LINCOLN — Mike Farrell talked on his phone from a restaurant dining room in Connecticut Monday night. It was packed. It was also two hours before that dining room — and every other restaurant dining room in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — would be closed, for at least a month, as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“There are tons of people here,” said Farrell, national recruiting director for Rivals.com. “They’re not going to know what to do with themselves tomorrow.”
And that desire to do something, anything, during this age of the coronavirus will trickle into the actions of college football coaches and the players they’re recruiting, Farrell said. COVID-19 won’t stop kids from committing to their favorite schools, he said, and it won’t stop coaches from talking to those prospects by any means the NCAA allows. FaceTime? On it. Skype? That, too. Zoom? Oh, yeah.
Nebraska coaches are talking to recruits. So is every other school.
As the nation shuts down, social media hum along.
“Coaches are amazingly adaptable,” Farrell said. “They always come up with the backup plan pretty quick and they’ll figure it out. There’s as much recruiting news as there ever has been.”
Allen Trieu, who covers Midwest recruiting for 247Sports, agreed.
“You amend the way you go about the process if you’re a college coach or a recruit, but you don’t stop moving forward,” Trieu said. “Some timelines may change, but I don’t think the overall philosophy has changed at all.”
Ohio State has picked up four commitments in three days, for example. Wisconsin and Purdue also picked up commits in the past three days. Farrell won’t be surprised if commitments remain at the same busy clip through March, April and May, even as the NCAA has placed a mandatory dead period — no on-campus official or unofficial visits — through April 15. While a lack of visits may reduce the “eyeball-to-eyeball pressure” coaches can employ on a visit, the pitch to recruits will be strong: Hold your place in the 2021 class, especially if more drastic COVID-19 social distancing measures linger.
“The kids want attention — they’re thirsty for attention — and they get a ton during the spring evaluation because the coaches are coming through,” Farrell said. “The kids are going to be driven nuts. They’re not going to know what to do. So to get that attention, they might put out a top three, a leader. They might commit. It’s human nature.”
And human nature, Farrell said, will favor the biggest recruiting brands. The “sharks,” as he calls them. The schools that have a fertile recruiting base in immediate proximity, that could draw prospects to campus for easy unofficial visits in January, that routinely line the top of the recruiting team rankings.
Ohio State, Florida, Clemson, Notre Dame and North Carolina currently make up the top five for Rivals. Over in the 247Sports composite, it’s the same five teams in a slightly different order.
Nebraska — with three commits — ranks 22nd and 23rd, respectively, on those national lists. Husker coach Scott Frost has said more than once that NU’s coaching staff has largely caught up in its recruiting process and is even starting to work ahead.
So COVID-19 shouldn’t slow NU’s efforts much, Trieu said, and Nebraska landing in the top six of Council Bluffs Lewis Central tight end Thomas Fidone is proof.
“They’ve done a really good job of being ahead on things, and it’s not like they just started recruiting the 2021 class in January,” Trieu said. “The reason why they’re a big contender for Fidone is because they’ve been recruiting him for a long time. A lot of their board was already set. A lot of their top kids had already been there in the fall or even last summer. They’re in decent shape.”
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A program like Purdue might be in a little better shape, Trieu said. The Boilermakers, who started spring practice Feb. 23, hosted a big junior event March 7, just days before COVID-19 measures shut down the sports world. Nebraska, which started practice March 9, had to cancel its March 14 junior day. The NCAA had a mandatory dead period in February for the first time, so schools couldn’t hold their junior days then.
“If you’re a school like Purdue, you have to feel pretty good about getting the guys up there and getting them a chance to get a taste of spring ball before everything shut down,” Trieu said.
Farrell expected significant changes to the official visit calendar — Nebraska intended on using its now-canceled April 18 spring game as a big weekend for visits — and perhaps even a one-year suspension of the early signing period in December. Those alterations, Farrell said, hinder more remote schools like Nebraska and help programs with built-in geographic advantages.
“If I’m Minnesota, if I’m Nebraska, or I’m a school considered in the middle of my conference — and I’m not Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State — I want the early signing period,” Farrell said. “I love it. If they do get rid of it for this year — and I’m not saying they will; anything could happen — it’ll definitely be pro-blue bloods. And that’s just life. This is not going to be an advantage for the smaller programs or the ones that are harder to get to.”
Early official visits, Farrell said, “are a real blessing” for programs like Nebraska, which had six of its 2020 signees — Nash Hutmacher, Blaise Gunnerson, Marvin Scott, Sevion Morrison, Tamon Lynum and Omar Manning — take official visits from April through late June.
“You can get those kids out there, and they haven’t had a chance to see Nebraska because it’s hard to get to,” Farrell said. “The official visit helped that quite a bit. But now that we’re likely not to have any official visits in the spring, that hurts Nebraska. How much I don’t know. But it definitely doesn’t help.”
Conversely, NU had drawn many — not all — of its top 2021 prospects to campus already for a visit or games. Four-star quarterback target Peter Costelli from California saw campus last summer. Fidone has attended several games. Top pass rushing targets TJ Bollers from Clear Creek Amana in Iowa and Travion Ford from St. Louis have been guests at games, too. Omaha Westside cornerback Avante Dickerson and Bellevue West receiver Keagan Johnson — both of whom have NU offers — aren’t strangers in Lincoln, either.
If a Nebraska target commits elsewhere, this might be a year that prospect opens up his recruiting once he can take visits again. The verbal “placeholder” commits won’t be as firm, Farrell predicted.
“The big brands are still going to get kids — even without visits — and then what will happen is kids will want to visit other schools (in the fall) and there will be a rash of decommitments,” Farrell said. “I think we’re going to set a record for decommitments this year.”