The transfer portal has changed the college-football landscape, and because of that, high-school recruiting has changed too.
How much the transfer portal has reduced the opportunity for high-school players to get football scholarship offers can be debated.
There can also be a debate on what has had the biggest impact on opportunities: The transfer portal that allows players to move on without penalty or the extra year of eligibility granted to college players after the 2020 year because of COVID-19.
But what isn’t up for debate is that things are different.
A lot different.
“It has totally changed,” said Courtney Morgan, director of player personnel for the Washington Huskies football team. “The rush to offer high-school kids (scholarships) has slowed down.”
Colleges have more options when it comes to acquiring new players. High-school prospects are competing for scholarships with experienced college players who entered the portal along with junior-college players.
“It just seems like it’s getting worse for (high-school recruits),” said Dave Miller, the longtime coach at Lakes High School in Lakewood who is in the state coaches hall of fame. “It just seems like there are less opportunities for kids, especially at the Division I level.”
Maybe that’s why Brandon Huffman, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com, said he saw an unprecedented number of early commitments in this year’s class. If a player waits to decide, that offer might go away.
“It has taken the power away from the high-school players unless you are an extremely talented player,” Morgan said.
Speaking generally and not specifically about UW, Morgan said:
“Let’s say you offer a kid a scholarship in October of his junior year. Then after the bowl game in January, you lose two kids off your roster to the transfer portal. Well, now you’re not looking at that high-school kid anymore (if he hadn’t committed). You want older players to replace them.”
It’s all part of the continually changing landscape.
“It’s really hard for me to differentiate the impact that the transfer portal has had, because it’s right around the same time that COVID happened,” said Cameron Elisara, the former UW defensive end who just finished his third season as coach at Skyline High School in Sammamish. “(The portal) definitely impacted it. I feel like there’s a certain echelon players who are not getting looked at because there’s now a new source for coaches to recruit, which is to go to the portal.
” … So I’ve just seen a little less recruitment of guys — and that has surprised me, and it’s made me question my judgment on players. From my judgment, I think this guy’s recruitable and I think he could go to this level. But that hasn’t been the case.”
High school recruit vs. transfer portal
The decision comes down to this for college football teams when it comes to recruiting new players: Do they want a high-school player they can develop or a quick fix?
“It’s a different ballgame now,” said Tom Bainter, who has been Bothell High School’s football coach since 2000. “(In the transfer portal) you find kids who are a little older, more mature. … And so you get an opportunity to fill a roster spot with maybe a sophomore or a junior, and somebody who got his feet wet a little bit in the college level. You may not have them for four years and you may not be able to grow them as much as you would a high-school kid, but he’s an instant fill-in.”
One of Bainter’s former players, receiver Leon Johnson III, spent the last four seasons at Division III George Fox in Oregon. Johnson became an All-American and entered the transfer portal after last season. He has committed to Oklahoma State, and Bainter is happy for him.
“But that’s one less high-school receiver who will be going to Oklahoma State,” Bainter said.
Miller from Lakes said he has noticed that the established college programs are still mostly taking high-school athletes that they can develop, and that programs that are struggling are hitting the transfer portal more often.
That’s because by the time the high-school players develop into solid contributors, the coach at the struggling college program might have lost his job.
UW’s Morgan talked about a hypothetical situation of a coach in Year 3 coming off two mediocre seasons and needing to find replacements.
“It makes more sense for him to go after experienced guys,” Morgan said.
Said Miller: “It kind of reminds me of Major League Baseball, where some teams will build from the farm system and then some teams will (rely) on the free-agent market. And so you just have to kind of decide: Do you need a quick fix to save your job, or are you established enough that you can continue to build it the right way?”
The four- and five-star high-school recruits are almost certain to find plenty of offers, even in today’s recruiting climate. But there seems to be a consensus that offers have dwindled for players below the top echelon.
“I have two players now that I believe would have been lower-level Division I kids in a normal cycle,” Miller said. “But they are getting walk-on opportunities and getting recruited by Division II schools, so I think everything’s being pushed down.”
Huffman of 247Sports said he thinks “the impact is somewhat overblown when kids are saying the transfer portal is killing recruiting.”
“Well, the guys that went into the portal had to come from somewhere, but what it’s doing is, you’re seeing less fliers taken on maybe tier-two and tier-three guys by Power Five schools, and maybe even G-Five schools (the five conferences just below the Power Five),” Huffman said. “What it’s doing is increasing the caliber of kids who are going to the G-Fives and to the FCS schools.”
Marc Anderson, the tight-ends coach and recruiting coordinator at FCS Eastern Washington, said he thinks the extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19 has had more impact than the transfer portal.
“I think we’ve always been able to get or sign a few guys that maybe we shouldn’t just because they fell through the cracks,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if there’s been an uptick in that due to the portal. I think roster spots have been more limited with guys returning due to (the extra year from) COVID than the portal.”
Morgan said the limited opportunities caused by the extra year of eligibility led to many high-school recruits going to junior colleges — players with the grades and talent to play at the Division I level but not getting the chance because of fewer scholarships available.
Those players are now competing with high-school recruits and the players who enter the transfer portal. Morgan said Washington recruited three JC players, and the Huskies signed one: cornerback Thaddeus Dixon from Long Beach City College.
But those below the most elite at junior colleges are also finding the competition for scholarships tough.
“I think I it’s been tougher for JUCO kids than it has for kids in the portal or maybe even some high-school kids,” Anderson said. “I think a lot of people are kind of bypassing junior college because they can get guys in the portal that have four years of experience and you know how they stack up against an opponent in your conference, or at your level, or better than your level.”
Elisara has seen this firsthand. Mason Ahlemeyer, a former Skyline star, just finished playing two seasons at Sacramento City College, where he was an all-conference defensive end.
“He has gotten some offers, but some of the schools who were interested in him before, no longer were,” Elisara said. “He graduated (from Skyline) in 2019 and that shows you how much has changed in three years. And he went to JUCO and proved himself against higher competition than high school.”
Has recruiting changed for good?
In the next couple of years, the players with an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19 will have left and that should open more opportunities for high-school recruits.
That doesn’t mean things will return as they were.
The transfer portal isn’t likely to go away, and Bainter and Miller said they are having less face-to-face contact with recruiters, because now there are other ways to reach players, including social media.
Change isn’t necessarily better. Elisara was a redshirt sophomore when UW went winless in 2008, and he wonders how many players would have stayed at UW had there been the transfer portal. He figures he would have stayed. But the others?
“I’ve kind of scratched my head with it,” Bainter of Bothell said of the transfer portal. “I don’t like it. … I think nowadays, you’ve got one foot in and one foot out.”
Elisara said recruiting was much simpler when he was a top recruit out of Ferris High School in Spokane.
“From a newer coach’s perspective, it’s very hard to get the lay of the land on recruitment now that the portal exists — that and COVID,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure it out after three years.”
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