Spring scrimmages an asset for major programs

Jim Tressel was able to coach his players and sell his program to recruits during the Buckeyes annual spring football game. AP Photo/Terry Gilliam

There were a handful of ESPN 150 Watch List prospects who committed this week. Those players' decisions came following campus visits that were far from the ordinary.

Last weekend, Notre Dame and Ohio State each hosted a group of their top 2009 prospects during one of the more exciting times on a college campus: the annual spring game.

For prominent programs with large turnouts, the electrifying atmosphere of the crowd and the more relaxed game day setting, can often be the icing on the cake for a prospect on his second or third campus visit. For a top out-of-state prospect on his first visit, the first-hand exposure to what the excitement of a fall home game might emulate can be overpowering enough to commit on the spot.

"It was my first time on campus and the atmosphere was just crazy and unbelievable," said recent OSU pledge Darrell Givens (Indian Head, Md./Lackey). "It was raining, and they still had 76,000 fans there in the Horseshoe screaming."

For ESPN 150 Watch List defensive tackle Tyler Stockton (Princeton, N.J./The Hun School) the number at Notre Dame's campus Saturday have been scaled down compared to Columbus, but the experience was just as exhilarating for him.

"I had been to Notre Dame before for camps, but this was the first time for a spring game -- it was amazing," Stockton said about Notre Dame's Blue-Gold Game. "I couldn't believe there were 30,000 fans there just for a spring game, it filled half the stadium."

Prior to joining Scouts Inc., coach Bill Conley was a long time recruiting coordinator with the Buckeyes. Conley said he and the OSU staff emphasized coordinating a prospect's visit around the Scarlet and Gray spring game.

"The spring game is a great recruiting tool," Conley said. "The key to recruiting is building relationships. Anytime you can get a prospect on your campus face-to-face in that type of exciting atmosphere it is important."

The 17-year coach for the Buckeyes was also quick to note that the spring game is similar to a real game in terms of atmosphere and excitement, but, for coaches, it comes without the stress and time constraints. Prospects can often get the undivided attention of a coach or player before, after and sometimes during the game.

"The visit can be set up a lot like a fall recruiting weekend, but with more time to focus on the prospect," Conley said. "Coaches are more readily available and able to give more time and attention to a prospect during the day of the game. They also have more free time the Friday before the game when tours and meetings are set up."

It is doubtful an eager Givens could have approached Ohio State coach Jim Tressel during a home contest against Michigan. The cornerback, however, certainly found his way to Tressel at halftime of the spring game.

"I had seen enough and knew it was where I wanted to go," Givens said. "I found Coach Tressel at halftime and told him I was ready to commit. We talked and he was excited."

The pregame environment was also enough for Stockton to commit -- he made his decision about 40 minutes prior to the start of the Irish's spring game.

"Notre Dame was my No. 1 school going into the visit, and the atmosphere on campus helped make my decision," Stockton said. "I had a chance to talk with Coach [Charlie] Weis and told him I was ready to commit."

Fans play an integral part in the role as well. Some fans are more aware of the recruits on campus this time of the year than the score of an intra-squad game. The Buckeye fans made a lasting impression on Givens.
"I walked down the ramp onto the field as the team was coming out for warm-ups, and the fans were just chanting my name," said Givens, an Under Armour All-American. "When I went over to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center after the game, fans where coming up to me for autographs."

It's not uncommon for fans to recognize a flashy player like Givens, but is it the same for a defensive tackle who does all the dirty work in the trenches?

"[The Notre Dame fans] knew who I was and were chanting my name," Stockton said. "I really didn't expect that."

An exciting campus atmosphere and welcoming fan support, can often lead to success on the recruiting trail. Both Ohio State (No. 6) and Notre Dame (No. 9) had classes that were ranked in the top 10 nationally last year. Conversely, Purdue, a Big Ten foe of OSU's, had an estimated attendance of fewer than 10,000 at its 2008 Black and Gold spring game. The Boilermakers currently have no commitments for 2009 and finished at the bottom of the Big Ten in the final class rankings for '08.

Here come the Irish
In my first couple Wednesday recruiting chats this year, loyal Notre Dame fans acted as if their world was crashing down. The Irish eyes are smiling this week, however.

Notre Dame added three ESPN 150 Watch List prospects to its 2009 recruiting class in less than a week. Despite their on-field struggles, the Fighting Irish appear to be picking up from where they left off on the recruiting trail in 2008.

Trying to build off its top-10 class from a year ago, commitments from athletes Cierre Wood (Oxnard, Calif./Santa Clara), Theo Riddick (Somerville, N.J./Immaculata) and Stockton certainly demonstrate that last year's impressive class was no fluke. It seems ND's s strong academic and athletic traditions, coupled with its vibrant campus atmosphere, are still the main selling points for top-level prospects around the country.

On the field, reports out of South Bend were positive this spring. The Fighting Irish apparently looked much sharper, cohesive and mature as a football team. Although the Irish are young, their impressive '08 recruiting class boasts a handful of prospects with the skills to potentially contribute early and at least provide solid depth to the current roster. Notre Dame could use the depth next season; it faces a 2008 schedule filled with big challenges.

The commitments this week are a promising sign that top-tier national prospects are still very much interested in what Notre Dame has to offer as a complete institution, aside from wins on the gridiron. However one losing season can be justified to a 17-year old prospect, but back-to-back sub-.500 campaigns will be a challenge to spin on the recruiting trail. Although the Irish are off to a hot recruiting start, on-field success will be necessary for another top-10 class in February.

Sleeper of the week
ESPN 150 Watch List quarterback Aaron Murray (Tampa, Fla./Plant) might have stolen the headlines this week with his commitment to Georgia, but SEC rival Auburn picked up an underrated outside linebacker with the explosiveness to create headaches for Murray and any other SEC quarterbacks he faces.

ESPN 150 Watch List prospect Harris Gaston (Bessemer, Ala.) is a bit raw and has yet to really settle down at one position. Still, on film, this kid looked like he has the size, closing speed and relentless motor to potentially wreak havoc off the edge as an attacking linebacker.

There is no doubt Gaston will need some fundamental polish and college positional coaching, but he was overlooked on the national and even regional level. Aside from Auburn, the 6-foot-3 tackling machine only had scholarship offers from Kentucky and Mississippi, which is a bit surprising considering his long frame for continued physical development and great sideline-to-sideline range.

Tommy Tuberville and the Tigers are known for recognizing talent, particularly in-state, and in Gaston, they landed a good one this week.

Cornerback Steve Williams (Dallas/Skyline), a recent Oklahoma pledge and teammate of '08 Under Armour All-American Keanon Cooper, accepted his invitation to play in the '09 contest this week. Defensive back Ricardo Dixon (Hallandale, Fla.) and hard-hitting outside linebacker Eric Fields (Warner Robins, Ga./Northside) also officially became 2009 Under Armour All-Americans this week.

Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school level. Tucker has served as a recruiting coordinator for two nationally ranked Division II colleges. Most recently, he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Merrimack College, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Division II playoffs.