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H.S. football coaches getting creative to help players get recruited

Jason Bakoulis, the head football coach at Norwich Free Academy, has been trying to turn a negative into a positive.

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for state high school football players looking to get recruited to play in college. They didn’t have a fall season, thus don’t have recent film to send to colleges.

“When I’ve been talking to college coaches, I’ve been telling them that, ‘The guys I’m telling you about, they’re the leaders throughout this entire pandemic,’” Bakoulis said. “And if you can lead a high school football program through a pandemic and be accountable and be committed during a pandemic, you’re going to bring that same thing to the college level when life goes back to normal.

“I can say to a college coach, ‘Look, this kid went to every one of our practices, even though we didn’t have a game, and he was busting his tail. He was doing his own workouts. He found a high hill in his neighborhood and ran it.’ That shows a lot to the coaches. This kid is hungry. College football is the next level up, but the game doesn’t change. It’s still the same thing ... you want a program full of people who are hungry, who are dedicated, who are committed and who are accountable.”

Coaches are used to taking the challenges presented by an opponent and using them to make a plan that benefits their players. State coaches had to take that same approach trying to help their players get recruited during a pandemic.

Film is the top marketing tool for any high school athlete. Part of the success of website Hudl.com is coaches can upload game video which players can share via social media.

A player’s junior season is one of the most important because they need that game film to help them as they begin thinking seriously about college.

Greg Webster is the offensive coordinator at Springfield College. He's recruited Connecticut for five years and at Maine for two years before that. He noted that high school seniors are hurt by the lack of film, too.

“We have kids on our team who maybe didn’t play as much as juniors (in high school) and developed as seniors that were all-conference for us,” Webster said. “David Wells is a quarterback out of Shelton from a few years ago. He really didn’t play at lot at quarterback his junior year and had a tremendous senior year.

“The best thing is the high school (game) film.”

High school coaches, in lieu of game film, have had to get creative.

“When I talked to some of the college coaches, what they said is to get them film of a player doing drills,” Fitch head coach Mike Ellis said. “What they can do is they felt they were pretty good at looking at a player in a drill and being able to gauge their size and their speed and look at their athleticism.”

Bakoulis said, “We tried to film as much as we could when we were together (this fall). ... We had guys running the 40 (yard dash), and then did some stuff like having them jump up at the goal posts to see how high they could get their head just to show their explosiveness.

“We got some good ideas from (college) coaches (such as) a simple PVC pipe overhead squat to show a lineman’s hip flexibility. We did that and we filmed that and posted it (online). Some of that stuff, we never did before.”

The Eastern Connecticut Conference had its teams compete in “alternative football” this fall, a combination of strength challenges for linemen and 7-on-7 games of touch football in which there was only passing. Those competitions could be used as a substitute for game tape.

“When we did the pursuit drill (for linemen), they had to drive the bag for five yards and then sprint,” Bakoulis said. “That’s a great opportunity for a kid to show his effort level, show their athleticism. At the beginning of the drill, you’re popping that sled and you’re showing your hip explosion, so there’s a good evaluation with that (film).”

Ellis said, “I had (my players) do a highlight (film) of their 7-on-7, especially for Josh (Letellier) at quarterback and Noah (Charron) at receiver. There were some plays on there that you could gauge arm strength with Josh, and you could gauge Noah’s athleticism both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.”

Film from those alternative events may have some value, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.

“The thing you’re missing is the physical component of football,” Bakoulis said. “Everyone looks good when you’re not in pads. When you put the pads on, what do you look like? So that’s going to be a missing piece. But, again, you want to let those college coaches know, ‘Listen — this kid is going to come (to your program) and he’s going to get into the mix.’”

Student-athletes have been able go to combines and show their skills in person to recruiters. The pandemic also shut those down.

The ECC had planned on holding its own combine and had 139 juniors and seniors register to compete. It was postponed due to the pandemic.

“This summer, Penn State sent out a virtual combine form which showed you how to film the different events,” Ellis said. “It had to be done on a turf field because they wanted everything marked exactly. Of course, we (play on) one of the only grass field (in the ECC).

“We were lucky enough where A.J. (Massengale, Stonington football’s head coach) let us go over to Stonington over the summer. So we went over with a group of juniors and seniors and taped them so that the kids have that film, too, of the different combine events.”

Bakoulis and Stephen Burris, NFA’s offensive coordinator, put together ECC Football Recruits last spring. It allowed the conference coaches to get together via conference calls and promote their players to college coaches. They also started the Twitter account @ECCFBRecruits.

Webster took part on the conference calls.

“A lot of those Eastern Connecticut coaches have done a great job of trying to be creative to provide different opportunities to showcase their guys,” Webster said. “Putting stuff online, that’s not the best (recruiting tool), but anything the coaches do (is beneficial) because it shows the high school coaches care about the kid and care about the kid getting recruited at the next level.”

Ellis said, “The week after the (online) combine, (Jason) and Mike Serricchio (Ledyard’s first-year head coach and a former Springfield assistant and player), they went through and put together some events for the kids to film themselves and post on Twitter. And then we would all share it and like it and retweet it from all the schools back-and-forth. So that was a pretty good event for all the ECC to take part of.”

The pandemic has challenged college recruiters, too.

“It’s tougher because you can’t get out on the road and actually see the kid in person, meet with him, meet with the coaches,” Webster said. “I think the face-to-face contact is so crucial because you get to judge the interest level of the kid as well as the kid can judge the interest level from the coach. As much as we try to replicate that through Zoom, through other different ways, there’s still that face-to-face interaction. There’s no substitute for that.

“I think at the Division III level, what the potential student-athlete is going to miss out on is the college visit where he gets to get away from the coaches, get away from his parents, and sit down and hang out with the kids on our team, or any team, and see if it’s a fit for him.”

Game film or no game film, combine or no combine, recruiting requires communication between players, their high school coaches and recruiters, as well as exposure. Those are all still things high school student-athletes and their colleges can do.

“My advice to any kid or coach is to reach out to the college coaches and ask for their honest opinion so you can know exactly where you stand with the coach,” Webster said. “That helps you narrow down your choice, and then they can make the most informed decision.”

Pointing out how hard a student-athlete worked during a pandemic doesn’t hurt, either.

“I think any coach is going to value the work ethic of a kid,” Webster said. “I think it’s a very good sign that the kid who continues to work knowing that, ‘Okay, I don’t have a senior year, but I’m still doing this because this is what I love to do,’ I think is a good selling point. You look at a kid like that who wants to leave the program better than they found it, those are the type of kids we would value here at Springfield College.”

n.griffen@theday.com

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