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Michigan, Michigan State adjust to new realities in the football recruiting game

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

So much in the sporting world is in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic, but college football recruiting continues as staffs find creative ways to stay in touch with high school recruits.

This is typically when college football teams would be in the midst of spring practice, and an important time in recruiting because so many high school players visit practices across the country. Those visits aren’t happening now that universities and spring athletics and practices have been shut down.

Even in the COVID-19 era of social distancing, the recruitment of West Bloomfield running back Donovan Edwards continues.

Coaches and prospects can communicate via text, email, or direct messaging on social media, and players can call coaches. The important evaluation period allowing coaches to travel for in-person visits begins April 15 and continues through May 31, but it is uncertain that will happen.

“They’re prepping in case they can (travel),” said Allen Trieu, who covers Midwest Recruit for 247Sports, “but nobody’s assuming that right now based on everything.”

If coaching staffs can’t evaluate players in the spring and if their summer camps — also where evaluations are made — are canceled, it will launch a domino effect in recruiting that will last into the football season and, perhaps, change the focus from the early signing period in December to the more traditional signing period in early February.

“Some of these kids, maybe they don’t get to get on campus until the fall," Trieu said. "If you are losing spring evaluation and you’re possibly losing summer camps, schools aren’t going to get to evaluate the next wave of kids.

“If you’re a top-end national guy, they’re already convinced they want you. But for that next group of kids that maybe traditionally would come to a camp or see if coaches would watch them run track or something and get an offer that way, coaches aren’t going to get to those guys. It might take into the fall to be able to for them to be able to see those guys, and that’s going to push that back. Everything might shift forward a couple months.”

More: Trieu: New Jersey DE Dominick Giudice 'fired up' to join Wolverines

And if that is the case, and the football season goes on as scheduled, there will be an uptick in the number of official visits made, which makes it tougher on coaches who have to prepare for games and, presumably, a larger number of recruits on campus during a game weekend.

“In-season visits, those are going to be probably more than I’ve ever done and probably more than Michigan has ever done,” said Matt Dudek, Michigan’s director of recruiting. “It’s going to be a chaotic time.”

Changing seasons

The recruiting challenges are greater at Michigan State with the late hiring of Mel Tucker from Colorado and his staff. The Spartans were able to host some unofficial visits before the school closures, but the way Geoff Martzen, Tucker’s Chief of Staff who handles recruiting, sees it, there likely will be a lot more tape evaluation and in-season visits.

“We’re not typically a fall (official visit) school, we weren’t at (Colorado), but we will have to be this year, there’s no other choice assuming these summer visits get wiped out, which I’m under the assumption that they probably will,” Martzen said. “Typically, you get a spring eval, you get camp eval in there, but we’re going to be very reliant on the tape this year, which everybody is, so it’s not a disadvantage to anybody.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be more misses than typical this cycle because of that, but you’ve just got to do a really good job with the tape eval. It’s a lot harder to tell if a kid can play just by watching a 30-play highlight tape and a game cut or something like that as opposed to going and watching him practice in the spring or watching whatever it is. Those are opportunities we may miss to see a kid live.”

But recruiting can’t stop and hasn’t stopped. West Bloomfield High coach Ron Bellamy said his running back, Donovan Edwards, one of the nation's top recruits at his position, had an itinerary of trips this spring. He and Bellamy were able to take a two-day visit to Ohio State in March, and that was it. Edwards was scheduled to attend Michigan’s spring practice March 21 and had a flight to Florida to visit Florida State and Florida.

Edwards continues to hear from coaches, though.

More: Trieu: Michigan State makes pitch to emerging East Lansing lineman Ethan Boyd

“Coaches are getting creative,” Bellamy said. “Some have showed him film from their computer, just breaking down film with him and showing him different things they do. Some coaches play video games like Madden online. They’re like, ‘Hey, here’s my online name,’ and some of the kids find them online and they play video games.”

Michigan had 100 visits scheduled during spring practice and Dudek was expecting to add to that total. Instead, they're approaching this unique situation with a not-one-size-fits-all approach toward recruits.

“The response we’re getting from the kids in what we’re doing, they are exceptionally excited,” Dudek said. “We recruit individually, personally and you have that connection to what we’re doing. We customize every single visit. There’s no visit that’s the same. Most have the same elements but we customize it from start to finish. And that’s no different from our phone calls and things we’re trying to do.”

'Ton of time to film'

Martzen said this is a new challenge in recruiting, but everyone has to deal with it.

“You’ve got to come up with new creative ways to interact with people and get your brand out, especially when you’re just starting to build your brand,” Martzen said. “I don’t want to say it’s leveled the playing field for us in any way, but it’s made it a little bit to where we’re in the same situations as other people. It’s the same for everyone, because they can’t go anywhere. Granted, that hurts you if kids already have been up to Ann Arbor three times and been with (Jim) Harbaugh and his crew. Maybe they won’t be able to get with our staff before even their season starts, nobody really knows, but we’re just trying to figure out ways that we can stay engaged.”

Michigan added two commitments Wednesday to the 2021 class and now has four. Ohio State has 14 and Wisconsin nine. 

“I think some kids are like, ‘Man, if I don’t jump on this now, these spots may  fill up,’” Bellamy said. “Traditionally, kids commit in May and June when they’re allowed to go on official trips, and some of those kids are committing. now. It could be a testament to how aggressive certain schools are in their recruiting, but (the COVID-19 virus) has changed the game.”

Trieu was upbeat when asked about how Michigan and Michigan State are recruiting.

“From the standpoint of Michigan, I think you feel pretty good,” Trieu said. “They had a lot of guys visit for basketball games, they got out on the road a lot in January, a lot of offers went out in January, so you’ve already established connections with those kids. They did a good job of getting some out-of-towner-type kids up for games during the fall, so I don’t think they’re super behind.”

Tucker was hired Feb. 12 at Michigan State, a difficult time in the schedule not only for preparing a team for what was expected to be spring practice but also to get out front in recruiting.

“I think Michigan State’s coaches are doing a good job of doing what they can right now, but man is that a kick in the pants when you just take over and you’re trying to meet all these recruits and you don’t get spring recruiting, and you’re trying to install new systems and you don’t get spring ball,” Trieu said. “It’s unbelievable. They did a nice job before this thing hit, they had a couple days and got a bunch of kids on campus right away. Without that it would have hurt them more, but they did a good job of that and they’re extending a lot of offers and they’re talking to a lot of kids."

That’s why evaluating film of high school prospects has been a priority at MSU.

“We’ve actually been able to dedicate a ton of time to film eval and getting those offers out, and that’s why you’ve seen a waterfall of offers from us,” Martzen said. “We know our primary eval tactic has to be on film now. We can’t wait to see a kid in spring ball, we can’t wait to see a kid in summer camp, because we don’t know if those are going to happen.

“Now, if the tape checks out, we can offer a kid. There’s not many more boxes to check, because those opportunities might be there. So we’re able to catch up in a sense in that, all right he checks that box, he checks that box, now we can offer them. And I think we are getting pretty close to what our offer ratio needs to be to get to the 25 signees.”

Coaches don’t know if they’ll be able to travel on April 15, but they seem doubtful. They don’t know about summer high school camps or even when the schedules for the current teams will resume. All they know is they must make this work.

“It’s caused us to adapt all of our recruiting practices and philosophies,” Dudek said of the changes because of the coronavirus. “We’ve prepared for the worst-case scenarios and we’ll adjust as more information comes from the NCAA.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter @chengelis