Copyright 2016 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
SALT LAKE CITY - From now until the first Wednesday in February, high school football players will be committing to play for colleges across the country.
Just 10 years ago, most of them did it without a lot of attention or fanfare. Thanks to social media and rising popularity of both high school and college football, signing day - which this year falls on Feb. 1 - is something of a national holiday for prep and college football fans.
It has been interesting to watch the recruiting trends shift in Utah over the last two decades. That was highlighted just a few days ago when Layton senior linebacker Tayler Katoa accepted an offer to play for USC, while Bingham's Cole Clemens committed to Vanderbilt.
In talking with football coaches before signing day nearly 10 years ago, we discussed how we might best give attention to all of those lucky enough to earn college scholarships. I actually covered most of the signings by myself, a task that would be impossible today.
So what's changed?
Are football players more talented today? Did coaches outside the state decide Utah had talent worth pursuing? Did Utah joining the Pac-12, local high school teams playing national prep powers out of state or coaches like Urban Meyer and Gary Andersen have anything to do with educating other coaches and scouts about football in the Beehive State?
What impact did social media have on the exposure of local talent? And what kind of role did recruiting services and scouting websites have on the trend?
Conversations with players, high school coaches and college recruiters suggest it may be the convergence of a number of factors that have not only led to more college coaches pursuing Utah kids but also more local athletes opting to play for out-of-state colleges.
About eight years ago I talked with several college coaches who were at Bingham High to watch a workout. They planned to attend workouts or practices at four other schools to see about a dozen players. One of them said they felt convincing local players to leave Utah was a long shot. Another coach added that some coaches had stopped offering Utah players because they simply used it as leverage to convince in-state schools to give them an offer.
I watched players pass up scholarship offers out of state in favor of preferred walk-on status at BYU or Utah.
On the flip side, two uniquely Utah factors presented barriers to Utah players accepting out-of-state offers - the LDS religion and Polynesian culture.
"One thing that's helped this process with mission kids is that kids can go on missions earlier," said Kearns coach Matt Rickards. "Before, that was a huge issue, absolutely, it has been a barrier." College programs didn't know how to handle a situation where a player was on scholarship for a year, then gone for two years, and sometimes abandoned the school for BYU afterward.
Today, more schools have learned from Utah schools as to how to accommodate those players committed to serving missions. It is still a barrier for some players, as it is still something some programs are unwilling to accommodate.
"Every single one of them ask, so it is an issue," Bingham head coach John Lambourne said. "I still think it's a potential drawback to some schools, but not as big as you might think."
Also, many of Utah's top recruits were Polynesian players. One aspect of the culture, that was sometimes misunderstood by out-of-state coaches, is the close familial ties, even with extended family. That not only made leaving unappealing for some players, it made recruiting difficult and sometimes made for misunderstandings.
So why are more and more players, of all types, willing to leave Utah?
For one thing, many players have done it. Sometimes a player leaves Utah because he doesn't have a choice.
"There's a lot of kids who aren't being recruited Division I, and they have to leave to play," said Highland High head coach Brody Benson.
The quality of football player is better today.
Whether that's due to more professionalism in coaching, better skill development camps or improvements at the college level that filter down to high school, is debatable. Likely, it's a combination of all of those things.
Rickards said the rise in social media and digital communication has been the great equalizer.
"These coaches don't have to see kids in person," Rickards said. "I can send game film electronically in three minutes, and I can send it to 50 coaches. I can get film to any coach in the country so these kids can be seen." Coaches said there are still players who would rather not play college football than leave that state, but that number is dwindling as they see guys playing out of state and doing well.
Scouting services, more media coverage of high school football and social media for both schools and players have all had profound impacts on recruiting. Marking a player or a program has never been easier or more direct.
But the most profound impact still comes from real connections.
Rickards has a player graduating from Dakota State, an NAIA school, and now they've offered another player, who is seriously considering it.
"They just want to play," he said. "I have another player who went to Southern Virginia University. ... They've learned to love the game, and they now see with these guys and their success that they don't have to go to a big university."
They watch friends and former teammates enjoying a few more years of football while earning a free education.
Utah ties definitely help recruit Utah players. William Penn signs a significant number of Utah athletes every year because both the university president and athletic director are from Utah.
"They use that as a recruiting tool, and they have great facilities," Rickards said. "They recruit Utah hard."
Benson and Lambourne echo the sentiment that seeing other players succeed in out-of-state program is the best endorsement a program can have.
Still, it's obvious, but worth pointing out there are so many factors that go into where and how players decide which scholarship to accept, there isn't a single reason why more out-of-state coaches are interested in local athletes, nor why those Utah kids are more likely to take the opportunity to play at an out-of-state program.
"The number of kids that have signed with Division I schools has increased," said Lambourne, who has coached for about four decades. "The interest in Utah kids has improved; them proving themselves out of state, it's a snowball effect. For the most part, these kids who have gone out of state have done well, and that lends itself to other kids having an opportunity."
Junior tight end Harrison Handley chose to play for Utah, and his advice for preps mulling offers is to be wary of what they believe. Interestingly, when asked what's the one mistake recruiters make when making a pitch to a prep player, Utah receivers coach Guy Holliday doesn't hesitate, "They lie."
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