Evolution of Team Recruiting Camps Leads to Commits in Huge Numbers

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Evolution of Team Recruiting Camps Leads to Commits in Huge Numbers
247Sports.com

For 2016 quarterback recruit Jacob Eason, an early commitment was the last thing on his mind.

"I went down there just thinking I was going to check it out, have a good time," Eason told Bleacher Report of his visit to Georgia's "Dawg Night" camp, which concluded a Southeast swing that also featured Alabama and Florida State visits.

"But I just knew it was the place. When I went down there, I felt at home."

On the night following the camp, Easonthe nation's second-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class, according to the 247Sports' composite rankingsverbally pledged to the Bulldogs. So did 5-star 2016 offensive tackle Ben Cleveland and two other camp participants.

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Any time a school can get four verbal commitments from an event, it's considered an immense success. But Georgia's huge haul at "Dawg Night" has become par for the camp course this summer.

The practice of morphing camps into specialized, school-branded recruiting events is yielding commitments in huge numbers.

So, what is the formula?

Though nobody wants to give away secrets, a picture of this new breed of camp became clearer in the details offered by the coaches who host the events and the players who attend them.

These intimate environments allow players and their families to spend time with coaches and players. Many are under the lights in the stadiums with Jumbotrons, scoreboards and music blaring. Others thrive on competition; all thrive on peer recruiting.

No one camp has all those elements, but several of these characteristics are shared by all.

This is far from a new concept, but it didn't become must-attend until Urban Meyer's "Friday Night Lights" at Florida in 2005. Georgia's "Dawg Night" followed suit three years later.

These days, it seems everybody has a unique event.

Now at Ohio State, Meyer's "FNL" event last weekend produced two commitments.

At Tennessee, "Orange Carpet Day" resulted in seven commitments over two one-day events. Mississippi State had the most shocking camp commitment haul when eight players pledged to the Bulldogs during the "Big Dawg Camp," and another participant committed shortly after.

The list goes on and on.

"'Friday Night Lights' under Urban Meyer at Florida was the event that first had the biggest impact on the Richter scale, so to speak," said Barton Simmons, 247Sports' national director of scouting. "Meyer was smart enough to transition a college instructional camp into a showcase, an event. Kids started flocking, and back before events like The Opening sprung up, 'Friday Night Lights' was one of the best events in the country from a talent perspective. Now, almost all major programs have some sort of version of that.

"Every program's recruiting culture is different, so I don’t think an elite event is a necessity. Penn State has killed it recruiting under James Franklin this year without an under-the-lights type of event. Alabama is the best recruiting program in the nation and [Nick] Saban doesn't have a single 'Dawg Night'-style event. But when you look at Mississippi State adding seven or eight commits in one day at their 'Big Dawg Camp' or Georgia adding two five-stars in the class of 2016 in one evening, it's hard not to see a serious benefit to a well-run event."

 

The Forefathers of Showcase Recruiting Events

Dave Martin/Associated Press
While head coach at the University of Florida, current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer elevated the recruiting game with his Friday Night Lights camp.

Georgia recruiting coordinator Bryan McClendon remembers when head coach Mark Richt and his staff were in the early stages of discussing a showcase recruiting event.

The rival Gators had changed the recruiting game with "FNL," and the Dawgs had all these resources they wanted to show off, too. Before long, the elements started coming together.

It would be a night camp under the lights at Sanford Stadium. They'd turn on the scoreboard and even open it up to media so the kids who didn't show could get a glimpse of what they missed. It would also be scheduled at a time when they weren't competing with AAU basketball or track for players' attention.

Most importantly, they'd make it cost-efficient.

Phil Coale/Associated Press
Former Gators great Tim Tebow is one of the many stars who graced the field at Friday Night Lights.

"To be honest with you, one of the things we always want to doand it's very, very tough to do nowis try to make it as cheap as possible," McClendon said. "This is a camp where you know you’re not going to get any kind of profit from in that regard. It's very available to them, and you’re able to attract people and say, 'This is too good of a deal to pass up.' It’s the cheapest camp we have.

"We wanted to make sure the bang for your buck was too good to pass up for people out of state to pass us to go do something else."

Almost immediately, Georgia had an immense success on its hands. It didn't take long for rivals to know it was time to worry if a target was heading to Athens that weekend.

This year, UGA made two important tweaks, splitting the event into a two-session, all-day camp, according to Dawgs247's Rusty Mansell (subscription required). The Bulldogs also used modern technology to sell it.

While "Dawg Night" has enjoyed major staying power, the pedigree from Florida's forerunning camp is unprecedented. From the year it started in 2005, "FNL" has become a national showcase.

The camp has featured 13 first-round NFL draft picks and 36 players taken in the draft, according to GatorBait's Thomas Goldkamp (subscription required). Several of those participants became Gators, especially in Meyer's tenure. That's a big reason he won two national championships in Gainesville.

'FNL' Participants Who Were Selected in NFL Draft's First Round
Player College Position Selection, Pro Team
Tim Tebow Florida Quarterback 25th, Denver
Cam Newton Florida/Auburn Quarterback First, Carolina
Trent Richardson Alabama Running Back Third, Cleveland
C.J. Spiller Clemson Running Back Ninth, Buffalo
Maurkice Pouncey Florida Center 18th, Pittsburgh
Ryan Shazier Ohio State Linebacker 15th, Pittsburgh
Mike Pouncey Florida Center 15th, Miami
Patrick Peterson LSU Cornerback Fifth, Arizona
Joe Haden Florida Cornerback Seventh, Cleveland
Dre Kirkpatrick Alabama Cornerback 17th, Cincinnati
Dominique Easley Florida Defensive Tackle 29th, New England
Matt Elam Florida Safety 32nd, Baltimore
Teddy Bridgewater Louisville Quarterback 32nd, Minnesota

Source: GatorBait.net

Though Will Muschamp's uncertain future led to less star power than normal this year, according to ESPN.com's Derek Tyson, the Gators still hosted plenty of elite players like Martez Ivey, Jeffrey Holland and Byron Cowart.

These recruiting events aren't just huge recruiting tools for locals, either.

"The competition level down there (the Southeast) is just really not comparable to here," said Eason, a Lake Stevens, Washington, resident. "You have guys from Florida, Alabama, Georgia at the (Dawg Night) camp—everywhere you go, the competition is pumped up.

"Everybody plays at a higher level down there, and you could really see it."

The best want to play with the best, and Eason said that played a factor in his ultimate decision to head south for his college career. Now, the quarterback becomes part of the camp's pedigree, woven into the fabric of why future prospects will keep thinking "Dawg Night" is special.

"Kids look forward to it every year," McClendon said. "Certain coaches look forward to it every year. As soon as it’s over with, guys are asking about when’s the next one we’re having. It’s one of the premier camps in the country. It really is.

"It's kind of like that one party nobody likes to miss out on."

 

'Shocking the World'

Kerry Smith/Associated Press
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen learned under Meyer at Florida, and he has enjoyed his own success with recruiting camps as head coach of Mississippi State.

Mississippi Statea school in the sticks of the state, far from any big-city lightshad its own recruiting party July 18 when it received eight commitments at its annual "Big Dawg Camp."

The historic haul elevated the Bulldogs from the nether regions of the recruiting rankings all the way up to 11th place, according to 247Sports Composite. It was the kind of day that veteran recruiting coordinator Tony Hughes said in more than 20 years of coaching he'd "never seen happen before."

"It was just one night that it all came together," Hughes said. "It was work over a long period of time, not just the one night. It's just like that one game you get in and you've got that great opponent and every play you call works and it's executed, and you say, 'Wow! Look at that!'"

The MSU coaches didn't do anything different this year, Hughes said. Like always, they turned on the lights at Davis Wade Stadium, lit up the scoreboard and the Jumbotron and coached the prospects like they would if they were their own players.

The intensity level elevated, the swagger followed and, before long, multiple players began committing to spend the next four years in Starkville.

Mississippi State's Historic 'Big Dawg' Haul on July 18
Name Hometown/School Position Star Rank/Position Rank
Jamal Peters Bassfield, Miss. Safety 4-star, No. 3
Nick Gibson Pinson, Ala. Running Back 4-star, No. 24
Jonathan Calvin Jackson, Miss. Defensive End 3-star, No. 6 (JUCO)
Justin Johnson Birmingham, Ala. Wide Receiver 3-star, No. 102
Jonnas Spivey Bay Springs, Miss. Athlete 3-star, No. 80
Alec Murphy Nixa, Mo. Running Back 3-star, No. 49
Keith Mixon Birmingham, Ala. All-Purpose RB 3-star, No. 22
Mark McLaurin Collins, Miss. Safety 3-star, No. 55
Dee Nalls (2016 recruit) Fayette, Ala. Offensive Guard 3-star, No. 18

CDispatch.com; Bulldawgs247.com

It was the kind of night reserved for the white-collar world of college football—teams such as Alabama, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Texas and Florida.

Perhaps it wasn't a surprise because of that last example. You see, MSU head coach Dan Mullen was on Meyer's staff when "FNL" originated.

There are elements from that foundation camp nearly a decade ago present in MSU's version.

"We try to be different and out in front, and you have to be at Mississippi State," Hughes said. "You have to use your imagination and do things to reach out. We can’t do what Alabama does, or what LSU does or Georgia does because we don’t have the same clientele, the same finances, the same budget, you know? If we can be different and use our imagination, we can shock the world like we did that weekend.

"Ours is the real deal because it comes from the original. Coach Mullen understands how it works and how to make it an event."

Butch Dill/Associated Press
Second-year head coach Butch Jones has taken the recruiting world by storm in his time at Tennessee.

Another coach who obviously understands the gauntlet of SEC recruiting is Tennessee's Butch Jones.

In his first two full recruiting classes at UT, Jones has escalated the talent level on Rocky Top. Already on campus are 32 signees from a class ranked seventh in the 2014 cycle. Joining them in the '15 class are 22 verbal pledges in another seventh-ranked group.

Eleven of UT's commitments have come since June 9, fueled by two "Orange Carpet Day" events that produced seven pledges, including 4-star former Alabama running back Alvin Kamara.

Though some "Orange Carpet Day" details are kept quiet, tight end commit Kyle Oliver said the players didn't even work out for UT's coaches. Instead, the event was set up to impress the prospects and to enable them to spend one-on-one time with Jones and his assistants.

It was also a paparazzi-style atmosphere, Oliver said, treating the players as if they were already stars.

"When I got there, there was an orange carpet waiting for us, and they took a lot of pictures," Oliver said. "It did set them apart. It was a very great experience, and I couldn't see a reason why I wouldn't want to commit.

"It was like a family day type of thing, and that's what I really wanted when I was looking for a college. I feel like it played a big role for me."

Jones reiterated the Vols tried to make both of their summer events a down-home atmosphere. It was such a success the first time, UT held another one in July.

These types of intimate settings have been staples at all three of Jones' head coaching stops, he said. Each year, they'll switch things up a bit, but the ultimate goal never changes.

"The big thing for the 'Orange Carpet Day' was geared toward a lot of these individuals have been here a number of times, so how can we make it different?" Jones said. "But really, it’s just an opportunity to spend quality time, get to know one another, and have fun; kind of like a family reunion, so to speak.

"That's what it's all aboutthem getting to know us as people and coaches."

That family feel is something many coaches try to recreate. Few succeed.

Auburn, for instance, does it well at its "Big Cat Weekend," which has been a cornerstone of its recruiting success. AL.com's John Talty said the weekend is "essential" to the Tigers' recruiting philosophy.

Pick [a] Southeastern Conference school and they inevitably have their own catchy recruiting night. The difference is that Auburn's Big Cat Weekend doesn't focus much on football; it's all about bonding. During past Big Cat Weekends, top recruits participated in scavenger hunts and water balloon fights.

When the atmosphere strikes a chord with the players present, they take to Twitter, go to national camps and tell everybody about what is happening at School X. Before long, an event makes a name for itself.

With the world of recruiting shrinking, everybody talks to everybody else. That word-of-mouth buzz is the best advertisement colleges can get. If your camp is something kids are talking about, it spreads like wildfire.

Then, coaches know they've got a keeper.

"It's less of a cattle call and more of a true interaction with the coaching staff and a showcase of the best versus the best," Simmons said. "These events are the camp version of a VIP section. It's a velvet rope event for the camp season."

 

Imitation Is the Truest Form of Flattery

Credit: 247Sports
Georgia recruiting coordinator Bryan McClendon always tries to stay on the cutting edge of recruiting tactics. Perhaps that's why he's so good at it.

As long as these on-campus event camps are producing commitments, the concepts are going to be copied.

While recruiting is mostly about relationships, there's also a major element of not falling behind.

"A program's 'cool factor' has never been a bigger deal in the recruiting process than it is today," B/R recruiting analyst Tyler Donohue said. "Social media changed the game, and every team is trying new things to keep the attention of prospects."

With recruiting, it's difficult to find exclusive territory.

If one school sends 100 handwritten letters to a recruit, 10 more do the same. Georgia had a fresh idea with the hand-drawn portraits of players, and soon, others were doing the same thing with a different spin.

Camps are no different.

"Like anything and everything in our program, you're always looking to grow it, always looking to elevate it," Tennessee's Jones said. "We quality-control everything and ask, 'How do we make it better?' And we take input from our players as well, so there’s a lot that goes into the overall structure.

"It's pretty much standard at every school now. At the end of the day, it's just being who you are but spending that quality time just talking and maybe not just talking football but talking about life; getting to know aunts and uncles and grandparents."

McClendon is a guru at utilizing cutting-edge recruiting tactics and coming up with new ideas, and he was named 247Sports' recruiter of the year in 2014 for his success. It doesn't bother him that other schools out there have taken the "Dawg Night" concept and morphed it into their own.

Credit: 247Sports
At the end of a long trip, Jacob Eason decided he was a Bulldog.

Recruiting is a dog-eat-dog world, and one of the Dawgs who goes to war on the battlegrounds every day knows it as well as anybody.

"Once people see it, other people are going to copy it; it doesn’t surprise me at all," McClendon said. "But you're always trying to find a new way to kind of stand out to people, to grab people's attention and to keep Georgia on their mind."

These specialized camps may work for others, but it's still doing just fine for Georgia, too.

After all, Eason visited the past two national champions, Alabama and Florida State, prior to setting foot between the hedges. At "Dawg Night," he saw what he needed to see to ensure it was where he wanted to play his college football.

After all these years, that original concept is still producing Bulldogs.

"Part of me wanted to wait [the recruiting process] out, and another part of me wanted to get it over with," Eason said. "But Georgia came, and I thought, 'Why wait?' I wanted to commit to them before anybody else got that spot.

"A lot of the actual players were out there and down on the field. You look around and see all this competition, and there's music playing and a D.J., and it's just a fun environment to be around. I just knew."

 

All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports composite. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:

@Brad_Shepard

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