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Football Recruiting Scene Changing Fast
Area colleges know they have to get to prospective players first; schools ‘want to defend turf’.
BROOKINGS - Encircled by campers hailing from the areas that he recruited, South Dakota State football assistant Luke Meadows gave a word of caution before dismissal: Don’t panic if you don’t get a scholarship offer today.
That’s where things are right now in the Football Championship Subdivision. Upcoming juniors and seniors in the Upper Midwest expect to get an offer either during an elite camp - which is against NCAA rules - or immediately afterward.
Chris Cook, for example, is a standout linebacker at Roosevelt High School. He’ll attend individual camps at each of the four Division I schools in the Dakotas and has drawn interest from all of them. But he admits that not having any offers yet is a bit disconcerting.
“You’ve got to have a positive attitude,” he said. “Hopefully, you’ll get something.”
The pace of the football recruiting process in this region began to speed up in 2004 when SDSU and North Dakota State jumped to the FCS, a move later mirrored by the University of South Dakota and the University of North Dakota. But it’s accelerated considerably in the past two years.
Most believe that the Bison brought the trend to this region. They’re coached by former Nebraska defensive coordinator Craig Bohl and major-conference clubs such as the Huskers have long operated on a different clock.
NDSU already has one verbal commitment for 2011 - some seven months before National Signing Day - with roughly 35 scholarship offers on the table, according to recruiting coordinator Tim Polasek.
That’s more players than the Bison will sign - and they’re not done looking. What’s more, Polasek believes they’re not even the most aggressive in the Missouri Valley Football Conference when it comes to early tenders.
“The end result of this is you better have young ball coaches and you better have good recruiters,” he said. “I’m talking about bulldogs that can go out and stay in the game … You better be working on juniors six months earlier and you better be working on sophomores. It comes down to you better have the most correspondence with these kids when you can - first.”
That approach has forced the hand of the South Dakota schools, according to USD coach Ed Meierkort, “because you want to defend your turf.” NDSU will have at least five South Dakotans on its roster this fall.
To that end, USD has extended approximately 20 scholarship offers for 2011, a number that would be higher if not for a relatively small graduating class. Meierkort estimates that roughly half the players that end up signing with the Coyotes in February will have been offered scholarships by mid-summer.
That puts a tremendous emphasis on summer camps and doesn’t leave much room for late bloomers.
“I’ve seen teams take kids early and fill up with kids and they could actually get better players later on,” said Meierkort, who cut his teeth as a head coach at the D-III level. “I think sometimes we try to emulate the BCS schools a little too much. We’re sandwiched between a Division II recruit and Division I-A recruiting. We have to dabble in both types of athletes.”
No school seems to be more caught in the middle than SDSU.
Despite challenges in terms of facilities and staff, last fall the Jackrabbits became the first college from the Dakotas to qualify for the FCS playoffs, going 8-4 and finishing at No. 11 in the national polls.
They did that with players who were recruited at a different pace. Early offers from SDSU have been rare, reserved for slam-dunk prospects such as Sioux City running back Brandon Wegher - he ended up seeing considerable time at the University of Iowa as a true freshman.
Generally, the vast majority of the Jacks’ tenders have been made in December during official campus visits. The theory is that a two-day stay while school is in session gives coaches and current players an opportunity to get to know a recruit, and vice versa.
Although impossible to gage, the staff has long sold the idea that character counts, attributing a fair chunk of their recent success to the notion.
“That’s why it’s awkward for us, because we want to get to know a young man,” Stiegelmeier said of the changing process. “When you look at a transcript and watch film, you don’t know much about them. You don’t know how he handles the tough things in his life. You don’t know what his major is. It becomes like you’re buying a steer to fatten up. You really don’t care.”
Said Polasek: “SDSU - they’re not going to react to what other people are doing.”
Except that they are, to a degree.
The Jacks decided after the last signing day to pick up the pace without skipping steps. In theory, they’ll run through the same checks, still ask the “10 tough questions” that Stiegelmeier has long held dear, just in less time. In many cases, the summer camp - like the one held last week - will take the place of the official visit, serve as an opportunity for prospects and parents to meet the staff, run through drills and see the camps.
The result: SDSU has made six offers or twice as many at this time last year, if well still behind the rest of the region.
“We want to have our choice - we don’t want to get what’s left,” said Stiegelmeier, whose program won more games in the 2000s than in any other decade. “If we’re going to be bullheaded and not accelerate the pace, then we’re not going to have our choice. We won’t have a decision to make on some kids because they’ll be forced into making some decisions before our process is complete.”
In other words, the pace of football recruiting in this region has changed for the kids and the coaches, like it or not.
“I recognize, and our staff recognizes, that this is the way of the world - you can call it a fast-food approach, if you want,” Stiegelmeier said. “The family meal is a rare thing and the whole strung-out recruiting process is a rare concept now. We’re still going to do our due diligence in trying to figure out who fits at South Dakota State. We’re not going to hard sell guys. We’re not going to offer eight linebackers four spots. That’s what all this leads to. We’ll get who we need - a young man we think fits perfectly.”
The new reality: The timetable for football recruiting in the region has accelerated dramatically in the past two years for the Division I schools in the Dakotas. Here’s a ballpark idea of how many scholarship offers have been extended by each with seven months left until signing day:
North Dakota State: 35
University of North Dakota: 21
University of South Dakota: 20
South Dakota State: 6
Football Recruiting Scene Changing Fast
By Terry Vandrovec, The Argus Leader (SD)