Prior to this spring, the last time Jacob Klein had a face-to-face conversation with a college football recruiter things were, in a lot of ways, quite different.
The Ridgeland High School offensive lineman is one of many rising seniors in the Chattanooga area who are trying to catch up on the recruiting trail. The COVID-19 pandemic severely altered the way college athletic programs recruited, with very little personal interaction and nearly all evaluations coming off game video.
After missing the second half of last season due to injury, Klein recently participated in camps at Mercer University and Kennesaw State University. The so-called "mega" camps have several hundred kids and dozens of college coaches in attendance, and for players like Klein who aren't four- or five-star recruits, such camps are the way to get noticed.
"It's done a lot for Jacob and all the kids," said Kip Klein, Jacob's father and Ridgeland's head coach. "He's been followed by a lot of people, but now he can be seen. He's put in back-to-back camps, and those guys — there were about 40 coaches at Mercer and 60 at Kennesaw — now know what he's about. It's a long trip to go to some of those schools like Harvard and Columbia, but when they can see them at a local camp it's great.
"It's funny, I've had three of four schools call me that weren't at the camps who hadn't seen him since his sophomore year, and they all asked if he was still 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. When I told them he's pushing 6-7 and is over 300 pounds, they were like, 'What?' It's all good to see film, but to get them in person is a big difference."
Soon after the Mercer camp, Jacob received offers from Shorter University and Culver-Stockton College in Missouri, with more likely to follow.
The benefit is mutual. Rusty Wright and his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga staff were forced to do most of their evaluations from game footage and talking to athletes via video calls. Wright believes a lot can be learned from seeing a player in person, and not just from a physical standpoint.
"Anytime you can have the human element in your evaluation, it helps," Wright said. "To be able to lay eyes on them and see their personality — do they smile and interact with other players? Do they drop their head or get down or upset when you coach them? Those are the type things you look for along with their physical build. How tall are they? Can they carry more weight on their frame? How fast are they?
"We'll have 200 kids at our one-day camp in June, which is a whole lot, and we're excited to be able to interact with the kids again."
The extra in-person exposure is also critical because college programs, in large part, have fewer scholarships to offer for the 2022 class due to the transfer portal and the extra year of eligibility granted players by the NCAA due to the pandemic. While top recruits won't notice much of a difference, the players who in a normal cycle would earn their scholarship during their final high school season may be out of luck.
"The transfer portal and having those guys come back for fifth years has cut down available scholarships," said Calhoun football coach Clay Stephenson, who will likely have eight to 12 seniors play collegiately. "We have talked to ACC- and SEC-type schools about some of our kids, and they don't have spots to offer now due to the portal and the extra year."
That's where the camps can fill the void and get the recruiting ball rolling a bit earlier for those who need the exposure. At the same time, a good camp showing can take a player already on the radar and increase his quantity and quality of offers.
"It's always a tough task for those kids to get exposure," Stephenson said. "If you're not the four- and five-star guys, a lot of the recruitment starts late. It's huge for those coaches to see these guys in person. The film gets them on the radar, but most coaches won't offer until they see them in person. The mega camps are allowing these guys to get in front of a lot of coaches instead of having to pick three schools to visit."
Calhoun receiver and defensive back Cole Speer, a 6-foot, 180-pound Class AAAAA all-state pick after having 1,151 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, is a great example of a known player moving up the recruiting boards. Sought mainly by smaller schools entering the spring, Speer shined at camps at Appalachian State, North Carolina State and Wake Forest, including a pair of 40-yard sprints timed at 4.4 seconds or faster.
Stephenson expects each of those schools to offer Speer a spot soon, with more quickly to follow.
"Cole has had a great spring, as have a lot of our guys," Stephenson said. "It's a very competitive time for these kids, and after last year and what's going on with the NCAA, if you are serious about playing college football, you have to get out there and be seen."