Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio might not always see eye to eye, but there is one subject on which they agree. Both are bothered by the acceleration of the recruiting process in college football in recent years.
"I'm not a big fan of recruiting sophomores because sophomores change, and it's kind of forcing our coaches' hand," Meyer said earlier this week at Big Ten media days in Chicago.
When he became head coach at Ohio State in late 2011, many saw the formation of the perfect marriage of coach and program. An Ashtabula, Ohio, native with experience recruiting all across the country taking over a program with a national brand situated in the middle of the Midwest's best talent producing state seemed like the best of both worlds, but recruiting his home state has been no slam dunk for Meyer even as he has signed back-to-back-to-back top five classes.
He and his staff have gotten the majority of in-state players they have targeted, but there were plenty of very competitive battles along the way. There have also been defections, including legacy linebacker Mike McCray of Trotwood-Madison in 2013 and Hubbard running back L.J. Scott last month. Scott is among a handful of highly regarded Ohioans already headed elsewhere in the 2015 class, a group including Cleveland Benedictine linebacker Jerome Baker, Lakewood St. Edward cornerback Shaun Crawford, Cincinnati Moeller defensive tackle Elijah Taylor, Warren Harding defensive end Hjalte Forholdt and Huber Heights Wayne cornerback Tyree Kinnel.
Relationships are almost always the trump card in recruiting, and building them early generally proves to be key. Players committing prior to their senior year has become common in the past six to seven years, but the trend continues to move toward earlier and earlier commitments.
"I want to watch them play their junior year and we start losing kids because they say, 'You didn't offer me yet,'" Meyer said. "So we're going to be more aggressive from here on out. I don't like that, but we hit a couple big ones, and then we have a much smaller class this year. In the past we've had 25 -- it's only going to be about 15. I hate that. I'd love to have 10 in January, now they don't let you do that.
"Think about that -- they don't let you watch a kid play his senior year now, but that's kind of the business we're in."
Dantonio, a Zanesville native and head coach of defending Big Ten champion Michigan State, shared the same concern as Meyer when it comes to recruiting younger and younger players.
"It's a tough situation because you take a guy who's a sophomore or an early junior and you're starting to recruit him before his junior year," Dantonio said. "You really haven't seen him play. I don't know how much film guys watch from senior film because they're already committed, so what product are you getting?
"I think you see some individuals sort of get there and it's really maybe not the product that you thought you were getting. There's so much early evaluation but you're recruiting a guy who is 250 pounds at that point in time, he's got to gain 30 or 40 pounds -- or not. And so he has to be developed and there's a lot of development at those ages, just naturally between a 15- and 16-year-old and a 17-year-old."
Linemen are generally regarded as the toughest to project, but Dantonio said skill position players can be difficult as well.
"That's a good question because what's the growth potential? How much can they grow? If you're recruiting a skill guy, maybe he's 5-10-1/2, is he gonna be a 5-10-1/2 guy or a six-foot guy? You just don't know because there's a lot of development there," Danotnio said. "And I think with the offensive line, do they gain good weight, or do they gain bad weight? Can they keep their foot speed with that weight or can they not?"
He used All-Big Ten defensive end Shilique Calhoun as an example.
"I think the offensive and defensive line, Shilique came in at 215 pounds and he's 258 now, so it's just difficult," Dantonio said. "It's just difficult to assess period, especially you may not see them in camp because they may be a sophomore and may not come to a camp or whatever the case. I think you have a pretty good handle on guys around you, but then you start talking about guys who are far away, it gets a little difficult."
Despite their misgivings, Meyer and Dantonio have waded into the early recruiting pool, where they join Michigan head coach Brady Hoke and many others. In some cases, they are trying to hold off lower-tier programs hoping to build a strong enough relationship early to steal high-caliber players before the big boys come calling with serious interest.
"Yeah, yeah, it's something you have to do to stay with it," Meyer said. "I'm not saying we're full-speed into it. I heard a story about someone committed a quarterback as a young player and he got beat out. He's not playing anymore. That's what happens."
He used his high school-age son, Nate, growing several inches from one year to the next as an example.
"Yeah, I don't like it at all."
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