Lower-level schools must be patient
With the spring recruiting period now under way and spring football wrapping up, I recently took some time to examine the recruiting process from a different perspective -- that of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), at my alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University of the Ohio Valley Conference.
From a national perspective, virtually every ounce of recruiting coverage is devoted to the FBS level. Take away all the glitz and glamour and many of the resources available to coaching staffs to recruit at a BCS conference school and what you are left with are some excellent coaches having to wear many different hats. Dean Hood is the new head football coach at EKU. Hood is the ideal coach to offer a unique perspective about the differences and challenges presented by recruiting and winning at the FCS level as opposed to the FBS level.
Hood came back to EKU in 2008 as head coach after serving as the defensive coordinator under Jim Grobe at Wake Forest for seven seasons. Hood had been on the coaching staff under legendary coach Roy Kidd at EKU from 1994 to 1998. So he has been on both sides of the fence and was uniquely qualified to return to the FCS level as a head coach and adapt to recruiting differences between the two divisions.
Hood got off to a good start in his inaugural season at the helm by winning the conference and making the playoffs once again.
Despite a tremendous winning history and tradition, the recruiting landscape is dramatically different at the FCS level and Hood acknowledges this.
"When I came back here, we were, of course, aware of the changes, but there are three that are unique to this level -- one is Division I transfers, two are the scholarship numbers being [partial and full] and three, administrative staffing," said Hood.
FBS teams are allowed 85 players on scholarship -- full (not partial) scholarship. This is not the case at the FCS level; teams are allowed 63 scholarship players and those scholarships can be utilized in a variety of ways and split up throughout the roster. In essence, some players may be on full scholarship and others may be on partial scholarship, i.e. tuition and meals or books, meals and housing. A number of variations can be used. However, the bottom line is that there are limited numbers compared with the FBS level, which affect depth and the kicking game. Also, the margin of error for being wrong on a prospect is reduced because if you miss on a few guys it can have more of a dramatic effect on a 63-man roster.
In a perfect world for EKU, the team would like to maintain 30 players on offense, 28 on defense, three specialists and two athletes (could be offense or defense). As far as FBS transfers are concerned, the ability to get the right guy to come in can make an impact and the mathematics of scholarships must always provide for an opportunity to fit someone in at any time, particularly in the spring and summer. Oftentimes a quarterback or defensive lineman who transfers can make a huge impact on the success of the program, especially if he has more than one year of eligibility. Players may transfer from an FBS school to an FCS school and be eligible immediately.
Just take a look at fellow OVC foes Tennessee-Martin and Jacksonville State. Martin welcomed QB Cade Thompson, a transfer from South Carolina and Jacksonville State landed QB Ryan Perrilloux, a one-time LSU signal-caller. Both were named to the OVC's all-conference team.
Perhaps the biggest difference between recruiting at the FCS and the FBS is that the recruiting calendar moves at a much slower pace.
"Yes, we are recruiting a different caliber of player, but in many ways we get much more time to do it without the pressure of feeling like we have to be ready to offer in the spring," says Hood. "Simply put, we can actually evaluate senior tape here and that would never have happened at Wake with how the recruiting calendar has become so accelerated recently."
The time to evaluate and study players in the spring and fall can be invaluable in making certain that a coach is making the right decisions on kids.
If you were to take a general recruiting calendar (not specific to any one program) for most BCS-level schools it would likely look something like this:
• December through late January: Evaluation of the next class begins, decisions on potential early winter/spring offers are being determined.
• Mid-January through mid-February: Evaluation continues, junior days, invite prospects for basketball game, evaluation continues shortly after signing day on prior class.
• March through April: Evaluations continue, early offers determined, spring football begins, unofficial visits begin to take place, unofficial visits to spring game for current class and next. Get on the road with offers in hand if certain prospects haven't been offered already.
• Summer months: On-campus camps, unofficial visits, offers and evaluations continue.
• Fall: Official visits begin, late offers (if any), get prospects on campus for game.
Now, if you were to look at a general calendar for an FCS program, the differences would be dramatic:
• December signing day (current class): Official visits continue from the fall, securing commitments from the fall through signing day.
• Mid-February to mid-April (next class): Evaluation process begins to plan spring recruiting, rarely with spring offers in mind. Spring football begins.
• May through early August: Off the road from spring evaluation, more film in hand, evaluation continues through summer to determine offering process in late July/August and after. On-campus camps hopeful prospects will attend.
• Late August through December: Offers begin to be extended, official visits commence, evaluation process continues on senior film to make many final determinations for offers.
As you can see, programs like EKU at the FCS level are not only dealing with a different timetable, but also a different caliber of prospect. The recruitment of that prospect generally will continue through December and January, leading up to signing day before even getting a commitment in some cases, for a couple of reasons.
The first of those reasons is that FCS recruits might approach recruiting with a different mindset than that of a blue-chipper. It can be somewhat of a waiting game for FCS schools; many mid-major programs at the FBS level are also in on many of the same prospects. Naturally, the thought process of prospects who are being recruited by FBS-level teams is to wait as long as they can for that one offer they desire before making a decision on either a non-BCS school or an FCS school. The waiting period can last awhile for a prospect who feels he is capable of playing at the FBS level. This can take an FCS program well into late January before it secures a commitment.
The numbers game can also make things difficult for a prospect. A prospect may wait too long when he has an offer from two or three non-BCS schools and does not pull the trigger. Those schools, at some point, get filled up at a position, meaning the prospect's only options are FCS programs. For this reason, FCS schools need to stay on top of these types of kids. They can fall into a program's lap late if it has done a good job of recruiting them throughout the process.
As I began to study the coaching staffs and administrative staffs of schools like EKU and others at the FCS level, I began to see a glaring discrepancy in administrative staffing between schools at the FBS and FCS level. For example, while at Wake Forest, the staff had the luxury of administrative assistants for football operations, recruiting and player development, and an assortment of liaisons to facilitate administrative duties and communication between various departments. FCS schools have a coaching staff of 11, but no such administrative help within the staff or football program.
At EKU Dane Damron is the tight ends coach. Aside from being responsible for coaching his position (which includes special teams), recruiting his area, film evaluation and other coaching duties, he is also responsible for the following: equipment, financial aid and other scholarships, facilities, and the football team's work study and internship programs.
FCS staff coaches are responsible for other such areas as compliance, travel, team functions, clinics, camps, community service and the list goes on and on. You when you think a coach is just a coach, think again. At this level, coaches have to wear many hats because of the budget situation.
These types of football operation/recruiting assistants at the BCS level are responsible for early recruiting lists, film gathering, early tape study among various other duties that allow for the position coaches to focus squarely on the task at hand or current recruiting class or X's and O's prior to having to start prepping the next class. These assistants are also responsible along with the administration for not only Coach Damron's auxiliary duties listed above, but many others that never reach the desk of a coach in many instances at the BCS level.
Oftentimes, for fans, it can be easy to turn on the television Saturday afternoon to watch college football and not really know what takes place throughout the week to get a team in position to win. It can be even more difficult to gauge what takes place during the offseason or during the entire calendar year when coaches aren't actually on the field coaching. At the FCS level, there is truly an appreciation for some of the hurdles and challenges that can be faced when many resources are not available.
Keep in mind that while it is possible to get rich nowadays at a BCS school or even in some mid-major jobs, this is not going to be the case for others at lower divisions. Coaching isn't easy; in fact it can be downright grueling. The rigors of the profession can force many to move into another line of work. However, there is no better profession in terms of competition in the ultimate team game.
Tom Luginbill is the National Recruiting Director for ESPN's Scouts Inc.
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