A different January for NDSU on the football recruiting trail

FARGO — For a Division I FCS program like North Dakota State University, which locked up 23 players during the early signing period in December, Wednesday’s second round of football commits who make it official will be more like Signing Day Jr.
The Bison are expected to sign four players to national letters of intent on Wednesday, Feb. 7.
Although the Bison coaching staff cut back its recruiting schedule after the program won its sixth Football Championship Subdivision national title in seven years on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas, they still hit the road, said Bison head coach Chris Klieman.
The focus, however, was different. They were able to target specific position needs, which resulted in verbal commitments from Florida high school players Kenneth Channelle from Jacksonville, Zach Mathis from Tampa and Juanye Tillman from Winter Park, as well as Jasir Cox from Kansas City, Mo.
Channelle and Mathis are receivers, Tillman is a linebacker and Cox is a safety with the potential to be a linebacker.
“He has big-play potential. I just think they’re getting a great player,” said Dominick Ciao, Mathis’ high school coach at Tampa Berkeley Prep. “To me he’s one of the great ball catchers that I’ve coached.”
That may be saying something — Ciao has coached high school football since 1986 and has more than 200 career victories.
It’s the first year the NCAA went to a 72-hour signing day window in mid-December, and NDSU loaded up with 19 scholarship players and four preferred walk ons. That in itself made for a different January for the Bison coaches. They didn’t have to concern themselves with other schools coming at their verbal commitments.
“You didn’t have to worry about a guy leaving or a bigger school coming in and stealing one of our guys into their program,” said NDSU Assistant Coach Atif Austin. “From that standpoint, it was really, really good.”
The early signing likely also gave the Bison more time to evaluate a smaller pool of potential recruits. With most Football Bowl Subdivision schools already locking up their classes, it made it more clear to FCS schools who was still available.
“You can take your time now and go through the process — re-evaluating film, getting on the road and finding out as much as we can,” Austin said.
The additional research time helps in that the three Florida verbal commitments this month did not attend NDSU’s summer camp, which is a prime evaluation period for the coaching staff. Of the 23 players who committed in December, 21 attended NDSU’s camp.
“The pool is obviously smaller,” Klieman said, “but there are still a lot of people looking for guys. You were still battling a lot of schools over the last few players.”
Austin is responsible for recruiting Florida. The four who will be part of the 2018 freshman class will be the most from the Sunshine State since Tre Dempsey and Connor Wentz were half of the four players from Florida who signed letters of intent in 2013.
Defensive end Tony Pierce Jr. from Winter Haven signed in December.
The Bison signed one player each from Florida in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and three in 2017. Austin called the new early signing period a “learning curve” for all involved, especially the high school coaches in Florida.
“Do you encourage them to sign early or wait until the second period?” he said. “For the most part, most major schools are done in December. Now you have kids wondering, ‘I thought there was an offer here but they’re full now.’ That could benefit them or work against them.”
Mathis, who is listed at 6-foot-6, had FBS offers from Boston College, Army, Air Force and the University of Massachusetts, although BC and UMass both pulled their offers late, Ciao said.
“They decided to go a different direction,” he said.
Channelle had an offer from Central Michigan among other FCS offers. He and Mathis took official visits in January and committed not long after.
On the flipside, only two of the 23 December commits took an official visit before the early signing period. Instead, they relied on either the summer camp or an unofficial visit in the months leading up to Dec. 22 to be evaluated.
“That’s unheard of,” Austin said.
A school pays for a recruit’s expenses for an official visit. Most of those came in January after they signed. It made for a different type of visit, one where it wasn’t so much for NDSU to sell its campus and athletic department because they were already signed, but more about the players and parents getting to know each other and the NDSU campus in general, Austin said.
“It was super awesome to have that type of visit weekend,” he said.