Ed Orgeron now sees early signing period as an 'advantage' for LSU

LSU coach Ed Orgeron talks with a football player during the Tulane/LSU football camp at Tulane's Yulman Stadium in New Orleans on Friday, June 16, 2017. Orgeron says LSU is planning to use the early signing period starting Dec. 20 as an 'advantage' in recruiting.(Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Hank Tierney had to call back later.

Ponchatoula High School's head football coach was busy. Busy taking phone calls from his players. Busy setting up their visits to college football camps. Busy calculating just how many players he'd have missing during his three-times-per-week summer workouts, now that the NCAA's recruiting "dead period" is finally over.

OK, that kid was at LSU on Tuesday. ... One's at Harvard today. ... A few more will be at UL on Friday. ... Notre Dame on Sunday. ...

Calendars collide. Numbers spin. But Tierney embraces the madness because he knows how essential this week is, this month is. It's the first time college coaches can visit with recruits in-person since March 13, 2020, when the NCAA restricted visits to phone and video calls at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The NCAA Council extended the dead period eight times before the governing body announced in February that in-person recruiting could resume June 1.

Football programs across the country immediately began planning recruiting camps. Recruits began planning official and unofficial visits to campuses. So began a mad dash for schools to secure face time with top prospects in order to be among the first schools to visit with them personally.

LSU hosted 15 recruits on unofficial visits Tuesday and will hold three position camps this weekend. Tulane hosted 28 prospects Thursday. UL has its own prospect camp Friday.

"Everybody's charging out of the gate," Tulane coach Willie Fritz said.

Jacoby Mathews, a five-star safety at Ponchatoula High, said he wanted to make sure he visited LSU with his mother, Takisha, on the first day possible. Mathews committed to the Tigers in April, and he wanted to win his mother's approval of his verbal pledge while also spending time trying to convince other visitors to join LSU's 2022 recruiting class.

LSU was just as persistent in making sure it welcomed Mathews when he arrived. Coaches ushered in his family happily. LSU coach Ed Orgeron eschewed his usual handshake, Mathews said, and wrapped him in a bear hug.

"If I wasn't committed already," Mathews said. "I would've committed then."

There's extreme value in that personal touch. Coaches and recruits alike were reminded of that during what Madison Prep athletic director Jeff Jones calls "The Year of the Zoom."

From March until May, Jones said recruiting was just a repetitive cycle of setting up Zoom video calls between college coaches and potential recruits.

How's Monday afternoon at 6:45?

Great.

Can you do Tuesday at 11?

Done deal.

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Then the recruit would show up in Jones' office and sit through yet another virtual pitch.

"It kind of got old," Jones said. "I mean, having to sit in front of a table or your phone for an hour, hour-and-a-half, looking at pictures and videos through the phone. It just wasn't the same as what we got to experience (Tuesday)."

Jones accompanied four-star defensive lineman Quency Wiggins on his visit to LSU's campus. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound prospect is the nation's No. 31 defensive lineman in the 2022 class, according to 247Sports, and LSU, Alabama and Auburn are among the myriad programs that have offered scholarships.

Wiggins symbolizes the COVID-era recruit: He's a nationally coveted talent who managed to pick up the bulk of his scholarship offers during a junior season in which college coaches could not see him in person at all.

Such limitations with recruits "really challenged our evaluation process," UL coach Billy Napier said. It forced coaches to be even more thorough in their film reviews. Tulane's Fritz said in the past coaches might watch "a game film or two," then rubber-stamp the recruit for an on-campus visit or football camp, where they could see him work out personally.

"This is something where we weren't able to do that," Fritz said. So, we had to do a really good job of evaluating game tape, highlight tape. Watching it over and over and over again. Watching multiple games."

Such meticulous film study and impersonal evaluation will be one of the pandemic-era recruiting strategies that college coaches carry over into the future. It might not determine once and for all whether a coaching staff continues to pursue one recruit or another; but it would lead to a more comprehensive report that allows coaches to have a better projection of the type of athlete that will eventually arrive on campus.

"I don't know if I'd say (it'll be) more efficient," Napier said. "I think it just tests your ability to be objective, to organize the information, to go through your process — whatever that may be."

Make no mistake, coaches say: There's nothing that beats an in-person evaluation. You can only do so much homework on a player without seeing him personally, and a complete reliance on film study will generally still leave plenty of doubts.

"All these measurements, all these rankings, they're good," Orgeron said on WNXX-FM last month. "All that stuff is good. But you know what, who's a football player? That's what we find out in camp."

LSU has six camps scheduled through mid-June, and these typically are where coaches extend initial scholarship offers. Orgeron said Austin Thomas, LSU's general manager, did a study and found that 19 of the 22 starters on LSU's 2019 national championship team attended one of the program's camps.

There's a substantial incentive for recruits to attend such camps, too — especially if they aren't the blue-chip prospects who have already captured widespread attention. This, Mathews said, was his main concern for some of his teammates last year, who, although they improved as players, didn't get as much attention because recruiters weren't out visiting their campus.

During the prolonged dead period, Mathews advised his friends to find elite recruits who posted news about their scholarship offers on social media, then follow the coaches those recruits tagged inside that post and send them their highlight reels. 

Now that players can once again visit campuses, there's an increased urgency to attend the available camps. Mathews, who said he's not visiting camps other than LSU's, still is involved in several group chats with other prospects, and some are making multiple trips to universities in the same weekend.

"It's people that are going from college to college, not even flying home before they go to another college," Mathews said. "Going from one school to another. It's incredible to see all these people taking these officials and unofficials in the summer instead of waiting until the fall and everything."

For this reason, Tierney can accept an absence or two at a summer workout here and there at Ponchatoula High. It's why he scheduled the team workouts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, allowing players an extended weekend to travel wherever they need to go.

"They want to see how big they are," Tierney said. "They want to see how fast they run. That's all the things they do in camp, which they were not able to do last year, which is why I think it's a big mad rush right now to get kids to camp."

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.