SEC football coaches missed personal relationships in 2021 recruiting cycle

Crimson Tide photos / Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Georgia counterpart Kirby Smart share a laugh before the Crimson Tide's 41-24 victory in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Oct. 17. Saban and Smart have since landed top-three signing classes but are ready to get back on the road to see prospects.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus last March, all Alabama football coach Nick Saban has done is cap a 13-0 national championship season with a 52-24 drubbing of Ohio State and land a 2021 signing class that analysts consider the greatest ever assembled.

This pandemic resulted in a virtual world on the recruiting front, and while Saban has proven to be anything but a 69-year-old dinosaur, he wouldn't mind bidding farewell to this new normal that doesn't seem so new at this point.

"Using Zoom to do home visits was something that was very beneficial to myself and the assistant coaches in terms of developing relationships with the families," Saban said this week. "We also included the families in virtual practices and virtual medical meetings and strength and conditioning and academic appointments.

"This was our only means to be able to adapt to, but I would much rather have personal relationships and be able to have people visit us and be able to show hospitality."

Alabama's class of 27 signees includes 16 players who are top-100 national prospects in the composite rankings. All but two players in Saban's latest heralded haul signed in December, with the exceptions being running back Camar Wheaton of Garland, Texas, and safety Terrion Arnold of Tallahassee, Florida.

The Crimson Tide's seven five-star signees in this 2021 recruiting cycle nearly matched the eight compiled by the other 13 Southeastern Conference members.

When the coronavirus halted last year's conference basketball tournaments and wiped out the NCAA's 68-team extravaganza, it also stopped face-to-face recruiting in all sports. The NCAA implemented a dead period that has been extended on multiple occasions and currently runs through April 15, so at least 13 months will have transpired since coaches made in-home visits and prospects flocked to college campuses.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who landed the nation's No. 3 class, said the travel aspect was the biggest difference compared to previous years.

"I enjoy going to the high schools," Smart said this week. "I enjoy going to the basketball games. I enjoy promoting our game and our sport. I don't look at the travel as taxing, because if you're not doing that, you're doing something else. It's not like it ever stops.

"I have probably been more involved with my family, my kids, my players, our team here and with their activities after hours more than normal."

The NCAA set the April 15 date this past November, and Smart expects an update from the governing body soon. Lifting the dead period could allow prospects to attend Georgia's G-Day spring game, which has been scheduled for April 17.

"I am looking forward to getting guys back, because I want to find more about them as men when they come to campus," Smart said. "I want to learn more about their families and have them get around our players, so that we can feel comfortable about the guys we are bringing in."

Of course, Saban and Smart have been at the top of the SEC recruiting spectrum for multiple years now, but what about other programs that do not possess that same stability right now? South Carolina's adjustment from the Will Muschamp era to the Shane Beamer era resulted in a 13-member class ranked 77th by 247Sports, which places the Gamecocks last among Power Five programs.

Auburn had a run of 11 consecutive top-12 classes until faltering in the past several months, with new Tigers coach Bryan Harsin replacing Gus Malzahn and piecing together a crop that ranks 30th. That ranking could slightly improve, as Harsin has said there are more spots to fill, but two months remain at a minimum before Harsin can venture out and represent Auburn for the first time.

Beamer, Tennessee's Josh Heupel and Vanderbilt's Clark Lea also have yet to recruit for their schools in a manner other than virtual.

"You can't substitute the in-person evaluation," Harsin said. "You can watch film and see guys who can play, and there are a lot of ways now to see better than you used to, but just being at a high school game and being part of it - there is nothing like it. When we get the chance to go back out there, it will be one of the most important things that we can do."

Which is what every SEC coach is looking forward to, including the guy turning 70 in October.

"Nothing is better than being in person, but we adapted and did what we had to do the best we could do it," Saban said. "I think a lot of people here did a really good job with that. Do we implement some of these things in the future? Absolutely.

"Does that mean they should replace personal relationships? I don't think so."

Heupel gives update

Heupel told Sirius XM's ESPNU Radio on Thursday that his first staff with the Volunteers should be close to being finalized by Monday. Multiple UCF offensive assistants are expected to join Heupel from Orlando.

The Athletic reported Thursday that Louisville defensive coordinator Bryan Brown and Southern California defensive coordinator Todd Orlando were pursued by Heupel before electing to remain at their schools.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.