COVID-19 conditions, IHSA decision force changes for state recruiting
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As decisions continue to be made and delayed for a possible fall college football season, recruiting is also heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a huge impact,” Rivals recruiting analyst “Edgy Tim” O’Halloran told Prairie State Pigskin last week. “Just the seniors alone, it’s really hard to swallow. You’re competing against all these kids from out of state for all these different spots and positions. You’re not going to be able to show those guys early and kids are going to lose spots, I don’t think there’s any question.”
Additionally, Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill addressed the topic in a recent media conference.
“I really feel for the seniors in high school going through all of this. For them to get their worlds turned upside down, that’s tough news,” Hill said.
Hill has a firsthand understanding of the prep athlete. During his senior year of high school in 2002-03, Hill was a two-sport star at DuQuoin High School where he was the area’s Player of the Year in both football and basketball and led the Indians to the Illinois High School Association 3A state championship football game. After originally signing with Western Kentucky University on a basketball scholarship, Hill later transferred to SIU and developed into a record-setting quarterback who took the Salukis to the playoffs.
Meanwhile, late last month, the Illinois High School Association announced its decision to move prep football from the traditional fall to the spring.
“I’m glad they . . . will get an opportunity to play,” Hill said. “Nothing surprises me. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. No matter what decision is made, there are going to be some people who agree and some people that don’t agree.”
Both the ongoing pandemic concerns and that IHSA decision directly affect recruiting.
“In-state recruiting will change a little bit. Our signing days are in December and February. I’m not sure what the NCAA is going to do,” Hill said. “We [SIU staff] have to adjust and adapt. Some of it might be without senior film and with some states you might have senior film.”
Illinois State recruiting director Khenon Hall told Prairie State Pigskin, “Not having senior tape is a big challenge. That’s where we as a staff had to be really thorough and trust our eyes and rely on our relationships with coaches and trainers and things of that nature. We had to have kids go out and send us a lot of workout tape and have them do things that we would normally have them do.
“Obviously it’s made it tough, but our staff does a great job of building those relationships before that period even hit us so we had a good hold on the guys we knew we wanted to target.”
Some high school recruits have tried to control things as best they can.
“A lot of kids and their families are literally picking up and moving out of state,” O’Halloran said. “While that’s great, you’ll have a chance to play in the fall, again there’s no guarantees with that either. Kids are going to Iowa and Missouri and they’re going to Indiana, but again there’s no guarantees. What happens when you transfer, you move out and two weeks into your season it’s done for the year? That’s a big gamble to take.”
“Then you’ve got the kids who are going to sign letters of intent before they even play their senior year,” O’Halloran said. “Even in the case of the FCS kids, they will sign letters of intent in either December or February if those are indeed the dates (this season) because nobody knows. Will they keep the early signing period, get rid of the early signing period?”
Hall, who also serves as the ISU running backs coach, said that the cancellation of summer camps hurts recruiting.
“Gathering that information that we need from seeing them live, getting eyes on them (was lost),” Hall said. “With (ISU head coach) Brock Spack it’s very thorough when it comes down to recruiting. That’s the bread and butter.
“But we’ve adjusted. We’re finding a way to find a way.”
If indeed IHSA football is played in the spring, will it resemble what fans and recruiters would normally see in the fall?
“The IHSA decision certainly played a factor in all of this,” O’Halloran said. “A lot of the kids realized they can’t hold out for senior tape anymore, so they’d better look at what they have (in terms of offers) than what they don’t have for making their decisions. And that’s going to continue.
“What about the kid who signs that early letter of intent, will he want to play that spring season? Or, will he not play and just report and be ready to play for college ball? There’s a lot of that going on now, I’ve talked to a bunch of kids that are Power 5 commits that are saying, ‘Well . . .’
“These colleges aren’t telling them not to (play in the spring), but they’re not really telling them to play either.”
Hall said once the IHSA announced its decision, the ISU staff expected recruits to reach out to them.
“When it hit, we kind of knew that we’d get a flux of calls from guys we had offered in-state,” Hall said. “It’s good and bad. We’ve got some kids that we’re hoping to get by no later than October once they go through those first few periods and the big boys [FBS schools] didn’t come calling and then we’d probably be able to get on board with those players. But with the (high school) season being pushed back, some of these kids are also waiting as well.
“I don’t know how it’s going to play out with the new rules as far as signing days in December and February. We’re supposed to get something here soon.”
Trickle down effect
All of this goes beyond just this upcoming prep football season.
“Even the younger guys are affected,” said O’Halloran, who has been publishing and covering IHSA football since 1995. “Usually we’d be much deeper into the evaluation process for the Class of 2022 and even earlier, and even though there are still some kids that have gotten offers, that’s come to a crawl.
“I talked to a couple of Big Ten assistants who have said, ‘How can you recruit when you can’t leave your office?’ The response in general, just to paraphrase, is we’ve got bigger things to worry about now. (In past years) you’d never hear that from a coach. So even they are taking a ‘this has got to be in the rearview mirror for now’ approach because obviously they’re just trying to get their own season going.”
With on-campus recruiting visits currently being off limits, could the likes of the four Illinois FCS programs actually benefit?
“Another aspect is all of these colleges are going to open up and allow 20-30,000 students to come back to campus, but kids that are trying to make maybe the most important decision of their lives are not allowed to come on campus with their parents to visit the school?” O’Halloran said. “Everything I’ve been told, coaches I’ve talked to have said, there’s no way in hell they’re going to let us have kids on campus this year. That’s just the feeling from the coaches.
“Well, that helps the Illinois States of the world because you lock up a kid like a Corey Walker, who when you see this kid in person looks like he could play in the NFL. If that kid starts walking around a Big Ten campus, he might not stay committed to Illinois State for very long.”
While Walker, a 2021 defensive end recruit from Normal Community West High School, didn’t wind up on a Big Ten campus, he did decommit from ISU to sign with FBS member Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference.
Nevertheless, Illinois State certainly has jumped ahead in its recruiting game. According to a recent tweet by O’Halloran, the Redbirds have nine commitments — five of which are from Illinois prep programs, including Wheaton St. Francis quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse.
“I think they (Illinois State) saw it coming,” O’Halloran said.”They’ve always been working it early, but they’ve worked it very well. It’s a good group they’ve picked up so far in-state, and they’ve definitely wanted to get things done sooner. Their time frame and time tables got pushed ahead like everyone else’s, and so far, so good.
“So, if kids can’t make campus visits, they fall by the wayside a little bit, you can kind of hide some kids. You’ve got them locked up, but you probably can’t sign them until December at the earliest so you’re getting them now and hoping to hang on.”
How much has recruiting changed in the midst of the pandemic world?
“We’ve already got more kids that have verbally committed than signed letters of intent last year. Again, it’s a better class than last year, but this early? And as you’ve noticed, we’ve seen a lot of FCS kids commit now, and there’s going to be more coming,” O’Halloran said.