I was asked recently by a student athlete, what do division I coaches look for in recruiting? Simple enough question and I will not reveal my answer but it did get me to thinking. Most high school football players are concerned with fitting themselves into a program as opposed to finding a program that fits them.
There are several reasons for this, the biggest of which is teens and parents of high school players are mostly concerned with prestige. The school they sign with says everything about what kind of player they are and what kind of parent they are or so they think. The mindset is get in there and then you figure out how to be great once you get there.
The problem with that thinking is this, more and more, faster and faster, college football programs are throwing away athletes. The patience level with an athlete and their abilities is not what it used to be. Once upon a time, all freshman redshirted. Then most freshman redshirted. Then a lot of freshman played. Then some freshman started. Now, if you don’t start or play as a freshman, you’re not very useful. Within that first training camp in college, it is being determined if you were a worthy recruit or not. Take too long to pick up the scheme, the workout regimen or present the physical attributes deemed necessary and meetings are already being had about how to replace you in the next recruiting cycle. Seems harsh doesn’t it? Well, it’s kind of what you signed up for. So how do you protect yourself?
You can avoid this plight by doing something that is so very hard to do and that is be honest with yourself. The next thing is almost equally as hard and that is make a decision based on what you have honestly determined about yourself. Here’s how you figure out what program is for you despite how many offers you have. In my experience, prospects fall into one of four categories.
Highly Athletic and Highly Skilled
Let’s define what athletic is for the purpose of this article (tall, big and fast). Let’s determine what skilled is for the purpose of this article (great technique + hard worker). The athletes possessing these qualities are usually 5 star or 4 star. In some cases they are ranked lower due in large part to not being seen, which is becoming harder and harder to have happen these days. If you possess all the physical attributes that we ALL know that colleges like (tall, big, strong and fast), then the upper echelon D1 schools will have the patience to withstand your early mistakes. They will keep giving you opportunities in hopes that your awesome physical gifts will materialize. Those opportunities will last two seasons then they start muttering about your inability to “get it”. If you combine that high athleticism with high skill then there’s little to talk about. You’re elite. You will show your worth early and often. You will play because you deserve to. Go ahead and thank God, don’t be selfish. Power 5, perennial Top 10, conference champ Division I schools are for you.
Moderately Athletic and Highly Skilled
You are either big and fast or tall and big or tall but not fast. You’re missing something physically but not too much. You also combine this with either high football IQ + technique and a tremendous work ethic. You can chase the upper echelon always in the Top 10 school but you may be taking some risks. Some of you in this group may even be ranked a 5-star so not going to Alabama or Clemson might seem absolutely crazy but I have news for you, there were some seniors on both of those teams that did not step foot on that field during that championship game in January.
These schools are always getting and are always searching for the complete player in high school every year. Chances are they may get that guy at your spot in subsequent recruiting cycles and he’s going to play. At who’s expense do you think that will come? Yeah, you know. Perhaps you can overcome that but your highly skilled be better be REALLY highly skilled. You better be sure about your self evaluation. If not, that transfer portal is awaiting you or a different set of tears are falling from your eyes when you hand momma those flowers on senior day.
If you want the best possible fit, seek out that Division I program that has had success with your type of player before and won’t blink at giving you a “real” opportunity to play. Sometimes a school will sign a 5-star because he’s a 5-star knowing full well he may not be “that guy”. However, that 5-star does improve their recruiting rankings so he’s a take. Don’t get tricked. You might be that guy I just described but your honest self evaluation will protect you. Perhaps a slightly less high profile program that is on the up and coming will have the patience to deal with your early shortcomings. They will take the time to wait for you to blossom or show that what you lack won’t hurt you and them on the field. You then turn their patience into all conference and all time great.
One other note, depending on how much you are missing in the athletic department, considering Group of 5, FCS and / or Division II football may be the move. For instance if you are fast but not tall or big, you might want to go this route. Group of 5, FCS and Division II schools will be more apt to accept that you were a high producer in high school and take a gamble on you being able to also do that in college. While these schools would also like the recruits from the first category I named, they are less likely to get them and will take you on board. It doesn’t mean that you are less worthy, it just means that you just need an opportunity and they are more likely to provide that.
Highly Athletic but Moderately Skilled
You pass the eyeball test and the scouts are scribbling in their notebooks the moment they see you check in to the camp. At 6’5″ they’re going to love you and you will be praised for moving left or right without falling down. You might also lose 3 out of every 4 one-on-one reps at the camp but will still be called out of the kneeling crowd at the end as the surprise MVP. You’re the one that all the other kids’ dads are pissed about after the camp. The reason they are mad is because you are getting hyped because you are just big or just fast but you don’t have the skills, yet. Perhaps you just started playing football. Perhaps you are playing football because the head coach won’t let you walk the halls of the school without harassing you about when Spring Ball starts. You have not developed your love for the game yet. Right now all you are is a specimen and you damn well know you need to learn more about the game and improve your techniques.
If you fall into this category then you definitely want to stay away from the pressure schools. The pressure schools are the ones where Twitter fanbases fire the coach for losing a game or failing to make the college football playoffs in back to back seasons. Those coaches at those programs are feeling the heat and they won’t have patience with you as you continue your football education. Take too long to pick up the concepts or techniques needed to make plays and your playing time will rapidly decline. Next year, a kid in a brand new truck is going to be stealing your reps.
Consider the following programs if you fall into this category: A once proud program trying to rebuild. A group of 5 program like Utah St., UCF or the like that will cherish your athletic ability and have a great deal of patience to teach / develop you. Develop your love for the game quickly and work hard to learn how it’s played. Do that and these programs will do more than their fair share to promote your success and push you to the NFL when the time comes. Their success as a program will be tied to your success. You aren’t just “another guy” that won an award and got drafted. You’ll be one of a kind.
Moderately Athletic and also Moderately Skilled
This is a tricky group so read this carefully. You are not as tall or fast as the highly ranked guys. You may not have also produced on the field in terms of big numbers but you know you have talent. You probably also go to camps and out perform most. However, you don’t get recognized like you should. That’s due in large part to you missing those eye popping physical attributes and / or your technique is not quite where it needs to be yet. However, you are willing to work on it.
This group has the toughest time in recruiting. They often feel like they can play Division I football like some of their teammates and guys they’ve competed against. A lot of times they were outstanding as youth football players but came back to the pack once they entered high school. Players in this group may and I stress may be Division I football players but it will be hard for them to get the opportunity. Their Division I scholarship offer will come extremely late, if at all. Some may choose to walk-on at a division I school and eventually get frustrated with walk-on life and quit. Even the ones that get the late offer are constantly faced with attempts to replace their spot on the depth chart even when they are backups.
Your honest assessment of your physical attributes should be easy. Am I as tall as, as big as or as fast as the guys piling up the Division I offers? Be honest about that. Did I produce as much as some other guys who are getting some Division I offers? Be honest about it. Do I still have some things to work on technique-wise? That’s a tougher thing to evaluate but you must accurately determine that. If you fall into this category and you are truly interested in playing college football then pursue the FCS and consider Division 2 or even 3 football at a good program. Do this early in your recruiting cycle. Don’t wait till your senior season, you’ll be left out in the cold most of the time.
Don’t let your pride get in the way of making a solid decision. When you sign with that Division 2 school and rip it up, you’ll have all the pride and honor you felt you deserved on National Signing Day. Really excel at that less than Division I program to the point where you get a NFL combine or training camp invite and you get the last laugh. This happens every single year. If you watch the combine you will see guys participating from schools you may have never heard of. Those guys tucked away their ego and invested in the future opportunities. Many of them had high school teammates who went Power 5 and was at home watching them run a 40 yard dash on NFL Network.
There is one other group and that is low athletic and low skilled. I have bad news for that group. College football probably isn’t for you. You may want to walk on and enjoy the experience of being on a college football team without actually playing. You too, must be honest with yourself. If you are not in possession of major athletic attributes and you are not willing to pour a large amount of your time into being highly skilled then you are likely wasting time looking for a scholarship. College football is a multi-billion dollar business with coaches earning thousands and millions annually. They won’t risk their livelihood in hopes that you overcome all the odds to possibly, maybe make an impact. Determine your true talent and passion in life then pursue that.
Once again and in closing, making this important decision begins with honest self evaluation. It’s tough not to say you are not in the A group. However, a truly elite thinker, knows his weaknesses and exploits them. How do you exploit weaknesses? You do so by putting yourself in position to have your strengths flourish while gaining time to improve the weaknesses. Not every athletic program will provide that for you and often time, it’s your pride that will set you up to have your weaknesses exposed. Don’t let that be you.
Author: Chad Wilson
Chad Wilson is a college football recruiting expert and creator of the GridironStudsApp which allows high school football players to gain exposure to college football coaches and fans. Wilson is a former college football player for the University of Miami (92-94) and Long Beach St. (’90-’91) and played briefly for the Seattle Seahawks (’95). He is also a former youth and high school football coach for over 15 years. Wilson’s older son Quincy plays in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts and his younger son plays cornerback for the University of Florida. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.