Why recruiting in college football has turned into a never-ending grind

NCAAF

Wan’Dale Robinson went from favorite son to public enemy No. 1 on Dec. 5, 2018, when he announced that after a year of being committed to Kentucky he was flipping to Nebraska. Never mind that he had his reasons, wanting to play in a more wide-open offense when, at the time, the Wildcats were uberconservative, ranking 127th out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards per game. The backlash was swift against the speedy receiver who grew up just down the road from campus in Frankfort.

Kentucky tight ends coach/recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow even caught some heat when he tweeted a half hour after Robinson’s announcement: “Good luck buddy I will be praying for you. I wish you all well.”

A handful of replies to Marrow’s post have been deleted, but a few notable comments remain:

“We don’t need him”

“He’s to[o] dam[n] small anyway”

“F— em up coach”

“At the time,” Marrow said, “it was not popular for me to support him.”

Two years after the recruiting dustup, opinions have changed. While some coaches chose to burn bridges, Robinson’s father said, the family never forgot about Marrow’s unwavering support. So when Robinson decided to leave Nebraska in January of this year and enter the transfer portal, his father said, “It was easy to pick Kentucky just off the relationship with Vince.”

And look at these two now: Marrow looks like a genius for not cutting ties, and Robinson, in turn, has silenced his critics.

It sure looked like Kentucky needed Robinson when he scored a pivotal touchdown to beat Florida at home for the first time in 35 years.

He wasn’t too small, at 5-foot-11, to catch 94 passes this season — the fourth most among Power 5 receivers. Two weeks ago, he was named to the All-SEC team.

Robinson’s triumphant homecoming underscores the current recruiting landscape — one that, thanks to the transfer portal, is never truly settled. Where a player signs his letter of intent is now more of a starting point. The process has turned into widespread free agency without the stability of long-term contracts. And while many coaches are concerned and looking for solutions to fix what they see as a broken recruiting calendar, change could be a long way off.

An ACC coach said staff are told in no uncertain terms not to unfollow recruits on social media.

“Don’t get pissed off when they commit elsewhere,” the coach said.

When Jimmy Four-Star holds up a puppy when your school’s mascot is a tiger, take a deep breath and wish him luck.

“Sometimes you get in these heated battles,” an SEC coach said. “You can easily get mad at the kid in the end, but it’s just better to always take the high road.”

“With the portal,” the coach added, “it’s even more important these days.”

Coaches never know who might come back around. For every Kenneth Walker III who chooses to transfer to Michigan State on blind faith, there are those like Robinson who have more long-standing connections to their eventual destinations.

In 2019, linebacker Henry To’o To’o signed with Tennessee and wideout Jameson Williams with Ohio State. Both players had Alabama among their final three schools, and both wound up back on the Crimson Tide’s radar this offseason. When To’o To’o hit the portal in January, he said, he and the coaching staff “kind of just picked up where we left off when I was in high school.”

To’o To’o signed with Alabama and currently leads the team in tackles (101). He was one of 10 former transfers to make the All-SEC team.

Williams, who was in the portal five days before signing with Alabama, currently ranks second among all Power 5 receivers in yards (1,445) and touchdowns (15). He was one of six transfers named to ESPN’s All-America team.

“At the end of the day,” Williams said, “they say good things always come back.”

That was certainly the case for South Carolina coach Shane Beamer early last week. Less than 36 hours before the early signing period was set to begin, Beamer made the most of his relationships at Oklahoma, where he was an assistant from 2018 to 2020, when he got a commitment from arguably the biggest name in the transfer portal, former Sooners quarterback Spencer Rattler, to go along with Rattler’s former tight end, Austin Stogner.

Signing Day, capital “S,” capital “D,” has been diminished in recent years thanks to the December early signing period, which began in 2017 and wound up supplanting the longstanding February signing day; the transfer portal, which went online a year later and removed the need for coaches’ approval to move freely; and the onetime exception, which went into effect last year and allowed players to change schools once without having to sit out a season.

Many players are transferring before they’re even eligible to leave their freshman dorms. At last check, 46.1% of athletes in the portal were either first- or second-year players.

An SEC coach said it’s no longer debatable; they have to play freshmen.

“Otherwise,” the coach said, “a bunch of guys are going to jump in the portal.”

Quinn Ewers was the top quarterback prospect in the 2022 class, but after the NCAA moved to allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, he reclassified to 2021 in order to enroll at Ohio State. In August, he signed a three-year, $1.4 million deal with GT Sports Marketing. He entered the portal earlier this month, and on Dec. 12 he announced he would be going to Texas.

“Everything is so volatile,” a Group of 5 coach said. “It’s fluid with the ability to move, a lot like free agency.”

The same coach expects All-Americans at the Group of 5 and FCS levels to transfer up in large numbers this offseason. Schools like his, he said, are having to decide whether it’s better to take a kid out of high school and spend two years developing him, or get a transfer who is already developed.

“You have to weigh the pros and cons,” the coach said.

Several Power 5 schools are already investing heavily in scouting departments, and more are expected to follow. Companies such as SportsSource Analytics have created platforms that track the transfer portal in real time, providing coaches with up-to-date statistics and game film for every prospect.

A Power 5 recruiting coordinator said to think of it like an NFL franchise that has separate pro and college scouting departments. At a program like Alabama or Ohio State, there would be a high school scouting department for more traditional recruits, and a college scouting department that scours the transfer market.

Given the current state of tampering in college football, it’s fair to question the speed with which transfers are committing. Oklahoma’s Jadon Haselwood, the former top receiver prospect in the class of 2019, was in the portal just four days before he committed to Arkansas. Mississippi State linebacker Aaron Brule, who ranked fourth on the team in tackles and second in tackles for loss, was in the portal a week before he committed to Michigan State.

The Spartans and coach Mel Tucker have shown that there might be no such thing as excess on the transfer market. Last offseason, Tucker and his staff signed 20 transfers, including 15 players from FBS programs. After going 2-5 in a pandemic-shortened 2020, Michigan State won 10 games and earned a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl.

But only time will tell whether that kind of all-in approach is sustainable.

In the meantime, many coaches are frustrated, feeling as if they’re stuck in a never-ending cycle of recruiting. An SEC staffer who works in personnel estimated that coaches are having to continually recruit 55-60% of their current roster. The staffer described a situation in which a starter left school for the NFL, and four players reached out about getting the former starter’s jersey number. Coaches couldn’t simply give it to the player with the most seniority, as they might have in the past. Instead, it went to the player they felt was most likely to leave if he didn’t get his way.

“You have to kiss their ass,” the assistant said.

It’s gotten to the point that coaches have expressed interest in moving back the early signing date from December to January. American Football Coaches Association executive director Todd Berry told ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg a week and a half ago that there have been discussions about instituting a recruiting dead period in order to allow coaches the time they need to re-recruit their own players and determine who will transfer.

“The recruiting calendar needs to change because the whole transfer portal [has] upset everything,” Berry said.

Coaches are eager for the NCAA to do something, whether that means policing tampering or restricting transfer activity to more narrow windows in the calendar.

Until that happens, they’re left to make the best out of a difficult situation.

They can throw their hands up and rant and rave, but it does nothing to change the facts on the ground. When a prospect signs elsewhere or leaves, they can’t lash out publicly.

You never know who’s watching.

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