New NCAA recruiting rules haven’t exactly shifted the landscape of college football recruiting, but new policies over the last two cycles have done enough to cause programs like Penn State to recalibrate its early approach.
The novelty of the new spring official visit rule, which allowed prospects to take paid-for trips from April-June before their senior year got underway for the first time, was apparent in the 2019 cycle. The Nittany Lions set out to bring in out-of-region prospects for visits in April and June, but were also forced to adhere to the decision timelines of some of its top targets in the region. This meant that while players who ended up in the class like Oregon’s Michael Johnson and Florida’s John Dunmore made the trip in the first open period, the Nittany Lions also hosted others like the Connecticut duo of Marquis Wilson and Tyler Rudolph — two players would likely would have landed at Penn State regardless of when their official took place — early as well.
“I think one of the things you learn is you want to get kids here on campus that might not otherwise get here,” said Penn State Director of Player Personnel Andy Frank. “We would prefer that the kids who are local, and in our region, save their visits to later if they are able to get here on their own dime more often. From a national perspective, it makes a lot of sense to get a John Dunmore, for instance, to come in on an early official visit. He comes back on his own dime after having committed to us. That was an opportunity for us to get a kid on campus that we may not have otherwise gotten on campus.”
Several schools approached the new rules differently.
Penn State hosted 20 official visitors in the early visit window and signed seven of them. Comparatively, Ohio State hosted 12 and signed four (though two more flipped from the Buckeyes just last week), Michigan hosted 16 and signed seven (including six of nine on its June 22 visit weekend just before the Dead Period, Alabama signed three of seven early visitors, Georgia landed two of the four official visitors it hosted in the early period and Clemson chose not to host any early visitors at all.
The Nittany Lions hosted 13 uncommitted visitors during game weekends this fall. Of that total, three signed with Penn State last week and four remain uncommitted, with the Lions in the mix for two of the four. By the time their big December weekend came around, just eight commits still had official visits to use. One, defensive lineman Hakeem Beamon, has yet to use his official visit due to a run to a state title.
The addition of the spring visits and the new early signing period, which came into play for the first time in the 2018 class, has led to the Nittany Lions learning about best practices on the fly.
“Looking back to last year, we kind of went into with a “let’s see what happens this year,” and in reality, we probably have to go through two cycles to really have a good feel for how it’s going to play out long-term,” said Frank. “For us, with the early signing period, we are going to try to get everybody who is committed to us signed, obviously. More than likely, the kids that have been committed for a long time are going to do that. From there, we are going to go out there and try to get the next group of guys. I like the early signing period. I think it allows you to do something in December when you can put a close to something and then move on to something else which is kind of nice.”
The December signing period also caused a shift in the travel schedule of James Franklin and his assistants. Franklin is afforded just one in-person contact with a 2019 recruit during the December and January contact period. That led to a fluid travel schedule that emphasized visiting with committed prospects and those set to make decisions in the early signing period, such as running back Noah Cain.
It also allowed the Nittany Lions assistants to get out and do more advanced scouting on future prospects. With most of the Class of 2019 in the boat, January should be a big month for the staff as it looks to build on its 2020 and 2021 relationships.
“It used to be the contact period was December and January, and from a logistics standpoint it still is December and January, but the contact period has become a lot like the evaluation period,” he said. “You’re getting out there and trying to get into as many high schools as you can get in there. You get in there, talk to coaches, talk to whoever at the school and kind of put together a list of prospects, whether it’s for the 2020 class or younger than that. January is almost an accentuated spring period. It’s earlier in the process so it’s almost more of an evaluation process than even sometimes the spring can be.”
Penn State currently has two commitments in the Class of 2020.