Meigs County senior offensive lineman Malachi Hayden thought he was doing all the right things last summer and fall to land a college scholarship from a Football Championship Subdivision program.
Daily trips to the weight room. Sweating through July and August workouts. Starring at left tackle for the Tigers, who got all the way to the TSSAA Class AA state title game in December.
"He was even hearing from FBS programs like North Carolina and the Naval Academy, who were hoping to get him into a camp to get a better look at him before COVID canceled everything," Meigs coach Jason Fitzgerald said Friday. "And Malachi was being recruited by almost all the FCS programs — Western Carolina, ETSU, UTC, Tennessee Tech. We couldn't believe he wouldn't wind up getting a FCS offer. He's a nasty blocker. Great technique. But the availability just hasn't been there."
It was a story heard throughout the country this winter as national signing day came and went on Feb. 3 with 400 fewer young men signing scholarships at the Football Bowl Subdivision level alone than in the previous year.
And according to University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Rusty Wright, who is prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting on Hayden's situation in particular because he's not yet signed with an NCAA school, the situation could get worse before it gets better.
Pointing to the NCAA's continuing rules against all in-person contact between college programs and high school athletes — prospects can't visit college campuses and college coaches can't visit high schools or a recruit's home, thus making all recruiting virtual or by phone — as well as the transfer portal, Wright believes it could be two more recruiting cycles before things return to normal.
"There's a logjam right now for high school kids," he said Saturday afternoon. "Between current players getting an extra year of eligibility because of the coronavirus, and current college players being able to enter the transfer portal and be eligible immediately somewhere else, there just aren't as many opportunities for high school kids to get a scholarship.
"Now in a couple of years, when the current players do graduate, we're suddenly going to have a lot of money for scholarships and a lot of need to fill them. But it's going to be at least one more year, maybe two."
So what should deserving players just coming out of high school or those who will be seniors in the 2021-22 school year do?
In Hayden's case, he signed with the University of the Cumberlands, an NAIA program in Williamsburg, Kentucky. He also has an offer from FCS and Ohio Valley Conference member Tennessee State if the Nashville school can find the money to fund his scholarship. And because accepting an NAIA scholarship does not prohibit someone from later signing with an NCAA member school until he's actually taken the field for that NAIA team, Hayden is still free to sign with an NCAA program.
Not that Hayden isn't happy with Cumberlands at the moment.
"I like the culture there," he said. "It's a winning culture. It reminds me of what we have at Meigs County."
To that end, Hayden is working every day to get better for the college experience, whatever that becomes.
"I've improved my bench press from 345 to 380," said the 6-foot-2, 280-pounder. "I'd like to get to 405."
He's also eating 6,000 calories a day — "mostly chicken and rice and lean meat" — in order to put on another 10 or 15 pounds before next fall.
"It's not as fun as it sounds," Hayden said. "I eat the same things but eat like six meals of it each day."
Yet Hayden said of the situation of probably not having a chance to sign with Western Carolina or Tennessee Tech, as he'd expected, "It's been pretty disappointing to have COVID probably wreck my dream to play (FCS) football."
Of course, as the coronavirus has taken dreams away from many individual players, UTC's Wright believes it may have helped his Mocs in the short term.
"It's worked both ways," he said. "If some of our guys had been able to go to camps last summer, we might not have gotten them. Some FBS school might have offered them, and we could have lost them."
Still, Wright believes the pandemic has hurt more players than it has helped in finding their way onto a Division I roster, whether in the FBS or the FCS.
"There are just certain things you can't evaluate on tape," he said. "How big they really are. Their growth potential. How they interact with teammates. How they accept coaching. There are just a lot of things in recruiting you need to see with your own eyes."
No area high school football coach in recent years has done a better job of finding scholarships for his players at Division II and NAIA schools than Howard's John Starr. His short answer for the situation is for players coming out of high school to find a prep school that would allow them a post-graduate year while hoping to impress a four-year college.
"They're out there," he said. "You just have to find them. Right now, that might be the way to go."
Otherwise, said Starr, "About all we can do is be patient and hope that money and opportunity become available for these kids, but right now it's hard."
Just like pretty much everything else in this pandemic.