College football coaches work to ensure worthy recruits find a landing spot on signing day

Paul Myerberg USA TODAY
Ohio State coaches recruited running back Le‘Veon Bell of Groveport before national signing day in 2010 but didn’t like him enough to offer him a scholarship. But they passed on his information to Michigan State, where Bell, here trying to avoid OSU‘s Etienne Sabino (6) in a 2012 game, became a star. [Kyle Robertson, Dispatch]

Ohio State was recruiting two under-the-radar skill players from the Columbus area in the weeks leading into national signing day in 2010, with space to add only one to an already crowded roster.

The odds favored Verlon Reed, a quarterback from Marion-Franklin High School with the athleticism to audition at multiple positions upon his arrival on campus.

Reed’s competition was a three-star running back from Groveport with limited hype and only a small handful of scholarship opportunities, a prospect who until the final stretch of his recruitment seemed destined to play in the Mid-American Conference.

Ohio State liked him — just not enough to extend an offer. Instead, then-coach Jim Tressel called up then-Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, a former OSU assistant, and shared what his staff knew about the recruit.

The running back, Le’Veon Bell, would sign with the Spartans and run for 3,346 yards with 34 touchdowns in three seasons, and then blossom into one of the best players at his position in the NFL. Reed, meanwhile, would last two seasons with the Buckeyes before transferring to the University of Findlay, a Division II school.

“I don’t feel any regret for it,” said Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, an Ohio State assistant at the time of Bell’s recruitment. “Sometimes it’s not always the best fit where you are, or numbers-wise, or whatever. It probably helped the kid get in a lot better place and get some exposure. And you know they’re going with good people.”

The 2020 recruiting cycle closes on Wednesday with the second national signing day, ending the laborious, often frantic alignment of future student-athletes with Bowl Subdivision programs. The process can seem simple: FBS teams evaluate a recruit and then decide whether or not to extend a scholarship offer, kicking off a long courtship period in competition with rival suitors.

In a number of cases, however, with Bell as one notable example, the link between prospect and program is sparked by relationships between coaches, who tap into friendships and connections to trade names, insight and information on recruits.

Coaches unable to make things work with a specific player — whether due to numbers, academics or otherwise — will share that knowledge with peers, with the goal of eventually finding the recruit a landing spot before signing day.

“If I think a young kid is worthy, then I’ll call everywhere and try to help him,” said Clemson offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell. “I’ve got bats in the barn everywhere. I’ve got more kids at other schools than I have at our own.”

The true hidden gem is a relic of recruiting’s past, due to the rise in year-round coverage and the advent of platforms such as Hudl, which allows recruits and coaches to upload and review game film; regardless of ranking or recruiting hype, every recruit is only a click away. Still, a reference from a trusted peer carries weight.

“I still think in college there are enough relationships where guys do share their opinions,” Fickell said.

Former Boise State tackle Ryan Clady, a first-round NFL draft pick in 2008, was off the Broncos’ radar until his information was shared by coaches at San Diego State, who liked Clady’s potential but were wary of his lack of scholarship offers.

This year, Nebraska was clued into junior-college linebacker Eteva Mauga-Clements with help from former Nebraska assistants currently coaching at LSU, who liked Mauga-Clements but lacked the room to add him to the 2020 signing class.

“You build these relationships with these kids and you get deep into it. You want them to be successful,” said Lou Ayeni, Northwestern’s running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. “Here’s the thing: you can’t take them all. You want to give the kid an opportunity to live out his dream.”

In some cases, relationships may trump rivalries. Coaches at Michigan State and Ohio State would talk recruiting near the end of each cycle during the period when Tressel and Dantonio overlapped, though that process ended with the start of the Urban Meyer era, in 2012.

Ayeni will share details with coaches from Toledo and Iowa State, where he had spent the previous eight seasons before joining Northwestern in 2018, even as “we’re all looking for similar kids,” he said.

More often than not, however, the stream of information flows down — rarely do programs in direct competition feel compelled to share information on recruits who might tip the balance in an opponent’s favor. It’s one thing for Northwestern coaches to talk recruiting with Iowa State and another to do the same with Iowa, for example.

“I’m going to be honest with them, but they’ve got to ask the right questions to get the right answers,” Ayeni said of coaches from the Wildcats’ Big Ten rivals.

“There are certain times and there are certain guys that sometimes, if it’s not going to work for you, you don’t play against,” said LSU safeties coach Bill Busch. “Sometimes you don’t want them in the same league.”

Some programs treat references warily, using them only as a starting point for their own evaluation of a certain prospect and trusting their own insight and analysis.

“Every piece of information is helpful, but ultimately we’ll do our own,” California coach Justin Wilcox said. “There are so many more variables than, ‘Hey, this guy’s really good. We can’t take him but you should take him.’ Part of me is like, ‘Why don’t you take him if you like him so much?’ Ultimately, you’re going to base everything off your own evaluation because there’s so much at stake.”

Instead, the reference serves as another avenue of information for coaching staffs, joining the wealth of recruiting tools, highlight reels and behind-the-scenes crew of personnel assistants already in place at every FBS program, with the added credibility of coming directly from a trusted source — a coach who has spent months, if not more than a year, developing a relationship with a specific recruit.

“Recruiting is ongoing, 24-7, so you’re always looking for information,” Busch said. “You always have your ear on the ground for every opportunity.”

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