Not everyone would agree with my view that recruiting is the most important variable in college sports, but it’s one that is critical nonetheless. This paper is not necessarily to rehash that argument, but to acknowledge that recruiting exists, and therefore programs should be good at it if they plan on being good on the gridiron.
A quick review of 2013:
Georgia closed with a top ten recruiting class for only the second time in the last four years. But more than that, there was a feeling that Georgia left some players on the table in the 2013 class. Its hard to argue that wasn’t the case. Consider running back: Georgia didn’t get a commitment from the top two running backs in the state – Tyren Jones and Alvin Kamara – and lost out on a player they once had a commitment from… Derrick Henry. All three players went to Alabama – giving the Tide four running backs in one class (a staggering recruiting accomplishment).
Most of the focus of Georgia’s recruiting inadequacies (and its always what didn’t happen that people focus on, but that’s another issue) is that the Bulldogs missed out on high-level in-state prospects like Kamara or Montravius Adams. But that simplifies and misleads the issue.
A New World
Increasingly, there are no borders in football recruiting. Basketball recruiting has been that way for decades. The notion that a player or a prospect has any sort of allegiance to the University of Georgia because they grew up in Norcross or even in Hahira needs to vanish… that’s not the world we live in any more.
For instance: The top players in talent-rich states like Georgia, Florida and Texas are not necessarily going to play for the flagship state school. From 2010 to 2013, 120 total players have combined to make up the top ten players in Georgia, Florida and Texas.
Of the 40 players each in that time in their own states, Georgia signed 13 of 40 (33%), Florida signed 9 of 40 (23%) and Texas signed 16 of 40 (40%). 27 Georgia natives in the top ten left the Peach State to play football elsewhere; 17 left the Sunshine State; 14 left the Lonestar State. In fact, more players left those three states, 18 of 30 total recruits, in 2013 than stayed at home.
In-state recruiting may be seen as something that’s an advantage for Georgia and others, but that’s not necessarily the case, and that thinking is not modern. That thinking may be the case when comparing Georgia against Georgia Tech in the state (the Yellow Jackets didn’t sign a single player in the top ten in the previous four years) or Texas against Texas A&M (the Longhorns hold a 16-7 advantage over the Aggies in that time). But that’s the wrong way to think of recruiting in 2014 and beyond.
The world has changed… in many ways. It is critical to understand (for the purposes of recruiting) that there is no state of Georgia. In fact, there are no states at all. Borders don’t exist. There is a frame of mind, but there are no borders.
Georgia is as likely to sign the top player from North Carolina (Keith Marshall), South Carolina (Tramel Terry), Tennessee (Sheldon Dawson) or Florida (John Theus) as it is to sign the top player from Georgia (Robert Nkemdiche, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Isaiah Crowell or Da’Rick Rogers).
What should be underlined is that players from Atlanta are not from Georgia – they are from Atlanta, which is not necessarily Georgia. This distinction is well felt in every-day recruiting, but it must be underscored. The Georgia Bulldogs themselves are one of the biggest sports properties in the South, but they compete with a slew of different properties and mixed messages in Atlanta, which is the melting pot of the South.
Gwinnett County, which is almost certainly home to the largest number of Bulldog fans of any county in the state, is littered with fans from all over the country – specifically Tennesse, Auburn, Alabama and Clemson fans. There is a mixed message in suburban Atlanta – Georgia does not control the city. It’s the biggest thing going, but does a kid from Peachtree Ridge, Stephenson or Grayson really care about Georgia? Increasingly, we are seeing that they don’t.
The focus of recruiting on the state of Georgia is the starting point. Mark Richt has always been clear that he wants to sign the top players in Georgia, and that he is going to give those players, if they are talented enough, the first right of refusal to come play for the Bulldogs.
That’s a noble idea from a noble man – but it is officially outdated thinking in the world we live in today. In other words, there is too much emphasis – or scorekeeping – on how well Georgia does in state.
Georgia’s goal should be to get five of the top ten players in the state –understanding that losing more than that is ineffectively recruiting in the Peach State. With that understanding, Georgia can turn its focus to other talent-rich areas of the South.
Georgia needs to take advantage of football recruiting weakness in the Carolinas. The area is jammed with high-level players like Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall who can supplement inevitable in-state losses.
The Carolinas are littered with Georgia fans. There is a strangely-high number of Georgia fans in the Charleston area – a area, like suburban Atlanta, that is faithful to the in-state schools, but not in a way that sways prospects to stay in state no matter what. Charlotte is the same way. There is no football power in North Carolina, and Georgia is an attractive alternative to playing in the ACC with the Clemson Tigers, who would be Georgia’s primary competition for prospects in the Carolinas. Tennessee is also somewhat dependant on the Carolinas, but has failed to recruit well in the two-state region over time.
Florida, particularly the Miami area, is a free-for-all. But the Bulldogs should know (and almost certainly already do know) that while the South Florida area is full of skill the likes of which is not easily found in the rest of the country, it is an area full of folks with their hands out.
The Sunshine state has always been a critical part of the Georgia recruiting process, and for the most part the program has done well there. Many Floridians dot the roster at Georgia, but Miami is an area of the state the Bulldogs should focus even more on.
Georgia should do its best to identify weakness in a market and invade it. There are no loyalties in the mid-Atlantic, Los Angeles, South Florida, the Carolinas and certainly not suburban or inner city Atlanta.
Free your mind that recruiting has to make sense – ie that something is “supposed” to happen because it always has, or that it “should” happen because it makes the most sense. We are talking about recruiting, and nothing in recruiting is required to make sense… ever.
One of the biggest areas Georgia can improve in the “nothing has to make sense” category is the way in which is treats its recruiting relationship with the Atlanta area.
Georgia can’t treat Atlanta like the city is its home because its not. The Bulldogs may well be the home team, but that guarantees you nothing in 2014 and beyond. The recruiting world is flat – use that as the starting point and go from there as, again, there are no borders.
Georgia needs to start getting its message out more in Atlanta. Tennessee and Auburn have both put billboards up around the state and in Atlanta. Every time Montravius Adams got off of his exit on I-75 there was an Auburn billboard there to greet him. Did that help his decision to go to Auburn? Advertisers would tell you that the repetition of seeing the sign didn’t hurt the Tigers’ chances.
It was a smart move by Auburn – when is Georgia going to think the same way? Is it so ridiculous to put a billboard up? Better yet (and this is the real area where Georgia fails to deliver on a consistent basis) was there critical thinking regarding what to do to compete with Auburn in Vienna on a day-to-day basis?
Seems trivial doesn’t it? It is. But every thing you do and don’t do matters in recruiting.
That’s just an example of things Georgia doesn’t currently do that it could do quickly in order to change. If it seems a little desperate to you that means, to me, you are looking at things the wrong way. Georgia shouldn’t take for granted that anyone – unless they live in either Oconee or Clarke County – will go to Georgia without a major recruiting effort on a slew of different levels including things as simple as billboards.
Georgia should seriously consider putting up advertising, or have a footprint of some sort on major highways in the Atlanta area – specifically on Highway 316 in Gwinnett County and at the Georgia Dome where so many high school contests are played.
This is the start, and most basic thing Georgia can do. It already has in place a popular head coach who has a very good reputation as a person dedicated to winning the right way. But Georgia needs to get its message across at times other than when the team is playing on the field – that’s where the new approach comes in.
Gwinnett County, the county with more high-level football players than anywhere else in the state, should be an easy place to start, but its an area that’s not always easy for the Bulldogs to figure out.
Five players in the top 20 in the state in 2013 were from Gwinnett County – Georgia signed one of them… Reggie Carter. That’s not good enough – not good enough by anyone’s standards.
This is an area where Georgia must improve immediately.
Georgia should start by dividing the county up more. There are 17 public high schools in Gwinnett County as well as Buford City Schools and private schools like GACS. The staff should have at least four recruiters in Gwinnett County splitting the schools up five a piece. It should relentlessly hammer its message to the kids at those suburban schools.
What could certainly gain attention in Gwinnett is to hold a Friday night practice at the Gwinnett branch of the University of Georgia. A practice in Gwinnett would be completely allowable under NCAA rules, but Georgia would have to get past an SEC ruling that practices must take place “on campus”… it remains to be seen if that’s possible – and even then, the campus doesn’t have athletic fields. The SEC (not the NCAA) prevents programs from practicing in the spring at high schools. It is not clear if a pre-season (fall) practice at a high school practice is possible per the SEC, but Georgia used to practice at the Falcons’ indoor facility, so leaving campus specifically can’t be against any by-laws.
(For the record, as the SEC currently regulates its members, it is well within NCAA rules that Clemson be able to hold an off-campus practice at Buford High School. Georgia wouldn’t be able, to, however, because the SEC doesn’t permit that at this time. In fact, as it stands right now, both Clemson and Georgia Tech could hold practices at Clarke Central, but Georgia couldn’t.)
The notion of a practice at Georgia’s Gwinnett Campus (and it should be pointed out that the Gwinnett Campus isn’t the University of Georgia at Gwinnett; its still the University of Georgia) that would also give Georgia the opportunity to take their product – out of season – to a talent-rich part of the state. It would be easy, smart and out of the box – perfect for capturing the minds of recruits in the area. Often in recruiting, programs have a high conversion rate with players they get on their campus. In this scenario, Georgia would bring their campus to the prospects – and that’s something that’s not practical for any school besides Georgia Tech.
DeKalb County presents a slightly more challenging set of circumstances for the Bulldogs. There’s no question that DeKalb, particularly the area around Tucker, is sympathetic to Georgia. But a kid from DeKalb is different than a kid from Gwinnett, so a different approach should be taken.
There are 19 public schools in DeKalb as well as Decatur City Schools and the likes of Marist and St. Pius. Georgia should, again, focus on this county as it churns out NFL talent like few in the country. With that in mind, however, one has to remember that the schools in DeKalb can be very different. The coaches recruiting at Marist shouldn’t necessarily be the same coach recruiting at Southwest DeKalb – different kid… different message.
South Fulton County has been a disaster zone for Georgia for a long, long time in football recruiting. Westlake, Creekside and others have sent many players on to successful college and even NFL careers. Most all of them went to schools besides. Georgia. The Bulldogs need to get into the South Fulton communities and start to work. The amount of talent in the area is high, and the allegiance to programs is virtually none. Georgia needs to work on this area of the state in a big way.
The overall message of the Georgia program – “Finish the Drill” – doesn’t have to change, but the way in which Georgia sells that idea to each kid will almost certainly change from county to county, school to school and prospect to prospect. There is no catch all way of recruiting as it is far too complicated.
For instance, “Finish the Drill” for a kid at Brookwood may mean getting drafted in the NFL, while the kid at Cedar Grove may view “Finishing the Drill” may mean getting into medical school.
Understanding that prospects are different than one another – each prospect is almost certainly different in some way than another – brings up an important thing to understand about recruiting in 2014 and beyond… you are recruiting Millennials. And selling to them is not easy – just ask Coke and Pepsi.
What are millennials? They are the most self-obsessed, diverse, stressed, savvy and connected generation in the history of the world… they are also very, very smart. The modern prospect is armed with a cell phone and a twitter account ready to tell his every feeling to the world at any moment – impulse control is not a forgone conclusion with millennials. If they see something they like they want it… NOW. The typical millennial finds himself to be the most important person in his world. They are not easily impressed because they have already seen so much. They, in a nutshell, are typically a challenge.
That’s probably why there are more players committing, rethinking, switching and de-committing than every before. The term “soft commitment” used to be a rarely-used phrase in the recruiting world that meant a player was committed to one school, but was visiting others. Now, that’s just a typical Saturday in the fall.
The key is the cell phone.
If Georgia wants to win recruiting in the near future, it needs to win the cell phone war – and not just with other schools. It has to win the cell phone war for the attention of the prospect – that includes girls and games, too. That’s probably something Mark Richt doesn’t want to think about, but I would wager a very large sum of Richt’s money that prospects would say their #1 possession is their cell phone.
MediaPost.com recently wrote: “If you aren't reaching Millennials on mobile devices, you probably aren't reaching them.”
With that in mind, Georgia needs to develop an ever-changing app in which the staff and or coaches can give customizable updates to prospects they are recruiting. Georgia doesn’t just need to be on Pheed and Twitter, it needs to develop a message catering to every single prospect they are recruiting and deliver in an effective way. Being on Twitter and Pheed isn’t enough… being on is just the minimum. You have to deliver your message, and interact with the prospect in a way they are accustomed to.
Millennials are not like typical consumers as they don’t respond well to overtures that are one way. Georgia can’t just deliver a message. It must understand that millennials don’t absorb a message; they interact with it – and there is a huge, huge difference in the two.
2014 millennials were ten when Twitter started; they are as used to social media at 17 as I was to memorizing girlfriends’ home telephone numbers when I was in high school.
Georgia also needs to be prepared to fight out the text wars that are about to commence in August thanks to the new recruiting rule changes in the NCAA.
If you think millennials are self obsessed and stressed now, just think about how much more that will be the case after August.
It’s important, too, to make Georgia seem like something that is organic. That shouldn’t be too difficult in Georgia, but could be slightly more challenging outside of the state. But then again: there are no borders in recruiting – just states of mind.
Millennials are skeptical of brands – i.e. Georgia, Alabama and Auburn – and associate more with people. For instance, millennials probably want to play for Nick Saban more than they want to play for Alabama. That’s why coaches are so very important in recruiting 2014.
In addition, millennials’ parents, who are referred to by many college administrators as “helicopter parents” are a challenge as well. A “helicopter parent” hovers over their millennial – often getting involved in minute details of their lives. This practice has been made very easy, again, by the power of a cell phone.
The cell phone can be an asset or an impediment for Georgia. Again, Georgia should contract with a web development company to produce an app that the Bulldogs can develop for each individual player, and then give that player his customizable app, which Georgia, at any time, can update with highlights from games – including former Bulldogs in the NFL. Mark Richt could quickly say hello to the recruit... and it’s all delivered via the app.
Own the cell phone.
Taking Full Advantage
Richt should also mention recruiting more when he’s got the spotlight on him. After wins, of which Georgia has had 22 in the last two years, TV usually talks with the head coach of the winning team for a moment. The spot is almost always live, and that’s a huge moment for Richt to dodge the question and speak directly to the recruits watching.
“This was a wonderful win for Georgia tonight Tracy, and I just want to let all of those recruits watching at home to know that Georgia is the place where we can develop you into the next Jarvis Jones… man he was a game-changer tonight.”
That’s it… its that simple. Take advantage of the moment when you have the attention of the captive audience. Recruits will think you are talking to them – even if you don’t mean them specifically.
In addition, Georgia has a huge network of people on the ground in areas they are recruiting. It needs to take better advantage of the intelligence it can gather from talking with those people. Georgia is know for being standoffish about recruiting – and that’s fine – but its another item the program is not taking advantage of that it could.
One other aspect of advantage Georgia has in terms of geography and people being on the ground is the ability to know quicker than any other program which players are eliete in the state before anyone else. Georgia took advantage of that with Brice Ramsey – a player who was 15 years old when they offered. But Georgia didn’t offer Norcross DE/OLB Lorenzo Carter until January 2013 – months after Arkansas, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Penn State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt offered him. Ohio State, Alabama and Florida all offered Carter before Georgia.
It’s a puzzling way to recruit a player who was clearly a Georgia-level player in September 2012. It’s not puzzling – it makes no sense. Perhaps Georgia is checking all of its boxes – making sure a player can get into school; being certain there are no red flags. But you can’t recruit being worried about the outlier. Markeith Ambles and Michael Grant were not the rule in recruiting; they were the exception. Georgia has become more aggressive over the last few years and understands better how much an early offer can change things. But they still have some work to do on this front.
University of Georgia president Michael Adams is retiring at the end of June, and has been appointed to the NCAA's committee on infractions. Mark Richt and Adams need to have (if they haven’t already had) a very, very long discussion on programs in the SEC committing infractions.
Georgia, quite simply (and they aren’t the only ones), is at a recruiting disadvantage because of cheating in the NCAA. Because so many NCAA by-laws being broken are not in violation of federal, state or local laws being broken, there is no recourse for schools not to cheat. The problem, too, is that in so many cases (i.e. the SEC’s long-term contract with ESPN) the media itself is in bed with the schools and conferences. One has to wonder if it really is in anyone’s best interest to have schools turned in from breaking by-laws.
Still, violations of by-laws, which results in probation, continues to happen. Consider that since 2002, six schools in the SEC have been on probation for violation for not their football programs not following by-laws: Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina (twice) and Alabama (twice).
No conference has had that many programs on probation. In short, the SEC is out of control, and Adams probably knows where some of the bodies are buried around the South. He needs to be as proactive as possible while serving in his new capacity.
A day will come when the SEC’s reputation as being the dirtiest in college football won’t be cute anymore, and it will have far-reaching and fiscal ramifications for everyone in the conference.
Georgia, too, needs to be as up front as possible with prospects.
“We are not going to cheat… don’t expect us to cheat – that’s not the way we go about doing things.”
I’m not sure if that message is as clear as it needs to be with prospects. If that message is up front from the get go (and its tricky because by saying “we are not going to cheat” you are opening up a slew of doors; Why say that? Who cheats? Are you saying that because you think I want something?) there will be no confusion in the end. And in the end, of late, there has been some confusion.
Adapt or die. That’s a black-and-white way of thinking, but its true in the end. Georgia doesn’t have a recruiting problem – it has an imagination problem. Classic “Georgia” kids – John Theus, Keith Marshall or even Isaiah Crowell – are easy to win over. They want to be at Georgia, but in the future fewer and fewer prospects are going to be that way. Georgia can’t just sign “players who want to be here.” That’s the silliest way to go about recruiting. That is to say that Georgia didn’t really want Laremy Tunsil and Alvin Kamara? Then why were they recruited?
That’s the wrong mindset. It understandable to say that on Signing Day – because in that moment it is true. But before that moment that’s something a program says to assure itself that it’s still OK. That can’t be the attitude behind closed doors as it is a defeatist attitude, that (at least to some degree) makes it seem that it is OK for a high-level player not to sign with Georgia.
Georgia’s recruiting isn’t broken – not at all. When a program signs the top quarterback in the South and a slew of ready-to-contribute players for a fall campaign that has very high expectations nothing is broken.
But the tires on Georgia’s car are a little unbalanced. It’s hard to notice the uneven tread on the tires when going slower than 65 miles an hour because the car performs well at that speed. But when its time to get on the interstate and go 80 miles and hour to sign the top players around you can feel the car wobble a little – and you can see the other cars passing the Dawgs by.
That’s where Georgia is at – time for a little tune up, and perhaps a new set of tires. It’s not nearly time to throw the car out.