FOOTBALL: Art of the Hunt

J. Michael Moore

Ryan Hoag may not be a household name.

He might be some day.

But for now, he’s lucky number 262.

That’s the 48th selection in the seventh round of last weekends’ NFL draft.

Dead last.

But still, the 6-foot-2 wide receiver from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota now has a chance to be one of the few.

He made it to another stop on the football road, a point only .09 percent – or nine in 10,000 – high school football players ever reach.

The odds of making it to the NFL aren’t great.

But that doesn’t stop the dream.

A dream that begins with getting to the right college and depends on a coach’s eye and intuition.

College coaches keep the ball rolling.

This is their story – a coach’s story.

No rest for the weary

Hoag was recruited by the NFL, just as thousands of high school seniors are recruited into college.

He has nothing to do with Western.

But as coaches will note, nothing really changes across the country when it comes to recruiting – just slight differences between universities and what they have to offer, both on the field and in prestige.

His situation is no different than countless athletes who will have or have considered coming through Western.

Head coach David Elson hopes, with a national championship straight out of the oven, more athletes will be enticed to dine at the Hilltoppers’ table.

Of course, any security a championship brings doesn’t give Elson a day off.

He remembers talking to his mother after his first season as an assistant coach.

She asked when he was coming home.

He said he didn’t know.

Because his recruiting job, a battle with Division I-A and I-AA schools alike, was just beginning.

That battle with Southeastern Conference and other Bowl Championship Series schools keeps Elson and his recruiting coordinator/offensive line coach Walter Wells on their toes.

Elson knows because he’s been on the other side.

He spent some time at West Virginia before taking over the reigns of the Hilltopper football program.

“At West Virginia, we had a specific recruiting secretary. We had a recruiting graduate assistant,” Elson said. “There were four or five different secretaries, a couple of student workers … As a coach at the I-A level, you’re responsible for two things – recruiting your area and coaching your position.”

Coaches at Western have even more responsibilities.

They handle housing and some academic affairs.

And Hilltopper coaches also have target areas for recruiting.

Wells, a longtime assistant at cross-state rival Eastern Kentucky University, knows the game well.

He leans back in his chair and talks of recruiting football players with ease.

He has done it for years on limited budgets and against countless schools, major and otherwise.

Out of necessity, he’s enlisted the help of high school coaches around the country.

“We’ve got to cultivate great relationships with our high school coaches,” Wells said. “We’re not going to have the budget to go out and see some guys. I can’t fly down to Orlando Thursday after practice and turn around and fly back Saturday for a game.”

He said recruiting at the I-AA level requires a little more legwork from coaches and more organization.

But there are distinct advantages.

David and the football dynasties

“If a I-A school offers a kid a scholarship, the perception and the general rule has been that we’re not going to have a chance with him,” Elson said.

His voice raised in pitch toward the end of his sentence – the tone of a football coach who knows he said something he doesn’t fully agree with.

He knows Western has broken the stereotype.

Elson quickly mentioned seniors Antonio Veals and Jeremy Chandler as players who had chances to play Division I-A football but chose the Hill.

Veals came to the attention of coaches after a call from his high school coach.

It’s a situation Elson and his assistants love.

“(High school coaches) care about kids and want to see them be successful,” he said. “If we get out there and they get to know us, I think they’re going to see we’re doing things the right way. That’s when they call you and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a keeper.'”

Bluegrass pigskin

The battle begins.

Western coaches make it clear that their biggest competition usually comes from Eastern and Murray State University. The Hilltoppers will resume their longtime annual rivalry with Eastern this season after a short sabbatical.

Both the Colonels and Racers have been playoff contenders.

The Toppers defeated Eastern in the first round of last year’s I-AA playoffs.

That leaves the average high school senior with a decision to make.

Elson said big state schools like Louisville and Kentucky normally have shorter lists of recruiting targets, leaving Western with a different talent pool.

And while Western and Eastern didn’t bump heads on the recruiting trail as much this year, that doesn’t mean they never do.

In a unheralded football state like Kentucky, every player counts.

“It wasn’t a particularly good year in the state of Kentucky,” Eastern coach Danny Hope said. “One year is different from the next.”

Hope is new to Eastern and spent several years as an assistant at I-A programs such as Louisville and Purdue.

At the higher level, recruiting gets a little more targeted.

Hope said in his last few seasons at Purdue, the team had given out all its commitments for the next year before it played in its season-ending bowl game.

And while Hope said that’s a sign of getting the best players, it’s also a risk.

Division I-AA schools often have better chances at getting players who may not have developed until their senior year of high school – the unknowns.

Hope refers to it as the “pecking order” and said it isn’t as diverse among schools as the average fan might think.

The “tweener” schools, the lower level Division I-A institutions, may have a harder time than Western and Eastern, according to Hope.

They are lower on the pecking order.

But closer to home, he agrees with Elson in saying that, all things equal, the schools would rather take an athlete from Kentucky.

Twenty-two starters and special teamers on the Hilltoppers’ national championship team hailed from Kentucky.

All but two of Western’s 10 signees for next season are from Kentucky.

“All things even, you’re going to take the young man from Kentucky,” Wells said. “A, his parents will be able to come to the game. The parents are going to have a vested interest. They’re closer to home. We want to recruit the state. But, we’ll also have to find our needs elsewhere, too.”

Elsewhere

Miami, Fla. Population: 2,289,683.

Commonwealth of Kentucky. Population: 4,065,566.

Pure numbers are the reasons coaches choose to recruit the state of Florida.

That, and the state has long been regarded as a football hotbed, thanks to warmer weather and high school rules that allow football to be practiced and played almost year round.

In Kentucky, coaches have a limited spring practice period to further develop their players.

“You talk to a coach in the city of Miami, and he could see as many players as we could see in the whole state of Kentucky,” Wells said.

Elson said Western also tries to focus recruiting efforts in counties that participate in the school’s Tuition Incentive Program. That includes the Nashville area, and areas around Indianapolis, St. Louis and sections of Illinois.

Open market

Taking chances on the football field is one thing.

Taking them in recruiting is part of the business.

In today’s world of high school seniors jumping to the NBA, it’s sometimes hard to find the ideal college athlete.

But sometimes college becomes a step toward the NFL.

And with more and more scouts coming to Western to find the next Mel Mitchell, Joseph Jefferson or Jeremi Johnson – former Toppers who were drafted – the process grows more complex.

“There’s nothing wrong with a kid going to the NFL,” Elson said. “We’re going to make sure he understands how hard it is to make it in the NFL and make sure he gets a degree.”

Elson said he has had recruits visit campus and fall asleep while meeting with academic advisers, a sure sign that they may not be the type of player or person the Hilltoppers desire.

But coaching is about building character, a task that Elson and his mates take pride in.

They take their chances.

“If you had all choir boys and 4.0’s, it wouldn’t’ be as much fun,” Elson said.

Along the same lines, the Toppers sometimes take chances on transfer students, some from the Division I-A level.

Senior quarterback Casey Rooney transferred to the Hill from the University of Memphis. And Johnson, now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, used his last year of eligibility to leave Indiana and play for Western.

“(Big schools) make recruiting mistakes just like anyone else does,” Elson said. “We’re going to be aggressive with some of those kids and target some. That kid may end up going to Kentucky, but in two years, he’s not happy. Then he remembers that Walter Wells came to visit his high school and came to his house and Western is really interested in him.”

Science

A few more players will make it from high school to college football than from college to the NFL.

In fact, 5.8 percent of 281,000 high school senior football players will play for an NCAA institution, according to an NCAA report.

Every recruit represents one in 17 high school football players.

But those numbers are where the analytical edge on recruiting may end.

Beyond the 1,000-page book on NCAA regulations that coaches are tested on, beyond the list upon lists of high school prospects, lies a fuzzy outline.

There’s no right or wrong answer. No mantra for schools to follow when it comes to whom or where they will recruit.

“It’s not an exact science,” Hope said. “That’s probably the broadest and most general statement, but it’s the truest there is.”

Reach J. Michael Moore at [email protected]