Commentary

Junior days accelerate recruiting

Originally Published: February 10, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

In Alabama, home of the BCS champion, a state law regulating commerce on Sunday exempts icehouses.

In Oregon, home of the Rose Bowl champion, a child may not be carried on the running board of a car.

And in those two states and all the others, college football recruiting may not begin in earnest until the prospect's senior year of high school.

Dumblaws.com is devoted to collecting obsolete civic laws, the rules that remain in force even as our daily life has left them behind. The NCAA Manual, the law book of college football, is chock full of recruiting rules that coaches left behind long ago.

In Iowa, a man with a mustache may not kiss a woman in public.

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Stephen Mally/Icon SMINothing has changed during his years coaching in the Big Ten as much as the pace of recruiting, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz says.

"I was at Iowa nine years [as an assistant] and gone nine years," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said. "When I came back [as head coach] in '99, the thing that was as different as anything was recruiting.

"In the last 13 years," said Ferentz, now the dean of Big Ten coaches, "nothing has changed as much as the pace of recruiting. It continues to really accelerate. I don't see it ending."

Junior days are critical to the recruiting efforts of FBS teams in the modern era. They long ago stopped being a loophole through which coaches squeeze to get a head start on their competition.

But coaches aren't just having an open house for juniors. Coaches know whom to invite. In other words, if junior days are standard operating procedure, you know good and well that sophomores are being vetted, analyzed, scrutinized and eyeballed, too.

"Making mistakes earlier," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said from Massachusetts, where, by law, all men must carry a rifle to church on Sunday. "You do a lot of that FBI work, getting as much information as you possibly can. … We know the guys. We have a pretty good idea of who we want to look at."

Young players are identified at the coaches' summer camps. They are recommended by high school coaches in the area. How early can a coach go back and look? What is the dividing line? What coach can look at a 16-year-old sophomore and discern the college linebacker inside? Ferentz said it is rare to see a sophomore, much less a freshman, who shows the maturity and ability to merit a scholarship.

"There is a point of no return," Spaziani said. "Freshmen aren't usual. But we are all about projection and development. You've got to project that a kid will weigh 290 pounds. He might be 165, 180. Manny Asprilla, one of our local kids, is already a little bit bigger."

Asprilla, a 5-foot-10 cornerback from Everett, Mass., was listed as 160 pounds as a senior in high school. He weighs 175 now, after he played in eight games -- and started the final four -- in 2011.

At Stanford, it is imperative to identify a prospect as early as possible for reasons that have nothing to do with football. The earlier the Cardinal coaches can get a prospect's transcript to the university admissions office, the better they can identify which prospects are on the right academic track to be approved.

"We talk to the coach, get the guidance counselor on the phone," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "Is [the prospect] going to test well? Is he up to the challenge of taking AP classes? The counselors will know whether the prospect really has a chance."

Stanford doesn't wait for juniors to finish their seasons to begin the evaluation. Shaw and his staff ask that a prospect send video of the first four games of his junior year.

"Junior film is so important," Shaw said. "Sometimes they stick out. Sometimes it takes the entire junior year for kids to develop and their game to come around."

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireStanford's David Shaw wants an early look at a prospective athlete's academic record.

All of this is happening everywhere but between the covers of the NCAA Manual, which states that coaches may initiate limited contact with juniors via email. Junior days might be ubiquitous, but they are not gratis. Unlike the "official visits" of senior season, these prospects must pay their own way to campus whenever they visit, even for a junior day.

That makes them regional in nature. "Midwestern kids who can drive in," Ferentz said. "We know this area a little better." The same goes for Spaziani at Boston College, where nearly two-thirds of the roster went to high school within driving distance of campus.

Stanford, in California, isn't as fortunate. Shaw says sophomores and juniors arrive on campus, anyway. Six signees earlier this month came to junior day last year. As beneficial as that proved to be, Shaw sees a way to make it better and make the NCAA Manual relevant again, too -- allow a prospect to make two of his "official visits" in the spring of his junior year.

"You can get questions answered without spending so much money," Shaw said. "We have families who make five or six unofficial visits. I can't imagine how much money they spend. … It would help people a lot. We're a national recruiter. It would help if kids could come see us and decide if they are willing to do what they need to do to get in here."

In California, a woman may not drive wearing a housecoat. And a Stanford coach will go on evaluating sophomores and recruiting juniors, even as the NCAA Manual includes regulations on evaluating juniors and recruiting seniors.

The latter, Spaziani said, is "baby-sitting" and nothing more.

An NCAA task force is reworking the manual as we speak to weed out the cumbersome and obsolete. Perhaps when the task force completes its work, recruiting will be simplified.

On the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2011, Iowa held a junior day for approximately 60 prospects.

"We were half to two-thirds done with the [2011] class," Ferentz said. "I got 60 juniors there. And I'm recruiting two or three kids who were eligible for the [NFL] draft to stay. I got two or three balls in the air, and I'm [saying to] the coaches on my staff, 'What the hell is going on?'"

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com