This was supposed to be a column about possibilities.
In Happy Valley, spring practice was supposed to start Wednesday. James Franklin was going to talk about his roster, brag about Micah Parsons’ immense skill and Journey Brown’s meteoric rise and an offensive line and a quarterback that have high hopes for bright futures.
Maybe he’d have been asked about national championship hopes, because they always start in the spring on days like that, too.
There’s no sense asking those questions now. There’s no one to ask, and no forum in which to ask them anyway.
In a typical year that isn’t defined by social distancing, self quarantines and doing what we can — in many cases, at least — to stop the spread of the COVID-19, Wednesday would be considered the start of one of the most important months of the year in college football. It’s the time of year when teammates regroup, when strength training staffs start to see how the gains players made in the weight room translates to the field, and when coaches make some of their biggest pushes to restock for the future.
Instead, players are home, gyms are empty and coaches are having to find new ways to recruit their future stars without an opportunity to bring them to campus so they can show off their programs up close.
Assuming football goes on in the fall as usual, there’s a great chance you won’t even see a difference. Spring ball is beneficial, but not an absolute necessity.
Recruiting impact: The recruiting opportunities created by spring ball are plentiful, though. It stands to reason that’s the aspect of this time of year coaches will have the most difficult time replacing down the road.
For instance, Franklin said Penn State attracted more than 160 potential recruits during the 2018 Blue-White Game, and it seemed like they approached that number last year, as well.
What would they have attracted this year? Who knows. But with only two verbal commitments in the 2021 recruiting class, many fans were looking at Blue-White weekend 2020 — originally scheduled for April 18 but canceled last week as coronavirus fears became reality — as a chance to increase that number.
“I think that they were anticipating having some top targets get to campus,” said Steve Wiltfong, the national recruiting director at 247sports. “It was just another opportunity to get guys to campus and get more familiar with their staff and get them around their staff more. They’re not going to get that now, but, you know, a lot of those kids aren’t going to be able to go elsewhere anyway.”
On short list for top recruits: Wiltfong wanted to make one thing clear: The fact Penn State has just two players verbally committed to the next recruiting class is hardly a sign that it’s off to a rough start.
Quite to the contrary, they’re on the short lists for some of the better recruits in the country, and they’ve already held a few big recruiting weekends over the last few months that should help prevent any potential loss the lack of spring practice would take away.
Many of their top targets in the class — including offensive lineman Landon Tengwall and quarterback Garrett Nussmeier — visited last year during the White Out game against Michigan, which has obviously emerged as an even bigger recruiting destination than Blue-White.
Just can't meet in person: The bottom line is, coaches can still contact players through video conferencing and text messages and in many other ways. They just can’t meet in person.
Players who really need to visit a campus will simply set their official visits for the fall, and while that will be a logistical challenge for coaches and recruiting staffs that likely will have to host more players on game weekends, it’s pretty much the way things were done in the not-too-distant past as a matter of procedure. Coaches will figure it out and still put together terrific 2021 classes.
Larger issue: There may be a larger issue, though: Will this hurt teams in the pursuit of putting together 2022 and 2023 classes?
“This is impacting college coaches getting out on the road and recruiting and evaluating and getting another opportunity to see their top prospects,” Wiltfong said. “Yeah, they’ve watched film. But getting the chance to go out and eyeball them again, see them work out, and see how they’ve developed since the last time they eyeballed them ...you know, a lot of high schools have canceled spring footballs or workouts and aren’t in school as well.
“It will be interesting to see how that evaluating and those things go.”
Need for adjustment: These are challenging times, and people adjust. They have to.
Programs that do the best job adjusting during difficult times to these comparatively unimportant challenges will be the ones that find themselves on the most firm footing. Franklin and his staff have always prided themselves on their organization and creativity.
They’ll need it, now more than ever.