Young football players are earning scholarships on the camp circuit this month.
By ZAC JACKSON FS Ohio
MASSILLON, Ohio - Going camping this month?
If you're a high school football player hoping to become a college football player -- or a college coaching staff trying to secure commitments from priority recruits -- you almost certainly are.
The recruiting business is as big and as fast-moving as it's ever been, and in June it centers around the camp circuit. College programs nationwide host camps for young players, all of whom come for the instruction but many come for the evaluation, too. Recruiting drives everything in college football, and making positive matches gives coaches a chance to keep driving.
Almost every match begins with a handshake -- and a stopwatch.
Not only are these camps bringing young players to campus, but the camps offer them a chance to interact with and receive instruction from coaches who either are or potentially could be recruiting them. In the highly-regulated recruiting world, this is priceless interaction.
Today, more than ever, top programs are seeking out players and securing commitments before they play their final season of high school football -- and in a lot of cases, even earlier. Almost everybody is on Twitter, from the top prospects to the coaches, and those players are sharing their camp schedules, their leans and, ultimately, their commitments. Being seen and heard is a big deal to the recruits and recruiters alike.
It's a high-stakes race; a game that's played nearly 12 months a year. In June, it's played through drills, 40-yard dashes and in-person evaluation, with thousands of high school football players competing for hundreds of scholarships.
Some camps get fancy titles -- Senior Advanced Camp, Elite Camp, etc. -- and some are specifically for linemen, quarterbacks, kickers or even long snappers. If you have $75 or so and the proper parental permission forms, you can get a chance to show your skills in front of college coaches. Camps are run by coaches of the host school and almost always include visiting coaches, too, meaning even those whose dreams of one day playing for Urban Meyer but don't match their skill levels can still use the opportunity to land attention or an offer from another program.
"In the North, there isn't spring football at the high school level so these camps are our chance to see these guys competing,"
Akron coach Terry Bowden said. "I spent a lot of time in the South, and there you watch spring practice, evaluate off of that and do one camp in June to make some money, frankly.
"Up here you spend time and resources trying to get kids to come to your camp, and the ones you get in are camping, seeing the campus, making impressions and getting evaluated all at once. It's as valuable for our coaches to see the kids as it is for the kids to go through the camps."
The June camp food chain is a lot like the overall college football food chain. Ohio State doesn't need to hit the road to sell its program -- and just by offering a camp can attract top talent from across the region and country. Life is different in the Mid-American Conference, and even before satellite camps really started gaining popularity a few years ago MAC staffs were packing up and camping on the road, too.
"Ohio State and Cincinnati aren't threatened by us, so we're welcome to come scout the talent at their camps," Bowden said. "That gives us a larger talent pool to evaluate from and maybe pick from. I've been around long enough to know there are good players everywhere."
Toledo coach Tim Beckman, now at Illinois, had experience taking camps on the road when he was an assistant at Oklahoma State, and three summers ago he plotted out a logical tour for his Toledo staff: Over four days they held camps in Cincinnati, Columbus, Youngstown, Cleveland and Stark County, in addition to camps on campus at Toledo and in the Detroit area.
Toledo, Bowling Green, Ohio, Kent State, Akron and Youngstown State all held at least one satellite camp earlier this month. Per NCAA rules, FBS programs can host satellite camps anywhere in their home state and over state lines within a 50-mile radius of their camp. Rutgers hosting camps in Florida and Oklahoma State doing the same in Texas earlier in the decade led to that regulation.
Just last week, Toledo's coaches got to know one another even better after spending three-plus days in the close quarters of cargo vans and hotel rooms as Toledo took its camps on what are now familiar roads.
"The camp circuit is here to stay as a huge recruiting tool, and we have to maximize it," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. "Almost every kid on our current roster either camped with us or was seen by one of our coaches at a camp at an Ohio State or another (power conference) school. In some of those there are almost 1,000 kids. When we go on the road for our own (satellite) camps, we have usually 100 or 150 kids and we get a really important, really up-close look.
"Seven of our 10 coaches are Ohio natives. If that's ever going to be an advantage for us in recruiting, we might as well get out into the state and see if we can make it work. We're getting into communities and bringing our product to kids, and we've seen that plan pay dividends. "
Both the up-close scouting and sharing extend past Div. I FBS football, too. Watching and evaluating during Toledo's camp visit to Paul Brown Stadium in Massillon last week were coaches from the Ivy League and Div. II and Div. III programs from across Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. In a way, everybody is getting an opportunity to see prospects who come to the camps.
Everybody, too, is racing to secure commitments, build momentum from them and then sell the next recruit, the next camp, make the next tweet and see what kind of audience it can reach.
"I read that Kentucky offered a seventh-grader the other day and UCLA offered an eighth-grader, so there's proof that it's happening earlier," Bowden said. "We're not in that business at Akron, but it does feel like the offers and the commitments are accelerated. That first impression a player has of your campus and your staff can go a long way.
"That makes these one-day camps in the month of June critical. One way we can measure progress in our second year as a staff is that we're generally seeing a lot better athlete come to our camps and perform in front of our staff, and our goal is to get a commitment or even two every time we have a camp."
According to Scout.com, Toledo offered two class of 2015, out-of-state running backs at Ohio State's camp on June 9. Campbell was at a camp at Northwestern last week, and Bowden said Akron will send coaches to another camp at Ohio State this weekend. Michigan, June camps are another long-time destination for MAC coaches.
One long-standing NCAA rule that won't change anytime soon is that coaches can't talk about recruits until they're signed. Bowden said Akron is still waiting on several possible transfers from both junior colleges and other I-A programs before it can finalize its 2013 roster, but said the camp circuit has been "positive and productive" for future classes. Campbell said the Toledo staff saw "10-15 kids" on its camp tour that it will now either recruit more heavily or prioritize if other options don't work out.
"We saw a lot of good players, and we probably have extended five or six offers based on what we've learned and evaluated this month," Campbell said. "The value of these camps is high. The major shift is towards earlier recruiting, earlier offers and earlier decisions, so you hustle to stay ahead of the curve."
It used to be, Bowden said, that top players were recruited as high school sophomores and juniors, then further evaluations took place in a player's junior and senior seasons. Visits were made from late in a player's junior year through his senior football season, and most decisions came from November through January.
"But now kids want to know earlier, especially at those spotlight positions," Bowden said. "Sometimes you have to extend early offers just to keep up with the crowd."
Campbell, the youngest head coach in Div. I FBS football, was the age of these current players 16 years ago when he was a prospect who committed to the University of Pittsburgh. He remembers attending one overnight camp with "thousands" of other players at Ohio State, and a similar one at Kentucky with his Massillon Perry High School teammates.
Only after his final high school season did he decide on Pitt.
"These days, that scholarship is long gone by two months before (February's) Signing Day," Campbell said. "Now the official visit is essentially gone. We have junior days and unofficial visits and guys coming to our camps as sophomores. We have guys coming to our games as juniors. The biggest difference is that everything is sped up. The camp explosion has certainly had an impact on college football, and staying a step ahead with getting your product out, getting the word out and making these relationships is the only way you won't get left behind."