Each year, there are over one million kids who participate in high-school football. According to the NCAA, only 2.9% of those players earn the chance to continue their careers at the Division I level. The competition for these spots is intense, but perhaps just as intense is each program’s process in deciding which prospects to pursue and which to pass on. This spring, the process has grown even more complicated as COVID-19 has swept the nation, putting much of the country on lockdown.
At Marist College, this time is especially vital in the recruiting process. While top programs like Alabama and Ohio State are able to offer scholarships to prospective student-athletes, the Marist football program cannot. Such is life being a member of the Pioneer Football League, one of two Division I football conferences that does not allow its members schools to offer student-athletes scholarships. As a result, the Red Fox coaching staff looks at the spring evaluation period as their time to develop relationships with players that go beyond the football field, convincing prospects to leave potential scholarships by the wayside to call Poughkeepsie home for the next four years. But this year, the staff has been forced off the road and onto the various channels of social media to evaluate prospects and foster these relationships to filling out the Red Fox recruiting class of 2021.
The ongoing pandemic has affected recruiting more than just taking the coaching staff off the recruiting trail. The evaluation period, the first step for coaches, was put on momentary pause when Marist was closed for the year in early March. In a usual year, the coaches would watch the film of recruits together, using groupthink to rate their prospects on a “A-F” scale by position. After the initial shock of no longer being able to be in the office wore off, the coaches regrouped to begin the evaluation period on Zoom. According to Mike Kagafas, who works with the Red Fox linebackers and recruits from the state of Ohio, the evaluation period has changed in small but vital ways.
“We still evaluate certain positions on certain days; for example, defensive line on Monday, but now the film is looked at by individual coaches and we individually put the recruits grade into a spreadsheet that is eventually averaged to gain the prospect’s grade,” Kagafas said. He emphasized that the pandemic has not only forced the staff to make evaluations of players on their own but that the recruiting timeline itself has been pushed ahead due to the whole staff focusing more effort on recruiting. “Once we get our final grades in and finalized, the area recruiting coaches can start offering roster sports to our A+ and A players, something that wouldn’t ordinarily be done until we are on the recruiting trail and meeting these prospects in-person,” he said.
While the beginning of May typically marks the time the Marist College football coaching staff would be making their annual trips to their respective recruiting territories, this year they have been forced to connect virtually. The biggest obstacle of being the inability to visit high schools is that recruiting and evaluating a player goes beyond just what a recruit can do on film. Coaches are also looking at classroom and character attributes based on recommendations from the prospect’s high school coach and teachers, something that is difficult to do amidst Covid-19. “As I mentioned previously, the beginning of May is when we would usually offer our top recruits but this year that has already been done,” mentioned Kagafas. “The struggle is not being able to confirm certain characteristics about a kid in-person. How tall is he really? Can he handle himself in social settings? These are all questions we have to answer before we feel comfortable offering a kid.”
Now the coaching staff has turned to various methods to obtain the information they are looking for. Of course, Twitter and other forms of social media lead the way in terms of convenience, but many coaches, including Kagafas, rely on a mix between social media and personal relationships with the prospective recruit and faculty members within the recruit’s school.
“During this period of uncertainty the biggest advantage is having someone within the school you can trust. It can be a coach, teacher or janitor but to have someone who can tell you about a kid and his daily habits is invaluable,” he said. “The other aspect that is emphasized during the pandemic is the relationship with the recruit. We can’t talk face to face so I have spent a considerable amount more time exchanging DMs on Twitter and time on the phone. This is critical in developing a strong enough relationship to have a recruit feel comfortable about spending the next four years at Marist.”
While the Marist coaching staff has appeared to navigate the initial challenges that this pandemic has thrown at them, more are on the way. The next challenge is the summer recruitment period and the possibility that they will be unable to get recruits and their families to Poughkeepsie on unofficial visits to show off the campus.
“We currently have two plans for this summer,” Kagafas said. “The first would be business as usual if the lockdown is lifted. Meanwhile, if that’s not possible, we are working on developing virtual tours of the McCann Center as well as the various dorms and other hot spots on campus.” By doing this, the staff hopes to give families a similar sense of familiarity that they would have during a typical unofficial visit in the summer.
While the beginning of the recruitment period has been anything but normal it appears the coaching staff at Marist has been able to adapt and put themselves in a good position to secure a normal-sized recruiting class of around thirty student-athletes. However, it will take anywhere from three to five years to tell if the pandemic impacted the type of student-athletes Marist recruited, both on the field and in the classroom and community.