When Jake Garcia, the 18th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2021, found out California postponed high school football to the spring, he knew he wouldn’t get the chance to play unless he took action.
As a quarterback at La Habra High School in La Habra, California, Garcia has yet to play a full season of high school football. He went to Long Beach Poly, where he backed up current Ole Miss QB Matt Corral, then transferred to Narbonne High School, where he had to sit out five games for transferring. Last season, at La Habra, his team was disqualified from the playoffs and didn’t get to finish the entire season.
He’s enrolling in January at USC, the school he has been committed to since September 2019, meaning he won’t stick around to play in his high school’s spring season. Realizing he wouldn’t be able to play in the spring and wanting to play an entire season, Garcia decided to transfer — again — to Valdosta High School in Valdosta, Georgia.
“I’ve been thinking about it since I heard they weren’t going to have football in California,” Garcia said. “I wasn’t thinking about going all the way to Georgia — I was thinking about Arizona or Nevada — but they shut those states down. Georgia came about because I have some family in Atlanta and they have mentioned Valdosta to me.”
Garcia spoke with USC’s coaching staff about his decision to leave the state and received their blessing. College coaches understand that in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, some prospects are going to have to make tough decisions.
“I could stay home and play in January at La Habra, where I’m at, but I want to get to [USC] early,” Garcia said. “I want to leave the second semester and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I were staying in January. I want to take the opportunity to go out east, play some ball and then enroll in January.”
Garcia’s decision is one many high school football prospects need to make given how COVID-19 has impacted the recruiting process.
Five-star defensive end Korey Foreman and a handful of other elite prospects from California said they will stay home and train on their own. The No. 1-ranked prospect overall, defensive end Jack Sawyer, said he will forgo his senior season and train for early enrollment at Ohio State. His future teammate, running back TreVeyon Henderson, lives in Virginia, which also postponed its football season.
Henderson thought about going to another school, but decided it would be too much like another recruiting process to go through. The top-ranked running back has been a Buckeyes commit since March and said he will skip his senior season in the spring, but won’t be moving to another state to try to play.
“I definitely talked to Coach [Tony] Alford a lot, I told him I was just going to stay here and train because transferring to another school would be too much,” said Henderson, who has been working with a track coach to improve his speed and has been doing individual workouts independently to be ready come January. “So I thought it would be smarter to take a season off, especially for my position where you take all those hits. So I’ll come in ready for the season, well prepared and healthy.”
With high school and college seasons getting postponed, the recruiting dead period extended and an overall lack of knowledge about what will happen with scholarship allotments in the future, recruits and coaches are left with a lot of questions.
“Where do I start?” a Power 5 player personnel director said. “There is so much that doesn’t have an answer still.”
Reclassifying to the 2020 class
As more and more states decide to move football to the spring, some recruits are looking for other options beyond Garcia and Henderson’s choices.
Because the seasons are being moved and many prospects prepare academically to enroll early in college, some recruits have the option to graduate from their current high school and reclassify back to the 2020 class. North Carolina commit Tony Grimes, a five-star cornerback from Virginia who was able to enroll at North Carolina, in August and is now officially part of the Tar Heels football program.
Malcolm Johnson Jr., an ESPN 300 wide receiver from Virginia, committed to Auburn on Aug. 14, but announced he, too, will reclassify and enroll at Auburn in this month. ESPN 300 defensive back Kamar Wilcoxson recently announced he will also reclassify and enroll at Florida in a few weeks.
Not every prospect has that option, though, and won’t be far enough ahead academically to make that happen. For a few prospects, though, they are getting an even earlier jump start on their college career.
A created dead period has been extended
Since all three of those prospects were committed, they decided it was in their best interest to get to college as soon as possible. Part of that decision came from the fact that the NCAA Division I Council implemented a recruiting dead period that started on March 13, initially set up to go through April 15. It has been extended ever since, currently set to run through Sept. 30.
In a dead period, coaches are allowed to communicate with recruits, but there is no in-person visits. The 2021 class hasn’t had a chance to take any official visits in the spring, and it appears likely prospects won’t get to take those officials during the fall, either.
“I can’t see them allowing visits until January,” an anonymous assistant coach said.
The lack of visits has been difficult for both sides, as many schools use spring official visits and unofficial visits throughout the offseason as big recruiting tools. LSU is a school that likes to have recruits take unofficials in the spring, then bring in official visitors during the season to experience the full game atmosphere in Death Valley.
“I’m still kind of confused, honestly. I’m just still looking to see what they’re going to do with the scholarships, eligibility and the early signing date. I’m just watching, waiting and analyzing what they’re doing.”
Ohio State commit TreVeyon Henderson
The Tigers have found success in this 2021 class, ranked No. 6 overall, but most programs are ahead in the recruiting cycles and bringing in underclassmen to make sure they’re staying on track continue that success into the next class.
Not having the ability to bring those underclassmen on campus could have an impact on what the entire recruiting cycle looks like for the 2022 recruits.
That has posed quite a few challenges for coaches, who have adapted new ways to build relationships and talk to recruits and their parents. Zoom video calls have been integral for coaches, along with virtual visits and any other creative ways to help recruits build that relationship and trust.
“We try to stay in touch the best we can. This Zoom is a great medium for that to keep building those relationship and talk things through,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “The good news is a lot of them have been on our campus, so they know about us. We just haven’t been able to spend much time with them over the last six months. It’s been a long time.”
Some prospects haven’t had much trouble because they had already visited some of their favorite schools before the dead period started, but there are still recruits who haven’t taken as many visits as they would like.
ESPN 300 offensive lineman Rocco Spindler recently committed to Notre Dame, but only a few months ago, Spindler was holding out hope that he could eventually visit some schools in his top list. He postponed his original decision date to buy some time, but after seeing the dead period wasn’t going anywhere, he announced his commitment to the Irish.
With this current dead period disrupting so much of the calendar, one Power 5 director of player personnel thinks there will need to be adjustments made to the calendar into next year.
What happens to the early signing period?
Without visits, some coaches have wondered if there is a need to alter the signing dates as well as the calendar — if the early signing period in December should be changed, or if there should be any alterations to the February signing period as well.
The thought process behind changing any of the signing dates is to give recruits more time to make a decision. Not everyone thinks the early signing period should be altered, though, as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly notes it’s an optional signing day and doesn’t mean recruits have to sign during that time.
“I think the option should still be out there for those that are sure about their decisions,” Kelly said. “You leave that out there for them because you don’t know if the campuses are going to open up at all, so it doesn’t make much sense to pull that off the table if somebody’s certain of their decision.”
If the early signing period is not altered, a question that remains to be answered is whether a high number of prospects still sign in December as they have in the past few years. Nearly 80% of FBS recruits have signed in the early signing period since it was established in 2017.
With so much uncertainty, it could sway more prospects to jump in and sign early to hold their spot, or it could cause anxiety that will lead to prospects waiting until February. Either way, many coaches believe the structure of the signing periods should stay the same.
The National Letter of Intent group that would make the decision to change the early signing and the group has not yet met to discuss any options that might take place.
“I think the frustrating thing for the recruits is that they haven’t been able to visit here in a long, long time. It’s been dead here for months and it’s almost going to be a calendar year,” Day said. “So that’s a challenge, but I don’t think you can change the recruiting calendar, I don’t think you can change the signing day. I think it has to be what it is so these guys can come in mid-year.”
How many scholarships will be available for mid-year enrollees?
Not changing the recruiting calendar is one thing because prospects still have options on when to sign. But more and more recruits are enrolling at their college of choice in January to jump start their college career.
To do that, however, the program must stay under the 85-scholarship limit. In a typical season, college teams can subtract the graduating seniors and any players leaving for the NFL draft from that 85 total to give them the number of mid-year enrollees they are able to bring in.
Some conferences have decided to postpone seasons until the spring, and while others are still trying to push forward, the Division I Council recently recommended the Board of Directors provide eligibility assistance under these circumstances.
The recommendation says any student-athlete who opts out of future participation or has a season cut short due to COVID-19 should get an extension of their five-year period of eligibility. It additionally says the student-athlete should get an additional season of competition if they participate in 50% or less of the maximum number of competitions allowed.
The issue of potentially having the entire team still on the roster if a program plays a spring season, or having seniors receive another year of eligibility, is one big topic that needs to be answered, according to Kelly.
“If you’re committed to 10 mid-years and your seniors want to come back and they’re invited back, how do we manage the roster?” Kelly said. “Let’s say I had 10 spots for mid-years, but those 10 seniors want to come back. How are we going to manage the roster, because we would be theoretically at 95 [scholarships]. So is that up to each institution to decide whether they’re going to fund those 10 scholarships, are you able to carry 95?
“If there is a spring season, you just have to designate who the 85 on your roster are that are eligible.”
Recruits and their parents are paying attention as well. With prospects wanting to enroll in January, they don’t yet know if there will be room for them to come in.
The school funding extra scholarships would be costly for many programs who are already anticipating drastic losses in revenue from the pandemic. The NCAA is supposed to provide some of those answers, and they could come as soon as Thursday, but for now many are left in the dark.
Zakee Wheatley has a son, Zakee, who is committed to Penn State. Nittany Lions coach James Franklin held a call with some of the parents of committed prospects to answer any questions he could, but one question he couldn’t answer was if there will be room for mid-year enrollees or how the NCAA will adapt the ruling to allow for more scholarships on the roster.
“They said the NCAA is meeting and they’re hoping to have a better understanding soon,” the elder Wheatley said. “They talked about mid-years being limited, said to stay optimistic, continue working hard and they believe the NCAA will work something out so there will be no issues with the commitments they have and being able to honor them.”
The other question that has come up with this situation is whether or not prospects enrolling in January would be eligible to play if a school plays a spring season. There is no clarification on that yet, because as it stands, in a normal season, prospects who enroll in January are able to practice with their team if that program makes it to a bowl game.
The recruits, however, are not allowed to play in the bowl game. Does that stay the same for a spring season that it is technically still the 2020 season? If they’re able to play in the spring would that count for one year of eligibility and another year in the fall, spending two years of eligibility in one calendar year?
No one knows the answer yet.
“I think there’s some excitement about the possibility of playing two seasons in one year. I think that’s a really exciting thing for them to consider,” Day said. “And I’m going to fight really, really hard so that if I’m a mid-year guy coming in and we do play in January, that they have the opportunity to play in January and then also in the fall, but only count for one year of eligibility because it’s only playing in one calendar year. I think that’s really exciting for them and a possibility that really interests them.”
That option isn’t on the table yet, but it brings up many factors to consider. If prospects would be ready to play immediately, if they could contribute enough to warrant them to play and if they would spend two years of eligibility in one calendar year, how would that impact the future of roster management down the road.
Coaches, recruits and parents are all waiting for answers on what happens next with the recruiting process, if it will impact them and what options they have going forward in their recruitment and potentially with their early enrollment.
“I’m still kind of confused, honestly,” Henderson said. “I’m just still looking to see what they’re going to do with the scholarships, eligibility and the early signing date. I’m just watching, waiting and analyzing what they’re doing.”