We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s a numbers game.” Well to Ryan Dorchester, West Virginia’s coordinator of recruiting operations, college football really is a numbers game.
Among other things, Dorchester is responsible for knowing how many running backs, wide receivers, linemen, linebackers and DBs the Mountaineers have at any given time. And quite frequently, Dorchester gets quizzed by his boss Dana Holgorsen about those numbers.
“Everything is based on the numbers,” Dorchester said earlier this week. “How many guys do you need at X position? It obviously varies from year to year throughout the course of the recruiting cycle. What you think you may need in February after you sign one class may be drastically different when you get to next January.”
When you stop and think about it, numbers really are the essence of college football. There are injuries; kids quit, transfer or encounter academic difficulties and the composition of a team’s roster always remains in flux.
“You constantly have to be on top of it,” Dorchester explained. “That is one of Coach Holgorsen’s constant questions to me, ‘What are the numbers?’ So I’ve always got to tell him.”
Dorchester’s job is vast and varied. He oversees the operational aspects of West Virginia’s recruiting program from the data basing of prospects and the compilation of highlight tapes to serving as the liaison with the university’s admission’s office and compliance departments. Correspondence and official recruiting visits are also part of his duties, as are managing the recruiting schedules and maintaining and updating West Virginia’s prospect board.
It is Dorchester who is in charge of coordinating where the coaches go and who they need to see. Then the process begins of evaluating players and determining whether or not they can play for the Mountaineers. After that, it’s a matter of convincing them that West Virginia University is where they should be.
“We break our coaches up into areas,” he said. “We obviously don’t have a guy assigned to every geographic region in the United States, but the area recruiter kind of identifies the prospect, brings it to the position coach and the position coach is the one who will approve them and will say ‘yes we need to recruit this kid’ and ‘yes we need to offer him.’ Then it ultimately comes down to Coach Holgerson having to approve them as well for them to be able to come.”
Dorchester has been involved with the Mountaineer program in some manner or form since 2004, so he’s been a first-hand witness to all of the changes that have taken place around here since then. The biggest change, of course, is the profile West Virginia football now enjoys throughout the country. BCS bowl wins and new membership in the Big 12 Conference certainly has a way of doing that.
“I don’t think there are a whole lot of kids who didn’t see the Orange Bowl, so that definitely helps, especially in Florida,” Dorchester said of West Virginia’s 70-33 victory over Clemson last January. “We were a pretty hot commodity, at least in the spring. That’s great but you have to sustain that type of success for it to really pay dividends. Come September or October there is going to be a new game and in January there will be another Orange Bowl to talk about, so we obviously have to do our part to make sure we stay a hot commodity.”
For many years, West Virginia concentrated mainly on the bordering states for its recruiting. There were enough good players in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio to be able to do that. When Jim Carlen and Bobby Bowden arrived in the mid-1960s, the Mountaineers started to recruit in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee where those coaches had contacts, and then in the early 1980s, Florida and New Jersey became priorities when Don Nehlen was coaching the Mountaineers. According to Dorchester, the bordering states continue to be key areas for the staff, but now with the Big 12 on the horizon, West Virginia is also beginning to consider prospects in the Southwest.
“Obviously we kept our traditional recruiting grounds with Florida and then our border states, but we definitely made a concentrated effort this spring to go to the Mississippi jucos and go to the Texas-Kansas jucos just to identify more prospects,” he said. “You don’t know what your numbers are going to look like necessarily in January, so you may need to go back in on some of those kids just to get a good idea. A juco player is the closest you’re going to get to a free agent player in college football where you can get a guy who can come in and immediately impact your football program.”
The trend in football recruiting today is to evaluate and offer players before their senior seasons and in some instances, the recruiting cycle is even pushed back farther the way it is happening in other sports. In women’s soccer and volleyball, for example, coaches are being pressured into recruiting high school freshmen and sophomores because others in the profession are doing so. The problem with recruiting and committing to kids at such a young age is that sometimes what you see at 14 or 15 may not necessarily be what you get when they turn 18.
And that can pose problems for both the kids and the schools.
“In football you have to have a certain level of physical maturity to be able to play,” Dorchester explained. “It’s tough to know how big a 15-year-old kid is going to get. How big is he going to be when he’s 20? You don’t know, so I think that probably leads people to make some snap judgments and poor decisions on some kids, and I think that’s where you see some of the not-so-high profile teams that have been able to have some success because they’ve waited in the process a little longer to make decisions and it allows them to get more time to evaluate.”
Dorchester said there is nothing wrong with being patient and letting the process evolve. It’s not how many commitments you have in June but rather how many good players you end up getting in February on signing day is what really matters.
“I haven’t studied it myself, but I’ve never seen a study done on how well early commits do versus kids that wait the process out,” he said. “I think there is definitely some merit to letting a kid mature physically longer to kind of see what he might become.”
Because roster slots are filling up so much faster today, schools that are more patient sometimes can be rewarded in the end.
“I don’t think a whole lot of senior tape gets evaluated across the country, so I think there is some merit to being more selective and finding those ‘diamonds in the rough,’” Dorchester said. “You look at a guy like (wide receiver) Jordan Thompson
who didn’t have a Division I offer in October, and I think he had a pretty good spring. That was a kid maybe because of his physical appearance of not being a big, hulking guy, a lot of people backed off of him. We were kind of patient with it, watched some senior tape, and thought he was pretty good.
“Look at I-AA schools and Division II schools,” Dorchester said. “They’re putting guys in the NFL, so there is plenty of talent out there and I think it definitely helps to be patient with it.”
The one time Dorchester will admit that he’s not very patient is on signing day when the best laid plans sometimes go out the window.
“It is nerve wracking,” he laughed. “The kids right up until the day they say, ‘Hey I’m coming. I’m coming. I’m coming.’ And then at the last minute they don’t come. That’s the hard thing. They tell you they are going to come and then they’ve got to sign it. That’s tough. You sweat it out.”
When signing day is over, Dorchester said he needs a little time to decompress – usually just a day or two – and then he’s right back at it looking at the numbers and trying to figure out who is where.
After all, for Dorchester college football is a numbers game.