Timing is everything with offers
How programs wrestle between getting evals while also making prospects feel wanted
You'll never hear a college football prospect say patience is a virtue.
In the constantly accelerating recruiting world, prospects want their scholarship offers yesterday. These days, they say simply being the first to offer is reason enough to consider a school and not offering early is a sign of disrespect.
Case in point: four-star tailback William Mahone. The Youngstown (Ohio) Austintown Fitch prospect was offered a scholarship by Tennessee in June, long after schools including Penn State and Michigan State extended offers during his junior season. The delay put doubt in Mahone's eyes.
"I've been talking to [the Vols] since my junior year when I started getting my offers, but they never pulled the trigger, I guess because they were looking for something else," the nation's No. 14 running back said.
I've been talking to [the Vols] since my junior year when I started getting my offers, but they never pulled the trigger, I guess because they were looking for something else.” -- Four-star RB William Mahone
The wait-and-see approach used by some programs like Tennessee can turn into a wait-and-oh-he's-gone result despite a coach's best intentions. Mahone concedes that the SEC is the best conference in the nation, but he's not even sure he'll explore his one option there.
"It would be nice to get down there but if I can't, then it's not that big of a priority to me," he said.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley understands that early offers are a factor for many prospects, but it's up for debate what lasting impact it can have.
"If you don't [offer early], you can find yourself playing catch-up with a recruit," Dooley said. "Everybody wants to be that first team to offer, but I don't think at the end of the day that has a lot of significance. But you also don't want to be so late in the game that the player feels like you didn't have an interest in him.
"I don't think ultimately that's why a player goes to a school. I think it will keep that school in the game a little longer on some guys, but it's not often that a player chooses a school because it's the first offer."
Dooley is faced with an annual challenge in recruiting. The state of Tennessee doesn't produce the same amount of talent as many of the Vols' rivals enjoy. That means the evaluation process takes a little longer in Knoxville than it does in Gainesville, Athens or Tuscaloosa.
"Our resources have to get spread a little bit," Dooley said. "When you're in a state that has a deep recruiting base, you can keep your area pretty tight. The coaches get a good feel for that area.
"I think back to my times as an assistant at LSU where I had a very small area that had a lot of players every year. Because of that you form a lot of relationships with the coaches. You know the freshmen, the sophomores and the juniors and seniors that are good on the football team. It's hard to do that if you're kind of spread out thin and you can't go back to that school every time you go to that area."
After sitting at just two commits for a long time, the Vols are up to 10 after their junior camp that ended last week. It's worth noting, however, that only two of the players the Vols picked up last week are four-star prospects or higher. Perhaps Tennessee's recent struggles (6-7 last season and NCAA penalties looming) continue to be a challenge in recruiting more than late offers. Perhaps not.
But all Mahone knows is he didn't get an offer until just recently and it makes him wonder just how important he is to the Vols.
"A little bit, but [Tennessee assistant] coach [Peter] Sirmon always called and checked up on me," Mahone said. "But yeah, it's kind of a concern."
The natural inclination is to feel sorry for the players, but that's too simplistic. Coaches are also under new pressures with the advancement of the recruiting calendar and, in the SEC, annual scholarship limitations. Coaches have to be ready to offer scholarships early, which means evaluating prospects' character as well as their athleticism.
"The family members are trying to get their kids scholarships and they're panicking," said one coach in a BCS conference. "It has changed the game completely. You better get a relationship with a player when he's a sophomore or you'll be out of the game because they get their feelings hurt so quick. 'Why did you offer me late?' They don't want to hear that we're trying to cover our bases and get to know who you are, all that kind of stuff. They say, 'You should have offered my kid already.'"
Our biggest problem at Georgia is trying to make those evaluations properly and making those offers. It does put pressure on us sometimes to offer a guy a bit sooner than you'd like to. I think everybody across the board has to project a little more. You have to hope that we've made the right projection.” -- Georgia coach Mark Richt
While coaches like Dooley face challenges to offer early in a prospect's junior year, other coaches have to ramp it up even further. Georgia coach Mark Richt said not offering an in-state prospect can put the Bulldogs in a permanent trail position for a prospect.
"Our biggest problem at Georgia is trying to make those evaluations properly and making those offers," Richt said. "It does put pressure on us sometimes to offer a guy a bit sooner than you'd like to. I think everybody across the board has to project a little more. You have to hope that we've made the right projection.
"If you get your class nailed down a year in advance and all of a sudden some of those guys didn't keep progressing like you thought and some other guys came up, [you say] 'Man, I wish I had waited and offered that kid because I like this guy better than I like that guy.' Some people find a way to dump that guy and take that [other] guy. At Georgia, if we offer and he commits to us, we're not dumping him."
In the talent-rich state of Georgia, Richt has seen the other approach all too often.
"What happens sometimes is some out-of-state schools, they'll go blazing through the state offering a lot of guys," he said.
Which puts the Bulldogs in a tough situation. If they offer early, they can be stuck with a player who didn't develop as the coaches hoped or expected he would. If they offer late, a player gets his feelings hurt. As for the out-of-state program, it can offer early with little repercussions. If a prospect doesn't develop, it stops calling the player and he gets the message. No formal announcement need be made. The scholarship was never technically pulled.
Most every coach has let a prospect figure out he's not as wanted as he once was. But if it becomes a common practice, a reputation can soon develop, which can be fatal. All of this makes it all the more important to not only offer early, but offer prudently.
"I'm sure there's times where [offering late] held us up," Dooley said. "But I trust the fact that over time we may lose a battle here and there, but over time we're going to end up with the kind of classes that we want. To do that you have to understand that you can't get everybody. Some other schools are going to get some great players. Just worry about the guys that are coming on your team."
Charlotte (N.C.) Phillip O. Berry Academy four-star linebacker Nick Dawson gets it, but that doesn't mean he likes it. He has offers from programs around the country, but Southern California and Miami didn't offer him a scholarship until January while most schools he's considering issued official invites months before.
"I like both of those schools," the 6-foot-2, 222-pounder said. "If they would have offered me earlier I probably would have opened my eyes more to them. I know it's just a recruiting process. It's business. When they offered me late, it's because they didn't get the linebackers they needed."
The delay makes Dawson feel like leftovers.
"Yeah it does, and I don't like that," he said. "But that's how the game works."
Dave Hooker covers Southeast and Atlantic Coast recruiting. He has covered recruiting and college football for over a decade. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.