Opinions vary about how much college football recruiting matters, but it likely falls somewhere between irrelevant and all-encompassing. Each of the past 18 national champions has signed at least one top-10 recruiting class in the four years leading up to its title, but a highly ranked class guarantees nothing, which is how Appalachian State can rank 100th in a four-year weighted recruiting average but 29th in ESPN’s Football Power Index, and Arkansas can rank 25th in recruiting but 91st in FPI.1 The early part of summer is when programs build their futures by hosting recruits on visits, evaluating them at camps and seeing them at their high schools.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shut down those activities, along with everything else in college athletics, and the effects could be sweeping. Nike has canceled high-profile Elite 11 regional quarterback camps. Under Armour’s recruiting camps are postponed, too. The NCAA has mandated a recruiting dead period through June 30, and stay-at-home orders wiped out virtually all on-campus recruiting events.
COVID-19 has placed the rest of the 2021 recruiting cycle in flux, but any recruiting evaluation this far ahead of the early signing period in December is inexact. For the class of 2020, 49 players were not in any of the three major scouting service’s rankings2 during the week of July 22, 2019, but did appear in one of the final rankings. Fifteen prospects jumped by more than 100 spots in an average of the three rankings.
|Player||Committed school||In July 2019||Now||Change|
|Jahmyr Gibbs||Georgia Tech||339||83||+256|
|Edgerrin Cooper||Texas A&M||339||157||+182|
|CJ Stroud||Ohio State||215||43||+172|
|Donell Harris*||Texas A&M||199||51||+148|
|Josh Downs||North Carolina||228||95||+133|
|Davin Vann||NC State||339||232||+107|
|Loic Fouonji||Texas Tech||339||234||+105|
|Eric Shaw||South Carolina||339||235||+104|
|Ozzy Trapilo||Boston College||313||211||+102|
When the dust settled on the 2020 class, the biggest riser was Jahmyr Gibbs, a running back from Dalton, Georgia. In the 247Sports.com composite rankings on Feb. 15, 2019, Gibbs was the 1,010th-ranked player in the country. At this time last year (May 31), he was 587th, and by the start of the season, he was still only 438th. But he opened his senior year by rushing for 420 yards and eight touchdowns on 23 carries, and he finished last season as a Sports Illustrated All-American, with 2,554 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns — the kind of explosion that makes everyone take notice. By Oct. 15, he was up to 300th in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, and now he is 178th on ESPN.com, 70th on Rivals.com and 44th in the 247Sports.com rankings.
A breakout season like Gibbs’s is not uncommon, but this fall, a season like that may not be possible. States across the country are all facing questions about whether the 2020 high school football season can go on. Some coaches in California have even discussed moving part of the season to next spring, which could be after signing day. With college camps and on-campus visits also canceled for much of the year, the recruiting rankings next spring could look much like they do today — which, as we know, would not account for potential player improvement. Had he not played 11 games last fall, Jahmyr Gibbs would remain unknown to most of college football outside the state of Georgia.
“These guys that are five stars and have been committed since eighth grade, it’s not going to affect those kids,” Dalton coach Matt Land told me this week. “But there’s so many kids that are not those kids, that are one-star, two-star, three-star kids, that earn these scholarships because they have 2,000 yards on the year or they have 11 interceptions on the year. And they’re not going to have those numbers, potentially, because they’re not going to have those games.”
Gibbs’s rise didn’t change his college decision. He committed to Georgia Tech on May 25, 2019, and signed there in February despite late interest from Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Florida. But many fortunes do change as the rankings fluctuate over the course of a season. A year ago, quarterback CJ Stroud’s most recent offers had come from Baylor, New Mexico, Kansas and Washington State; since then, the four-star California recruit has vaulted from No. 860 to No. 41 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings and signed with Ohio State.
A slower recruiting cycle could mean that midtier schools hold onto their overlooked prospects, which is telling, because right now the 2021 team rankings show a number of anomalies: No. 2 Tennessee, No. 4 North Carolina, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Iowa, No. 20 Georgia and No. 46 Alabama. Those rankings may be misleading, as they value not just average player rating but also the number of players committed to a school at that time. Georgia and Alabama recruits so far are averaging ratings of over 94 on a 100-point scale; if those schools fill out a class with the same average player rating, they’ll end up in the top five — and push out other schools that look good right now.
But North Carolina, for example, may be in the top 10 for good. Mack Brown’s program already has 14 commitments, including 10 four-star prospects. Some of them could surely change their minds, but 13 of the 14 commits are in-state players, and if the coronavirus continues to shut down or limit travel into the fall, recruits may be unable to visit campuses as usual and hesitant to pick a school far from home. “You love your family, you’re wanting everybody healthy,” Brown told the Associated Press. “So I do think that this is encouraging people to stay closer to home.” California defensive end Korey Foreman, the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, initially committed to Clemson but has reopened his recruitment in part because of the long distance.
College football has come to be defined by a measure of near-certainty: The elite programs3 routinely sign elite recruiting classes,4 and those recruits have routinely developed into elite players. But the coronavirus brings an infusion of uncertainty, the kind of force that could rearrange a hierarchy. Alabama coach Nick Saban, the pillar of reliability in college football, seems to have a grasp of what we’re in for the rest of the year: “We’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said, “and I’m sure it’s going to keep on changing.”