Somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 high school athletes will sign their names on the dotted line with FBS programs Wednesday.
But before they could be names on a roster, they were names on a recruiting board.
The concept of the board is relatively simple, but how different programs arrive at different numbers is a unique insight into what builds a college program.
What does the board actually look like?
Here’s a look at Ohio State’s board, with a guided tour by director of player personnel Mark Pantoni.
Just like in the video above, elite recruiting teams already have next year’s recruiting class at least somewhat put together already. At the time (February 2016), Ohio State had seven pledges for 2017, nearly a third of its class. Texas under Mack Brown was notorious for stuffing classes early in the recruiting cycle. LSU offered Alabama commit Dylan Moses when he was an eighth grader, and USC under Lane Kiffin got a commitment from a QB who at the time was in the seventh grade.
Charles Walker is the recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach at UMass. He spoke to SB Nation while traveling through Alabama on a recruiting trip.
“Whatever criteria that program wants for that position — 6-7, 3.2 GPA, from this area of the country — that’s pretty much what your board looks like,” Walker said. “And then it’s priority needs. Literally names with boxes stacked underneath each other as if you are in a warehouse, and that’s your inventory. You go down the list, ‘I like Joe Schmo from California;’ my next guy if he doesn’t commit, this is the next guy up.”
With technology comes innovation, and software companies have made it easier for schools to manage boards by taking them digital.
“I could hit a button and put you on our board,” Duke’s director of player personnel, Kent McLeod, said to SB Nation. “And then you have basically notes in there. Our coaches can go in and write evaluations on you, and we can upload your transcripts. It’s kinda like a one-stop-shop database that you can look at. There’s about 10 people selling these, you know, and they all of course say they’re better than everybody else. You know how it is.”
McLeod says you can have custom boards, such as one for in-state guys and one for out of state. One of those programs, produced by a company called Blue Chip Athletic Solutions, can be used across multiple devices.
Technology has also made it easier for coaches to find players in the first place, while also making it more difficult.
The access is open, with players tweeting film at coaches and Hudl film sitting at everybody’s fingertips, but it can get overbearing. A position coach will lean on personnel staff to get video on a player who’s come out of left field, so that there’s something to show during a staff meeting.
“At the end of my night, I got 75 emails that I might have to skim through,” Walker said. “It may be 2 to 10 are junk mail, but you know for you to not look at it and do your due diligence, you might miss out on a player, so I’ve been through that before. For the right email, it’s kinda like rolling the dice and playing roulette sometimes.
“I got 300 emails by the end of the week, so I’d randomly check one or a couple just based off measurables. That’s another thing: you look at an email or a text saying, ‘Hey, I got a guy that’s 6’5, 230 — you know, runs a 4.7 — and plays defensive end,’ and you look at it and you say, ‘Hey this kid’s a really good player.’”
How do teams play the numbers game?
This has a lot to do with your spot on the landscape and personal preferences. At New Mexico State, head coach Doug Martin gives an example. If his target number at a position is four, he casts the net very wide.
“Really, to sign four guys you probably need 75 to 80 on a list,” he said. “Say we go out and we come back and we only have about 30 or 40 names for offensive linemen that we think are good enough athletically. Then we know that we gotta expand our recruiting base outward a little bit more and find some more guys.”
That’s a lot of names. For a service academy, the number can easily be over 1,000. For a school like New Mexico State, its state isn’t a particularly fertile ground for FBS players. 2017 stands as an outlier because there are more than five or six players of FBS caliber ranked.
So the Aggies have to go into Arizona and Texas, and it plays into how schools like New Mexico State set up their boards. With Signing Day just two days away, the Aggies had the fewest commits in all of FBS (10).
“[W]e really monitor Texas Tech, Houston, Texas A&M, Texas, maybe guys that they’ve been recruiting that we really like that think they’re gonna get a chance to go there, then all of a sudden those schools fall off, and so the kid’s left,” Martin said. “That’s how we get the best players. That happens a lot for us.”
McLeod says his approach to setting up the board is markedly different. He thinks there’s a diminishing-returns aspect to having that many kids on the board.
“You go to that coach — let’s say he’s a linebackers coach — and say, ‘Coach, tell me about these 80 at your position,’” McLeod said. “He’d be like, ‘I don’t know.’ And the thing is, he may have watched them and wrote a thing up, but it’s not easy to recall 80 kids and coach your position and recruit your position and recruit your area.”
Staffs tend to set their numbers for the next recruiting class in the spring preceding it, trying to get a handle at the target for each position. They won’t take kids just to take kids.
"Year to year, what winds up happening is it doesn't map out the way you want. Maybe there's not enough tackles for you to take four of ’em, so you take three, and you take an extra corner,” an anonymous Group of 5 recruiting coordinator told SB Nation. “Well, the next year, you're minus one on offense. Do you always have to make up? It's a case-by-case deal.
“The emphasis on evaluating how guys are developing really is important, because if you don't pay attention — and when I say that, it's not just the starters, it's the backups. If a bomb goes off at cornerback, what are we doing? If we have two safeties quit and a cornerback declares for the league that we didn't expect to declare, and we lose three commits in this class, what are we looking at?”
Elite programs have the luxury of choice. Their boards will be different because of things like team brands and the program’s budget. A team like New Mexico State isn’t going east of the Mississippi River often, but if there’s a talented kid in California or Florida, elite teams from far away don’t hesitate to put them on the board.
So how do you maintain this thing during the season?
The run up to Signing Day is one thing, but during the season, recruiting is a change of pace. McLeod said recruiting meetings break up the monotony of a normal game week, and they’ll have bite-sized, 30-minute meetings with the coaching staff and personnel folks twice a week. Bobby Blick, Army director of player personnel, talked to SB Nation in December about his program’s schedule.
“Every week, we pick a position and hammer through and talk about it as a staff. You try to break it up. But you talk about them enough to where, when they come here, you’ve talked about them to the point where you feel like you already know them. It helps with everyone on staff and it doesn’t fall on one guy.”
Here’s a snapshot of former coaches at Miami talking about the players on their board:
Martin says his staff meets twice a week to discuss the board.
“It’s Sundays and Fridays. So on Sundays, we get together and have a recruiting meeting just to discuss anything that’s going on with different kids, or do we need to find more kids in this area? On Fridays, if we’re at home or if we’re on the road, we’ll sit down as a staff and we’ll breeze through some recruiting film and really start looking at guys so we can start ranking who we think is best at each position.”
Everything’s done as a staff, with player personnel folks privy to the discussion as well.
When it comes to who gets a scholarship, however, the head coach typically has the final sign-off.
The balance here is not overloading coaches by coaching two teams at once, the one in front of them for Saturday’s game and the unit they’re trying to wrangle to develop a signing class.
The board may be the bible of the program’s future, but there is the present to deal with as well.