College football recruiting staffers weigh in on NIL, roster management, the portal and more

Marion Steward

LAS VEGAS — About a year ago, a few dozen personnel and recruiting staffers from across the country gathered in Las Vegas to network and share ideas.

The grassroots effort, spearheaded by UNLV chief of staff Gaizka Crowley and Colorado State director of player personnel Lucas Gauthier, was a way to feed a desire for more professional development in their space. On-field coaches assemble often, whether it’s at the annual AFCA Convention or while they’re on the road during spring recruiting.

Recruiting and personnel staffers — the behind-the-scenes folks in the back offices — haven’t always had those same opportunities. So Crowley and Gauthier started one, using the 2019 Personnel Symposium in Nashville as a template.

“We just felt like we needed to represent ourselves if no one else was going to do it,” Gauthier said.

Said Crowley: “We wanted an organic feel, where people could sit, talk and network.”

As soon as the inaugural Personnel/Recruiting Spring Clinic ended, Gauthier said, they knew they wanted to do it again. So earlier this month, at Caesar’s Palace, Crowley and Gauthier hosted their second spring clinic, which doubled in size, drawing nearly 100 staffers from more than 30 colleges across the country, including Power 5, Group of 5, FCS and Division II programs. It drew positive reviews from many who attended, and Gauthier and Crowley intend to make it an annual affair.

The clinic featured a mix of networking, panels and roundtables on topics everyone in college football is discussing — the transfer portal, name, image and likeness (NIL), roster management, recruiting rules changes — and more.

“To go to something like this and be around 90-plus other people that have a perspective on that, it’s invaluable,” Gauthier said. “If you’re asking the right questions and engaged, you’re going to pick up something that you can take home and make your program better and make you better.”

After the clinic’s completion, The Athletic surveyed eight personnel staffers from Power 5, Group of 5 and FCS programs who attended on a range of current college football and recruiting topics. Here is the panel:

  • Gaizka Crowley, chief of staff, UNLV
  • Chaz Davis, director of football operations and player personnel, Northern Arizona
  • Lucas Gauthier, director of player personnel, Colorado State
  • Andrea Hollis, director of on-campus recruiting, Mississippi State
  • Sam Popper, recruiting coordinator and director of player personnel, Akron
  • Luke Walerius, chief of staff, North Texas
  • Andy Wang, assistant director of player personnel, Colorado
  • Nik Valdiserri, director of recruiting, Vanderbilt

(Editor’s note: Answers are edited for length and clarity.)

The NCAA Division I Council recently waived the annual signing and initial counter limits for the next two years. How will that impact roster management?

Gauthier: I’ve been a part of two coaching staffs that have taken over a program and naturally you have players leave and if you can only have 25 scholarships, you won’t be able to get to your 85. … Overall, in time, this will be better for college football. There were plenty of people who were scholarship-worthy (in the past), but we didn’t have the scholarship for them, so we couldn’t give them one, so now they’re staying at their (junior college) or they’re still in the transfer portal.

Walerius: People were always going over the 25, because there’s so many loopholes out there: blueshirts, grayshirts, counting back, counting forward. It is going to be nice because when you lose a kid in the spring, you can go replace him in the portal and don’t have to worry about finagling with the numbers. It’ll give schools more peace of mind.

Wang: I like the idea behind it. My concern is it encourages certain programs to start nudging players out the door and replace them with players they might like better. It really benefits new head coaches. It allows them to flip a large amount of their roster as they see fit. It’s not necessarily a great thing for the kids because a lot will be pushed out the door and will end up in the portal and not gonna be able to find homes.

Popper: The teams who are more cutthroat, it is very advantageous for them. Guys get kicked off via the portal, it happens. I don’t think that’s much of a secret. … It’ll be an advantage for the coaches who are willing to cut a lot of players. You can change your roster drastically from year to year. I worry about college football becoming a game where nice guys finish last. … At the end of the day, it’s never the kid’s fault that they get recruited to that school. It’s the fault of whoever evaluated him, and I don’t want the kids to have to pay the price for that.

Davis: It was already 30 at our level, which was five more (than the FBS) so we already had some more leniency there. I can see a potential issue with, maybe a Group of 5 school that we’re competing with that has an extra spot and at the last minute, they take someone (who we would have) because now they’re able to sign unlimited as long as they’re under the 85.

What are your thoughts on the potential for “transfer windows” for athletes to enter the portal vs. the current setup?

Hollis: Setting certain parameters on it helps long term. It’s hard to get into a rhythm or routine if kids are in and out all year round. There’s not really much of a break because it’s pretty wide open.

Walerius: There absolutely needs to be one. You have to be able to project your roster at some point. Also, visits have turned into year-round, every week, every weekend. There needs to be some structure because right now it’s a free-for-all. What’s been proposed is good. The transfer windows need to correspond with the contact period.

Crowley: I’m not a fan. I think a lot of people are missing the boat on this. You take the thousands of prospects that go in the transfer portal. With a wider window, you’re able to get through the film, medical, do the background, call your peers to get this information on a day-to-day basis. It’s more of a slow trickle. It’s an everyday thing, but at least you know it’s manageable. But what are you gonna do when 1,500 kids go into the portal and you have six weeks to go through it?

The other thing is if a kid doesn’t want to be on your roster, I think it’s better off that he tells you, moves on and finds his next best spot. If you have a kid that knows in September that he’s going to go in the portal but can’t go in until December, what does he do the whole time? Does he stay on your team? Does he practice?

Popper: Anything you can do to add more structure to the transfer portal is important. Right now, it doesn’t have any structure. You’ve got to have kids know what they’re getting into a little bit more. I think it allows staffs to structure their class a little bit better because you know when that portal rush is coming.

Wang: It would benefit players and programs, just so that there’s some uniform timeline across the country. … Right now the portal is open during the season and that is not good for anyone. … You might not start the season where you want to be on the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to end the season there.

Much has been made of the impact of NIL on recruiting. From what you’ve observed, how much has it tangibly influenced recruiting at your level?

Valdiserri: A lot. We’re not at a point where we’re competing for four- and five-star recruits, so it hasn’t come up as much for us. … It has (impacted) our current team more than recruits. … You have to recruit your current team just as much as the high school players at this point. I’m not saying tampering is that big of an issue for us, but I’m sure it is around the country. Also, I think some guys (around the country) look at other schools and say, “Well, I’m able to get an NIL deal for 50 grand a year and here, I’m not.”

Crowley: It definitely does. At the Group of 5 level, the dollars aren’t as high so you could argue a smaller dollar amount has more of an impact. The main thing is finding some guardrails. Each state has their own laws — you’ve got teams within the same conference with different NIL rules because of what state they’re in.

Hollis: Quite a bit, and I think it’s going to continue to do so. It’s another layer that everyone is trying to work around and unravel within the guidelines that we’re given. We’re working to, as I’m sure everyone is, find creative ways to … make sure we’re providing accurate information and not making any promises and things like that.

Walerius: It has. In a lot of the NIL deals, dollar figures aren’t disclosed. … Nobody knows what they’re actually making and there’s a false sense of reality out there.

Gauthier: At the Group of 5 level, it doesn’t necessarily impact recruiting from a high school or junior college level — it’s more, “Can you keep your players?” That has the biggest impact. Wyoming lost four or five players in the transfer portal and a lot of them went and got big money NIL deals. You’re going to start seeing players leave, and it’s not just at the Group of 5 level.

Personnel staffs seem to be growing. For programs that are investing more here, how has it helped recruiting success and efficiency?

Wang: I guarantee if you look at the programs that are at the top of the recruiting rankings every year, just look at the size of their (personnel) staffs. One thing that is concerning is those bigger staffs, a lot of those staff members are so specialized. While in a sense that’s good for the program, and it’s great that that person is very good at that thing they specialize in, I think it hurts the growth of the individual. If you’re great at one thing, that’s fantastic for your specific program. But how are you going to go somewhere else and do something else or run the show somewhere else?

Valdiserri: It’s huge. At a place like Vanderbilt where you’re much more reliant on development, we have to be able to scout guys and get the right players in. We can’t miss as much. I think there will be a huge surge in scouting departments across college football.

Crowley: You have to be careful with confusing activity and progress. Just because you’ve got more guys and are watching more film doesn’t mean you’re hitting at a higher rate. You have to balance the size of the staff with making sure you’re finding the right players. … I think the programs that are going to really succeed are the teams that can retain winning players. I think the extended staffs from a player development standpoint, not just straight personnel guys, those teams are going to have a huge impact because of their ability to retain.

Davis: At (the FCS) level, I haven’t seen personnel staffs grow too much because we just can’t afford it. We try to get more students involved. On a volunteer basis they’ve probably grown but in paid roles, not much. I do think recruiting services are adapting because they know that the FCS is a legitimate market because we really do need the help. You might see some expansion there because it’s a little more affordable to drop $5,000-$10,000 a year (for a recruiting service) than it is to try to pay whatever an entry-level salary might be.

Gauthier: It starts with having defined roles for every person. If you’re filling those spots with that in mind, it really enhances your efficiency and allows people to major on smaller things while directors focus on the bigger picture. There’s also a balance between having too big of a staff and too small of a staff. There’s definitely a point where you have too many cooks in the kitchen.

What are the biggest challenges facing personnel departments right now? Resources? Staffing? Workload? Pay?

Davis: Staffing for sure. Some Power 5 schools are turning into more NFL-like scouting departments. It would help to have more people in some of these personnel departments at the Group of 5 and FCS level.

Hollis: Not speaking about Mississippi State directly, but talking with other people in personnel, it’s that work/life balance. … The most challenging thing is finding time for self. A lot of people think once football season is over, that it’s quiet for us and we’re just hanging out. Football season is the easy part because you’re in a routine.

Crowley: The volume of players. I feel like we evaluate so many players, but we don’t really get a chance to dive in and really get to know the players. Between the photo shoots and the mega camps and the huge junior days, the numbers are increasing, but are you really taking the time to get to know the 25-30 kids that you’re bringing into your program? That’s something we’re trying to focus on, making sure we’re getting to know the guys who end up on your roster.

Popper: Pay and (quality) of life are the two biggest ones. Sometimes what you have is schools who try to act like a P5 program with G5 resources. That takes a lot of time and energy. … A lot of it stems from a culture of social media in college, where you can create a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality when not every school has the same amount of money, manpower and identity.

What I don’t understand is why it’s so easy to say, “Oh this running backs coach got us great players and two guys nominated for the Doak Walker Award, let’s up his salary by $500,000,” but if you have a couple good recruiting people and (one of them wants a raise), it’s like, “Oh man, this guy wants $20,000 extra?”

Valdiserri: What you should see is less discrepancy between what assistant coaches are making and what personnel people are making. There’s a big blind eye to that right now. A lot of scouting people who were at the clinic … these are entry-level jobs that are paying between $35-$50K. A lot of people in our group (at Vanderbilt) got opportunities to go elsewhere, but we were able to retain them by paying them more because we saw value in them, and I’m happy about that because these people do so much more than what $35K can get them.

Wang: It’s the pay-to-workload ratio. Everyone in this industry loves what we do. It’s not necessarily the amount of hours that we have to work, it’s just the pay that comes with those hours. … The reason you see so many in our industry leave, it’s either due to burnout or not being able to financially maintain a decent lifestyle. It can be difficult to make enough money to have a family.

Some programs are investing more on the scouting side, whether it’s dedicating a staffer to monitor the transfer portal or mirroring a pro-style evaluation process, with some staffers scouting college talent and others dedicated to high school prospects. Do you see this trend increasing and if so, how will it change recruiting?

Valdiserri: I think it’ll definitely grow. We have someone in charge of high school scouting and someone in charge of college scouting, much like the NFL mold, where you have a head of college scouting and a head of pro scouting. We have different people in each of those tiers. … I think you’re going to start to see each program at least have a guy that’s focused just on the portal and one guy that’s focused just on high schools.

Popper: It’s beneficial. There’s a reason schools are going in that direction. You have to be able to recruit both sides and they are different in terms of how you identify, evaluate, the on-campus process, so they should be treated as such. You want to make sure you’re spending adequate time developing and being innovative in both areas, and it’s really difficult to do when you have the same crew of people trying to do both.

Walerius: I think it’s going to increase, but coaches have the final say because they have to coach the student-athletes. … It’s our job to get them all the information so they can make an informed decision.

Crowley: I definitely think so, the pro model is happening. Right now, there are only a handful of them at the college level. Most of them, it’s going to be a director of player personnel, a director of recruiting and an on-campus recruiting director. It’s definitely going to that pro model but ultimately, how does that work for your school, your setup and your resources?

Davis: At the Power 5 level for sure. Is it actually going to make it down to the Group of 5 or FCS level? The wealthier programs are going to benefit more as they’re able to tackle these new things with the transfer portal and NIL with the resources and staffing they have. It won’t change much from an on-campus standpoint, but evaluation is becoming bigger because you have more people to evaluate now.

Wang: Coaches are going to be able to just coach more and be able to rely more on their scouting department and hire more people trained in scouting. With the portal now, it’s basically like NFL free agency. In the past, before the portal, there weren’t nearly as many kids transferring, so you didn’t need somebody who could scout college players. Now you do need someone who can do that.

High school and junior college recruiting has been significantly impacted by the transfer portal. What is the future of recruiting at those two levels?

Davis: It’s gonna be tougher for those kids, but the FCS level could thrive more. We might be able to get really good high school kids now. Maybe a kid that would have gone to Colorado State or wherever it might be, maybe instead they’re going to get a kid from the portal who has played for a year or two, so now (the high school recruit) signs with us. But maybe we lose him in the portal in two years because he has a great two years (and goes to the FBS).

Valdiserri: We’re a developmental program so we will never be a team that gets 12 guys out of the portal. But the future of recruiting (nationally), the way the rules are now, there’s gonna be a heavy emphasis on the portal. So, we look at it as an opportunity. There’s more guys to choose from in high school for us.

I worry about jucos a little bit. It is, in some sense, getting wiped right now. If it continues this way, there will not be an outlet for juco players because it’s easier to go to the portal and not have to deal with qualifiers and whatnot.

Crowley: They’re greatly impacted. I’m interested to see how it leaks down into the FCS and Division II ranks and the quality of player they get. If 20 percent of signees are transfers, then that means that 20 percent aren’t high school kids and those high school kids have to go somewhere. If they do end up at the FCS and D-II level, how many of those players are All-Americans who end up bouncing back up to Power 5 or FBS? The really good junior colleges are gonna benefit from this because you’re going to see qualifiers going that route who don’t want to go FCS or D-II.

Wang: (The portal) really, really hurts jucos. Teams are going through the portal, whereas in the past, they would have had to go the juco route. It hurts high school recruiting, too. I think over the next couple of years, it’ll balance out a little more. But it’s not going to be like it was before. … There are programs out there like ours that still believe that high school recruiting is going to be the lifeline. It’s what we’re gonna be focusing on.

Gauthier: I think there will be a similar amount of opportunities for those kids, but a Group of 5 team may have gotten a player they wouldn’t have gotten before. It might create some equity in college football. There will be more Cincinnatis, so to speak, because these high caliber juco players or high school players who might have ended up at a high-end Power 5, might end up at a lower-level Power 5 or high-level Group of 5.

If you could make one recruiting-related rule change, what would it be?

Crowley: That transfers have to sign something binding them to the school they’re committing to, whenever the player’s ready to sign it. There doesn’t have to be a signing date, per se. I think that’s needed. … You have teams recruiting guys who go in the portal in January or February — they don’t have anything binding to that player until they show up on campus. You’ve seen the last couple of weeks, the tick up in decommitments from transfers has been massive. It’s tough on staffs to have a kid committed for four or five months and then a week before he shows up, he flips. In this world of roster fluidity, you can at least say here’s one spot that we know is going to be locked in.

Gauthier: It’s a cop out because they’re already making the change, but it was the initial counter rule. I’m beyond happy they’re allowing us to do that. … The other is to fix the tampering rules. In the NFL, there’s very strict rules when it comes to tampering. … I don’t know what the solution is, but we’re all lying if we say college teams aren’t tampering with kids and getting them to go into the transfer portal, and it’s kind of a messed up deal. Until the NCAA cracks down, what are you going to do? I wish that is something they could figure out.

Hollis: Making photo shoots for official visits only. Obviously, the kids love those, but when you have kids coming all the time, it’s a lot. It takes them 30 minutes to get dressed, they do a photo shoot for an hour, you still have to edit the photos. It’s time consuming. You’re trying to stick to a schedule (on visits) and you obviously don’t want to rush the kid, because that’s the part they look forward to the most.

Walerius: When you offer kids, they can sign right then and there. I think that would eliminate a lot of the uncommittable offers.

Valdiserri: I would love to be able to send personnel or scouting guys on the road (recruiting). … Also, the one I’ve been most adamant about is making May a dead period. It just makes a better quality of life for everybody. I’m fortunate to be where I am and I’m only 27, but I’m gonna get burned out if this is the way it goes for the next 10 years.

Wang: (Increasing) the number of official visits schools are allowed to give. It’s a double-edged sword because not every school in the country can afford more visits. But with no initial counter limits … you used to sign 25 kids and have 56 official visits (available). There’s gonna be programs who maybe have to sign 35 kids but you still have only 56 official visits? That ratio is going to be a lot harder. And the honest truth is once a lot of those programs run out of official visits, if they haven’t signed what they need to sign, do you think they’re going to just give up recruiting and signing kids and building the roster? They’re going to find other ways to make it happen.

(Photo: Sam Khan / The Athletic)


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