Recruiting in a pandemic: Coronavirus leaves California athletes, coaches playing guessing game
High School Sports

Recruiting in a pandemic: Coronavirus leaves California athletes, coaches playing guessing game

{{featured_button_text}}
Local Report

College recruiting is in chaos. The novel coronavirus pandemic that led to the closing of schools in California and other states has sent recruiting into an unknown wilderness, with sweeping changes in the way colleges evaluate, high schools promote and athletes ultimately make decisions.

It has led NCAA officials to adjust eligibility rules, dates to sign national letters of intent and times when coaches can contact recruits.

“There never has been anything like this where they can’t get in front of a recruit for such an extended and still-to-be-determined period,” said Brandon Huffman, national recruiting editor for online network 247 Sports.

“This is one of those rare cycles where coaches essentially are having to make a lot of decisions sight unseen and having to trust their guts.”

Huffman said the situation has led to panic buying in major college football with verbal commitments for the class of 2021 reaching 235 more than the previous two years combined at this time.

No one can predict where it will lead as medical scientists work on a vaccine and treatments for a disease that has infected 4.4 million people worldwide.

College coaches probably will not know whether a 2020 football season can be held until July or later. Rising high school seniors face the same predicament with all fall sports seasons in jeopardy.

Many of those athletes still hope to appear in summer showcase events so they can audition in front of college scouts. But the chances of playing in the summer are less likely than holding fall seasons.

“I definitely think there is some panic going on and some concern for these kids,” said Sue Phillips, coach of San Jose girls basketball powerhouse Archbishop Mitty High School.

“At this point, if you’re 2020 and you don’t have any offers, you’re probably going to junior college,” former Menlo-Atherton football coach Adhir Ravipati added.

The Bay Area News Group talked to about 20 high school and college coaches, players, parents and recruiting experts to pinpoint the issues everyone is facing.

Their conclusion: High school and college sports eventually will return, but the recruiting landscape might be forever changed.

Zoom in on recruits

College football coaches are known for their singular focus on Xs, Os and game film. Coronavirus has forced them to join the digital age to meet recruits and their families.

“Most of us in the coaching profession hadn’t heard of Zoom before a month ago, but now we’re all experts,” Stanford football coach David Shaw said. “It has forced all of us to get some ingenuity, be a little forward-thinking, and think outside of some of our comfort zones.”

Cal football coach Justin Wilcox, 43, said it has been a transition to learn to use Zoom and FaceTime, the iPhone’s audio and video call app. Wilcox now sees how digital tools will help him and his staff connect better with current and future players.

“That’s how a lot of the kids engage,” he said. “We’re trying to communicate in a way that is meaningful for them.”

Wilcox, entering his fourth season at Berkeley, is uncertain how recruiting will change once the health crisis passes. But he expects collegiate sports to adopt some new approaches like other industries. As more people get used to video conferencing there could be less need to spend thousands of dollars to visit families across the country.

“Could spring recruiting be one of them?” Wilcox asked. “Absolutely. There is room for a conversation about how we can streamline this better. Spring recruiting, summer camps, there is probably a good discussion on the other end of this that could provide us with some healthy models.”

Seeing is believing

Adam Cohen, Stanford’s associate head coach in men’s basketball, has a method for getting a feel for a recruit.

He believes in the personal touch.

Cohen said video conferencing and phone calls cannot replace seeing an athlete and his family in person to read their body language. He also does not rely on what high school and club coaches say.

“We’re going to evaluate them on what we see and not what we hear,” Cohen said. “When talking about a large investment to go to Stanford you have to do your due diligence yourself.”

Cohen said he expects more misses in the class of 2021 than usual because recruiters are unable to watch the players in spring, and probably summer, competitions.

“I don’t know any way there won’t be,” he said. “I feel strongly that without having the same number of evaluations there are going to be a lot more mistakes with kids playing at the wrong level. It could lead to a lot of kids transferring.”

A football player’s conundrum

The scholarship opportunities for Menlo-Atherton football standout Skyler Thomas might depend on his senior season — if it indeed happens.

Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound defensive back/wide receiver, needs a way to show college recruiters his worth. A collarbone injury sidelined him for nearly all of his junior season last fall so he does not have recent game footage.

Now the pandemic has shut down 7-0n-7 competition, spring practice and college summer camps, the three events Thomas was counting on to attract attention.

Former coach Ravipati said many college coaches like Thomas, who played on the Bears’ 2018 state championship team as a sophomore.

“They just haven’t seen him in person since he was a 14-year-old sophomore,” Ravipati said. “You are looking at a kid who is a Power 5 talent, but coaches just want to be able to see him in person. And who knows when they are going to get a chance to do that.”

Don’t ‘commit out of fear’

As tempting as a scholarship offer is to accept, Mitty’s Phillips said she tells players to make sound choices.

“Our advice is you never want to commit out of fear or commit because you think that’s going to be the only option,” she said. “Most of the kids that are not committed now are talking about waiting until the end of the high school season.”

But Phillips said she is bracing for a ripple effect now that the 23-school California State University system announced this week that it will hold classes mostly online in the fall.

As she sees it, no in-person classes could lead to no sports, which could lead to no viewing period for the rising high school seniors aiming for scholarships.

Moreau Catholic boys basketball coach Frank Knight said he worries about the players on the recruiting bubble because they need the auditions the most.

Knight said he created a recruiting timeline for rising seniors, who are using the extra time during the lockdown to email college coaches game film and background information such as grade-point averages.

‘You should be ready’

Liberty football coach Ryan Partridge said college prospects have to overcome the many unusual obstacles they face.

“If you think you’re a college-level athlete — if you’re a college-level football player — the bottom line is you better be motivated more than ever right now and you should be ready, even without the weight room,” said Partridge, who led the Brentwood school to a state championship in 2018.

“Those are the kids that are really going to excel, if they don’t have an offer yet, on senior film.”

Former Stanford player Julian Jenkins, senior director of regional recruiting for Next College Student Athlete, said his company can help elevate athlete profiles of its 2 million athletes particularly at a time when the traditional methods are shut down.

Brenton Sullivan, the co-founder of Field Level, said the pandemic has led more recruiters to use his free database for coaches and athletes that have videos, high school and club coach evaluations and academic information.

“Right now they feel paralyzed,” Jenkins said of the players and their parents.

Stalled momentum

Bishop O’Dowd’s Marsalis Roberson was the breakout star of the Bay Area high school basketball season, leading the region’s top-ranked team in scoring and rebounding.

The season abruptly ended when officials canceled the remainder of the California state playoffs because of the coronavirus outbreak.

But the 6-foot-5 Roberson figured he’d get to carry the momentum from a deep playoff run into the AAU spring season, the next step toward fulfilling his scholarship dreams.

Those plans did not materialize.

“It’s definitely taken a toll on me because I’m talking to a lot of colleges right now that were planning on seeing me in the circuit,” said Roberson, this news organization’s player of the year. “I think it would have sped up the offering stage.”

No matter what unfolds, Roberson said he plans to pick a college before the November start to high school season.

Measurements matter

De La Salle football coach Justin Alumbaugh was perplexed that scholarship offers were slow to arrive for 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end Brodie Tagaloa, brother of former DLS star Boss Tagaloa, a UCLA standout who did not get picked in the NFL draft last month.

When Nebraska called, coaches wouldn’t make an offer. Alumbaugh said Cornhuskers recruiters wanted to verify Brodie’s size and strength.

“Listen,” Alumbaugh said he told a recruiter, “he’s working out with his brother right now. Why don’t I send you a picture of him back-to-back with Boss?’”

Alumbaugh sent a photo that showed Brodie towered over his brother by three inches. The recruiter thanked Alumbaugh for the photo, saying it was all the coaches needed.

“One minute later he got a scholarship (offer),” Alumbaugh said.

Brodie, who will be a junior in the fall, also has offers from Cal, Oregon, Arizona State and San Jose State, according to 247Sports.

No on-campus visit, no problem

Archbishop Mitty guard Ashley Hiraki could not visit Santa Clara University because of California’s shelter-in-place orders. But the Bay Area News Group’s player of the year signed with the Broncos on May 1, three months after announcing she had verbally committed to Cal State Northridge.

Father Craig Hiraki said the decision was easier for the Campbell family because Ashley had played at Santa Clara three years in a row during the playoffs and she was familiar with two other California State University campuses. The family would have felt more anxious had the school been out of state, said Hiraki, a seventh-grade science teacher at Quimby Oak Middle School in San Jose.

“When they were describing their workout facilities we could picture it,” he said.

The father said the Zoom meeting with Santa Clara coaches provided all the information the family needed. Still, Craig Hiraki said his daughter had wanted to meet her future teammates and “get the feel for the atmosphere.”

The outside help

At 9 a.m. each morning, 40-some Southern California football prospects join a Zoom video call to jump rope together with coaches at Ground Zero, a Rancho Cucamonga 7-on-7 program. At 3 p.m. the football players have another workout with their position coaches, director of recruitment Armond Hawkins Sr. said.

College recruiters who are used to seeing the athletes at two-day satellite summer camps held across the country can tune in to watch. Hawkins, whose sons are on the football staff at USC and Arizona State, said recruiters have resorted to evaluating talent through such streaming workouts.

Hawkins said many of the country’s top football coaches have been in contact more than usual because of limited opportunities to see the athletes in person. He’s worried about what happens next.

“If there is no high school season, a lot of kids will be in a lot of trouble,” Hawkins said. “Coaches either have to gamble on a kid based on my word or they are going to miss on those kids.”

Accommodating the students

On April 17, NCAA officials announced they would waive standardized test score requirements because of school closings and the cancellation of dates to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test and American College Testing exam. Current high school seniors only need a 2.3 grade-point average in the 10 NCAA-applicable core courses to be eligible.

The NCAA Eligibility Center has not announced its requirements for the class of 2021 although University of California president Janet Napolitano said this week that all applicants should not be required to take the SAT or ACT through at least 2024.

In another action, NCAA officials in March approved a provision to let schools give senior athletes who lost their spring seasons an extra year of eligibility. In a statement, Stanford said any athlete that elects to return would receive at least the same percentage of scholarship aid they got this year. Officials at Cal, San Jose State, Saint Mary’s College and Santa Clara University said some of their seniors plan to return next season.

The situation could cause a logjam for rosters. Incoming freshmen might face reduced playing time if returning seniors fill their position.

Ravipati, the former Menlo-Atherton coach, said the uncertainty is hardest on current high school juniors.

“They have no idea what their academic eligibility requirements are going to be because all schools are going to pass-fail, so that’s still up in the air,” he said. “They have no idea when their chance to be in front of coaches is going to be, so that’s up in the air.

“Official and unofficial visits are out of the picture for the rest of the spring and summer, so your best chance of getting a college visit in to see a facility and coaches is going to be this fall. There’s going to be a lot of kids who fall through the cracks because of it.”

Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News