The pandemic, it seems, has impacted just about everything, including the prospects for high school seniors in the class of ’21 hoping to earn a college football scholarship.
Many talented athletes saw their opportunity to sign with a college on Wednesday, National Signing Day, hurt because of several factors. Among them:
• College coaches couldn’t see the recruits in person last spring and summer because in-person recruiting was shut down by the NCAA.
• The NCAA allowed an extra year of eligibility for players already on college teams.
• The transfer portal turned into the best COVID-19 recruiting turnstile, with more than 2,000 current FCS-scholarship players looking for new homes.
Those last two factors, in particular, squeezed out room for incoming high school prospects.
“They’ve got film, they’ve got practice and game film of playing at the college level,” Scottsdale Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said, citing advantages current college players have. “It really hurt the 2021s.”
Mohns cited two of his defensive backs, Anthony Gonzales and Taron Thomas, who got left without a four-year college to sign with because of the changes during the pandemic.
Both players transferred into Saguaro, one of the state’s top programs, this school year. Gonzales came from Phoenix Brophy Prep, which, at the time he left, was still on pause and uncertain about having a football season. Thomas came from Phoenix Desert Vista. Both are seniors, whom Mohns felt were FCS-caliber players.
“With the extra year of eligibility, the schools that don’t have the big budgets, they don’t really know,” Mohns said. “They can’t go to the kids and say, ‘Are you coming back or are you leaving?’
“A lot of them didn’t know what their numbers were going to look at. The FCS schools are limited.”
Like the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Football Championship Subdivision schools can have 110 players on their rosters.
“Even with the PWOs (preferred walk-ons), the rosters are limited,” Mohns said. “I think if the senior class (of college players) were cycling out, the transfer portal would hurt high school kids, but not as much as it is right now.”
Thomas and Gonzales both only got three games in during their senior football season because of the COVID-reduced season, the Arizona Interscholastic Association transfer rule that caused them to miss half the season and because Saguaro’s season ended just before the Open Division playoffs because of positive COVID cases on the team.
“It affected me a lot, especially because I transferred,” Thomas said. “Sitting out those four games was tough, and then only getting to play three games and having to forfeit that playoff game was even more tough.
“I felt like we had a great chance to compete in that playoff run. It would have also given me some exposure, too. Recruiting hasn’t been the same since COVID hit once the NCAA made the agreement for all levels in college to get a free year.”
Gonzales ended up taking a preferred walk-on opportunity at the University of Arizona, where he feels it will be a fresh start with the new coaches, led by head coach Jedd Fisch, who has made Arizona recruits a focal point.
“Coach Mohns from the beginning told Anthony that he would do everything he could to help get him to the next level and he held true to that statement,” said Danny Gonzales, Anthony’s father. “On top of the transfer portal, as well as scholarships being limited for 2021s, Anthony decided that a PWO was best for him.
“We think it will be a fresh new start for Arizona and the new staff and Anthony is excited to go out there and prove himself so he can earn a scholarship.”
South Dakota pipeline
Most of the high-profile recruits signed on early signing day in December.
So Wednesday will mostly be for the guys signing with NCAA Division II and NAIA schools, or taking NCAA Division III opportunities to continue playing football with a scholarship offer. Some smaller Division I colleges, liked South Dakota State, were able to get Arizona high school players who in a normal year might have had more chances to sign with bigger colleges.
South Dakota State got commitments from Queen Creek offensive lineman Derrick Brown, Chandler Valley Christian defensive end Chandler Carter, Phoenix Mountain Pointe defensive back Jaden Crockett, Queen Creek linebacker Colby Littleton, Vail Cienega defensive back Ryan Swoger, Gilbert Williams Field defensive back/wide receiver Myles Taylor and Williams Field defensive lineman Aaron Wolfcale-Holsten.
“The state of Arizona has been good to SDSU since the class of 2005,” South Dakota head coach John Stiegelmeyer said in an email. “Our linebackers coach, Jimmy Rogers, who is a Hamilton grad, was in that class and he does a great job of recruiting his home state.
“He has a great relationship with the HS Coaches and works very hard. And, the HS football in AZ is very good so the state produces many that can play at the FCS level.”
Gilbert Highland senior running back Max Davis had a breakout season, setting school rushing records and helping the Hawks reach the 6A final for the first time. He made several post-season honors, including being among The Arizona Republic’s top 12 Offensive Player of the Year finalists.
But Davis won’t be celebrating Wednesday surrounded by his parents, because he hasn’t found a college. Or a college hasn’t found him.
“This impacted me because it became a lot harder to get my film in front of these big schools to even be evaluated because they know they got guys that they’ve seen in person in their programs that can play good football and are returning with an extra year of college,” Davis said. “It’s a lot harder to get schools to take a chance on you knowing what they already have, no matter how good your film is or how good of athlete you are.”
Peoria Liberty senior safety Shane Pitts said a good junior season led to some Division I college coaches to contact him, telling them they were excited to come down to Arizona to see him in person.
Then, COVID hit in the spring and recruiting got derailed.
He still had a strong senior season, helping the Lions reach the Open Division semifinals, and nearly pulling off the upset of the year against Chandler.
“After COVID hit, the Ivy League interest was still there, but my grades weren’t quit there,” Pitts said. “Most of the other D. I schools kinda fell off, even with my good senior tape.”
Open Division state champion Chandler had several seniors, including Oregon-bound defensive end Brandon Buckner and Central Florida-bound quarterback Mikey Keene, sign their national letters of intent in December.
On Wednesday, All-Arizona running back Eli Sanders will be signing with Iowa State and All-Arizona linebacker/long snapper Hank Pepper will sign with Michigan State.
They’ll be on the Chandler auditorium stage with fellow teammates Anthony Hanger (Augustana), Aliiakai Ormita (Rocky Mountain), Jeremiah Tyler (Western New Mexico), Nick Nesbitt (Columbia), Daniel Fulton (Rhodes College) and Cess Ibarra (Rocky Mountain).
“There is no question the pandemic had an affect on the class of 2021,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “We’ve had some kids that were turned away due to the do-over year. We have some kids that I feel lost out on some opportunities because college recruiters could not visit and get eyes on players.
“We’re all hoping that things can resume as they were in the pre-pandemic era with college football recruiting.”
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