Macomb Dakota’s D.J. Stepney intercepts a pass in a game earlier this season. Stepney is signed with Central Michigan University.

Macomb Dakota’s D.J. Stepney intercepts a pass in a game earlier this season. Stepney is signed with Central Michigan University.

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes

Coaches, players feeling sting of recruiting in the pandemic

‘It’s not the X’s and the O’s, it’s the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s’

By: Zachary Manning | C&G Newspapers | Published January 7, 2021

METRO DETROIT — As the pandemic nears a year of existence in the United States, college coaches and prospective players have started to feel its burn.

It takes time to pick a college or university for a recruit. Learning the values of the place and team, finding the right major, looking at the culture and many more factors play a role in these decisions.

With limited points of contact and ways to view student-athletes, coaches and players have had to find unique ways of selling themselves to each other.

No camps or clinics, no on-campus visits, no facility tours. Just Zoom meetings, virtual campus visits, taped games and coach presentations.

It’s been a challenge. Just ask Lawrence Tech University coach Avante Mitchell, who was named the Blue Devils head coach in February 2020.

His season has been delayed, and with a program in its infancy phase, Mitchell is being forced to track players he might not get to meet in-person until they reach campus.

With some states playing fall football and others postponing or cancelling, Mitchell noted LTU is looking more at junior tape than he previously would. They’ve also relied on relationships with high school coaches to recommend players and individual training footage that players are doing on their own.

“We’ve been very, very creative,” Mitchell said. “Presentations, virtual tours, video links of our dorms and things of that nature just to expose ourselves to our recruits as much as possible.”

Saginaw Valley State University coach Ryan Brady is in a similar position. He’s in his second year leading the Cardinals. In his first year, the team was 5-6 overall.

At SVSU, Brady and his staff have also had their season pushed back to spring, so he’s been able to take a deeper dive into recruiting this fall.

He’s been able to look at junior and senior tape, check out workouts and find as much information as possible about recruits to see if they are a good fit with the program.

Brady said the staff is looking for specific types of recruits — specifically what kind of people they are when it relates to academics, character and how they will fit with the culture of the program.

“You win with players. It’s not the X’s and the O’s, it’s the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s,” Brady said. “You got to have great players. For us, we’re excited because we brought a great group in with the 2020 class and now we’re going to stack on top of that with this 2021 class.”

While coaches bury themselves in game tape and workout footage, players across the country have also had to find ways to put themselves on the map.

Macomb Dakota safety and Central Michigan University signee D.J. Stepney said coaches asked him to send workout videos and pictures of himself to show that he had gotten bigger, among other things.

Without being able to visit schools and step on a scale or measure his height, he was at the mercy of coaches looking at photos and tape to make that determination.

“The most challenging part about this recruiting process was not being able to go to schools so they could see you, no camps you could go to,” Stepney said. “It was basically just off of your height, weight and film.”

For local athletes, a big advantage was just having a season. While other states postponed to spring or canceled all together, Michigan student-athletes were able to play games and showcase themselves before signing day.

For Troy High kicker Ryan Peluso, having a senior season was a huge benefit in gaining tape and proving what he can do. Peluso earned All-Association honors in the Oakland Activities Association Blue Division.

At press time, Peluso was still weighing his options, but he does have a preferred walk-on spot with CMU that he is heavily weighing, among other things.

“A lot of it is phone calls, FaceTime and just trying to get to know the person that you’re talking to through a phone, which is really difficult at times,” Peluso said. “It’s been difficult, but there’s definitely been ups and downs. For every 100 messages that you send out, you’re going to get that one response. You’re going to get that communication back.”

With the early signing period gone and the next one coming in February, players still have a little time to get in touch with coaches to find the right fit.

Stepney, Peluso and St. Clair Shores Lakeview lineman Jack Majewski noted that getting ahead in the process and reaching out to schools early on is key to getting exposure.

Majewski is committed to Siena Heights University and earned All-League honors in the Macomb Area Conference White Division.

“Recruiting has been very difficult,” Majewski said. “We can’t attend camps or combines like other athletes have done in the past, so coaches are relying on old film to see our skills, but they’re not seeing that we got bigger, stronger and more skilled. I’m fortunate that I started recruiting early and had a lot of exposure and visits before COVID-19.”