Summer camps, social media alter recruiting landscape

Published 11:30 pm Saturday, July 2, 2016

For decades, the college football recruiting process seemed simple enough. If a player did well during the season he’d gain a reputation that attracted the attention of college coaches, and scholarship offers would follow.

In the 21st century, however, things have gotten considerably more complicated. Increasingly, a player’s performance under the Friday Night Lights isn’t always as important as how they do under the Scorching Summer Sun.

Summer camps, 7-on-7 leagues and individual tryouts have become as crucial as games for players trying to get to the next level. Social media and other advances in technology have also changed the game by allowing players to seize the initiative and promote themselves.

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It’s a radically changed landscape from even 15 or 20 years ago, and it’s one coaches and players feel is a change for the better.

“There’s very few athletes that get offered just by the eyeball test. Most coaches want them to do their type of drills and study fundamentals and footwork, and those types of drills,” said Warren Central head coach Josh Morgan, who played at Mississippi State from 1998-2002. “A lot of college coaches want to see it for themselves.”

Vicksburg High coach Marcus Rogers said attending summer camps in June and July has become a season unto itself, similar to club and AAU teams in other sports.

“It’s kind of like an AAU now, those camps and 7-on-7s,” Rogers said.

Working on campus

While college coaches are still attending games and scouting players all over Mississippi on any given Friday night, that’s often one of the later phases of the recruiting process.

The first step is identifying players, and one of the most popular ways to do that is by having what amounts to a mass tryout.

Almost every college, at some point in the summer, will host a workout camp on its campus. Typically costing between $20 and $40 per person — a nominal fee required by NCAA rules -— the camps are a de facto recruiting tool that is beneficial to everyone involved.

Players who attend the camp can also tour the campus, stadium and athletic facilities. Coaches, meanwhile, get to evaluate players as they conduct workouts. For high school coaches trying to get players noticed, the camps allow them to put a large group in front of the right audience.

“It’s really the best deal for me. I tell parents all the time, instead of going to these recruiting agents and camps like National Underclassmen or FBU, go to a school where their coaches can see you. They’ll offer the kids on the spot if they like what they see, or tell them they’re going to recruit them the whole year,” Rogers said. “The best camps for me are the ones where you go on campus and let the actual coaches coach you through your drills.”

Often, the camps wind up being akin to job interviews. St. Aloysius offensive lineman Drake Dorbeck was offered a scholarship after a good performance at the Southern Miss camp in 2014. He signed with them the following year.

Another St. Al lineman, Ben Brown, committed to Ole Miss after they offered him a scholarship in January. Brown, who will be a senior this season and graduate in May 2017, got on Ole Miss’ radar by attending its camp the past two summers.

Brown also plans to attend later this month. He said he went to several camps in 2015, but will only go to Ole Miss this year.

“I went in blindly. I had no idea what the recruiting process was like. I went to as many camps as possible, because I figured out that coaches like to evaluate players there,” said Brown, whose father and grandfather also played football at Ole Miss. “It’s one thing to see game film, but it’s another to see them in person and evaluate them with other prospects. So going to the camps is very important.”

Brown added that attending an on-campus camp is a way for a player to show both interest and respect to a coaching staff. That helps build a relationship between the two sides that can pay off down the road.

“Today, in the recruiting process, coaches want to be able to constantly see you. It’s a two-way relationship,” Brown said. “If they write you a letter, you need to at least contact them back. And a great way to show your interest in the program is to go to camps and stuff like that, so they know you’re willing to commit to the team.”

Besides gaining the attention of the host school, attending a summer camp can help players get noticed by other colleges.

When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh conducted a camp at Pearl High School in June, coaches from more than 20 other colleges were on hand to observe and conduct drills.

Rogers took nearly a dozen of his players to a camp in New Orleans that was hosted by LSU, but that also had representatives from every four-year school in Louisiana. He then took several Gators to a camp in Georgia that had nearly 100 coaches from around the country in attendance.

For players not on the national radar, Rogers said, the chance to work out in front of so many people at once was an opportunity not to be missed.

“We went to the Minority Coaches of Georgia camp. There were a thousand campers, and 101 coaches. You name them, they were there with their whole staff,” Rogers said. “Those are the best ones, to me, because there’s a variety of talent. Nobody might be LSU, but you might have a Lafayette or a Tulane, a Grambling or a Southern. I like those camps where there’s a variety of schools.”

Not all camps are created equal

While the on-campus camps are a bargain, they aren’t the only option out there — and some of the options come with a high price tag.

Football University, for example, is a three-day camp offered in various cities throughout the country during the summer. Also called “FBU,” it provides instruction from former NFL and college players, but costs $595 per session — not including travel and hotel expenses.

The two-day National Underclassmen Combine allows athletes to get data on a variety of measurables like 40-yard dash times and gives them experience with the drills coaches will put them through. It’s cheaper, at $25 to $99, but is not usually attended by college coaches.

When picking a camp to attend, Rogers and Morgan said there are several important questions to ask.

“You’ve got to be careful of them, because some are just money makers. The first thing I ask is how much money is it going to cost you, and who asks you to come,” Morgan said.

Rogers also cautioned parents about spending large sums of money on camps that offer only vague promises of exposure. While those have a purpose and can be beneficial, he said, they usually aren’t the best path to a college scholarship.

“The way to look it up is to find out who’s working the camp. If I’m FBU and I’ve got (former NFL receiver) Peter Warrick working the camp, and I’ve got Warren Moon working the camp, how is that helping my kid get to college?” Rogers said. “They can work with them mechanically. If you’re just going for straight mechanics, I can understand that. But if you’re going to get exposure, there’s no college coaches there. They can’t be there.

“So my word of advice is, if you’re looking for a mechanical camp, maybe those are the ones for you,” Rogers continued. “But if you’re looking to expose your child to get him to play at the next level to play college football, you send him to the college they want to attend.”

Seizing the initiative with social media

Besides attending on-campus camps and physically putting themselves in front of coaches, high school athletes today have another method of making a name for themselves — modern technology., a web site used by teams to easily trade and share game film, can also be used by players to make their own highlight tapes.

Those clips can then be shared on social media sites like Twitter and Snapchat, which can be viewed by college coaches at their leisure.

“I made a Twitter account and I have a HUDL account. I think every player on the team has a HUDL where you can create your own highlight tape and things like that,” Brown said. “Being active on social media is very important. As a player, you have to promote yourself. There’s 100,000 high school seniors that want to play college football, and what better way to get yourself out there than by creating a profile for yourself on Twitter, having your highlights and transcripts all together and being able to send that out to coaches?”

Rogers, who played at Jackson State from 1996-2000, said the rise of the internet and cell phones has dramatically changed the recruiting process in a relatively short period of time.

“Twitter and Snapchat has been big lately. Coaches can go on there and look at your film. They can’t contact you via phone, but with social media they can contact you,” Rogers said. “So the social media is a real big deal, with guys tweeting out videos on workouts and able to direct message with coaches at various colleges is big technology. It’s something we couldn’t do back in the day. We had VCR tapes and you had to send whole films.”

Rogers is entering his third season at Vicksburg and has already had 17 players go on to play at a junior college or four-year school. He said the competition for roster spots at the next level has increased dramatically in recent years, but there is also greater opportunity for players to make themselves known.

“It’s getting more difficult, but it’s getting easier to get exposed,” Rogers said.

Getting an early start

One reason the camps and self-promotion have become so important is that late bloomers are often left behind in the modern recruiting process.

A player who is good enough will almost always find somewhere to play, but if he’s not a known commodity early in his career it might not be at a prestige school.

“You’ve got to do something spectacular” to get offered in your senior year by a big school, Rogers said. “For the most part, those big Power 5 schools are on 2018.”

Brown committed to Ole Miss nearly a year ahead of when he’ll be able to sign a letter of intent in February 2017. He had offers from a half-dozen Division I schools before the 2015 season ended.

“Your senior season isn’t your make it or break it year. It’s moreso your junior year,” Brown said. “Coaches have already picked their guys. This summer is where they’re finalizing guys they want, and they wait until signing day for some of the bigger guys to commit or sign.”

Mistakes made early in a high school career — particularly in the classroom — can also come back to haunt players. Recruits must have a minimum GPA of 2.3 to play college sports, and a bad grade as a freshman or sophomore can cost a prospect down the line.

“On the field still trumps anything you do. Classwork still trumps anything you do,” Morgan said, “and that eliminates a lot of people.”

The changes in recruiting, Brown added, have made the process much more than what happens on Friday nights in the fall.

“Recruiting lasts all year long,” Brown said. “It’s four seasons long. It’s important to be active the whole time.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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