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College football recruits, coaches trying to adapt in age of COVID-19
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College football recruits, coaches trying to adapt in age of COVID-19

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Chryst vs. Northwestern

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst watches during a Big Ten game against Northwestern last season. With recruiting limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coaches and recruits are battling uncertain times.

Marcus Mbow’s spring plans got flipped upside down in mid-March.

The Wauwatosa East product was slated to be traveling across the Midwest touring college campuses and hoped to make his choice regarding where he’d attend school and play football. The three-star offensive lineman is one of the top-ranked class-of-2021 recruits in Wisconsin, tabbed No. 5 by Rivals and No. 6 by 247Sports.

But the COVID-19 pandemic halted all on- and off-campus recruiting this spring in college football, meaning recruits can’t get a complete feel of where they’ll spend their time and coaches can’t make living-room pitches. The situation is forcing recruits like Mbow — who had visits scheduled to Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue and Tennessee — to rely on virtual tours and video calls to gather information.

“(I’m) building relationships, learning a lot of their coaching ways, learning as much as I can overall,” Mbow wrote in a direct message. “It sucks not being able to visit. I’d really prefer to not make a decision before visiting schools. So we’ll see.”

Wednesday night, the recruiting dead period put in place by the NCAA was extended until June 30. The NCAA’s Division I Council Coordination Committee will vote on May 27 on if the dead period needs to be extended again. The dead periods wiped out the typical spring evaluation period for recruits and coaches, and has scheduled official visits this summer in jeopardy. Over the years, University of Wisconsin’s football program has hosted a large chunk of its official visits in June.

Some rules were relaxed during this dead period to allow school staff members and current student-athletes to be involved in recruiting calls when typically only coaches could participate.

Uncertainty regarding a number of issues, including when/if campuses will open and when/if the college football season begins, has class of 2021 recruits looking to lock in scholarship offers earlier than in years past.

According to 247Sports data compiled by The Associated Press, 627 players in the 2021 class had committed by May 6. That’s more than twice the number of 2020 prospects who had announced college choices by that date.

UW is off to a strong start in recruiting the 2021 class with 10 verbal commitments, including the five of the top-six ranked prospects in Wisconsin. The Badgers brought in five offensive linemen in the 2020 class and have two four-star linemen — Grafton’s JP Benzschawel and Lakeville, Minn., product Riley Mahlman — already committed to the 2021 class. Mbow said he hasn’t been in contact with UW since September.

There’s been discussion on whether the pandemic will influence recruits to stay closer to home with their college selections. That hasn’t been the case yet — 247Sports data compiled by the AP showed more than 60 percent of recruits that committed before March 11 chose programs within 300 miles of their hometowns, while more than half of recruits that have committed since have gone outside that range.

Those numbers could be explained by schools zeroing in on recruits in their backyard earlier in the process to secure commitments.

If COVID-19 does inspire recruits to choose campuses closer to home, the Badgers have a number of highly-touted targets within a 300-mile radius.

Four-star outside linebacker/defensive end T.J. Bollers out of Tiffin, Iowa, is one of the top recruits that UW has been in on for some time. Bollers, ranked in the top 10 at his position nationally, attended a Badgers’ camp before his junior season and came to games against Michigan and Iowa in 2019. He also visited campus in early March for a junior day, just before the pandemic started shutting campuses down.

Another outside linebacker prospect, Yanni Karlaftis out of West Lafayette, Ind., has been garnering national attention. The four-star recruit has offers from most of the Big Ten Conference, with UW and Purdue ahead of the pack, according to multiple recruiting sites. He also has offers from California and Oregon.

Karlaftis’ brother, George, is a defensive end for the Boilermakers and is the leading sack-getter returning to the Big Ten this season.

The Badgers are still in hot pursuit of recruits around the country, the highest profile of which is five-star offensive tackle Nolan Rucci. The Lititz, Penn., product and brother of current UW tight end Hayden Rucci has narrowed his prospects to nine schools — UW, Alabama, LSU, Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford, Penn State and Notre Dame.

Get to know the Badgers' 2020 recruiting class

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