With spring practices officially cancelled and so many unanswered questions hovering in the air, the four Illinois Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) programs have found a silver lining in the dark clouds of the unknown.
The impact of COVID-19 has left staffs scrambling to meet the needs of its players, keep track of academic performances, set up workout plans and a myriad of other agenda items. Yet, in a time of uncertainty those staffs have also been granted clock hours to build for the future.
"This is a very unique time that we’re in. We’ve got a great opportunity as a staff to get ahead recruiting-wise, so we’re doing a lot of recruiting and maintaining structure and staying connected with our (current) players," Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott said recently.
Knowing recruiting is the lifeblood of every football program no matter the size or level or conference affiliation, Prairie State Pigskin contacted staff members from each of the Illinois FCS schools — Eastern, Illinois State, Southern and Western — to gain insight on this spring's changing landscape.
With geographically better early spring weather, SIU has traditionally opened its practices sooner than the other schools. That held true this year as head coach Nick Hill's Salukis were able to get in five such practices before the pandemic shut things down. SIU was also able to hold a junior day for the high school class of 2021.
"We had over 120 kids on campus," SIU recruiting coordinator Gaizka Crowley said. "That was a really good event for us. Along with those five practices, that gave us a jump start. A lot of programs weren't able to get any in."
Crowley added that once Hill's staff had its current roster set up for distance learning, workouts and other priorities, SIU turned its attention to recruiting.
"For me in my position, it's hog heaven a little bit, being able to watch a ton of guys and speak to high school coaches and speak to a lot of prospects," Crowley said.
Changing a negative into a positive
Adam Cushing has entered his second year as Eastern Illinois head coach. Despite not getting a chance to put his young team (which by fall will be 85 percent of his staff's recruits) through much-needed spring practices, Cushing leans toward optimism.
"Our approach to this whole situation is, what does this make possible? Flip it from a challenge to an opportunity," Cushing said. "We’ve been given time; nobody ever gives you time. Let’s use that time to be detailed about all the things we really want to be detailed on."
One of those things that he's detailed on is his staff's rankings of potential recruits.
"I generally know about the top five guys on the board by position, but now we’ll have a much deeper board," he said.
Deeper connections and closer looks
Every coach interviewed discussed the opportunity to establish stronger bonds with possible future players.
"We’ll have much deeper connection if we can stress daily connection," Cushing said. "As crazy as it it is, (during the past) you’d be fighting to get the prospective student-athlete, the high school kid, that you want to get on the phone with because he’s a football guy, but he’s also in track and he’s a 4.0 student. You don’t want to take a lot of his time, but (now) he’s got a whole bunch of time too. If you can set it up right, you can really be maximizing relationships on a daily basis."
Khenon Hall coaches running backs at Illinois State. He is also head coach Brock Spack's recruiting coordinator.
"With Coach Spack we’re usually pretty much ahead, but this has cleared up some extra time and allowed us to reevaluate some guys that fit what we want, what we’re looking for this year. We have a big senior class this year so we’re probably going to have a big signing class. It’s actually been a blessing to sit back, reorganize and hone in on the guys that are our top targets and the guys that fit the ISU program," Hall said.
No on-campus visits
The NCAA has declared a "dead period," meaning that no recruits can make visits to campus nor can any coaches take to the road in attempts to land potential recruits. Thus, recruiting may look a little different for those 2021 signees.
"For us, it's allowed Coach Hill, myself and our other staff to develop relationships with those kids because normally we'd be in spring practice right now," Crowley said. "While we may potentially miss seeing a kid for in-person evaluation depending on how your (high school) camp schedule lays out, what it's honestly allowing you to do is to get to know a kid better on a one-on-one basis . . . we've been able to watch a ton of film, but even more importantly than the film is getting to know the kids. Getting them on the phone, talking to parents. We've been able to do that quite a bit."
Hall said, "Letters, phone calls, FaceTime, whatever we’ve got to do in order to continue to build that relationship."
Illinois recruiting analyst "Edgy" Tim O'Halloran said in a Tuesday YouTube video, "Basically March has become the new May, meaning the spring evaluation period is such a busy, busy time for recruiting on a lot of different levels. All this has done is pushed things forward and pushed the calendar back even further. Now you have college coaches looking . . . Something we've noticed this past week, all of the sudden multiple, multiple FCS schools are offering a lot more kids. More than I can remember at this time of the year in particular."
An added bonus?
Nearly all recruiting experts rate the state's 2021 class higher than the recent 2020 signees. Could the cornavirus actually help keep more of those recruits here in Illinois?
"It helps us a lot. Chicago, especially the ‘21 (class), is better than last year as far as the talent goes," Hall said. "We take care of our backyard, but now the kids that are getting attention from the out-of-state areas can’t go to those campuses, or they might have early offers from these MAC schools in Ohio or Michigan or wherever.
"Now, they can’t get to those campuses, but they’ve probably been to ours. We are one of the top schools in the state and country, so we’re able to get some of those guys that tend to go to that MAC area. Now we’re going to be able to keep those guys home."
Crowley added, "We're in the middle of everything. We're in the middle of Atlanta, Chicago, Indianapolis, Memphis, St. Louis, so we're able to get a lot of kids on campus. With potentially the spring and summer camp season being very much in the air, you've got a lot of kids that (normally) go to the one-day camps, put on a great performance and that's when they earn a lot of offers. From our perspective, can you go up and grab a kid who's a Group of Five kid or even a Power-5 kid? I think that's very much a reality.
"It's uncharted territory. How does it (COVID-19) affect commitments? How does it affect the December signing day? Last year we signed a huge majority of our class in December; now does that change? What's the impact? Are more kids now going to sign in February so they can take more visits? That's very much a possibility. We're taking it week by week right now."