Originally Published: August 18, 2012
DawgNation: A Look at Unofficial Visits
Radi Nabulsi from DawgNation talks with members of the Georgia recruiting staff to get their take on the growing importance of unofficial visits and what exactly happens on an unofficial visit.

Unofficials mean -- and cost -- more than ever

By Max Olson

A father can't put a price on getting to watch his son play college football, but he can put a price on all that it cost to get him there.

For Maurice Smith Sr., that cost has been worth every penny. His son, Sugar Land (Texas) Dulles ESPN 150 cornerback Maurice Smith, is committed to reigning national champion Alabama.

But by the time the four-star prospect made that decision in June, his father was out more than a few pennies.

"With planes, gas, hotels and rental cars, it's cost at least $14,500," Smith Sr. said. "So yeah, it was a little bit."

Dad has unofficial recruiting visits to thank for all that missing money.

Unofficial visits have become the currency of today's college football recruiting world. They keep the modern recruiting machine running all year long.

They give recruits and their families a way to bypass the NCAA's rigid recruiting visit rules. Prospects can, with few exceptions, visit a college campus at any time of the year. They can stay as long as they'd like and can see and do whatever they please.

There's only one catch: The school can't pay for any of it.

These days, that doesn't seem to be a problem for the parents of top recruits. This is the new norm, a necessary means to landing scholarship offers and securing their sons' future. So the nation's best and brightest are racking up unofficial visits at prolific rates.

Smith made multiple trips to Texas, Texas A&M and LSU. He checked out Baylor and nearly committed during his Oklahoma visit. He even flew out to Nebraska and Utah.

"We were just willing to do it," his father said. "The sacrifice we made for him to really know where he wanted to go was worth it."

In the end, two trips to Tuscaloosa sealed the deal. By then, Smith had taken a total of 15 unofficial visits.

The nation's top recruit, Loganville (Ga.) Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, took at least that many visits before picking Clemson. Reuben Foster (Auburn, Ala./Auburn), No. 2 in the ESPN 150, has taken more than 20 unofficial visits since the start of his junior season.

"That's just how it is," said Vernon Hargreaves III, the nation's top cornerback. "You've got to narrow your choices down."

Long gone are the days when recruits waited for their five all-expenses-paid official visits, permitted at the start of their senior season, to start checking out college campuses.

Through the middle of August, 225 recruits ranked in the ESPN 300 have committed, including 107 members of the ESPN 150.

That's 75 percent of the nation's top recruits, and they're not the only ones who value unpaid trips. Lightly recruited prospects need as much face time with college coaching staffs as they can get. For them, relationships can lead to scholarships.

Courtesy of Smith FamilyMaurice Smith, here with his mom Samyra and Tide coach Nick Saban, took unofficial visits to Alabama, LSU, Texas, Baylor, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Utah.

The ever-increasing speed of the recruiting cycle is raising the stakes for college coaches and has made early unofficial visits more of an expectation than ever before.

First there are junior days in February and March, then trips to spring games in April and May. Add in camps, combines and extra campus visits and you get an offseason that's not getting any cheaper and doesn't give recruits -- or their recruiters -- much time off.

And college coaches are beginning to take notice. In June, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer publicly criticized the NCAA's visit policies during a high school camp in Detroit.

"It is one of the problems I have now with collegiate athletics. It's almost anti-student-athlete where they have to come to us for camp," Meyer told ESPN.com. "How many kids can afford to fly or drive that far?"

Cooper Bateman is grateful he's one of the few who can. The Alabama quarterback commit and his parents embarked on a seven-day road trip in April from their home in Salt Lake City into SEC country.

Bateman took unofficial visits to LSU, Alabama, Auburn and Florida during his spring break. The tour required a total of four flights but proved invaluable for the No. 6 ranked signal caller.

"With all the money that it takes to get out there and see those places," Bateman said, "my parents looked at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we were going to take full advantage of.

"But there was a lot of money spent. I have to thank my parents from the bottom of my heart."

Hargreaves III waited until July for the bulk of his unofficial visits. The five-star Tampa (Fla.) Wharton standout took trips to 10 schools in the span of 11 days.

He started with Oregon, Stanford and USC. Then Hargreaves made his way across the country, hitting Notre Dame, Ohio State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Clemson and Alabama along the way.

"I have about 45 offers, and all of them want me to come visit," Hargreaves said. "You have to make some of them, just to see what you like and don't like. If you don't go at all, you'll probably pick the wrong school."

By the time he finally got home, Hargreaves knew he had no need for his official visits. He committed to Florida on July 26.

There are many reasons why recruits like unofficial visits, but one of the biggest ones is official visits can't last any longer than 48 hours, and thus their itineraries are meticulously planned. It's not that way on unofficial visits.

"On official ones, they just show you all the good stuff that they want you to see," Hargreaves said. "With unofficials, you see everything. Anything you want to do, you just have to ask."

Or, as Kenny Bigelow, who's No. 9 in the ESPN 150, put it: "On official visits, there's going to be a whole lot of sucking up from people wanting you to commit. On unofficials, people are just doing their own thing."

The nation's No. 2 defensive tackle is glad he avoided it all by committing to the Trojans last November. The way Bigelow sees it, waiting to take official visits before deciding would've led to a long, taxing recruiting process.

"I could've waited, but why have such a distraction on your senior year?" said the Elkton (Md.) Eastern Christian Academy star. "You've got to take the SAT, the ACT, take all your classes, get through the season, prom. It's all a distraction. To get it out of the way was a big problem off my back."

There may be one way for the NCAA to aid the modern recruit: Open up the visit calendar.

Permit the use of official visits in the spring and summer. Or allow five officials in the spring and five more in the fall.

Or, to take things a more practical step further, let recruits use some or all of their official visits during their junior season.

Bateman said he feels that's the most feasible solution. He and the rest of the nation's quarterbacks feel pressure to commit long before their senior season -- 119 have already made pledges, including 47 of the top 50.

Nearly all of them now have no need for four of their paid visits.

The early-decision expectations once placed only on quarterbacks has spread to the rest of the recruiting world, and the NCAA rulebook has yet to catch up.

Rachel Newman Baker, an NCAA managing director for enforcement, said the issue of unofficial visits has been identified as a problem by the NCAA and discussions are ongoing about ways to adjust the official and unofficial visit system.

"Trying to get those [recruiting] rules up to speed, and at a place that works with what's going on in the real world, is something that is going on right now," Newman Baker said.

Newly implemented renovations to the NCAA's basketball recruiting rulebook offer a hint at what could be on the way for football. Basketball recruits can now begin taking official visits on Jan. 1 of their junior year.

"Those coaches seem to be overall very pleased with where they ended up," Newman Baker said. "I think you very much can expect the same thing to happen with football here in the near future."

Still, it's hard to envision changes that would curb the trend of early commitments or the rampant use of unofficial visits. Many elite recruits have already started taking them before they've even played their junior season.

"That, to me, is a little overboard," Maurice Smith Sr. said. "Once you get an offer from a school now, they really want you to go spend money."

But he'll keep spending, because the opportunity to get recruited is a rare and incomparable experience. Just don't call it priceless.

The art of wowing a prospect

By Blair Angulo

LOS ANGELES -- The John McKay Center has added a much-needed wrinkle to USC's on-campus recruiting, and prospects are noticing the shiny new toy.

[+] Enlarge
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireThe John McKay Center, USC's new $70 million athletic facility, has given recruits plenty to talk about during their unofficial visits.

The early returns should bring a smile to coach Lane Kiffin's face. A pair of Trojans commits who recently visited campus, including Mission Hills (Calif.) Alemany receiver Steven Mitchell, are downright giddy about USC's new $70 million athletic facility.

"The inside," Mitchell said, "is like heaven."

Recruiting pitches, as well as the program's use of the unofficial visit, are being updated. USC has always used its vast football tradition, private-school education and favorable locale as selling points. Now there is another appealing factor.

During an ever-evolving era, when having a state-of-the-art facility is not only important but necessary, the 110,000-square-foot McKay Center has become the Trojans' wild card, leaving some recruits wide-eyed.

"There's iPads in the lockers," offensive line commit Nico Falah said, grinning. "It's top-notch."

The unofficial visit is no longer just a brief meet-and-greet, but a serious pitch. Being a guest at one of USC's patented practices have been an integral part of unofficial visits, with recruits often left astonished at the intensity level and tempo of it all.

"We got to see all the receivers and their practices are pretty live," Mitchell said. "That's what I like about it."

USC has made good use of unofficial visits, and that only figures to improve with the emergence of the McKay Center.

Added importance at Penn State

By Josh Moyer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Unofficial visits have taken on a whole new level of importance at Penn State.

Recruits no longer have to reflect on just academics, playing time and the coaching staff. They have to look at the sanctions -- and look past any stain this program might have.

The Nittany Lions' staff has to overcome this handicap some way, and unofficial visits are one way it can combat that.

The staff wants prospects to look at the team as a family, so it wants those potential players to feel right at home. On unofficial visits, recruits are treated like part of the team. They watch practice, attend team meetings and chat with coaches. The sooner they feel like part of the team, the sooner they might commit to be part of that team.

"Recruiting's about relationships," coach Bill O'Brien said recently. "It's about making sure there's a trusting relationship between ourself and the person we're recruiting. It's about fit."

Four-star tight end Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, Pa./Cedar Cliff) wasn't certain about heading to Happy Valley until speaking with O'Brien face-to-face. He said he's traveled to Penn State "double-digit" times on unofficial visits, and he's already taken on a leadership role by broadcasting his love of Penn State through the media and on his Twitter account.

"It just helps get more comfortable with things," Breneman told ESPN about the visits.

Penn State will have an uphill climb for at least the next six years when it comes to reeling in prospects. So, if a recruit wants to come to Penn State on an unofficial visit, the Lions likely won't turn him away.

"I've been there three times," said three-star linebacker Brandon Bell (Mays Landing, N.J./Oakcrest). "And it got better each time."

That's exactly what Penn State's counting on.


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