Junior days get mixed results, reviews
It didn't take Mack Brown long to figure out how fast college football recruiting changes in Texas.
About halfway through his 12-year tenure as coach at the University of Texas, Brown started getting telephone calls from high school coaches around the state.
"Coach, this kid has 15 scholarship offers and y'all have not even met him," they'd tell him.
When Brown coached at North Carolina from 1988 to 1997, he and his assistants tried to recruit one year in advance. It was all the Tar Heels could do to keep up with more established programs like Notre Dame, Ohio State and Penn State.
"The big schools in the East started having juniors in their summer camps," Brown said. "Those schools would bring in the best in-state kids, and then they would go out of state. Most of the in-state kids would be locked up."
So Brown started having junior day at North Carolina. He would invite many of the state's top high school juniors to Chapel Hill to tour the campus and football facilities and meet the Tar Heels' players and coaches.
But when Brown got to Texas before the 1998 season, he stopped having junior days, because none of the other Big 12 schools he was competing against had them.
"When we got to Texas, none of the schools in the state had summer camps," Brown said. "No schools in the state of Texas were offering kids scholarships until the middle of football season or after their senior seasons. It was just a much slower process."
But about six years ago, Brown discovered the Longhorns were being left behind.
"We weren't doing any junior days," Brown said. "All of the sudden, we were way behind. We were trying to build our junior day around our spring football game in April. But other schools were having junior days at their bowl practices and having them before national signing day. We just felt like we were so far behind."
The Longhorns are definitely ahead of the game now. With the ink barely dry on the national letters of intent that 25 high school seniors signed with Texas on Feb. 3, the Longhorns already have 17 junior prospects verbally committed to sign with them in February 2011.
Texas received the bulk of its verbal commitments Feb. 13, its first junior day at its Austin campus. Thirteen players committed to sign with the Longhorns that weekend, and another four prospects have pledged to play for them in 2011 since then.
Offensive tackle Garrett Greenlea of Collins High School in Klein, Texas, and linebacker Kendall Thompson of Carthage High School in Carthage, Texas, were the most recent players to choose the Longhorns. They committed during a second junior day at Texas on Saturday.
"If we don't offer a kid a scholarship when he comes to our junior day, we basically lose him," Brown said. "They have so many offers that they're getting calls from other schools when they leave our campus. Those coaches are telling them, 'They don't even want you. You're not as good as the other guys they want. You need to come with us.'"
It's not like the Longhorns are taking early commitments from prospects that few other schools are recruiting. Twelve of the 17 players who have committed to Texas for 2011 are included on the ESPNU 150 Watch List. Greenlea chose the Longhorns over scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Michigan and Notre Dame. Defensive tackle Desmond Jackson chose Texas over offers from schools like Alabama, TCU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Michigan.
Every one of the high school juniors who have committed to sign with the Longhorns in 2011 is a homegrown product from Texas. Brown said 24 prospects attended Texas' first junior day this year, and the Longhorns offered scholarships to the majority of them. About a dozen prospects were scheduled to attend this past weekend's junior day.
"It happens quickly," Brown said. "It has become so important that you have continuity in your coaching staff. You can watch a young man play during his freshman year, his sophomore year and his junior year and you're ready to make a decision on whether to offer him a scholarship. They've been to your camp, they've been to your spring game and they've been to football games during the season. Recruiting has become a two- or three-year process. It's not just a six-month process anymore."
The Longhorns aren't alone in speeding up the recruiting calendar. Florida State and LSU already have nine verbal commitments for 2011. Clemson has six juniors committed to sign with it next year, and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have five.
"I think by and large, the majority of schools are doing [junior days] now," said Tom Luginbill, director of football scouting for ESPNU Recruiting. "Many of them are doing it in January and February. I think it's becoming more the norm than the exception because of the accelerated recruiting calendar."
Last May, new Auburn coach Gene Chizik used "Big Cat Weekend" to attract several of the country's top juniors to campus. The weekend even included an impromptu pep rally at Toomer's Corner, which resulted in secondary NCAA rules violations. But Auburn ended up signing the country's fourth-best recruiting class, and several of the prospects they signed were at the junior day event last year.
Jimbo Fisher, who just signed his first recruiting class as Florida State's coach, had junior days in Tallahassee each of the past two weekends. Fisher said about 80 total prospects attended the events.
"I think one of the keys is they want us to make great evaluations of the kids, but you've got to get them here and spend time with them as much as you can," Fisher said. "You've got to see how they act, how they talk and what their character and core values are like."
Under NCAA rules, a high school junior cannot receive a written scholarship offer until Sept. 1. Before that date, prospects can only receive written correspondence from schools such as camp brochures and questionnaires.
But that doesn't mean college football coaches can't make verbal scholarship offers to a prospect while he's visiting their campus on unofficial visits. Under NCAA rules, a prospect attending junior day must pay for his own transportation to campus and has to pay for his hotel room if he stays overnight. At Texas, prospects register around 8:30 a.m. and stay on campus for about seven or eight hours. Recruits can't make an official visit to a school, in which the school is allowed to pay for transportation, meals and lodging, until Sept. 1 of the player's senior year of high school.
Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who oversees the team's recruiting efforts, said the Bulldogs hosted about 150 prospects on campus at two junior days last month. Georgia has two more junior days planned this spring.
"You have to show the players different aspects of your program each time," Garner said. "You have to make sure kids won't get bored. You don't want someone telling you, 'Well, I was at the first junior day and the second junior day, why should I come to this one?' Obviously, the more you can get a player on campus, the better chance you have of signing him. If I've had a young man on campus four times, and he's only been to another school once, I like my chances of getting him."
Garner said the Bulldogs' first junior day took place on the last weekend of official visits for current high school seniors in January. Prospects learned about the school's strength and conditioning program and academics. The second junior day took place this past weekend. Prospects learned about the school's sports medicine program and the team's philosophies on offense and defense. Prospects also attended Georgia's home basketball game against Florida.
A third junior day is planned around spring practice later this month, and a fourth junior day will take place at Georgia's annual spring G-Day game at Sanford Stadium on April 10.
"Recruiting has evolved into a year-round process," Garner said. "If you're not careful, you'll have something planned every weekend. It's something everybody is doing, and if you're not doing a good job getting kids to your campus early, you're behind the eight ball."
Some schools are trying to slow the recruiting process down. Penn State was one of the first schools to take early commitments. In 1994, the Nittany Lions offered a scholarship to wide receiver Joe Nastasi during the spring of his junior year at Northern Bedford High School in Loysburg, Pa. Early scholarship offers were rare in college football at the time.
"That one probably started it," Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley said. "We were very familiar with him, and he lived just down the road."
But the Nittany Lions don't have a single player committed to sign with them in 2011. Bradley said Penn State no longer stages junior days because it found they were not as effective as inviting prospects to campus on an individual basis.
"For us, junior days haven't been as successful as inviting kids up one-on-one," Bradley said. "We don't seem to do as well with the junior days. One or two kids might get left out and then they feel slighted. We think it's more valuable when you can spend time with one kid at a time."
Most college football coaches would probably prefer for the recruiting process to slow down, according to Luginbill. Coaches want more time to evaluate prospects in terms of academics and character. But if a school doesn't offer a scholarship to a player very early in the process, it might never get the chance to sign him.
"I think if you talk to most college football coaches, they don't like the path recruiting is going down," Luginbill said. "They like it the way it used to be, where they would evaluate kids in the spring, have them attend their summer camps and then the kid takes five official visits in the fall. Now it's a rat race, but I don't think it involves everybody. It involves many of the BCS schools, but it involves most of the schools who are going to be going after the same kind of players."
Bradley is among the coaches who would like to apply the brakes to recruiting.
"I wish we could slow down," Bradley said. "You just can't seem to do enough evaluating with the intangibles. Looking at the tape and figuring out if a kid can play is the easy part."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.