The Recruiting Game Part 1: Commitment

Committing to Decommitment

Verbal commitment is a key, buzz phrase now in recruiting, but also something of a misnomer. Recruits cannot actually sign letters of intent until February of their senior year, but the verbal commitment is intent-for-intent.

Because verbal commits are not binding, recruits can and do back off of them. No statistics exist to suggest it’s an epidemic, but it is a point of contention among some fans and even coaches — just ask Texas A&M wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead.

Moorehead launched into a Twitter tirade the night of 5-star quarterback Tate Martell’s decommitment from a verbal pledge.

From Moorehead’s rant stems a reasonable question: Why commit if it’s unnecessary and the pledge isn’t 100 percent firm?

There is an answer to that and Sooner Scoop publisher Josh McCuistion believes many factors can play a role in why a kid would commit early in the recruiting process.

“It depends on a number of variables,” he said. “Whether someone is under-recruited. It could depend on age, sometimes it’s a recruit’s personality that plays into it. The family pressure, or outside sources, coaches, some sort of third-party connection. Things like that.”

Former North Carolina Tar Heel Michael Felder now travels the country covering top-tier recruiting events as an analyst for Bleacher Report. Through his interaction with recruits, he touches on some of the other “things” that go into an early commitment.

“Pressure, euphoria, exhaustion and knowing you can fix a mistake later all play into commitments,” he said. “Exhaustion is another big reason, kids are sick of the process before it even gets full swing. Coaches texting. Coaches emailing. Coaches calling. Going to this camp. Going to that camp. Chatting for hours with a bunch of coaches all trying to woo you when all you want to do is play video games, see your girlfriend, hang with friends or even just sleep. So, to try and stem the tide they pull the trigger to hopefully get a couple fewer calls and texts.”

In some instances, the pressure to take a spot now can be too much for some kids. At the root of decommitment is a commitment that came too early in the process; a prospect assuming he had seen all recruiting had to offer.

But herein lies why gaining that first scholarship offer is so important: more typically follow. And, if one of the offers to follow is from a quote-unquote dream school, the game changes.

Change is inevitable, thus coaches and fans should expect decommitments. And yet, an all-too prevalent opinion offers no flexibility on verbal commitments.

This perspective is inherently ironic, given athletes, media, and athletic directors are expected to understand that it’s part of the business when a coach suddenly leaves for a better opportunity. And yet, if the kid he is recruiting does the same, he is afforded no such luxury and sometimes branded as a problem recruit.

Meanwhile, coaching changes can have a profound impact on a player well after the recruiting process plays out.

“Those are the men who pound the table for you,” Felder said. “Then when they get fired or take other jobs, you can become just a guy on a roster if you have no relationship with the new guy. Better to leave and go somewhere that’s loved you since you were a rising sophomore than take your chance with a guy hired in December or January.”

Kercheval also believes that the relationships these kids form with assistant coaches and position coaches can often play more of a role than people realize. After all, these are the guys spending much of their time on the phone and visiting in person.

“We are always talking about changes in head coaching but sometimes these kids build a relationship with these assistant coaches and these relationships form years in advance,” he said. “They can start at summer camps, it can start with the unofficial visits, things like that and so you develop these relationships with these coaches and so players can decommit if a coach is no longer there.”

In the past offseason, college football experienced unprecedented turnover with 29 head-coaching changes. That’s almost one-quarter of the entire Football Bowl Subdivision.

All those head coaches bring with them new support staff — and that’s to say nothing of the staffing changes made by incumbent head coaches.

The shelf-life on assistant coaches remains short. And yet, Woody said in his time as a recruit and player, those are the people who often had the greatest impact on his development.

“I think for me, it was less of a relationship with the recruiter and more of a relationship with the prospective people I was going to spend my time with — position coach, head coach, and strength coach,” Woody said. “Those are the people that I was most interested in interacting with and building a relationship. Imagine going out and looking for a job. The cool part of recruiting is that most of the time there is a market for you somewhere.”

As with any relationship, timing and friends matter; just replace ‘friends’ with ‘coaches’ and not much changes when it’s a recruiting relationship.