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Early Recruiting: When Does Recruiting Really Start for Student-Athletes?

Coach with young athletes in a huddle

Every year, it seems like there are more and more stories about middle school athletes receiving college scholarship offers. Some athletes have made the news by receiving offers when they are as young as 9 years old! Early recruiting is a controversial topic, but it’s important to understand why and how it works.

NCAA Rules Update: New rules passed by the NCAA in 2017, 2018 and most recently 2019 have made it illegal for college coaches to offer scholarships to recruits before August 1 or September 1 of their junior year. These new rules apply to all sports except football, W/M basketball and baseball.

While making verbal scholarship offers to recruits in 8th, 9th and 10th grade is illegal, you can expect college coaches to be recruiting and evaluating prospects. Here is how that process works.

What exactly is early recruiting?

Early recruiting refers to the trend of college coaches recruiting athletes before the NCAA rules allow them to initiate communication with those recruits. For most Division I and Division II sports, coaches can start proactively reaching out to recruits June 15 after sophomore year or September 1 of junior year. However, many coaches—think: Division I and some top-tier DII schools—will make scholarship offers to athletes as young as 7th and 8th grade.

Early recruiting in sports where coaches can make scholarships offers

When coaches get word of a young, stellar athlete, they reach out to that athlete’s high school or club coach. They get more information from the coach and have them set up a phone call with the athlete. Remember: if a recruit calls a college coach, the coach can always pick up, no matter how old the athlete is. From there, the coach might ask the recruit to send more videos, transcripts, etc., in order to make a full evaluation. The athlete can send the coach as many emails as they want; the coach is just prohibited from responding to them until the athlete hits the right age, according to the NCAA rules.

If the coach is truly interested in that recruit, they can extend a verbal scholarship offer. A verbal offer is a non-legally binding scholarship offer, and college coaches can extend verbal offers to a recruit of any age. It’s essentially a way for the coach to say, “I’m reserving a spot on my team for you.” However, because verbal offers aren’t legally binding, coaches—and athletes—can back out of them at any point. 

Early recruiting in sports where coaches can’t make scholarship offers

With recent updates to the NCAA rules, in all sports except football, M/W basketball and baseball, college coaches will no longer be allowed to extend verbal scholarship offers to student-athletes before June 15 after their sophomore year or September 1 of their Junior year. In addition, many of the loopholes that allowed coaches and recruits to communicate have been closed. Despite these new rules, coaches will still be “recruiting” elite prospects early in high school.

College coaches are still going to be evaluating prospects at tournaments, showcases and their own college camps. In addition, they will be communicating with prospects’ club and high school coaches. A college coach can tell a prospect’s coach “we are recruiting them” which will send a strong signal that they are interested in them. For recruits, this means that being at events where coaches are watching prospects and attending college camps is going to play a critical role.  

Why are coaches offering athletes so young?

Early recruiting is a way for coaches in highly competitive programs to snag the best athletes before their competition does. And it makes sense from that perspective! Find, recruit and commit the elite student-athletes ahead of your rivals. The problem is that in order to stay ahead of the competition, coaches have to recruit earlier and earlier.

While most coaches acknowledge that they don’t particularly like the practice of early recruiting, they have to take part in the practice to stay competitive with other programs. “Sometimes you feel so hypocritical as a coach, when you’re saying you don’t think it’s healthy to recruit kids at [a young] age, but then you’re actively in that process,” Western Kentucky women’s volleyball coach Travis Hudson told ESPNW.

With NCAA recruiting rules prohibiting college coaches from communicating with recruits before their junior or senior years, how is it possible for recruits to receive offers in the 8th or 9th grade?

For most sports, including football or baseball, there are virtually no restrictions on when student-athletes can reach out to college coaches. A recruit can technically call a coach on their own, a coach can answer, and a conversation could ensue—with some coaches even scheduling time for a recruit to call them again.

While it’s not going to happen for the vast majority of recruits, it’s not unheard of for athletes to build relationships with coaches (and receive verbal offers) at a young age. Recruits who are serious about competing at the next level can and should be proactive instead of waiting for coaches to connect with them first.

Why are some people against early recruiting?

Early recruiting has put a lot of pressure on coaches, athletes and parents to push the recruiting timeline forward. This means athletes need to start competing at a high level sooner, coaches need to start thinking about recruiting classes years out and parents are trying to help their young athletes make very mature decisions. Early recruiting has, in fact, significantly altered the youth sports landscape:

Is anything being done to delay the rise in early recruiting?

The NCAA has made it a goal to slow down or stop early recruiting. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, they passed new rules to prevent college coaches from extending scholarship offers before a prospect’s junior year of high school. The NCAA created new early recruiting rules for lacrosse in April 2017, effective Aug. 1, 2017. They also passed the same rules for softball, effective April 25, 2018. The rules ban college coaches from contacting lacrosse or softball recruits in any way before Sept. 1 of their junior year.

In an effort to cut back on early scholarship offers, the NCAA also approved a new set of rules in 2019 that change the way all Division 1 college coaches (except football, W/M basketball and baseball) can recruit athletes. Softball and W/M lacrosse were not included in these rules updates as they already passed legislation. Here’s a quick breakdown of the changes:

With the early recruiting rules, proponents hope that athletes will have the opportunity to focus on skill development at an early age and take more time to determine what they want out of their college experience. They will be able to go on unofficial visits and decide on their future course of study as high school upperclassmen. For more information about these rules, check out this page

How do the new early recruiting rules impact families?

The new rules impact all DI sports except football, men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball. High school juniors will now be allowed to take official visits beginning August 1 before their junior year. Under the old rule, athletes needed to wait until September 1 of their junior year. In addition, coaches are no longer allowed to be involved in an athlete’s unofficial visit.

These rule changes will likely put more emphasis on athletes and families needing to be proactive early in the recruiting process. With top prospects beginning offered official visits their junior year, this means even more schools can lock down their recruiting classes early. In other words, if you want to compete at a top tier program, you need to start the process of discussing schools and understanding the recruiting journey during your freshman year. If you wait until your junior or senior year, there may not be any spots left on the roster for your recruiting class.

And early recruiting doesn’t just affect DI and upper-level DII schools. Lower-level DII, DIII and NAIA schools usually wait to see who doesn’t get picked up by the top-tier programs and start recruiting there. However, the quicker DI recruiting classes fill up, the faster the other division levels can start their processes, as well.

The best way to stay on top of recruiting in the current climate is to do your research and get started as soon as possible. Every recruiting journey is different, so your family may not be ready to commit to the recruiting process as a middle schooler. However, if you’re a freshman or sophomore in high school, start doing your research about recruiting and figuring out the schools you’re interested in. Make academics a priority and, for most sports, start pulling together your highlight/skills videos.