What is a virtual college visit like? Recruits explain

Zeek Biggers of West Rowan High in Mount Ulla, N.C. (247Sports)

Zeek Biggers of West Rowan High in Mount Ulla, N.C. (247Sports)

Before March, when visiting college campuses and meeting with coaches in person was still a possibility, Bryson Estes was planning to take several such trips. A highly touted center from Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy, Estes had a number of coaches eager for him to come to their campuses.

They wanted to size him up, and he wanted to do the same.

“You can definitely get a feel for a place more when you’re going somewhere, when you’re actually there,” said Estes, ranked in the top 40 in Georgia (247Sports Composite).

But, for Estes and all in his position, the coronavirus has changed plans drastically. Since March, college coaches, recruits and their families have been operating under a “dead period,” in which in-person contact is not permitted. It has changed the recruiting landscape dramatically. Virtual visits and video conferences have become part of the new standard.

“You’ve got to work with the cards you’re dealt with,” Estes said.

For a variety of reasons, the rate of prospects committing has surged in this recruiting cycle. More than 600 rising seniors had made commitments to FBS schools, according to a USA Today report published Monday. That’s double the number from last year at this point. Of Georgia Tech’s eight commits, five made their decisions after on-campus recruiting was suspended. The fifth, wide receiver James BlackStrain from Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Fla., made his decision without making a visit to Tech. He announced his decision Wednesday.

The amount of time that coaches have had to devote to recruiting has likely played a factor in the quickened pace of commitments. They’ve endeavored to not let the ban on in-person visits slow down attempts to connect with recruits.

South Paulding High tight end Miles Campbell, a top-40 prospect in the state of Georgia, said he planned to take a number of unofficial visits before making his decision prior to his senior season. But, recognizing that visits in the near term were out of the question, he decided to move up his commitment. He’ll make his announcement next Monday. (Tech is a possibility.)

He said that the fact that so many other prospects have made their commitments has influenced him to move up his decision, out of concern that spots were being claimed.

“That, and it’s just a gut feeling,” he said.

Virtual visits have taken different forms. Some teams send prospects videos showing off their campuses. That was how Zeek Biggers, a defensive tackle who announced his commitment to Tech on Sunday, got his first look at N.C. State and East Carolina.

“It was basically just a voiceover and (videos) showing you different places of the school, how it looks,” Biggers said.

Crisp County High safety Sirad Bryant said that he has had Zoom calls where one staffer is walking through team facilities with a phone, “and the coach or assistant will guide you around the place, show you a little bit, so you’re just on the phone and you just watch like you’re there.”

“That’s what a lot of schools are tending to do now,” Campbell said.

In a text message, BlackStrain said on his virtual visit with Tech he was on a call with every offensive position coach. Each coach went into detail “about how the environment is and how I would fit in.” BlackStrain has previously been to Atlanta, which gave him more confidence to make the decision.

“I could feel the love already and I knew that this spot in the ATL was best for me and my family,” BlackStrain wrote.

The NCAA approved changes that went into effect Monday that permitted any member of a school staff to participate on a recruiting call and also lifted the restriction on the number of uncommitted prospects (and their families) that could be on a call with a coach. The adjustments were specific to the COVID-19 crisis.

According to an NCAA news release, “The flexibility is intended to provide prospective student-athletes with virtual experiences like what they would have been able to experience during a campus visit.”

Arizona State was one school that took quick advantage. Estes was on a call Tuesday with Sun Devils coaches and support staff, such as academic advisers, strength coaches and nutritionists. He was patched in with a handful of other prospects. Including video presentations, it lasted about two hours, Estes said.

“They do the whole lowdown like if you were there,” he said. “They check all the boxes as if it was a junior day in person.”

Missouri, another school recruiting Estes, has utilized another change in recruiting rules that will be allowed for the remainder of the COVID-19 dead period, permitting current team members to participate in a call with recruits. Estes had a call with Tigers coaches and a few players, including an offensive lineman from Georgia, who was able to address possible concerns about the distance away from home.

Florida International got Bryant’s attention when its entire coaching staff got on a Zoom call with him. Bryan called it the most creative strategy that he had seen since quarantining began.

“I was like, That was cool,” Bryant said.

Tech did something similar with Campbell, putting him on a Zoom call with the entire offensive coaching staff. He had met them on an unofficial visit to spring practice, but “getting to see them, talk to them was good,” he said.

Unlike many of their fellow prospects, Bryant and Estes both plan to wait until they’re allowed to make campus visits before they make their decisions.

Biggers, though, had decided that he wanted to commit on Mother’s Day, which gave Tech a decisive advantage, as he had come to Tech for an unofficial visit just before social-distancing directives were put in place. Coaches at other schools had hoped he would wait to make an actual visit, Biggers said, but understood his decision.

Bryant has a teammate at Crisp County, linebacker Preston Lavant, who committed to Pittsburgh on Sunday without taking a visit there.

“I’m like, if I’m going to commit anywhere, I’ll commit to Georgia Tech because that’s the only place I’ve ever been,” said Bryant, a top-50 prospect in the state.

Lavant and BlackStrain certainly aren’t the first recruits to commit to a school sight unseen. And reliance upon technology in recruiting is hardly a development of the pandemic. But both have become more commonplace.

Still, in the end, what has long mattered in recruiting hasn’t changed – the development of relationships.

Bryant extols Tech running backs coach Tashard Choice, his area recruiter, as the reason why he first began liking Tech as a possible destination.

“He’s just keeping it real,” Bryant said. “If he’s going to call, he’ll keep it sweet and short and he lets me go about my day. He checks every now and then. I like a coach like that.”

He has appreciated, too, that coach Geoff Collins occasionally reaches out, also. Communication with the head coach “feels great,” Bryant said.

The NCAA is considering an extension of the dead period, which now runs through May 31, to the end of June, which would further complicate prospects’ plans for visiting campuses and attending camps.

“It’s definitely tough for me to think about, because I do want to go through all that and experience all of it,” Estes said. “Once again, I’ve just got to deal with what I’m dealt with and make the best of it. It’s in God’s hands.”