- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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As more and more programs begin hosting their annual junior days, here's a look at what these events are, what happens and the future of them.
What is a junior day?
Think of it as a group unofficial visit. Junior days have skyrocketed in popularity in the past decade. Most major programs use them as something of an introduction to the top members of the next recruiting class -- a year or longer before signing day. This week around the country, things get started en masse, with juniors paying their way to visit campuses nationwide. Most, but not all, are by invite only.
What's the significance to recruiting?
Depends on the school. At Texas, which hosts a junior day Sunday, they can mean everything. The Longhorns routinely collect commitments from junior days; they snagged 10 pledges from a single event two years ago. Elsewhere, the importance is similar, though with less dramatic results. A common thread between Texas and other programs: Junior days unofficially kick off a yearlong recruiting process. Coaches at many major programs spend more time on recruiting now than in the months before signing day.
What happens at a junior day?
Prospects, often encouraged to bring parents or high school coaches, meet with the head coach -- significant because he's not allowed to visit recruits off campus in the spring evaluation period or talk to them during school visits in December and January of their junior years. Additionally, junior days typically include meetings with position coaches, coordinators, strength coaches, nutrition staff and academic advisers. The visitors take campus tours and/or attend a basketball game -- and might even participate in some serious football discussion. "We do like to sit down and talk football to see if this is a guy who can pay attention and understand what we're going to teach," Arkansas recruiting coordinator Tim Horton said.
How do junior days benefit the player?
For the prospects fortunate enough to earn an invitation to a junior day, it's a golden opportunity to get a jump on the recruiting process. Other early periods on the recruiting calendar cater to the colleges, allowing coaches to gather information about prospects. Recruiting is a give-and-take experience, and junior days provide a chance for the players to observe a program from the inside.
How are junior days changing?
Many schools are getting more selective. Used to be, coaching staffs would cast a wide net for junior days, taking all visitors and turning the event into more of a showcase than a recruiting experience. No longer. Coaches now target smaller numbers. "Players who we want to offer [scholarships] and are really close to offering," Oklahoma recruiting coordinator Cale Gundy said. The right number at Oklahoma is about 25 for each junior day.
Has the wide-open junior day vanished?
Not entirely. Often, schools open junior days to all high school players later in the recruiting season, perhaps in conjunction with their spring games. The bigger events, of course, grant less personal attention but appeal to a wide range of prospects and allow more marginal players to get comfortable with aspects of recruiting.
Where are they headed from here?
Coaches agree that junior days will continue to grow more specialized and take on an increased role in recruiting. But ultimately, the value remains. At Oklahoma, for instance, Gundy said, the coaches simply want recruits to get a feel for the place. "We're pretty laid-back people," he said. "That's what we show them -- and that we're going to win games on Saturday." Strategy is the same at other schools. So even if the numbers continue to shrink and the activities change, the message likely won't.
Is the growth of junior days a precursor to an early signing period?
Depends whom you ask. "People talk about an early signing period all the time," USC coach Lane Kiffin said, "and it's never happened, so I don't really know where to go there." Others say it's inevitable, what with these events continuing to accelerate recruiting. An important note: Many schools remain against an early signing period, in particular those colleges located in areas of lower population, which are less likely to attract top prospects to campus for junior days. Coaches agree that further growth of junior days alone won't lead to an early signing period. Other changes must be instituted -- such as a date earlier than Sept. 1 to start official visits, a proposal under review by the NCAA.
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman.