Dominick Giudice always knew where he wanted to play college football.
It was just a matter of that school being interested in him.
“Michigan was always my dream school growing up,’’ said Giudice, who had 60 tackles and 22 sacks last season at Mater Dei Prep in Middletown, New Jersey and is projected as a defensive end.
So when Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff gave the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Giudice a scholarship offer in late March, Giudice jumped at it.
There's just one thing Giudice hasn't done yet.
Giudice is one of many high school athletes throughout the nation who are committing to colleges despite not being able to travel and see the schools in person because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Though Giudice hasn't seen the school, he is not looking back.
“I so was pumped up and my family was so happy about it,’’ Giudice said. "I think it was perfect timing."
When the NCAA instituted the recruiting dead period, which has been extended through July, it wiped out the spring evaluation period, a crucial time for prospects to get in front of coaches and display their skill sets.
It also prohibited official and unofficial visits.
Coaching staffs pivoted and started giving prospects "virtual tours," hoping to give athletes a sense of the campus environment without being able to host them in-person.
"It was really tough at first," said Fran Brown, Rutgers' secondary coach. "Like a culture shock."
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It has altered the recruiting process significantly, but it hasn't slowed it down.
Just the opposite.
It has accelerated the decision-making process for many prospects who are jumping at opportunities now. With uncertainty surrounding the upcoming high school football season, prospects don't want to let these chances slip away.
"To put it this way: More than half of the (rising) seniors rated at least four stars are currently committed to a school," says Adam Friedman, East Coast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
"Most of those commitments have come since the beginning of April, which is a week or two after the NCAA put in this recruiting dead period because of the pandemic. This is something we’ve never seen before in terms of the avalanche of commitments at this time of year."
'This is a time of uncertainty'
Will Towns got the ultimate virtual recruiting visit.
“The one I went on with Wake Forest was extremely well done,’’ said Towns, a rising senior at Jackson Memorial High School. “It was a Zoom call with drone footage of every nook and cranny of the main campus that you could see. It was a great tour, beautiful with the quality and everything they put into it. It was a really good tour.’’
Towns, who committed to Wake Forest of the Atlantic Coast Conference last month, said he also took a virtual tour of Boston College via FaceTime.
“Boston College is a beautiful campus and a great campus,’’ Towns said. “Just the fact that we were on FaceTime, it was not at the same tier or level as Wake Forest.’’
For athletes such as Towns, who chose Wake Forest over Boston College, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, the virtual recruiting process has become the norm during the pandemic.
“Most kids have gone on virtual visits,’’ said Towns, who rushed for 1,372 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and has two 200-yard, four-touchdown games. “They’ve seen it (campuses) through a Zoom call. They’ve seen it online through YouTube and stuff like that. I feel like right now most kids are just trying to get their spot in for the season and this summer. So we don’t lose our spot.
“I ended up losing one scholarship (offer) to Pitt before I committed because a couple of kids committed before. This is a time of uncertainty. You can always change your mind because verbals (commitment) are not binding."
In many ways, the prospects and schools are in similar situations, says John Garcia Jr., a national college football recruiting analyst for Sports Illustrated.
"On the surface level, it tells kids, 'Hey, whatever options you have right now, you really need to seriously consider them because improving your stock before this season, which is to a degree still up in the air, is basically out of the question,'" Garcia said.
"From the school’s perspective, it’s the same thing. It’s who can we grab right now even without a tour, without a camp, things like that."
Towns said the recruiting process became hectic, especially since it forced coaches to work from home.
“Coaches were calling me every single day until I committed,’’ Towns said. “I was getting 20-25 calls every single day from 7-8 different schools. It was a lot to handle, a lot. It was very stressful at times. Sometimes, I would put my phone down and not answer a single one.’’
The tough decisions
Donovan Ezeiruaku’s spring plans included a lot of travel.
The Williamstown (N.J.) High School rising senior expected to visit colleges every weekend as he closed in on where he wanted to play football starting in 2021.
Ezeiruaku got started earlier this year with trips to Fordham, Princeton and Elon, and visited a couple of other hopefuls in Rutgers and Maryland.
But the coronavirus halted other excursions he was planning.
It didn’t stop his recruitment, though. Most of his roughly 30 offers came in after the pandemic started.
That put Ezeiruaku in a difficult position – commit to one of the few schools he’d seen, or trust his instincts on somewhere he hadn’t.
He chose the latter when he decided on Boston College.
“I’m nervous, but I’m very excited,” he said.
Ezeiruaku spent hours on video meetings with coaches, took virtual tours of campuses and talked to fellow recruits as well.
But the process all started with his must-have list.
His future school had to have a family environment, strong academics, accessible summer internships, a state-of-the-art facility, a good nutrition plan and a plan to prepare him for life after college, which he hopes is the NFL.
Some of those bullet points came easier than others.
Academics, for example, were fairly easy to look at, but the family environment was tougher to glean without being able to step into the locker room.
That’s where video meetings were so crucial, and why Ezeiruaku was thankful to have his parents – Cindy and Sonyx – by his side.
“They were able to say, 'Hey, I’m liking the vibe.' They know. I might not know, but they know,” Ezeiruaku said. “What they felt of the coach, that definitely played a role. If they weren’t really getting the vibe they were looking for, then they’d let me know, 'Hey Donovan, I don’t know if that’s the place, I don’t really like his vibe,' or 'Donovan, I like the vibe a lot. He seems very genuine. He could be a good life coach.'”
Playing the waiting game
Other prospects are holding off on making their selections.
Ramapo (N.J.) rising senior quarterback Charles De Prima, who piloted his team to a 13-0 season and repeat as North Regional Group 3 titlist, had hoped to commit to a college before school resumes in September.
He understands that he may have to wait, because he still has several more schools he wants to visit.
De Prima is being recruited by several Ivy and Patriot League schools, as well as programs like Fordham and Monmouth. He hopes he is allowed to visit more colleges this summer, even if the trips are unofficial.
“I was planning on making [a decision] before my senior year started,” De Prima said. “I still kind of want to do that, but I’m just going to do it when I’m comfortable.”
Without the spring evaluation period, it's been more difficult for prospects to show college coaches their skills.
They've been forced to improvise.
DePaul junior quarterback Andrew Butler, who led the Spartans to the Non-Public Group 3 title, has been asked by recruiters to provide workout videos that simulate a camp atmosphere, and he and his teammates accept that the recruiting timetable is being delayed.
“I think for the most part that we understand the change of the process,” said Butler, who is being recruited by, among others, several Ivy League schools. “It’s going to come later, and we just have to trust it more, and trust that if we’ve worked hard and have a good season, the opportunity will hopefully be there to get the offers.”
What does the future look like?
Despite the avalanche of commitments, nothing is definite until prospects sign their letters of intent on National Signing Day.
Most members of the 2020 recruiting class officially locked in their decisions on the early Signing Day in December, while the rest held off until the traditional Signing Day in early February.
That likely won't be the case for the Class of 2021.
At some point, recruits likely will be permitted to travel to campuses and get a better feel for the environment.
Some could find the school they committed to isn't the right fit once they're on campus.
"We’re going to see more de-commitments in this class than we’ve ever had and we’re eventually going to see, I think, more transfers than we’ve ever seen once these guys are already enrolled," said Friedman, the Rivals recruiting analyst.
Garcia believes the NCAA could decide to allow visits during the month of August, traditionally a recruiting dead period.
Even for prospects who have verbally committed, the recruiting hasn't stopped.
"What it’s created is a group of schools that are basically, not ignoring, but looking past these verbal commitments," Garcia said. "There are dozens and dozens, probably hundreds of kids who are committed to one school still being recruited as if they were not committed anywhere."