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Recruiting in a Pandemic

How college and high school coaches leveraged technology to adapt to a recruiting landscape that suddenly changed due to a pandemic.

Entering the spring of his junior year, just before the start of the most pivotal part of the recruiting cycle, Wayzata High (Minn.) offensive lineman Tyler Magnuson was filled with hope and anticipation. Anticipation of opportunities to showcase his talent. Hope that college programs would recognize that talent. 

On March 13, 2020, all of that came crashing down. In response to the coronavirus pandemic that shut down nearly all aspects of society, the NCAA instituted a pandemic dead period that prohibited all face-to-face contact. Magnuson's plan to attend spring practices, participate in regional and school camps, and take unofficial or official visits to schools were all eliminated. 

"It was definitely a big challenge," Magnuson, who signed with Syracuse in December, said. "I feel like some days I'd be on phone calls for the majority of the day trying to feel out programs over the phone. It wasn't ideal, but it kind of worked out in the end. A lot of it done through YouTube, and all of the virtual tours schools provided. It was just a lot of virtual stuff. I really wish it was in person, but with covid and stuff, we couldn't have that." 

Loss of Key Recruiting Tools

Evaluating high school players is an inexact science in many ways. Despite that, coaches rely on certain tools in order to properly assess a recruit's skillset and fit within that program. Those tools often rely upon the now prohibited face-to-face contact. 

Every recruiting cycle includes evaluation periods. During normal cycles, this allows coaches to travel across the country to various high schools in order to watch players in person. This includes observing practice, attending workouts, or watching games. Evaluating not only the skillset but also certain measurables. The evaluation periods were eliminated in the 2021 recruiting cycle.

"I think the biggest change was just not being able to see a kid in person and really verify his sizes," Syracuse football Director of Recruiting Kramer Cook said. "We go through and when we like a kid, we go see him or sometimes it's a no-brainer off film. All you have to do is just go through that game tape and make sure that the highlight matches up. 

"But then there’s this other set of guys and this is what we need to do a good job of especially at Syracuse. The evaluation process of that middle group where you like what you see on the highlight tape, you dig through the game tape and then you want to go see him either at a camp or see them live just to kinda verify with what the film says. That’s what we weren’t able to get this year."

Camps are also key recruiting tools that occur during the offseason, especially in football. In basketball, players participate in AAU seasons. Other sports utilize a variety of camps, club teams and other offseason events. These allow coaches to watch a player perform specific drills and compete against the best competition. They are vital tools coaches depend on as part of the evaluation process. 

Offers are extended as a result of these tools. Players who are just on the outside of earning an offer based strictly on film can vault up a recruiting board with camp, practice or workout performances. That can result in offers being extended. Without face-to-face contact, that resource was taken away from college programs and prospective college recruits.

College seasons were not the only ones impacted. High school seasons across the country were cancelled or delayed. That made it difficult to track the development of players. 

"Not all of the kids were playing so a lot of the people in that middle group that I talked about before, you’re waiting on senior film to confirm some things," Cook said. "Some of those kids were having their season in the spring and we couldn’t get confirmation on their growth from their junior year film to their senior year film. So I think those are the kids that are affected the most."

Another aspect of the evaluation process is how players interact with teammates and coaches. The ability to evaluate intangibles, such as gauging coachability or passion for the game through in person observations, dissipated. 

The loss of these tools had a significant impact on the high school athlete as well. Gone were many of the ways a player typically has opportunities for exposure, to impress college coaches, to show they are worthy of a scholarship.

"In a normal year, we would have upwards of probably 200 schools come through during our football season and then during our spring ball season," Jonathan Coats, assistant football and basketball coach at Texas' Lake Travis High School, said. "Typically, they want to see a player up close, but they also want to get our feedback, our recommendation, on which kids could potentially play at their school. 

"This past year, we had virtually zero coaches come through during the football season. That is a real, real change from what we're used to. What it does is it kind of puts a lot of pressure to get video out. They have to have highlights, and they have to have game video, and we have to promote them in order to kind of get a coach's attention."

Leveraging Technology

The loss of these critical recruiting tools forced schools, coaches and players to adjust on the fly. Rather than the now prohibited face-to-face interactions and evaluations, technology was utilized to minimize the impact of lost tools. Specifically, Hudl was utilized to an even greater extent than ever before. 

Hudl always has been a key resource for players, coaches, and even media that covers recruiting. Players create public profiles on Hudl and upload highlights videos that can be accessed by anyone. College programs subscribe to Hudl for additional features, including full game video. The pandemic has created more reliance on technology such as Hudl in order to give coaches access to the same information they would obtain during a normal cycle. 

"What we’ve seen is that, aside from the game film that obviously athletes are putting out there and highlights that they’re putting out there, they’re also recording more practice video or more workout tapes," Hudl Vice President and General Manager Greg Nelson said. "We’ve seen examples where college coaches will ask an athlete,'Hey go film yourself doing a broad jump, doing a vertical jump, running a 40, standing in a doorway so we can get a reliable height measurement on you.' 

"Doing all the things that they would normally do at a camp, but just having them record it on video and then they can share it to those college coaches through Hudl and so it’s another evaluation point for them so aside from just the game film and the highlight. They’re really able to see those workout tapes, those drill tapes."

The benefit of Hudl is that full games are available to college programs that subscribe, which allows coaches to evaluate intangibles that could be previously evaluated in person. 

"If the coach on the college side likes that highlight tape or the size, the position, the location of the athlete, then they’re really digging in on that full game film," Nelson said. What does this athlete do in the fourth quarter, like do they get tired, how are they pushing through, how good of a teammate are they, what happens when the ball goes away from them? Do they pout or do they go block the safety? 

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"What are they doing when they get knocked down, how resilient are they? They’re able to tell a lot of things about that whole game film, and then the beauty of Hudl is that athletes also have the ability to upload their transcripts or vitals like 40 time, vertical time, their awards and those kind of things so they can kind of get a full picture of the athlete they’re evaluating."

The spring and summer are generally very busy during a recruiting cycle. Players are traveling for unofficial visits, camps and official visits. Without those opportunities, virtual visits through Zoom or FaceTime were born and became a critical piece of the pandemic recruiting process. 

"Having a virtual visit where we can sit down in a living room and we can kind of give them the overview of the competitive advantages of Syracuse and what we have to offer," Cook said. "That was huge for us, because now they don’t have to worry about hopping on a plane or traveling four to five hours. You’re able to kind of get your selling points out to the kid through just in their living room, and that’s something we have never done in the past. Usually, it’s an in-home visit or calls or things like that, so utilizing that was enormous."

Magnuson adapted to the new recruiting process, adding a vast majority of his offers, and all of his power five opportunities, after the pandemic dead period was implemented. Despite no evaluation period or camps, schools such as Arizona, Army, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Duke, Syracuse and Toledo all offered. 

In the spring and summer of 2021, camps started to open up. Elite-11 was back in action as was Under Armour and Rivals camps. Schools can access footage of prospects attending those camps through different subscription services such as Zcruit and UCReport. 

"The kids going to an Under Armour camp or a Rivals camp, we subscribe to different services where we can get, a week after that camp, we can log in and watch a curated tape of a kid," Cook said. "All of his throws at an Elite-11 camp and get some of those verified sizes. That was huge for us through the pandemic because you’re going from either sophomore or junior film and then this big gap and to your point of what you’re saying, the film evaluation was crucial. 

"But you’re talking about a year for a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old and how much their body can change during that time. And you’re taking out a point of where we can see them in person and see their development, so those types of clips and those type of videos were huge."

New Tools to Carry Forward

The NCAA has announced that starting June 1, schools will return to the standard recruiting calendar. While the last year-plus has certainly made recruiting more challenging, it also brought to light some tools that can be used as things return to normal. 

"I think you take the Zoom calls," Jacksonville State Tight Ends Coach and Recruiting Coordinator J.R. Sandlin said. "FaceTime calls. Normally when you're going on the road, it's just one coach. Being able to do Zoom calls and FaceTime calls, you're getting all of us at one time. That's kind of cool and unique. That's something we'll continue to do because I like that. 

"In recruiting, you're building a relationship so you have to reach out to that kid. Build a rapport. When you're building that, you can build it with everyone and connect with every coach on staff. That builds a comfortability when you do get them on campus."

The ability to have one-on-one film sessions, different than a group film session during pre-pandemic junior day or unofficial visits, will also be an important asset for some schools. 

"In a cycle before pre-pandemic, you’re coming up for junior days and official visits, there’s usually more than one recruit with you when you’re doing these position meetings with the coach," Cook said. "It’s really like kind of a presentation from your position coach on what they have to offer, what their core qualities are, how they view, say, offensive-line play. They’ll go through their techniques and this is what we do, this and that. But now I think part of the evolution process is going one-on-one on a Zoom call with your position coach and kind of, the position coach showing to him this how I coach but also getting out of the kid, what’s his Football IQ like? 

"When I go through and I’m teaching technique, is he taking notes, is he really into it or is he kind of just looking around and looking at his phone? And you can tell it’s really the recruiting process that he likes and not necessarily the actual game of football. Those are the guys that I think we were able to weed out a little bit too through position meetings, and that’s something we’re still using to this day."

Without college programs traveling, high school players and coaches had to utilize social media and other electronic means in order to gain exposure. That is something that many programs will use as things return to normal. 

"I do think it helped some players get scholarships that otherwise would not have," Coats said. "I coach running backs, my starter had a scholarship to an FCS school, Sam Houston State. My two backups both got scholarships to division three and the University of Chicago. That was all because we were pushing their video and their highlights out. These guys wanted to play football, they were willing to go anywhere. We were pushing their academics out there. We haven't had a player go to the University of Chicago in 10 years. They haven't come and recruited us. 

"I think us getting online made a difference in that young man for sure - now he earned the scholarship. He's a good player. My third-stringer is going to play in Kansas all because we were getting his information out. There were several offers that he was weighing, and this guy is third string." 

Many players in the 2021 recruiting class have already started at their program of choice. Many more will enroll this summer. Upon stepping foot on campus, it will be the first time those players have met their new coaches in person. 

"I'm really excited," Magnuson said, who arrives at Syracuse in July. "It was definitely not ideal that I couldn't even shake the coaches hand before committing. But I'm just really thankful for the opportunity."