From hiking to see the sunrise, to a paintball outing, to playing video games like “Call of Duty,” Virginia coaches tried a bit of everything last month during college football’s return to in-person recruiting.
“Our visits were tailor-made for each player and their family,” offensive line coach Garrett Tujague said. “It wasn’t cookie-cutter. However many kids we had on Grounds, that’s how many different recruiting visits we had.”
Following a year of all virtual recruiting, when the pandemic ruled out in-person interactions, college football coaches across the country got busy during a hectic June. They hosted official and unofficial campus visits and held team and prospect camps, their first in-person exposures to their 2022 recruiting targets since before the pandemic hit in March 2020.
UVa director of player personnel Justin Anderson estimated the program hosted more than 100 recruits during the month, not including more than 200 who came for camps.
Virginia currently has 10 verbal commitments for its 2022 recruiting class, five of which it landed after June 1.
“The month of June was a crazy time,” Anderson said. “I think we’ve had a good approach over the COVID [pandemic] and I think that’s led to great relationships. I think we had a really good June.”
While Anderson and Tujague wouldn’t want to endure the recruiting restrictions that came with the pandemic again, both said the amount of face time the NCAA allowed over Zoom gave them the chance to get to know recruits at an even higher level before ever meeting them in person.
That helped the coaches and Anderson’s staff, led by on-campus recruiting coordinator Blaire Hodges, to put together visits that were designed for each prospect, down to making sure each got to eat his favorite food at a local Charlottesville restaurant.
“It always revolved around food,” Tujague said. “Whatever their favorite food was, we made sure we incorporated that. I ate at a different spot every time.”
Much of the leg work of recruiting visits was handled via Zoom, so the 48 hours prospects spent at the school could be more intimate.
Certain things, Tujague and Anderson said, were standard, including academic sessions and time with current players. And, of course, every UVa prospect visits head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s ranch for the chance to ride a horse.
Of the personalized activities UVa’s staff participated in with recruits, perhaps none stood out more than the early mountain hike at Humpback Rock in nearby Nelson County. To make sure they caught the sunrise, Tujague, other staffers and a small group of recruits and their families were up at 3:30 a.m.
“They knew those kids well enough that they knew what they liked to do,” said Anderson, who was using the July downtime to take in his son’s swimming meet. “It wasn’t forced. That’s what makes our staff special.”
That level of familiarity also helped UVa’s staff navigate the personal COVID-19 protocol preferences of recruits and their families — whether they wanted to shake hands, fist bump, bump elbows or hug at the airport, or eat their restaurant meals indoors or outside.
Tujague said it simplified things that the university had a set policy for on-campus activities, something the recruiters were able to share with prospects before they arrived in Charlottesville.
Things have settled down some for programs this month, having moved into an NCAA-mandated dead period for recruiting. Tujague answered questions about the recruiting process while on vacation in California. Anderson gave his answers poolside while taking in his children’s swimming meet.
Next will come a return to in-person recruiting at high school games this fall. Eventually, coaches will be back in prospects’ living rooms. Things will go back to normal, but Anderson and Tujague said, there will be plenty that continues as well. Zoom will continue to be a resource in recruiting and may allow Virginia’s staff to know recruits and their families well before meeting them.
“There was like three kids, you pick them up at the airport and they’re throwing their bag to the side and giving you the biggest hug when you see them in Charlottesville airport, like you’re long lost best buddies,” Tujague said. “That was cool. It was way more intimate in going through this process with these 22s than any other class.”