The most surprising basketball recruiting decision in the college sports landscape over the past month came when Rutgers landed a top-40 player in March. Cliff Omoruyi, a four-star center from New Jersey, picked Rutgers over offers that included Arizona State, UConn, Kentucky, Syracuse and Auburn.
For Rutgers, it marked the program’s biggest commitment in more than a decade. And Omoruyi told Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans that the coronavirus played a role in his decision to stay closer to home, as Arizona State loomed prominent in his decision. His guardian, Mohamed Oliver, added: “The big difference was the coronavirus. Once it hit, it kind of gave him a real meaning of what distance really is.”
The Rutgers recruiting coup illuminated a likely reverberation from the coronavirus in the football space. With most high school students grounded from taking visits until at least May 31 and the prospect of on-campus camps dimming by the day, many coaches are predicting that recruits in the class of 2021 are more likely to stay close to home.
“I think it will be more local,” UAB coach Bill Clark told Yahoo Sports. “You’d think it comes down to what they’re familiar with, what they feel good about and what they’ve got to see.”
So far, Ohio State is the clear leader in the Rivals.com recruiting rankings for the class of 2021. The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the country and building a potentially historic class, as 12 of its 15 recruits are four stars. Five of those recruits have committed since Mid-March, when the realities of the pandemic began settling in across the country.
One of those five commitments and seven of the 15 OSU recruits are from Ohio, and coach Ryan Day told Yahoo Sports that this class can be attributed as much to the “sped-up recruiting cycle,” as the Buckeyes had already done the spade work of building relationships and getting the kids on campus. In other words, it was familiarity that won out, just not geographic familiarity, as the new early signing period has moved up the pace of recruiting courtships.
“Those relationships have been forged over time,” Day said by phone this week. “In recruiting, January has become like May used to be. If this was five years ago, we’d still be in the evaluation phase. But we been all over these guys for a while. All the relationships have been built, so it goes to show you how fast recruiting is moving more than anything.”
Who else has been able to exploit local talent? Florida is No. 3 in the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings and North Carolina is No. 4. Both No. 10 Maryland and No. 11 Rutgers are in rare recruiting air thanks to robust local classes. All of which hints at geographic advantage keeping top players close to home. Three of North Carolina’s 12 commitments are in-state kids who’ve committed since the coronavirus entered our full-time vernacular in Mid-March. Overall, 11 of 12 are in-state kids. At Florida, none of the 13 commitments have come in the past three weeks.
Mullen said Florida’s strong run came as a byproduct of the school targeting specific players early. Mullen has spent much of the past month like a lot of coaches, FaceTiming with recruits and connecting with high school coaches. But he’s giving the opposite pitch of many college coaches.
“I’m worried about kids making emotional decisions now or schools pressing kids and saying, ‘You better commit now, you don’t know what’s going to happen,’” Mullen said in a phone interview. “I’m not into pressuring a guy to make an emotional decision with all the craziness.”
The schools that could be most impacted if recruiting falls on more geographic lines are geographic outliers, places like Oregon, Boston College and Nebraska that don’t have a robust local talent crop. Notre Dame, for example, traditionally recruits nationally thanks to its brand, NBC exposure and the stiff recruiting competition in a five-hour radius. The Irish are in good shape right now at No. 5 in the Rivals.com rankings.
But athletic director Jack Swarbrick worries the essential cancellation of unofficial visit season – April, May and potentially June – could hurt Notre Dame.
“I don’t think there’s any school in America that’s more dependent on the campus visit than we are,” Swarbrick said. “It’s so different. If you come here and are struck by residential nature of the campus, everyone is in a residence hall. There’s also a spiritual nature, as the landmarks are spiritual here. There’s so much about it that’s unique and different, we need you to experience it.”
First-year Boston College coach Jeff Hafley has an appropriately mixed message for his staff: “Press on and be patient.” BC has four commitments for 2021, and appeared poised to get more before its biggest visit weekend of the spring – 60 kids – didn’t happen when everything got shut down in March.
Hafley wonders how kids can commit to schools that they haven’t visited, which leads to an intriguing prediction.
“There’s going to be more de-commitments and committed kids visiting schools,” Hafley said. He added that schools who’ve had the luxury to invest a lot of time in kids are at an advantage. “Certain schools, for sure, the ones kids have visited over and over, they have the upper hand.”
Few schools are in need of a robust class of 2021 more than New Mexico. First-year coach Danny Gonzales inherited an upside-down roster this spring that included 34 scholarship seniors, 22 juniors, nine sophomores and just four freshmen. (UNM recruiting coordinator Jordan Somerville predicts it will take three signing classes to balance out the roster.)
Gonzales acknowledges that a school like New Mexico, in a generally talent-bereft area, is at a disadvantage without recruits being able to visit. But he says that most of New Mexico’s spring recruiting would be about branding and getting the school’s name out, as most of the players who’ll end up at New Mexico are aiming for bigger offers right now.
To make up for the lack of in-person contact, UNM coaches are aiming to connect with more than 1,500 coaches on video calls in the next six weeks. The plan is for all 10 assistant coaches to average eight conversations a day and replicate the contact they’d have had in their local recruiting area during spring recruiting. They’re just doing it virtually.
Gonzales signed 22 high school players in his first recruiting class at New Mexico, considered one of the better hauls in recent school history. New Mexico did it with just nine days of on-road recruiting in January. The targeted recruiting led to a flurry of commitments. “We weren’t chasing ghosts,” he said. “We were chasing guys we had a legitimate chance at.”
Colorado State coach Steve Addazio said for his program, the potential loss of one-day evaluation camps on campus this summer would loom large. In his first season in Fort Collins, one of his big focuses is going to be canvassing local talent.
“What I’m most disappointed in is potentially not get to the one-day camps and be able to do a great job of finding those guys,” he said. “That’s where losing visits and one-day camps is going to hurt. I believe there’s a lot of potential guys in our state that can really help us.”
USF coach Jeff Scott pointed out a potential benefit for his program. The under-the-radar players in the Tampa area who are identified in spring ball and get one offer – setting off a domino of others – will likely stay unknown. That could give USF, and schools like it, an advantage in keeping some hidden gems local. “Some of the guys you know about in your local area may stay a little more protected, if you will,” he said.
Rivals.com recruiting analyst Woody Wommack said many recruits that he’s spoken with haven’t embraced all the potential reverberations of the virus. He said many still ask him: “When are the Rivals Camps going to start back up?”
“A lot of the kids that have committed during this time, it seems like they’re bored and want to get a bunch of likes on Twitter,” he said. “The other ones are worried that their spot may go away if there’s no season.”
While it’s far too early to spot definitive trends, it’s fair to point out that this class will be indelibly altered, much like the way life in America has. UCLA coach Chip Kelly said as 30 days becomes 60 days and 90 days, trend lines will be clearer.
Like everything, recruiting is adjusting to a new normal.
“It’ll be really interesting to go back in four or five years and look at this class and see how many misses there are,” said Kent State offensive coordinator Andrew Sowder. “See how people approached it. What worked? What didn’t? There’s less information on kids than there ever has been as far as in-person evaluation.”
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