Coaches, recruits talk spring strategy

It's the age-old question: The tortoise or the hare? Start fast or end strong? Ricky Bobby says, "If you ain't first, you're last." But recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint.

Between April 15 and the end of May, college coaches are allowed to make one phone call each to junior prospects.

How important is a single phone call?

It depends who you ask, although we'll begin to get answers Monday as the spring evaluation period begins.

Eric Johnson, an Iowa Hawkeyes assistant, wants to be the first, wants to let his recruits know they are a priority to him. And ESPN Watch List athlete Nicholas Ruffin wants to know he's wanted.

Ball State coach Pete Lembo believes it isn't always in a program's best interest to call first thing Monday morning, instead opting for a call in May sometimes. That is fine with top linebacker Clifton Garrett, who would rather hear from a coach later if it means a coach can offer more details or has more time to talk with spring practice finished.

There are several layers to peel away, and it is not as simple as picking up the phone and going down a list of names. There is strategy: Whatever a coach decides to do, he better play it right, because as one coach said, "You don't ever know what the deal breaker is."

When Johnson woke up Monday, he pulled out his phone. It was time to call some of his Midwest targets for the first time. Before Monday, coaches could not call Class of 2014 recruits, and once they call, they won't be able to call again until the fall.

"When I get up in the morning, I would call the kids," Johnson said. "When I get up I would call them and leave a message that I want to be the first one. That's how important I felt it was."

Ruffin says it is important. The Atlanta St. Pius X athlete says it is a clear indication of where he stands on a coaching staff's recruiting board. And Ruffin is on a lot of them.

The 6-foot-1, 185-running back/defensive back remains uncommitted but has offers from nearly the entire SEC and schools across the country. Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are his five leaders, and a call from one of them Monday would cause him to shine a little extra light on that team.

"As a recruit you do know that they're going to make the calls to their top recruits first then work their way down the list," Ruffin said. "If a school calls me three weeks into it then I'm like, 'I know where I am on their board.' "

DeSoto (Texas) coach Claude Mathis agrees that a coach better be up early Monday, at least if he wants to land the next Dontre Wilson. Mathis begins educating his players on the recruiting process as freshmen -- if not earlier -- and tells them to pay attention to the coaches who call early and often.

"They're going to really look at the teams that talk to them first," Mathis said. "Teams that come from behind on my kids will miss out."

Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock does not completely buy into the belief a coaching staff needs to call Day One to make an impression. By now, coaches have often talked with recruits several times already, which doesn't necessitate a call at the opening of the evaluation period. In that case, an early call might even hurt a team's chances.

Garrett, the Watch List linebacker from Plainfield (Ill.) South, does not care which team calls first. Garrett was told LSU coach Les Miles plans to call Monday, but that won't have as much of an impact on Garrett as his trip to Baton Rouge this weekend will. If a coach is calling first for the sake of being No. 1, then he is better off scrolling past Garrett's name in his phone book..

"A few teams will try to beat other teams to the punch," Garrett said. "I'm going to hear what they have to say. If they're calling to just be the first person and not say anything, I'll be able to decipher that."

Grand Rapids (Mich.) Christian prospect Drake Harris, a Watch List receiver, says a first-day call from a school that previously wasn't recruiting him hard would at least make him take a second look at that school. He expects Florida State, Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame or Ohio State to call first Monday, but if it were another school "it would be an eye-opener."

Lembo and his mid-major brethren are forced to operate differently, though. He has a list of recruits he will call during the evaluation period, but it might not serve him well to call the first day, the first week or even the first month. A call to a prospect early in the evaluation period might skyrocket Ball State, a MAC program, to the top of his list, but there is still another month for more teams -- BCS teams -- to watch him work out and possibly offer. Once that happens, that time on the phone just became a waste of Lembo's monthly minutes.

"We've all seen in this league you get in early and have a great shot and then all of a sudden one Big Ten school comes and offers and now all the time and effort and energy in all likelihood is gone to waste. A lot of coaches don't want to admit that but that's the truth," Lembo said. "… By the time we get to May, that phone call is good for us because we're starting to hone in on guys we think may end up being true recruits for us."

What coaches do agree on is the phone call is not as important as it was even just a few years ago. Coaches and recruits trade messages every day on Facebook and Twitter. Recruits are initiating calls by dialing coaches, or colleges get the high school coach to put the recruit on the line.

"The one phone call doesn't mean as much because there are ways through [Twitter], Facebook -- that are legal -- that you communicate through," Oklahoma State assistant Glenn Spencer said. "The one phone call isn't that big of a deal now."

More than anything, Spencer said the phone call is a formality. It might not be as important as it once was, but a coach better not get lazy and take a month-long vacation after spring ball. Recruits are more educated about the process now, Spencer said, as evidenced by Mathis mentoring his DeSoto players early in their high school career.

Bob Sphire, coach of Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett, agrees recruits are not anticipating the phone call like they once were but coaches still need to find time to at least remind recruits they are still held in high regard. Failure to do so could cause a team that was once in good standing to find itself at the bottom of the pack.

"It's like jockeying for position," Sphire said. "I think as a college coach you can't ignore that moment in time and take [the call] for granted because they had all the interaction through social media or junior day visits. They can't make the assumption that they're OK."

Penn State assistant coach Charles London won't go as far as saying the significance of the call has diminished but admits it is much easier to keep in touch with recruits now than in the past. At the very least, London said, the call is a chance for the head coach to get in touch with the program's top targets.

"I think any time you can talk and put the head coach on it's really meaningful," London said. "It is important every time a head coach can get a recruit on the phone."

One phone call. It means everything and at the same time is, as the 2,000-yard receiver Harris said, "[it's] not that important." Waiting until May and saving the best for last or bursting through the opening gate and hoping it helps sustain a large enough lead -- there are risks with both approaches. As Johnson, the Iowa assistant, said, it is a long process. "You make that first call and you're done. It's like your first date."

At least Paramus (N.J.) Catholic athlete Jabrill Peppers will make it easy on coaches. Asked if an early phone call will make a difference in the elite prospect's recruitment, he says no.

Said Peppers: "Hopefully no one will have this number."