Commentary

Positions of emphasis on the recruiting trail vary based on conference, system

Originally Published: June 5, 2008
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPN.com

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Greg Schiano calls it trust. It's the main reason he followed Joe Susan to Bucknell as a high school player and why he hired him two decades later as his recruiting coordinator at Rutgers.

Schiano was a hard-nosed senior linebacker at Ramapo High in Franklin Lakes, N.J., when Susan made a recruiting visit in 1983.

"He was a straight shooter; he stood out among the rest of coaches I met," said Schiano from his spacious office in the Hale Center, home of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. "Joe's the same guy today and that's how he's built relationships with coaches and players over the years."

Those connections between players and coaches on the recruiting trail have been paramount to Rutgers' recent success. After going 12-34 during the first four seasons of the Schiano regime, the Scarlet Knights are 26-12 over the past three seasons and have gone to three straight bowl games, winning the last two.

The lifeblood of any program is landing top-notch recruits, and for some, the pursuit of talent is a 24/7 endeavor.

"One coach doesn't take credit for successfully recruiting a player, instead we do things together," Susan said. "We try to get as many eyes as possible on a kid before we make an offer."

When Schiano took over in December 2000, he employed grassroots recruiting tactics, immediately tapping New Jersey's high school coaches.

Recruiting is in the eye of the beholder. You may come looking for a tackle or corner and leave having found another position.

--De Matha High School coach Bill McGregor

"We asked them to help recruit our first class," Schiano said. "We respected their opinion and needed their help. It was time to change the whole environment around here."

This spring, the Rutgers coaches visited each New Jersey school with a football program.

Coach Chris Lange of Wood-Ridge, a Group 1 school (the smallest of New Jersey's four classifications), chatted with Rutgers coaches in mid-May.

"It's a great way to keep players in state and a goodwill [gesture] to coaches," Lange said. "Even though a coach may not have players who can play for Rutgers this year, they can recommend a kid from another school.

"I've coached in college and know what they are going through. To win it's not necessarily the X's and O's but the Jimmys and Joes. You must get quality kids."

The name of the game

The recruiting coordinator is at the heart of any program's operation. Some head coaches allow the recruiting coordinator to take the lead, mapping a strategy, but most staffs collectively target players.

When Doc Holliday was hired as the recruiting coordinator and associate head coach at West Virginia in January, he brought a wealth of knowledge. Holliday, an ace recruiter, headed home to West Virginia after spending the past eight years at North Carolina State and Florida.

The Mountaineers have always relied on out-of-state players, with an emphasis on Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Virginia.

Holliday will continue to concentrate on those talent-rich regions. He spent three and a half weeks this spring in Florida, scouting several high school spring practices.

He also thinks the Mountaineers staff must seal the borders.

"I divided up the state [West Virginia] amongst the nine coaches and then assigned them to the areas they know best," Holliday said. "By the time fall rolls out around, we'll have all the players we're targeting on our board."

NCAA recruiting guidelines

There are rules and an NCAA calendar coaches must follow. This spring was the first head coaches did not travel. The recruiting calendar officially opens Sept. 1 of a student-athlete's junior year, when minimal contact is allowed, according to the NCAA football coaches' recruiting guide.

• Colleges can correspond with freshmen and sophomores by sending them questionnaires and camp brochures to gauge their interest.

• Juniors can receive recruiting materials and receive one telephone call between April 15 and May 31.

• Seniors are allowed one call per week following Sept. 1 and unlimited calls during the contact period. Off-campus contact (face-to-face exchange of dialogue more than a greeting) starts July 1 but is limited to contact periods, and official visits commence the opening day of classes for the prospective students.

NFL scouts say quarterbacks, left tackles, lockdown cover corners and rush defensive ends are the most coveted positions. A straw poll of coaches and recruiting coordinators reveals the same holds true in the college game.

Obviously areas of emphasis vary on a program-to-program basis. For Holliday at West Virginia, it's quarterback. He should know after spending 20 years with legendary Mountaineers coach Don Nehlen, during which he coached quarterbacks Major Harris, Jeff Hostetler and Oliver Luck.

"Without a quarterback you have no chance at winning and great defenders up front are hard to find," Holliday said.

"Bottom line, if you want to win the big one, you need to make your throws."

Schiano, who spent three years coaching defense for the Chicago Bears, agrees with the NFL's rule of thumb.

"When Jacksonville and Carolina joined the NFL [in 1995] as expansion franchises, I noticed how they built their teams and where they spent money," Schiano said. "They went for big left tackles and quarterbacks, but a great cover corner is always valuable.

"Think about it. A great cover corner can take away a third of the field and create a 10-on-10 situation; it's better than 11-on-11."

Clemson's recruiting strategy targets running backs and defensive linemen. The Tigers landed a top-five recruiting class in 2008 thanks to the efforts of hotshot recruiting coordinator Billy Napier and are off to a great start for the Class of 2009.

"The main objective is to keep an open line of communication," Napier said. "All the coaches do their jobs. They have a passion for the job and are hard workers. My job is to get them as much information [on prospective] recruits as possible in a timely fashion and make sure everyone is on the same page."

This simple blueprint helped the Tigers keep up with ACC powers Florida State and Miami and beat out South Carolina for homegrown talent. Ten ESPN 150 players signed with Tommy Bowden's program in the '08 class.

Class of '08 defensive end DaQuan Bowers, the top-ranked player in the 2008 ESPN 150, was the gem of the Tigers' recent recruiting efforts. Bowers graduated high school early, and following the Tigers' spring practice, he zoomed up the depth chart.

Persistency paid off in the case of Bowers.

"We recruited him since eighth grade," Napier said. "Coach [Ron] West saw him during the spring [of 2004] and offered him on the spot. There was no question then he was a great player and he is proving us right after spring practice."

This spring the Tigers have continued the upward trend by getting 10 verbals, all of them on the ESPN 150 Watch List. Napier was the lead recruiter of five players, most notably defensive back Craig Loston of Aldine (Texas) Eisenhower.

The right timing also plays a role.

ESPN.com recruiting analyst Bill Conley, who coached at Ohio State for 17 years, landed high-profile Buckeyes recruits such as Mike Nugent, Andy Katzenmoyer, Orlando Pace and Eddie George.

George, an unknown heading into his postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, appeared on Conley's radar following a tip from a student manager in the spring of 1991.

Conley joked, "[George] fell through the cracks. This wouldn't have happened during the age of the Internet and cellular phones."

When he reviewed George's tape, Conley saw a big tailback from Philadelphia sprinting between the tackles, around the ends and barreling over linebackers. George was the prototypical player to headline Ohio State's vaunted run-oriented attack.

Conley's early legwork paid off as George, a future Heisman Trophy winner and All-Pro, made a verbal commitment to the Buckeyes a few months later, spurning late offers from Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.

De Matha High School (Hyattsville, Md.) coach Bill McGregor has been coaching highly touted high school players for 26 years. He has seen how the corner position has evolved in the college game.

"Colleges are looking for taller, athletic corners about 6-0, to combat the trend of taller wide receivers," McGregor said.

Twice weekly in April and May, De Matha players performed a battery of agility drills designed to showcase their fluidity, strength and athleticism. De Matha typically sends 10 players annually to BCS schools. This year 21 of 32 seniors will play in college.

"Since we don't have spring practice we design indoor workouts according to what the college coaches want," McGregor said.

After spending 26 seasons on the sidelines, McGregor thinks that talent, regardless of position, is the ultimate trump card.

"Recruiting is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "You may come looking for a tackle or corner and leave having found another position.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.

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