3 simple changes to recruiting that would help coaches, prospects and CFB's competitive landscape
Last weekend, Tennessee secured a commitment from Alabama prospect Tony Mitchell. The 6-2, 175-pound defensive back/receiver prospect picked the Volunteers over scholarship offers from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi State, among others.
If you haven’t heard his name on the high school recruiting scene it’s because he’s yet to play a down at that level. Mitchell is an eighth-grade student in Alabaster, Ala. This is a product of where things are in today’s age of accelerated college football recruiting.
Colleges are going to continue to scout younger and younger players to gain an advantage while the rules allow it and coaches are being paid handsomely to do just that. Whether it’s healthy for the sport or the young prospects remains questionable. Following Mitchell’s commitment, I was inspired to share three rule changes I would like to see adopted by college football to help the sport, the coaches who recruit and the prospects being recruited by these schools.
No formal scholarship offers can be extended until a prospect has completed his junior season
This rule change would make sense for all parties involved. You certainly can’t fault college coaches for recruiting prospects younger and younger. That’s the direction that recruiting has taken them. If a coach and his staff were to take a stand against this practice on their own, they would fall woefully behind in recruiting, as many prospects remain loyal to the first major program that extends them an offer. Leonard Fournette and Dylan Moses notably received scholarship offers from Alabama and LSU while in middle school and it’s no coincidence both programs did so not long after the other. They didn’t want to fall behind the other for those incredibly talented young players.
If that option were taken away from college programs, the rush to offer prospects wouldn’t exist. It’s bad enough that middle school kids are landing offers, but nearly every high school prospect who looks the part as a freshman or sophomore is landing scholarship offers these days, well before anyone even knows how they will develop on the field, physically and in the classroom.
There’s always the chance that an offer could stunt their development. How seriously is a freshman prospect going to take his high school classwork when Nick Saban offers him a scholarship to Alabama? What happens if the player doesn’t make the grades to get in at Alabama after slacking on his studies? The Crimson Tide will move on and the prospect is left with a non-binding scholarship offer that never really meant anything in the first place.
Holding these offers until later in a prospect’s career would allow them to develop without the pressures that can accompany recruiting, particularly when a young athlete makes a hasty decision early in their high school career, only to reevaluate his recruitment later. While they might not admit it, colleges would likely be in favor of this change, too. Forcing programs to wait before they could offer a scholarship would give schools a very clear idea of a prospect’s academics, physical development and overall maturation on and off the field, enabling them to make better judgments when it comes to extending a scholarship offer.
Scholarship offers are binding, with some exceptions
If you only casually follow recruiting, you might not be aware of how many scholarships are being offered by some major college football programs, but many of the “offers” are meaningless and the numbers back that up.
Case in point: Sports Illustrated researched the total scholarships handed out between the 2012 recruiting cycle to the 2019 recruiting cycle and Tennessee led the way with 2,627 scholarship offers. That figure can’t be held entirely against Jeremy Pruitt, as he’s only been at Tennessee for around 19 months, but his program did offer more than 440 scholarships in the 2019 recruiting cycle. Those figures point toward an issue in college football recruiting: The Vols extended an average of just over 328 scholarships offers per recruiting cycle despite having only 25 spots available for signees.
Tennessee isn’t the only program handing out scholarships as freely as the folks in the wealthy neighborhoods hand out candy on Halloween. Here’s each SEC program’s total during that 8-year span:
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In the competitive landscape that is recruiting in college football, teams are forced to offer scholarships to any prospect that show potential to one day develop into an SEC player for fear of not being on a prospect’s list of official offers. So many times in recruiting, the major school that offers first is the one that secures the strongest relationship with the recruit early in the process, which also forces schools to rush decisions. Simply put, they don’t want to be miss out down the line.
If scholarships were binding, this practice would be significantly curbed. An offer should mean that a recruit has a scholarship waiting on them at the school, it shouldn’t mean the recruit has an invitation to come to campus where the coaching staff can evaluate them and see if you are worthy of signing. That’s another common practice in recruiting. Understandably, coaches want to see recruits in person before offering them, as they should, but rushing an offer just to get a prospect on campus sends the wrong message on what a scholarship offer really means.
Now, some exceptions should apply to this suggested rule. If a recruit doesn’t qualify academically, that offer should not be held against the school. I would also argue that if a prospect gets in legal trouble, that should also give schools the opportunity to rescind an offer.
One note: I would not make commitments binding in this scenario. Coaches obviously won’t appreciate the fact that verbal pledges can be revoked, but that’s part of the job already and holding 17- and 18-year-old recruits to the same standard as multimillion-dollar coaches doesn’t seem appropriate to me. College programs at this level have recruiting boards for a reason and if a prospect backs off his commitment, these schools have numerous backup options ready to explore.
Give new coaches the ability to replace defections by allowing additional scholarships to be offered
This might seem radical, but I believe it will benefit college football in two very important ways.
Many fans have begun to express apathy over the predictability of the sport in recent seasons. Having Alabama and Clemson face off annually in the College Football Playoff is the most visible evidence that the teams at the top of their respective Power 5 conferences appear to have distinct advantages over their contemporaries. The SEC and ACC aren’t the only leagues experiencing these issues as Oklahoma has won the Big 12 in 4 consecutive seasons and Ohio State has won 3 of the past 5 Big Ten titles.
In the SEC, Nick Saban and Alabama’s dominance essentially has gotten every viable contender in the league to fire its coach at least once during the Tide’s run in an attempt to play catch-up. So programs that are already behind Alabama, some drastically behind, are expected to start from scratch and build up the roster in an attempt to catch the Tide.
That’s like asking a middle-aged, out of shape man still putting on his shoes to catch an experienced marathon runner who already is well on their way to the finish line.
When a head coaching change occurs, naturally there is a level of attrition. The degree varies, but one of the most troubling turnovers in the SEC is ongoing at Arkansas. The schematic change from Bret Bielema’s program to Chad Morris’ program could not have been more drastic. As a result, the results on the field were predictably bad last season but, even worse, 20 Razorbacks entered the NCAA transfer portal this offseason. That’s nearly an entire recruiting class gone from the program.
Not only is Arkansas well behind the SEC leaders in terms of talent, but with the program’s emphasis on recruiting, playing time is on the table for the new faces Razorbacks this fall, meaning inexperience will also continue to be an issue. When you add potential depth concerns after losing 20 bodies this offseason, one could argue the current system could lead to a safety concern. No team should have to go into an SEC season with a thin roster, that’s potentially just going to open the door to more injuries or force walk-ons who shouldn’t be on the field into action.
This issue isn’t unique to Arkansas, either. Texas A&M had 9 players enter the portal this offseason heading into Jimbo Fisher’s second year, Florida has seen 8 players enter the portal under Dan Mullen and Ole Miss has lost 7 players to the portal.
I believe for the overall health of the game, during the first two seasons of a coach’s tenure at a new school, his program should be permitted to go over the 25-player scholarship limit and sign one additional player for every player who transfers. This will help programs compete quicker in many aspects, and more important, protect the health of the players in the program as they continue to attempt to climb the ultra-competitive college football ladder.