The door has only recently shut on the 2013 recruiting cycle, and the 2014 recruiting cycle is already going full force. Offers are being handed out, coaches have their need-boards up and are matching prospects with their requirements, and junior days have been in full effect since early February.
That's what a football life is, folks. A non-stop cycle where one task finishes as another begins. While on the field the coaches worry about spring ball, off the field they are looking at who is going to fill their holes a year from now.
Recruiting has evolved with the times, coaches are casting wide nets, tape is easier to get and there are more prospects than ever. However, the ultimate goal of the process is the same as it ever was: get the best players on campus.
What coaches are after is a suitable blend of four things: a good football player, a talented athlete, a student who can get into school and a guy who will mentally fit with the program.
The first thing coaches want is a quality ballplayer; that means watching the tape. While services and YouTube feature plenty in the way of highlight films, the real measure of a player's skills comes through watching a couple of full games of tape.
For a defensive guy, that means plays that go away from them, plays that go right at them. Run plays and pass plays. Coaches are looking to see how the player pursues the football, handles blocks, makes tackles and plays both the run and pass. They are also, as coaches are want to do, checking for loafs—or plays taken off—by the prospect.
They want to see linebackers sift through the wash and play downhill. They are looking to see defensive linemen pursuing down the line instead of up the field. They are looking for safeties taking good pursuit angles and high-pointing the ball, and corners that turn and run and that understand zone and man concepts.
Offense is no different. They are looking for quarterbacks getting through progressions and making reads; linemen firing off the ball and capable in both run and pass blocking; running backs that have vision and understand how to hit the hole with a head of steam; wide receivers that block and can catch balls downfield.
Film will expose these things, and more, and you can't hide on the film. If there are deficiencies in the game, they will be on tape; hence the importance of whole game tapes, over highlights.
Being a quality ballplayer puts you on the map, but talent is what puts an offer in your hand. In other words: Those raw numbers like height, weight, vertical leap, broad jump, 40 time and the like are what separates a big-time recruit from a guy who is just a sound football player.
The talent aspect is more than just run-jump-strength-type athleticism—position specific qualities help increase a player's status. At the quarterback position, that means arm strength and accuracy. On both sides of the line that points to fluidity in the hips, arm lengths and the ability to carry more weight in the future, if applicable.
Here is where you also look at the ability of a player to transition to the next level. Good football players who have topped out physically in high school are only a prize if their current size translates to the collegiate game. On the other hand, guys who have room to grow, weight to add and the athleticism and talent to build upon become more coveted.
Coaches are looking for explosive power, fluid hips, good change of direction and great top end speed. They are hoping to find players that they can mold into what they need and talent that can develop into elite collegiate ballplayers.
Which brings us to the academic side of the equation. Every recruiting cycle, there are high-level talents that ultimately end up out in the cold, enrolling in prep school or junior college, because their academics don't allow for them to transition straight to college.
That's not a knock on the kid. That's not a knock on their school. Hell, it doesn't even speak to intelligence or work ethic in the grand scheme of things. Everyone has a different starting line where school is concerned, and if you start behind it is extremely difficult to catch up; whether you are a football player or not.
College coaches have to be cognizant of this fact. Regardless of how good and talented a ballplayer is, if he is too far behind to catch up and get through clearinghouse and school admissions, he can't help you. If the school has more stringent standards, like calculus with Georgia Tech or high total scores a la Duke or Stanford, that has to be taken into account.
Most high school kids pass through clearinghouse with no problem; which is a good thing because it lets college coaches work with high school coaches to try to keep tabs on guys who are toeing the line between prep school and getting in the first time.
You can recruit them. You can evaluate them. But if they can't get into school then you end up coming away empty. Thus, academics are certainly something that has to be looked into during the process.
The last element, but certainly not the least, is the mental aspect. Every college football team has its own identity, and often it is not the same as the image crafted for fans to eat up in public. Those recruits have to fit with that team identity, and coaches are looking to discover whether they work in the team dynamic or not.
If you've got a team full of "keep chopping wood" lunch-pail guys and the recruit is a big personality, he might not exactly fit into the dynamic. The opposite could be true for a team that likes to get their party on, while the recruit is a standoffish, quiet type.
What do you think is the most critical element that coaches should look at in recruiting?
It is not perfect, folks. There are players who can fit into any environment, others who require a truly perfect setting for themselves to flourish. Coaches, in recruiting, have to access these things, with the help of their current players, to figure out just how well guys will work on the roster.
It's an inexact science and every player does not share the same makeup when it comes to fitting into a program. Some guys are better football players than they are athletes, but they fit into the team dynamic perfectly and can get through academics no problem. Others are academic risks who share the team's mentality, and while they aren't polished ballplayers, they have off-the-charts talent.
Most coaches are looking for a blend of these elements in recruiting. Some coaches, like those from Nick Saban's coaching tree, do have their recruiting phenotype codified. Most coaches take the best players any way they can get them.
Recruiting is a lot of work. Hours upon hours of film are watched, and that's just to identify possible targets to pursue. Each cycle means looking over hundreds upon hundreds of kids, putting them through their paces, deciding who to offer and then hoping that 25 of the guys you offer end up saying yes to you when February rolls around.