Zion Branch is one of the top defensive back recruits in the class of 2022. The Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman star has more than 40 scholarship offers and he will look to soon narrow that list considerably.
A potential sneak peak at some favorites may align with the weekends in his June visit schedule, now possible thanks to the NCAA announcement to return to "normal recruiting calendars" as of June 1. It means year-plus of no in-person contact, communication, evaluation, etc. that has been in effect since March 2020 will finally see its conclusion at the end of May.
The news didn't come as a surprise when announced Thursday, as prospects like Branch have been busy securing June official visits (school-funded) throughout the last several weeks. Branch will see Ohio State the weekend of June 4, USC June 18 and Oregon beginning June 25. Dozens of top prospects recently find themselves in the same situation, including offensive lineman Tyler Booker. Looking to take all five trips in June, he wants to figure the commitment process out in what should be a torrid month of tracking recruiting destinations and possibly decisions.
Prospects like Booker have been open and honest about the need to truly experience a certain campus before electing to play there, but coaches have been unable to expand on it publicly to the same degree. It changed Thursday and into the weekend.
While visits, especially in the official capacity, are at the center of the conversation from the recruit perspective, the flip side is just as critical in making touch-and-go decisions in the era of fluid collegiate rosters thanks to the transfer portal, one-time transfer rule and general attrition this time of year. For high school and junior college recruiting, the late bloomers in the class of 2021 and virtually all of 2022 have yet to perform in front of a college coach in any capacity.
Friday nights have proved scarce when it comes to assistants patrolling the sidelines in search of their next face of the program. Lesser-known recruits have also been robbed of the ability to work their way to a college campus and compete during a summer camp to command attention -- the same way Amari Cooper got his scholarship offer from Nick Saban after running one route in front of him at camp.
"High level of excitement to see the kids in person and give them an opportunity to make good decisions based off of good information," an ACC assistant head coach told SI All-American. "It’s the kids that have been put in a bind as well as coaches evaluation. Hoping it all goes smooth and as planned.
"Going to be a lot of moving parts, though, as how everyone keeps protocols in place and on a level playing field."
Perhaps an AAC assistant said it best. Finding the right fit goes both ways.
"I think it’s important not only from a true evaluation standpoint but also from a relationship standpoint," he said. "It’s much easier to develop relationships with recruits face-to-face and get to know them better to make sure that they’re a real fit for your program.
"June is going to be a busy month for us and for you guys."
Imagine the disadvantage for college programs under new management, like Auburn, Texas, Vanderbilt, Illinois and a handful of others navigating the process in new regions of the country relative to previous gigs. It creates a rookie-level excitement to pitch the new program in person.
"The opportunity to build relationships face-to-face and to see and feel if there visit has the type of people that they will mesh with," said an assistant at a new program this year. "I think seeing is believing, kids are visual learners."
Beyond a first-hand sample of athletic ability, size or intrapersonal skill, the on-campus college camps provide a sample of how an athlete digests information in a competitive setting.
"Fired up to get to build in-person relationships with these guys and coach them!" an ACC coordinator said. "That's the big piece, to see guys work out and to be able to see them respond to coaching."
Not to be undervalued in the back-and-forth between prospect identification and acquisition is the groundwork, since shifted to pure digital communication, the coaches effort on the road themselves. Typically in the spring and fall, the resumption of this stage of the process is set for fall.
"I can’t wait to get back out and be in high schools, interact with student-athletes in person," a MAC assistant said. "The Zooms have been great because we’ve discovered another way of interacting and getting to know prospects and families but there is nothing better than being in the school talking to the high school coach, talking to the counselors, principals, being in our recruits homes and getting live evaluations.
"It helps the prospects so much for them to get opportunities and find those 'diamonds in the rough.' I know I speak for a lot of coaches around the country."
The excitement to get back to relative normalcy on the recruiting trail, from either party's perspective, is tangible and understandable given the 14-month layoff in between NCAA dead periods.
But it won't relegate the recruiting process to pre-pandemic normalcy.
As SI's Ross Dellenger pointed out this week, there are consequences to be had with the D-I Council's approval of the one-time transfer rule. Even without the ability to make a change without having to sit out, the portal itself is challenging capacity.
The trends, coupled with less opportunity to see or be seen, created less "spots" in the class of 2021, with 18 of SI All-American's Top 25 making the cut despite having less than 23 commitments on board. 19 if you count Michigan losing a signee this week as SI99 receiver Xavier Worthy asked out of his National Letter of Intent.
To date in the 2022 cycle, just seven FBS programs have commitment numbers in the double digits. It should change come June but the days of expecting a given program to bring in 25 prospects per cycle could be gone for good.
The death of the longstanding dead period won't correct the numbers on its own, but perhaps the next wave of prospects will receive a benefit of the doubt deemed impossible throughout this offseason and the last.
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