ODU intensifies recruiting as part of FBS transition

NORFOLK — At Old Dominion World Football Headquarters, workdays begin at 6 a.m. and often stretch well into the evenings. Helmets and pads were shelved weeks ago, but coaches crisscrossed the country and assistants scoured the Internet researching prospects and schools.

Everyone is home now as the Monarchs begin the next phase of the transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA.

"This is going to be a whirlwind two months coming up," ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said. "There's not going to be a lot of vacation time going around these offices."

Spring and summer recruiting heats up at Old Dominion, and all over the country, as colleges hold camps and welcome recruits and their families for "unofficial" visits. ODU holds the first of two one-day camps this month on Saturday, which is expected to attract approximately 150-160 prospects.

"They're absolutely critical because this is your legal way of coaching somebody," Wilder said. "You get to put them through drills. You get to ask them to do certain things. You get to take them out of their comfort level and see how they react."

Meanwhile, the school awaits a far-reaching report that will recommend strategies for growth and reorganization throughout the entire campus. Athletics are part of the report, including expansion of Foreman Field and S.B. Ballard Stadium, as well as other football infrastructure.

The report, by the international architecture and design firm of Perkins + Will, will be released in August, according to the Virginian-Pilot, after it's been reviewed by campus officials, ODU's Board of Visitors and Norfolk city officials.

"The way we're presenting it to the recruits is that Old Dominion just keeps getting bigger and better," Wilder said earlier this week, during a wide-ranging chat with several reporters in his office at the L.R. Hill Complex.

"The bottom line is your whole experience here is going to improve," he said. "I talk as much with recruits and families about the other 359 days (of the year) as the six days they're in that stadium. That's why I think that master plan is critical for all of us, for everybody's who's got a stake in Old Dominion."

The stakes were raised for ODU football nearly 13 months ago, when school officials announced the move to Conference USA and FBS. The Monarchs' final season in the CAA and at the FCS level ended with a loss in the NCAA playoff quarterfinals last December.

From there, it was full ahead in the two-year transition to FBS. ODU expanded its recruiting footprint to include states within Conference USA, which stretches from the mid-Atlantic region south to Florida and west to Texas.

Wilder added a coach — FBS schools are permitted 10 full-time coaches: a head coach and nine assistants. In addition, a handful of graduate assistants and interns are routinely at the offices and parked on the Internet, doing research on players and schools and supplementing the data base.

The staff spent the winter identifying approximately 1,000 potential prospects, the largest list from which it's ever worked. The Sunday after the spring game, coaches hit the road for in-person evaluations.

From April 22 to May 31, when everyone came off the road for the summer, that list was narrowed to a little more than 100 recruits to whom they offered scholarships. Wilder estimated that the Monarchs will sign 20-25 players in the 2014 recruiting class.

"We're in that period right now where it's critical that we get as many of these kids on campus as we possibly can," Wilder said. "What we've taken now as a philosophy as our staff is that we feel like the recruiting becomes real when they're on this campus. That's when it becomes real."

Wilder said that recruiting emphasis is still on Hampton Roads and the state first, but the fact that Conference USA schools are in a handful of major markets — Miami, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio — has permitted the Monarchs to extend their reach. They must recruit better players to compete at the FBS level, but he preaches a realistic approach.

"I'm not as interested in Old Dominion's name just being next to BCS schools' names, with hey, we've offered so-and-so," Wilder said. "I tell the staff all the time, we're not keeping score on how many we've offered. What we're keeping score on is how many do we realistically have an opportunity to recruit."

Wilder said that if he spends as much time recruiting a five-star prospect that has offers from a dozen major programs as with a mid-level prospect who has demonstrated interest in ODU, "then I'm not doing my job." He said that it's essential to develop relationships with high school coaches, who usually are honest about a program's chances of landing a player.

"It's an inexact science," he said, "but I'm trying to take a realistic approach myself with the staff, because I also want the player that I think is going to be a good fit at Old Dominion and can have a good career here as a student and an athlete, to think that he's important to us, that we're trying to recruit him.

"That may at times affect us with the perception of players, whether it's in the 757 or Virginia. But I'm also putting it right back on them, their families and coaches. We're going to show you interest, but you need to show us interest also. This is a two-way street here. That's how I gauge and how I have my staff gauge it. Is there reciprocal interest?"

Interest is evident when players attend ODU's camps — the Monarchs will hold a second one-day camp on Friday, June 21, as well as team camps in July — or when they and their families visit in the summer as they take college tours. School-subsidized official visits aren't permitted by the NCAA until the start of a player's senior year, so those "unofficial" visits in the spring and summer are paid out-of-pocket.

Camp appearances, ODU offensive coordinator Brian Scott said, "are very valuable. Seeing a kid in person, getting an exact height and weight. Getting a chance to evaluate a kid live. A big part of it is confirming what you think you saw on tape, or seeing some things that the tape doesn't show you."

ODU needs all of the evaluation tools available, given its status as a new FBS program surrounded by ACC and other established programs. That said, Wilder isn't proprietary about the Monarchs' camps or the information gathered. Any and all coaches are invited. He shares test numbers in areas such as the 40-yard dash and vertical leap with any staff that requests.

"If Nick Saban calls and wants to come Saturday, Nick's welcome," Wilder said. "From my standpoint, philosophically, I want anybody and everybody to come. I'm never going to say no to anybody. We put it out there that anybody can come here. I always go back to my opinion, this is for the kids, about the kids, so the more people that are here … I want you there. I want you down on the field, I want you talking to the kids. To me, this is about these kids getting an opportunity to be seen. I look at it as, why should they go to Old Dominion and not have anybody else see them? A lot of kids, this might be the only camp they can afford to go to. I tell everybody in the state, wherever, come."

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