In late March, George Hart III crouched about 3 yards behind a series of bags. Hart, a senior running back at Catholic High, maneuvered through the equipment with a football clutched in his arms. He chopped his feet over the bags and shuffled between them, displaying his footwork.
Hart’s father, a running backs coach at another Baton Rouge high school, filmed his son. Once they finished, Hart’s father edited the footage with an app on his phone. Hart posted the video to his Twitter account and tagged college coaches. He tried to get noticed, one recruit amongst thousands.
Hart, a backup last season to two seniors who signed with FCS programs, needed exposure this summer. He planned to attend camps at Tulane, McNeese State and Alabama. The coronavirus canceled them.
When sports shut down throughout the country in March, the NCAA instituted a recruiting dead period, which it recently extended until Aug. 31. In-person contact froze. Schools canceled annual camps. Coaches recruited through their phones. Campus visits disappeared.
With traditional recruiting avenues closed, Hart worked out with his father. They went to an open football field or a small park near their house, arranging bags for different drills that showcased his skillset. Sometimes they stopped when people walked past.
“We don't know what they have,” Hart said, “and we don't want to contract it.”
Hart trained for a camera, hoping someone might see the tapes online. Catholic coach Gabe Fertitta sent the film to college coaches. Hart posted videos every few weeks. In late May, he received his first scholarship offer from McNeese State.
“The best thing I did was record those videos and post them,” Hart said, “because camps aren't a thing anymore.”
The Southeastern Conference has announced that players who choose not to play sports in the fall because of health and safety concerns related…
For high schoolers across the country, recruiting has entered a virtual setting as coaches evaluate players from home. Relationships form over the phone. LSU convinced Chris Hilton, a four-star wide receiver from Zachary, to commit during a Zoom call.
Despite the dead period, commitments have surged. LSU has received 12 pledges since March, propelling its class into the top 5 of national rankings. According to 247Sports, 627 rising seniors had committed to schools by May 6, more than double than the senior class at the same time last year, a phenomenon that might lead to widespread decommitments if visits resume this fall.
At the same time, multiple conferences have canceled their season or announced league-only schedules that reduce travel. Earlier this week, the National Junior College Athletic Association moved to a spring season. Hundreds of junior college players sign every year with Division I programs, many in December so they can enroll for the spring semester. Under the current recruiting timeline, coaches won’t watch them play another game before signing day.
“It’s going to hurt them,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said during an appearance on “SportsTalk” on WWL, 870-FM. “We’re going to sign everybody in December and (February) and probably won’t have any scholarships left for those guys.”
In a typical recruiting cycle, programs complete the bulk of their assessments during the offseason. They host recruits at camps, evaluate prospects during showcases and build connections at high school spring practices. Some of the biggest Louisiana high schools have 80 coaches visit every spring.
But since the pandemic began, college coaches have evaluated players through homemade videos. Without in-person assessments, UL and Penn State sent high school coaches recommended drills for specific positions. Players then created workout tapes, which their coaches sent to college programs. Players included their height and weight on video, using 10-pound plates to verify the scale.
In late May, junior Catholic offensive tackle Emery Jones created a video of himself completing various drills and exercises. Fertitta sent it to college coaches. LSU offered Jones a scholarship within an hour. Alabama followed minutes later. Jones received 10 offers within 24 hours.
“We've adapted,” Fertitta said, “but I certainly don't think it's as productive.”
As conferences and schools continue to make separate decisions on the fate of their fall athletic schedules, the NCAA released thorough guidel…
Though virtual evaluations are better than nothing, they don’t give a holistic view of players. Coaches prefer to watch recruits with their own eyes. Highlight reels hide weaknesses. In person, coaches can judge consistency and movement while disregarding recruiting stars. Competition shows a full picture. Scholarship offers sometimes emerge from camps.
“The up-and-coming guys, those sophomores and juniors that need that type of assessment, they're going to be caught in a gray zone,” St. James coach Robert Valdez said. “You can only assess so much on film.”
While coaches are limited, high school players lost a chance to increase their exposure. They often spend the summer months at showcases across the country.
The last three years, Shazz Preston rode around the southeast with his parents in a burgundy RV. They went from camp-to-camp, stopping at schools like LSU, Alabama, Florida State and Clemson as Preston became a top-100 recruit.
Preston, a junior wide receiver at St. James, expected to spend this summer the same way. He wanted to show his development while he toured campuses, gaining a sense of how he felt at each school.
“The phones aren't that bad, but I would get a better feeling when I'm talking face-to-face,” Preston said. “Seeing it virtually and over the phone, it's not giving me that.”
While Preston has time, the extended dead period has eliminated opportunities for late-developing seniors. They have one more season. If restrictions continue, recruiting classes will form without in-person communication. Recruits may have to make college decisions based on phone conversations.
As potential seasons approach, both in high school and college, uncertainty influences decisions. Players with offers have committed earlier than they would have otherwise, coaches said, securing a spot before classes hit their limit. Fertitta worries schools will rescind scholarship offers.
When St. James four-star defensive end Saivion Jones committed to LSU in May, he still wanted to see other schools, Valdez said. But the pandemic limited travel. Already leaning toward LSU and comfortable in his relationship with the coaching staff, Jones committed early.
LSU ranked No. 10 nationally in total revenue in 2018-19 finances, according to an annual report of college athletic departments by USA Today.
Without a season, other recruits may fall through the cracks. College coaches won’t find late risers. For example, Zachary cornerback Ralph Walker III has grown four inches and added 35 pounds since his junior year. He holds offers from mid-major schools, Zachary coach David Brewerton said, but the growth spurt makes him a more appealing prospect.
“That guy needs to be seen playing against high level competition, because I can promise you his senior film will look drastically different than his junior film,” Brewerton said. “But not if it doesn't take place.”
For Hart, the dead period and an uncertain future threatens to stunt his recruitment. He feels disappointed at times, but he tries to maintain a positive attitude. He waited for his chance to start. Until it comes, he will practice and post videos on social media, trying to generate exposure.
If the dead period lasts through his senior year, Hart would make a college decision based on his text conversations and phone calls. He would prefer to meet people face-to-face and tour campuses. But he understands the restrictions. He hopes someone will scroll through Twitter one day and notice his film.
“I would just keep working,” Hart said. “That's all I can do.”