High school football: Pandemic made finding college fits extra challenging for area players

Credit: Marcus Hartman

Credit: Marcus Hartman

More than 50 area senior football players are set to continue their academic and athletic careers at the next level in 2021.

That journey is never easy, but the class of 2021 might have faced the most difficult of any.

The first wave signed in December when almost a dozen players locked in scholarship offers from the top level of college football competition, schools in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision.

A handful more signed with the second tier of Division I, the Football Championship Subdivision, at that time, but the rest entered the Christmas season facing great uncertainty.

The coronavirus pandemic had wreaked havoc on college athletics recruiting since March, and they were left in the wake.

On-campus and in-person recruiting was forbidden not long after COVID-19′s spread across the country, and the traditional spring and summer evaluations periods were for the most part wiped out.

With no camps to go to be to be evaluated, rising seniors who had not already figured out where they wanted to go for the next chapter of their lives were left in a bind.

They could not do much to show off their talent or learn more about their potential destinations, either.

“These young people are trying to base a lifetime decision on a virtual visit, you know?” said Wayne coach Roosevelt Mukes. “That’s very hard because you can’t get the feel of the atmosphere or the campus. Sometimes you get to a place and you just know that this feels like home, and that’s hard to do with a virtual visit so that’s probably been the biggest challenge.”

On the bright side, Ohio was among the states to play high school football in the fall.

Although the regular season was shortened to six games, that provided much-needed opportunities for players to put themselves on tape for college to evaluate.

In some cases, that meant being able to show how much they had matured from their junior seasons.

For others, the fall of 2020 offered their first time getting real varsity action after waiting behind talented upperclassmen.

“That was a true blessing because I know so many of those kids just needed film to continue to try to market themselves,” Springfield coach Maurice Douglass said.

For all potential college football players in the senior class, there was a race against the clock to maximize the time they got — and it turns out dwindling scholarship opportunities.

Aside from forcing face-to-face recruiting activities online, another NCAA decision created difficulty for current high schoolers that could last beyond this year. The organization’s decision to grant all current athletes an extra year of eligibility has left uncertain how many roster spots will be available in the coming years since seniors who were expected to be leave could stick around for another season.

“It has been the most difficult year for us trying to find places for people,” Douglass said. “I’ve never used Twitter so much in my life, and with them or us not being able to be in physical contact with each other we had to go through Zoom meetings and FaceTime meetings with people. It just made it a lot more difficult and people had to reach out and go different directions this year.”

The situation locally was exacerbated by Urbana University shutting down last spring. The Blue Knights, an NCAA Division II program offering partial athletic scholarships as well as academic and need-based aid, had become a popular destination for players from around Southwest Ohio in recent years thanks to a push from the coaching staff at the Champaign County school.

“That was a huge hit,” Middletown coach Don Simpson said. “We sent several guys there over the last couple years and we had a couple guys who just graduated from Urbana University, so that was somewhat of a pipeline for a lot of schools in this area.

“You lose that opportunity and that’s where you find guys have to go farther away. Now we’re sending guys to Lake Erie College, to Notre Dame College and farther up north than they normally would.”

Springfield High School, which had the added bonus of some kids being able to save money by commuting to Urbana, found an alternative at least this year north of Columbus.

Four Wildcats — Bryce Walker, Vincent Fisher, Robert Jordan and Christian Ochs — are planning to head to Division III Otterbein next year thanks to the school’s ability to provide free room, board and tuition based on financial need.

“I think some of those guys would have had at least had an opportunity to to get on with an FCS school if given the opportunity, but it was just so it was just so few and far between for these kids with those (college seniors) coming back,” Douglass said.

The local 2022 class, which according to recruiting analysts includes some of the nation’s top talent, has also been hindered already by the pandemic.

Over the past decade, the recruiting calendar has shifted to the point many of the nation’s best players verbally commit before they finish their junior academic year.

This year, that group entered winter having had limited opportunities to be evaluated by college coaches (aside from game film) or to evaluate their potential destinations.

Scholarship numbers could also continue to be tight, especially in the FBS, depending on future NCAA decisions regarding roster sizes and eligibility.

Douglass, whose son Moses is in his second year as a communications major and defensive back at Kentucky, pointed out players from any class could ultimately opt to stay in school longer for more than football.

“It is a great deal,” the elder Douglass said. “I told him, ‘Hey, you just got a free year so you’ll be another year it’s closer to getting a Master’s while you’re there.’”

In the short term, some clarity could come in the next month as seniors go through pre-draft workouts and decide whether or not they have much to gain by playing another season of college football.

“I think it’s still a work in progress,” Simpson said. " I don’t think we get back to normal just in a year.

“I’m in the line of thinking it’s gonna be even tougher for your Division I scholarship guys because of the option to play an additional year, but I think it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.”

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