Fog masked the view of Mount St. Helens, but Silver Lake’s rippling water dotted with lily pads and sounds of birds chirping still created a picturesque setting for Corey Sampson’s first fishing trip in Cowlitz County earlier this month.
If only Sampson could forget he shouldn’t be there.
Typically “drop a line” is the Rainier Beach football coach helping his players reach out to college scouts. This year it was for crappie.
“Normally it would be busy right now,” Sampson said. “At least 100 schools would have been through already — small schools, big schools — checking out all the players and the players that are next up in line. Transcripts, grades, building relationships with everybody. Busy.”
The impact of the state’s delayed fall season because of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be visible on national signing day Wednesday. While the local talent pool is regarded as the best senior class in Washington’s history, the traditional gauge — the lineup of players signing with FBS schools — isn’t expected to be as long as projected, according to area scouts and coaches. Reasons range from a lack of game film to splice for college coaches to missed opportunities to improve from playing against top competition.
For Eastside Catholic defensive lineman J.T. Tuimoloau, who is 247Sports.com’s No. 1 national recruit and second in Sports Illustrated’s rankings, not being able to take the desired amount of official college visits is keeping him from signing in February, his coach said.
“The Division I guys, I’m not really worried about them, and they’re not really worried,” Lincoln of Tacoma football coach Masaki Matsumoto said. “They’ve been getting looks. We have four kids who got offers during the pandemic. … It’s the DII, DIII, NAIA guys who need a little bit more film or who are maybe stuck between (levels) and really need to have a breakout year to get to the DII level. It’s those guys that I’m more worried for.”
It’s tough to be a junior
Taking in the scene at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey earlier this month, Rainier Beach junior Josh Conerly Jr. had a daunting feeling. The facility was filled with recruiting prospects and college scouts for the fifth National Preps Showcase.
“It’s not just me,” Conerly said of having not played a sanctioned game since November 2019. “A lot of people are getting held back right now.”
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association delayed the high-school football season and left it up to the leagues around the state as to when they would play. Washington was one of 15 in the nation to not play a fall football schedule in 2020, according to Maxpreps.com.
Most area coaches believe that will hurt Conerly’s recruiting class the most.
But probably not Conerly. The 6-foot-6, 285-pound offensive tackle has 26 offers mostly because of a strong sophomore high-school season. Performances at a small summer camp in Utah and the Stack Sports Regional Showcase in Oregon last fall helped, and 247Sports rated him the top prospect in Washington for the Class of 2022.
But the 247Sports rankings are anemic when it comes to Washington’s junior class. Brandon Huffman, 247Sports’ national editor, has personally rated 36 players for the Class of 2022.
Normally by January that list would be about 80 prospects. He has more than 200 players rated for the Class of 2021.
Huffman said he could sense the desperation among the players. The junior football season is the most pivotal for a recruit. The Class of 2022 would have also benefited from the national spotlight the seniors are garnering.
It’s difficult to not wonder what talented junior receiver Trey Horner (Steilacoom) would’ve shown college coaches lured to games because of Ohio State-bound receiver Emeka Egbuka. Or Kennedy Catholic junior Noah Rushing and college-bound teammates Junior Alexander (Arizona State), Jabez Tinae (Washington) and Sam Huard (Washington). The trio said they’re going to play whatever high-school season they can, but NCAA rules bar colleges from attending.
The circumstances made TikTok challenges hit different for football players looking to get recruited. Huffman’s social media feed was inundated with video clips of athletes jumping from the shallow end of a pool to the deck to show power, flipping tires in backyards to show strength and folding their bodies into yoga positions to show flexibility.
Roosevelt junior quarterback Conner Ridenour enlisted his mother to become his personal videographer as he and teammates ran plays to show his passing skills. He hoped a strong fall season would bump him up from Division III consideration to DII.
“It’s overwhelming,” Ridenour said of making videos to share online and the mounting hours spent on Zoom for recruiting, school and virtual campus tours. “The thought of college being a year away and how much I have to prepare and getting ready for. … I can only control how much effort I put into this and have to let things happen.”
Area coaches also sharpened their filming and social media skills to help their players.
Matsumoto held Zoom tutorials with his staff and team to demonstrate which drills, weightlifting and exercises college scouts want to see in order to evaluate recruits. Eastside coach Dominic Daste said his staff organized and filmed an NFL-like combine for their seniors and juniors.
And then there’s the seniors who didn’t have offers locked up before the pandemic.
O’Dea senior Milton Hopkins Jr. organized what was called a COVID 7s tournament last fall that mimicked 7-on-7 passing leagues.
The pandemic put Hopkins in a tricky position because he played quarterback out of necessity for the Fighting Irish, leading them to a Class 3A state runner-up finish in 2018. But he’s really a linebacker and would have shown that skill set as a senior.
“It puts a lot of people in thinking mode, where they’ve got to think about not only themselves but their families, too,” Hopkins told The Seattle Times in September. “Cause then their families got to worry about paying for a college education when they didn’t really have to.”
Hopkins committed to the University of Washington as a preferred walk-on and hopes to perform well enough to flip it into a full scholarship.
Beach senior Frankco Gratton Jr. was in a similar predicament. But his lack of film was from not playing his freshman year and suffering a season-ending knee injury as a junior.
Like Hopkins, Gratton benefited from a state playoff run, helping the Vikings reach the Class 3A quarterfinals as a sophomore in 2018. Those season highlights of Gratton, a 6-5, 205-pound outside linebacker busting through an offensive line for sacks, helped him secure a scholarship from Fresno State.
“I’ve been away from football for so long,” said Gratton, who used the time off to improve his GPA. “It’s been a downer, but I had to realize I’m not the only person that’s going through this type of struggle right now, so I just worried about what I can control.”
Further complicating recruiting this year is the NCAA Division I Board of Directors granting an extra year of eligibility to fall sports athletes.
Seniors returning for the 2021-22 season won’t count against a program’s scholarship limit, but there’s still the financial costs with multiple universities already reporting millions in lost revenue due to the pandemic. Some institutions like Los Angeles-based Azusa Pacific University (ASU), a DII program, and Occidental College, which is DIII, cut their football programs.
“With all of these seniors coming back to play another year next year, it’s really going to saturate the talent pool,” Central Washington coach Chris Fisk said. “Some guys that maybe could’ve played college football in this year’s class or next year’s class, they may not get those opportunities because rosters are full. That’s going to take a few years to cycle out and get back to normal.”
A ray of stadium light
A jolt of optimism was injected into the state’s recruiting scene Thursday when Gov. Jay Inslee announced King, Pierce, Snohomish and Thurston counties could move into Phase 2 of his Healthy Washington plan. That means high schools in those regions can compete in medium and high-risk sports such as football.
“I’ve been watching every day like it’s the stock market,” Sampson said of Washington’s COVID reports. “I (needed) to see what’s going on and when we can get to Phase 2 and go from there. I’m concerned that people aren’t taking it seriously and this is a serious thing. We all want to move on from this (pandemic).”
Sampson and the rest of the Metro League expect to start practice Feb. 22. It might not help the seniors, but the juniors can get the film they need to see their dreams of playing college ball materialize.
“That’s beautiful,” Huffman said. “Coaches are still recruiting these guys, but they’re hesitant to pull the trigger entirely unless they get some recent (game) content. I had a football coach tell me that there’s a kid they’re looking at in the Pacific Northwest. … He told me, ‘All I need to see is four plays of him blocking somebody as a tight end and I’m going to offer him.’
“They don’t even need four games, it might be as little as four plays. Some kind of recent context is going to be life-changing for these guys.”