already, some prospects are making plans to take visits, champing at the bit to catch up on the part of the recruiting process that has held them back from making decisions.
“Everything we’ve heard is June 1 is when it could open up, and when they do, it’s going to be like Disneyland opening up for the first time,” one Power 5 personnel director said. “There’s going to be lines of kids and families that will want to come. There’s such a desire to visit and go to camps, because they haven’t had it in the past year.”
In a normal year, junior prospects can take official visits April 1 through the Sunday before the last Wednesday in June. This year, that period would’ve ended June 27 and a dead period would take place from June 28 to July 24, a quiet period (when in-person recruiting can only be done on campuses) for one week, then a dead period the entire month of August. On-campus visits would commence from Sept. 1 to Dec. 14.
Now, those dates are up for the Division I Council to decide. With the potential that the recruiting calendar could be altered to adapt for the missed time, coaches are prepping for any possibility. Whether it’s the NCAA allowing official visits in June, unofficial visits in June, potentially opening up July for visits or anything in between, coaches will adapt to the change.
Figuring out how many prospects can be on campus at once and how the recruiting calendar may change are only part of what programs are hoping to learn when the NCAA votes later this week.
But as with anything that happens in college football, coaches are not sitting around waiting to hear what might happen. They are already proactively preparing for the scenario in which recruits will be allowed on campus and are creating contingency plans for how it will all work.
For one, coaches still need to keep the number of COVID-19 positive tests down for their current roster and staff. They can’t risk having to shut down for a few weeks just to allow recruits back on campus.
“I think there’s going to be some restrictions on how many people we can have in,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “You’re talking about a year and a half of people who haven’t been on campus, that’s really two classes who haven’t been here, so they’re going to be coming over the walls. So, we’re just going to have to be smart about all of that.”
Coaches don’t yet know what that looks like.
If a large group of prospects wants to visit on the same day or weekend, how do schools navigate that based on the state and university guidelines? Some have suggested visitors would have to separate into smaller groups for meals. Transportation to take families around campus and hotel accommodations would have to be modified.
Whether coaches are comfortable bringing in large groups of prospects and their families to campus is one thing, but they also might be restricted based on what their university, county and state tells them to do.
“If we do an official visit, we’re probably going to limit it to 10 prospects for the weekend,” the personnel director said. “Those numbers aren’t concrete, but if it’s 10 kids, that’s also moms and dads, siblings, a group of 30 to 35 people. Then you get our whole staff and that’s about 70 people if you’re doing lunch or dinner, and that’s getting a little bit big, that I think our university would not be comfortable with us having 70-people events every day.”
That’s just for visits. Typically, college programs will conduct camps in the summer with hundreds — sometimes thousands — of prospects coming to campus to work out in person in front of coaches.
“Everything we’ve heard is June 1 is when it could open up, and when they do, it’s going to be like Disneyland opening up for the first time.”
One Power 5 personnel director
It’s beneficial for both sides. Prospects have a chance to learn from college coaches and coaches work hands-on with recruits to see their potential.
The way camps will be conducted, if allowed, would have to change just because of the sheer volume of people on hand at one time.
“Our camps, if you have 100 kids, you have to work them out in groups of 10, because if one kid tests positive, now that whole group is close contact and has to be taken out,” the personnel director said. “You’re going to have to trace it back to who’s working with who. It’s going to be very complicated and messy.”
Not everyone is going to have that mentality, however, as a few programs are already planning for large camps with hundreds of prospects and no restrictions.
That puts everyone in a peculiar situation. If one school makes visits or camps as normal as possible, that could force other schools to follow suit, whether they want to or not, to better position themselves to land a coveted prospect.
“Let’s say we have two or three recruits who are all close and they don’t want to eat in separate rooms, and we’re not being forced by the NCAA to do that. We’re not going to make their visit worse because we know other schools aren’t going to do those things either,” a second Power 5 personnel director said. “I think that’s where the NCAA has to come in, because if you leave it up to the schools, you’re not going to get much COVID preparation. If there’s a chance something is going to make a visit worse or inconvenient for our bigger targets, we’re not going to do it.”
There isn’t just one solution to prevent prospects and their families from catching the coronavirus on a visit and keep facilities clean so programs don’t need to shut down, all while maintaining a somewhat normal recruiting process.
Would schools require everyone coming on a visit to take a COVID-19 test? That doesn’t seem likely because of the cost and logistics that come with it. The more accurate tests take more time to return results, and there are travel, accommodations, time and money to consider as well.
“If a kid visits, you test him and he’s positive, what do you do?” the second personnel director said. “Are you going to put him in a hotel for two weeks and tell him he and his family can’t leave? I’m willing to bet most schools won’t test and will take the chance and run the visit without a test.”
It also doesn’t seem likely schools would require prospects or their families to be vaccinated prior to visiting. Schools and coaches can’t mandate their students or players take the vaccine, and it isn’t likely they would ask that of recruits.
The inability to evaluate recruits and build relationships in person has put both recruits and coaches behind in nearly every aspect of the process. Getting back on track and bringing recruits to campus isn’t something coaches are going to pass on.
But the past year hasn’t been a total loss for recruits and coaches. The advancement of technology and the utilization of Zoom calls and FaceTime is an aspect most believe will continue moving forward.
For Montgomery and his family, it was a way to inexpensively get to know a program without leaving their home or spending any money.
“In certain circumstances it could be a win-win,” Montgomery’s father, Mike, said about keeping video calls in the recruiting process. “Let’s say Texas calls in August, I would ask them if we can Zoom and see everything before actually visit. I can’t imagine they’d turn us down, but if that’s where someone is at financially, they don’t have to fly down to Texas until they’re all-in on Texas.”
Since Montgomery is a rising junior, he still has time to take those visits. Coaches have advised him and his father that it might be wise to take any in-person visits in June during the week, rather than on the weekend. The 2022 recruits will be out in droves during the weekends, so visiting during the week would likely give Montgomery an opportunity for more one-on-one time and would also make it easier on the coaching staff.
Many coaches believe the Zoom call could help replace a first visit that is typically exploratory and explanatory with more time spent on answering questions. A lot of time is spent on introductions, academic presentations, touring facilities and campuses and detailing the ins and outs of the program.
“I think every recruitment can get started on Zoom, and I think and it will,” the second personnel director said. “To a lot of the prospects, Zoom is just FaceTime on your computer. Maybe things you would normally do on a third visit, on an official visit, you can now do that on your first in-person visit because you’ve already done everything else on Zoom.
“If the recruits are about it, which I think they will be, the schools would be smart to take advantage of that and use the Zoom to answer questions and get all the preliminary stuff out of the way.”
The financial side of utilizing technology could come into play, as well. Top-tier college programs are spending millions of dollars on recruiting each year, with some of the smaller programs spending hundreds of thousands.
Part of those expenses includes travel for coaches, going across the country to go in-home with recruits and their families, into high schools and camps. The recruiting calendar allows several opportunities throughout the year for coaches to get on the road, some of which can be weeks at a time.
Those expenses add up and might cause some schools to reconsider their practices.
“When you send a coaching staff on the road to recruit for a month, all the travel, hotels, that’s a big cost to a recruiting department,” the first personnel director said. “Now that this is going on, I’d be interested to see if departments look at it and say, ‘We’re spending X amount to put coaches on the road; how much of it is the money part of it?’ Bigger places don’t have to worry about it, but smaller schools who are in the red right now and trying to get out of it, they might be looking for ways to save money and that might affect things in the future.”
Without in-person visits, schools and prospects will continue to fall further and further behind in the process. Bringing back visits creates some unique challenges that will cause coaches to once again adapt.
The 2021 recruiting class wasn’t fully impacted by the lack of visits because those prospects were able to take visits their junior year, but these 2022 and 2023 recruits have barely had a chance to see anything outside of a video screen. For some, they haven’t yet to meet the coaches in person, talking to them only through a screen.
No matter the guidance given by the Council and the NCAA, recruits and their families are waiting for official word to know what the rest of the process will look like and how they can proceed to making some of the biggest decisions of their lives.
“It blows my mind some of the 2021 kids could commit without being on campus,” Mike Montgomery said. “We did the virtual visit with Oklahoma and they absolutely killed it. But the Zoom only gets you so far.
“You have to get a feel for not just the individual, but the feel that you get when you walk on campus. I don’t see where Luke could make a decision with less than two trips to a campus.”