National Signing Day is the biggest off-the-field day for many college football programs, as the fax machines get cranked up and kids send in their National Letters of Intent.
As it approaches, let's peel back the curtain a bit.
Everyone is so wrapped up in the end of the dance that the process often gets ignored. Recruiting is a long ordeal for these kids, and understanding how it works is a plus for fans looking for insight beyond the "will he or won't he commit to my team" point.
Those commitments go from verbals to members of the signing class with each Letter of Intent coaches receive. As previously committed kids flip and uncommitted players finally decide where they want to play football, the drama only heightens across the nation's top programs.
For fans, this is the beginning of that player's life with their program. For the players, however, this is the conclusion of a long and interesting chapter of a major transitional period. While they are months from beginning their collegiate career, National Signing Day is the end of a process that starts early and runs hot from the moment they are targeted.
Which brings us to a great starting point: targeting. Some kids are discovered because their coaches shop them around, or they are caught on tape as older players are evaluated. Other athletes get spotted during camps.
Regardless of how coaches hear about a player, freshman and sophomore year is where the talent first gets identified. Questionnaires, like this one from Oregon, get filled out. They allow the school to put you into their database as a prospective student-athlete. That gives them your information for mailings, invitations to events and access to test scores, marking the "official" start of the process.
On the kids' side of things, a good high school football coach looking out for his players may send in game tapes to the colleges. However, if the coach is not, the player's family or friends have to help them by getting their tape out to schools. Everyone freaks over highlight tapes, but ultimately, teams want to see whole game tapes of players.
Schools start evaluating young talents as film rolls in. Some players get tabbed early, while other guys get dismissed as non-options based on their tape. Most players go into the "keep an eye on him" file as they continue to mature physically and improve their skills on the field.
Evaluation is a huge part of recruiting from the school's side of things, as recruiting is an inexact science. The more film, data and opportunities to see the player in person the coaches have through observation, the better.
Some coaches, like Dana Holgorsen or Rich Rodriguez, are looking for speed. Holgorsen demonstrated this by bringing in quarterback Pat White.
Others, like Nick Saban and his offshoots, are searching for physical athletes for each position.
Regardless of their approach, most coaches are a blend of several schools of thought. Identifying targets and slotting kids is quite important.
As this is going on, schools are making sure that all the kids on their target board stay interested. That means letters, and lots of them, to remind you of the school's prestigious history and to watch the team. Coaches also encourage you to work hard in the summer.
Every day a BCS-caliber prospective student-athlete gets home, he has a mailbox full of "stuff." Big and small envelopes. Postcards, pamphlets, literally everything you can imagine to make sure he knows that the school is thinking about him. In fact, 4-star recruit Alvin Kamara once received 105 letters from Alabama in one day.
On the players' side, it is still early. Offers generally don't start pouring in until the end of the spring of junior year. Up to that point, it's about getting exposure through unofficial visits, camps and making sure the schools have your tapes.
Oh, and most importantly, working hard.
These kids do not get nearly enough credit for working hard to position themselves for success. Talent comes naturally, but harnessing that talent, putting in the work in the weight room and getting great play on film takes hard work.
These guys are not given anything, and any player who has been through the process will let you know just how much of "just being a kid" they missed to set themselves up for future success.
During their junior season, most players are invited to unofficially visit the campus for a game. Basically, players get to see the on-field product and some of the behind-the-scenes things that make a program work.
The next major milestone for recruits is Junior Day. It's essentially an unofficial visit for all of the junior prospects the school is courting in one way or another. These are players ranging from the elite "you can commit anytime" players to the guy that is merely the high school teammate of a player the school wants next year.
Either way, Junior Days are becoming an increasingly big deal. Schools are even hosting multiple Junior Days as a way to get all of the elite players together on one trip, separate from the less fawned-over talents.
Junior Days expand on the unofficial visits. You spend an entire day being shepherded around between campus tours, facilities tours, current player and coach meet-ups and maybe even a basketball game. Players also meet other potential members of their recruiting class.
It is also the landmark moment where the book on the previous signees is closed and coaches turn their full attention to the next class. These kids on the Junior Day visit will make up the class they are looking to bring in the next year. They have a great idea of where they stand with each kid, but now it boils down to making an offer, getting a commitment and not missing out on any major recruits.
Which brings us to more evaluation.
On top of all the film, coaches go out to watch kids at their own school once. They also visit schools to get a feel for the academic side of things. After all, if the kid is not going to qualify, then recruiting him is not helping you. Coaches watch more tape and look for situations where players they're recruiting from different schools are matched up.
Essentially, it is an ordeal.
Once summer time hits, coaches are begging kids to get to their camp. Camp is important from the school's perspective for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, schools get to really assess the caliber of the athlete. They can get their own heights, weights, 40 times and such. They don't have to rely on combines, scouting services, the kids themselves or the high schools for that easily manipulated information.
Secondly, you get to coach these kids. That means your coaches get to yell at them, push them and see how they respond to the pressure. They see how quickly the athletes take coaching and how well-trained in fundamentals and techniques they are.
Most importantly, you get to see if they are actually any good. Does the kid playing low-A football in the rural part of the state wilt against the top athletes from the city? Is the running back whom you had questions about just too slow to get it done?
Questions like that get answered when you get to host your targets at camp.
You find out who the fighters are, who the guys that need better coaching are and who, despite physical qualities, just is not going to work for you.
Then things get tough, because everyone is busy. Coaches are trying to make their weekly phone calls to make sure that players keep thinking about them. While doing their "real job" of game-planning and trying to win ball games, they are trying to woo prospective new players.
At the same time, players are trying to play out their senior season, get their books in order and plan their official visits.
The process is hectic for everyone involved. Unofficial visits are taking place. Coaches are going out on Fridays trying to see kids in live action. Phone calls are being made. Kids have their weekends booked solid as their phones ring off the hook with coaches trying to make contacts.
It is a crazy time, all while football season is going on at both the high school and collegiate levels.
And that brings us to the home stretch: the post-bowl period where players, committed or undecided, are seeing coaches put on the full-court press to get them in the boat for National Signing Day.
This is where closers come into play. Guys like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Mark Richt do their best to put their squad over the hump with recruits.
When the kid is on campus, that means full attention from the head man. Seats side-by-side at the basketball game. A personalized tour and office meeting to talk about how the athlete fits with the program. Coaches know how to pour it on from an attention standpoint, and during the visit, they make you feel like you are their No. 1.
When the coaches make their in-home visits, the rhetoric is similar. Except this time, that coach is looking to prove to the athlete and their family, coaches and friends that he can do more for the player than anyone else.
For some kids, that is about getting to the NFL. For others, it is about getting out of the situation they are in and moving into a better position. Some kids and their families need to hear about education. Others want to hear about playing time.
Much like sales, recruiting is about hot buttons. Coaches work those hot buttons, find the decision-makers and lean on them until the choice is made.
You win some; you lose some. The goal is to win more of those than you lose. Coaches who win most of them are the guys we label good recruiters.
Recruiting is a delicate, intense ordeal for both players and coaches.
Kids can break things up by taking the wrong visit, trying to play both sides against the middle or not showing enough interest. Coaches can lose kids by saying the wrong thing to a mom or simply not telling the kid what he needs to hear.
It goes unmentioned, but current players can lose potential student-athletes because of official visits. Poor pairings result in a bad experience for all the parties involved, and while the goal is to get talent, no one wants to play with kids they do not like during the visit. Coaches must understand who the recruit truly is and who on his roster would fit with that youngster's personality.
There is a lot more to recruiting than just visits and commitments. The evaluation process is long and thorough, but even still, coaches run the risk of missing out on players. For players, it's an exercise in hard work and getting as much information to make their decision as possible.
Getting kids in the boat is important for schools. Picking the right school is what matters to the kid.
It is a process that does not get the attention, and appreciation, it deserves.
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