MISSOULA — As the college sports season winds to a close across the country, teams and programs now look toward the summer and fall, and where they all stand.
Building for the future, of course, requires recruiting, one of the biggest -- and arguably most popular -- elements of college athletics. But over the past year both across the country and locally at Montana, recruiting has been as different and challenging as its ever been due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It’s been the most challenging thing that we’ve ever gone through and I think everyone’s done that and gone through tough times with COVID," said Chris Cobb, the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator for the Montana men's basketball team. "The heartbeat, the lifeblood of our program is recruiting and so when you go through what we went through, it’s tough, and you have to be more resourceful, you have to find different ways to do things."
Recruiting will get a slice of normalcy again soon after the NCAA announced that the "dead period" will end June 1. The recruiting dead period -- which has prohibited in-person interactions between coaches and recruits as well as official visits -- has been in effect since March 2020 as the pandemic began to shut college sporting events down across the United States.
The UM men's basketball team didn't get into the recruiting game until late during the pandemic. After basketball's initial signing day last November, the university released an in-depth look at its recruiting process and why the program hadn't signed any new recruits yet.
Now, Montana is set to bring in three new signed recruits in junior college transfer Lonnell Martin Jr., Idaho transfer Scott Blakney and incoming Las Vegas freshman Jonathan Braggs while Alaska guard Cooper Kriegmont is set to walk-on at UM as well. Shelby native Rhett Reynolds is the lone known Class of 2022 commit for the Grizzlies.
But recruiting that group was much different than normal. Cobb said he rarely utilized film in the past, but now it's all they have, and there are key elements you miss when you can't see players live. Cobb added that previous relationships with coaches and players played a key factor in how Montana approached recruiting during the pandemic. For a guy like Blakney, who the Griz had competed against, they were well-aware of his skill set after seeing if first-hand.
"I think the biggest thing that you look at when you go see guys is just their body language and their mannerisms on the bench, on the court," Cobb explained. "How they interact with their teammates or coaches are really important and so I think those are things that you miss when you only have video to use.
"It's really hard to use as a determining factor on whether to take a kid or not. I mean, you talk about watching a video and you're watching one screen go up and down. Rarely can you hear noise, hear voices or see body language. So I think that's as important as anything. Or looking at a guy and he's 6-foot-4 on the roster, I watch the film, and then when he gets here he's 6-2, so there needs to be a little bit more of an evaluation than just watching the film which is why I think you have to rely on people that you trust and know."
Another part coaches had to weigh was forecasting who was staying, who could leave, and how they needed to fill holes and needs on the roster. Before the season started for the men, Michael Steadman was the lone senior, but due to the COVID year, he technically could've come back for another season. So Cobb said having a pulse on the roster fluidity, as well as who's available in the recruiting landscape, is paramount going forward.
Cobb said he estimates the COVID-19 year could impact college basketball another three or four years down the road.
"No one is going to know what college basketball is going to look like for three of four seasons in terms of your roster and what the makeup of it is," Cobb added. "I think we just have to be able to know that, 'OK, at this position here's the guys that we got, now how do we make sure we know who can fill spots if we need to fill them.' I think you have to have a lot of dialogue with the guys on your current roster. We have to know if (incoming senior) Mack Anderson wants to be here a couple more years, does (incoming senior) Cameron Parker want to do the same thing? If not, we've got to start game-planning for it now.
"Having an understanding of where this thing goes and having a lot of dialogue and being good as a staff about the possibilities and the recruits that are out there, but no one really is going to know probably for three or four years."
Even new Lady Griz coach Brian Holsinger saw this at Oregon State.
The Lady Griz have two incoming freshmen signed for 2021 in Helena Capital's Dani Bartsch and Haley Huard, who grew up in Seattle but spent her senior year in Colorado.
While at OSU as an assistant coach and the team's recruiting coordinator, Holsinger said they weren't as affected because they were so far ahead in recruiting, but how things shape up elsewhere with athletes not visiting schools was a unique area that stood out to him.
"We had some kids commit that never took an official visit," Holsinger said about his last season at OSU. "They never came on campus which is so unique. I think it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out across the country with people not visiting the campuses and making decisions."
Griz football recruiting coordinator Justin Green saw it too. The Grizzlies' freshman football class in the fall will be about 40 players as a combination of 2020 and 2021 recruits.
The 2021 class especially is Montana-heavy, thanks in part to relationships built through previous years and camps.
Balancing those numbers and available scholarships with the players still on the roster and those who could come back is probably the biggest challenge because of its impact on future recruiting classes too. Going forward, Green said you have to be cognizant of that.
"Part of the thing that you have to make sure that you’re preparing for is also the 2022 class because that’s going to be the first normal class back," said Green, who also coaches UM's running backs. "With having 40 guys in one class, you’re going to have to work those numbers to make sure that you have some recruits for 2022.
"For us, yes we're going to have a large freshman group, but the expectation is that the guys that we have in the respective positions we feel we need as far as building and bolstering up. The cream always rises to the top and we expect those guys to compete and see where they fit."
When it comes to 2022 recruits, Green -- and head coach Bobby Hauck -- said that players who want to be recruited by Montana are expected to make the team's camp so the Griz coaching staff can get a look at them in-person as they build their roster moving forward.
At the end of the day, it's about filling the right positions needed to reload in any program. And it's not just basketball and football at Montana, but sports like volleyball, soccer and softball and more will also have to work around those challenges. Plus, there's the exploding use of the transfer portal to go along with it.
Green said it's all about adjusting and adapting.
"You have to negotiate a few things. No. 1 making sure that you have the right positions more than anything else," Green said. "The other part of that is having the right number on scholarship. You're only able to carry so many and even though the NCAA has given us regulations, we can only cover so many guys so we've got to find the right fit for us with that and be able to cover it all the way around.
"You kind of go with the flow and as things come at you, you have to build a plan to get your team ready. Things don’t quit just because a pandemic happens or recruiting changes. Part of the name of this game is to make sure that you’re ready to change."