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COVID-19 levels the playing field in college football recruiting

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Boca Ciega's Chris Phillips

Bowling Green was the first school to offer Chris Phillips nearly a year ago. The courtship continued through text messages, hand-written letters and phone calls.

The Falcons even added a technological twist in the wooing process by setting up at least three video chats during the current dead period. Their conversations were not just related to football. Bowling Green’s staff continuously checked up on the Boca Ciega running back and his family, including his two-month old daughter, Chrisiah.

“They really did the best job recruiting me,” Phillips said of the Falcons. “They were always in contact. They talked to my mom, too. It showed they cared.”

The offers kept coming from other Division I-A schools: Iowa State, Toledo, USF. Phillips had 13 in all. Last week, the rising senior decided to end his recruitment by picking Bowling Green. 

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The commitment came three days after Jacksonville Trinity Christian Academy’s Jacory Jordan pledged his allegiance to the Falcons. A dual-threat quarterback, Jordan chose Bowling Green over offers from five other schools, including FIU and USF. 

By landing two dynamic playmakers from the state, the Falcons showed they can compete not only with other programs in the Mid-American Conference but also with some of the Power Five teams. 

“Communication is all we can control,” said former Bloomingdale coach Max Warner, now the quarterbacks coach at Bowling Green and the school’s main recruiter for the area. “We are trying to stay in touch with all of our recruits and their families everyday. We put an emphasis on recruiting the family and not just speaking with the kids but also the parents.”

More than customizing their recruiting pitches, the Falcons, along with other schools in the Group of Five conferences, are standing toe-to-toe with some major programs for top-level talent by taking advantage of the current recruiting environment in college football. 

Earlier this month, the NCAA extended the dead period until May 31 due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. That means college coaches cannot have physical interactions with any recruit. Campus visits, junior days, invitations to spring practice — all staples of the latest evaluation period — have been eliminated. 

Typically, big-time programs would blanket the state — and the country —to check out prospects during this time. Once a visit was scheduled, teams could show off their state-of-the-art weight rooms and athletic centers. 

That all changed, at least for this spring, possibly even the summer.  

Bowling Green's Max Warner
Bowling Green’s Max Warner

“We are all on the same playing field now,” Warner said. “In the facilities arms race we can’t compete. We don’t have the recruiting staffs, or the media and graphic staffs as the Power Fives do but being in this situation we can try to out work them with a personal touch.”

The Falcons stay in contact with texts, tweets, Instagram posts, calls and video messages. Since players are unable to be on campus for tours, Bowling Green can take them on one virtually with web presentations.

Other Group of Five programs, particularly ones in the MAC and in the American Athletic Conference, have taken a similar approach. 

“We absolutely are trying to have a big virtual presence,” said former Plant coach Robert Weiner, now the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at Toledo. “I’m not quite sure it levels (the playing field), but it certainly gives us some leverage to put our best foot forward.”

The technological edge is limited with some of the Group of Five schools in the state. Take FIU. The Panthers have done well recruiting the Tampa Bay area the past few years. Their success is due partly to having recruits on campus to experience Miami for themselves.   

“The virtual presence has most definitely been emphasized heavily over the last few weeks,” said FIU tight ends coach Drew Davis, son of Panthers coach Butch Davis. “Some schools, depending on resources, have more than others to show virtually. You know, for some, I can see this working to their advantage, and I’m pretty sure everyone is doing the same thing, sending as much virtual campus, facility, dorm, staff and city footage they can get a hold of.

“You know that’s one of our biggest things we think we have for us at FIU. If we can get a kid down to Miami, on campus, around the staff, school, city and facilities, that we can compete with anyone. But right now virtual is the best we all can do. Fortunately for us, and everyone in this state, we all have good weather to sell.”

Tampa Bay Tech safety Stephen Parker knows all about the push from Group of Five and Division I-AA schools. The rising senior gets daily phone calls from North Dakota State and occasional text messages from Georgia State and Western Kentucky. 

Tampa Bay Tech's Stephen Parker
Tampa Bay Tech’s Stephen Parker

Bowling Green took it up a notch, setting up a virtual campus tour before extending an offer to Parker last week. 

“With everything that’s going on, it’s not good enough for schools to just think they can recruit off their name alone,” Titans coach Jayson Roberts. “Now, it’s more about the work you put in to land someone.”

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Wiregrass Ranch’s Rocco Becht commits to Iowa State

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Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht has committed to Iowa State.

The rising senior made the announcement on his Twitter page Friday afternoon. 

Becht, the son of former Jets and Buccaneers tight end Anthony Becht, is listed as a three-star prospect  by 247 Sports and had offers from 13 colleges. He is just the second recruit for the Cyclones in the 2022 class and the lone one from the area. 

Iowa State has done well landing locals. In fact, this marks the fifth straight recruiting class the Cyclones have secured at least commitment from an area player. 

Becht took over as Wiregrass Ranch’s starting quarterback in 2019. As a junior last season, he threw for 1,550 yards and 18 touchdowns and was named the offensive player of the year for the East Division of the Sunshine Athletic Conference.  

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Berkeley Prep’s CJ Hawkins commits to Florida

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Berkeley Prep’s CJ Hawkins committed to Florida, becoming the second area recruit to join the Gators’ 2022 class in the past week. 

Hawkins publicly announced his decision on his Twitter page Sunday afternoon. His pledge to Florida comes three days after Carrollwood Day offensive lineman Tony Livingston committed to the Gators. 

Both are unique prospects. Hawkins, a 6-foot-7, 220 pound tight end, went out for football this season after concentrating on basketball his first two years at Berkeley Prep. In fact, he offers in basketball from IUPI, USF and Western Michigan.

His size and athleticism made football programs take notice. This offseason, Hawkins enjoyed a meteoric rise and held 29 offers from Division I-A schools. 

Livingston also played basketball and plans to play both sports at Florida. It is unclear whether Hawkins would do the same. 

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Sickles’ Javohn Thomas commits to USF

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Sickles receiver Javohn Thomas has committed to USF, becoming the first recruit in the Bulls’ 2022 class. 

“I love coach (Jeff) Scott, and it feels like a great place for me,” said Thomas, who picked USF over offers from Florida International and South Dakota. 

As a junior, Thomas had 37 receptions for 540 yards and four touchdowns. 

The two-sport star also played basketball and was the Gryphons’ leading scorer this past season. Thomas said he talked to USF basketball coach Brian Gregory about joining the team and wants to play both sports in college. 

If Thomas does, he will continue what has become an area trend. 

Carrollwood Day’s Mike Trigg, one of the nation’s top tight ends, plans on playing football and basketball at Southern California as a freshman this coming season. Trigg’s teammate with the Patriots, Tony Livingston, announced his commitment to Florida on Thursday. The rising senior intends on playing football and basketball with the Gators. 

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