As recently as couple weeks ago, Taj Butts was ready to wait until the fall to commit to a college program.
With offers from Power Five schools such as Louisville, Purdue and Illinois already under his belt, the running back from De Smet High School in St. Louis thought it might take an impressive senior season to finally earn him the Southeastern Conference chance he’d always dreamed of.
Then, on April 22, Curtis Luper called.
The Missouri running backs coach informed Butts the Tigers had a spot for him and offered a scholarship. The 5-foot-11 runner committed to Missouri three days later.
“I wasn’t able to come down and get the whole recruiting treatment on campus, but that didn’t really matter to me,” Butts said. “Mizzou has always been the dream school.”
Butts has been to Columbia just once before. He’s yet to step foot into Missouri’s new team facility. He’s never even met Eliah Drinkwitz, the head coach he plans to spend four years under when he arrives on campus.
Despite it all, Butts is committed to being a Tiger.
Such is the life of a football recruit in the midst of a pandemic.
When the NCAA instituted a dead period for in-person recruiting last month through May 31, college football’s busiest off-field enterprise came to a screeching halt.
The NCAA edict meant no more living room meetings with recruits. No more in-person scouting, either. And no more on-campus visits meant no more tours of team facilities, no more spring practices to show off to visiting prospects, and maybe most difficult of all, no more in-uniform photo shoots to flaunt on social media.
The lockdown left schools in flux and programs trying to remain afloat on the recruiting trail as the rules around them changed by the minute. In the midst of it all, Missouri has fared well, securing verbal in-state commitments from Butts, Washington tight end Ryan Hoerstkamp and four-star Lutheran North edge rusher Travion Ford in the past week alone.
But life in recruiting, for Missouri and the players it’s chasing, has been completely altered.
If there’s a recruiting coordinator in college football equipped to sell a program to high school football prospects in the middle of a lockdown, it just might be Missouri’s Casey Woods.
Before Drinkwitz brought him to Columbia to handle recruiting and coach tight ends, Woods spent four years at Alabama-Birmingham. As the recruiting coordinator starting in 2016, Woods was part of a staff that took over a UAB program that had been discontinued only two years earlier and built it from scratch. The Dragons didn’t play a game until September 2017, but in the 18 months that came before it, Woods and the staff assembled a full roster from the ground up without an existing program or even an initial season to offer.
That UAB team, onboarded entirely by Woods and the coaching staff, has posted winning records in each of its first three seasons since it returned and in 2018 earned a Conference USA championship.
“I’ve already recruited through some pretty crazy times,” Woods said.
When it became clear to Missouri’s staff in early March that a lockdown was imminent, Drinkwitz, Woods and the rest of the coaching staff set up a recruiting game plan. The “virtual mobilization,” as Woods put it, was intended to ensure that Missouri wouldn’t skip a beat in recruiting.
The most important part of the plan? Zoom calls and FaceTime. The Tigers weren’t going to lose a step, and face-to-face communication, even virtually, was key to that. A next crucial strategy was to work out plans to give virtual tours of the team facility.
Woods and Co. felt it was vital to not only to show prospects the Tigers’ new home, but also to answer any and all questions along the way, so the tours had to be live. And to make sure both recruits and fans stayed engaged through it all, Woods and his staff ramped up its graphics, visuals and strategic communication efforts all with one specific objective in mind.
“We had to find a way to stick to our goals and our philosophies in recruiting while navigating arguably the strangest set of circumstances in recruiting history,” Woods said.
But while programs like Missouri’s have been forced to overhaul their recruiting strategies, it’s the recruits themselves that have been impacted most by the lockdown.
For a high school prospect, in-person contact can be the most essential part of the recruiting process. In-home meetings, visits to campus and opportunities to watch a live practice are among a number of potentially decisive components that no longer exist for high school players across the country for the time being.
Hoerstkamp, the 6-foot-4 tight end who committed just hours after Butts on April 25, was set to visit a trio of college programs in the middle of March. Those trips never happened. Without the on-campus visits, Hoerstkamp was left with questions and what-ifs about rosters, coaching staffs and potential future teammates — all things he couldn’t quite figure out over the phone.
Even when he committed to the Tigers, the team he’s watched all his life, Hoerstkamp felt an inkling of hesitation — not about the program he was joining, but the ones he never got to see.
“All of that made it a lot harder for me to make a choice,” he said.
Other recruits, such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, prospect Gentry Williams, who received an offer from Missouri on April 21, have found that recruitment over the phone has forced them to focus on what really matters to them.
Without visits to make or practices to attend, Williams’ conversations with prospective schools have centered more on X’s and O’s, and for Williams, trying to discern what a given program’s depth chart looks like and how he might fit into it. Those factors might have gotten buried during an in-person tour of team dining facilities or flashy weight rooms in the past.
Recruitment from lockdown has also helped prospects figure out which schools are really serious about them as both players and students. It’s easy for programs on big recruiting weekends to bring in a large pool of players, but in lockdown when time is limited, players are finding out which schools are most interested.
Williams has stopped hearing from some programs entirely. Others have given him limited time, with pitches to him that felt packaged and generic. When he received his offer from Missouri, he spent 15 minutes on the phone with Drinkwitz. By the end of the conversation, the two weren’t even discussing football. Instead they were going through what the Tigers’ first-year coach saw Williams achieving on campus and what his future might hold.
“All this shows you who really wants you,” Williams said. “You find out who is still putting in the time. That’s what you want to see. It separates those programs from the rest.”
The players in the recruiting class of 2021, which Butts and Hoerstkamp are part of, and the following class for 2022 that includes Williams may not get much of the traditional recruiting process. They might not be courted with big recruiting weekends or conversations at the kitchen table with big-time coaches like players have in the past. They probably won’t get the photo shoots on campus, either.
But what is likely to emerge from this moment is a wave of mature newcomers. The players that join college football programs over the next two years will have been forced to make difficult decisions, at least in part, from their couches at home without any of the glitz and glamour previous classes have enjoyed. Forced to ask tougher questions — of the programs and of themselves — the decisions these prospects make may be more informed than ever before.
Woods anticipates that nothing will ever be quite the same for college programs and recruiting. Schools, he’s certain, will return to their traditional recruiting tactics the moment they’re able to. But he also has no doubt that over the span of this in-person recruiting dead period, programs have developed new, effective strategies that they’ll stick with if and when life goes back to normal.
Just like at UAB, when he recruited players to a team that didn’t exist, Woods isn’t focused on the past, the future or the challenges of the current moment. He’s focused on the next phone call or Zoom session, trying to bring another player to Columbia in the midst of perhaps the most uncertain recruiting period in college football history.
“I think in two or three years, we’ll look back and wonder how the heck we signed a top-25 class this year,” Woods said.