Jalen Schlachter had bled a flood of Hoosier red since deciding last summer he’d spend his college football career in Bloomington, Ind.
The Corunna High School senior had all the Indiana shirts and hats. Visited campus four times, including for a game last fall after which his and other families dined together and began building friendships.
Schlachter had fallen in love with the thought of being a Big Ten student and football player.
His mother even bought a red Coach purse to go with her Hoosiers garb for the Saturday trips south.
Fortunately for Mom, Ball State also has red in its uniforms.
As sure as Schlachter was this fall that he’d be attending Indiana … well, nothing is sure during the final phase of college football recruiting. It’s often referred to as the “scramble” – the December-January time period when college coaching changes occur, often leaving incoming recruiting classes in disarray.
And players such as Schlachter suddenly in desperate searches for new schools.
“It had happened to two guys before me,” Schlachter said about players in his Indiana recruiting class losing their scholarship offers. “I was just kinda hoping it wasn’t me.”
Schlachter, a 6-foot-7, 295-pound offensive tackle, is the No. 22 player on the State Journal’s annual Catch 22 list of Michigan’s top senior football prospects.
For a chunk of this season’s Catch 22 prospects, the coaching upheaval in college football has caused confusion and anxiety. Twenty one Division I football programs – including Michigan – have switched coaches this school year. Five of those switches have affected players on the Catch 22 list.
Recruiting in the Big Ten has been particularly affected, with three new coaches hurriedly trying to put together classes in a fraction of the time of their competitors.
“It’s kinda like starting over,” said Grand Rapids-based Allen Trieu, the Midwest recruiting manager for Scout.com. “It’s a mad scramble for coaches. (And) for kids who get dropped, they’re looking for homes.”
It initially looked like Schlachter’s home would still be Indiana, even after former coach Bill Lynch – who recruited Schlachter – was fired in November and replaced by Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. At the time, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said the school would honor all of the verbal commitments given to Lynch. After getting the job, Wilson even visited Schlachter at his school and everything seemed fine.
But a week later, Wilson called back.
“He said, ‘I have concerns about you fitting into my system and I cannot take a commitment from you right now.’ I was speechless for five minutes,” Schlachter said. “He just tried to sugarcoat the whole situation, cover up for his own words. … I was pretty angry. I was kind of short with him.
So much for all the Hoosiers attire in the closet.
Schlachter’s story is a fairly common one, according to Big Ten Network analyst and former college coach Gerry DiNardo. He’s been a head coach at Indiana, Louisiana State and Vanderbilt, and an assistant at Maine, Eastern Michigan and Colorado. At five of those six stops, he was part of mid-winter takeovers when the hurry-up efforts to fill recruiting classes are what he called “organized confusion.”
The new coaches have mere weeks to analyze prospects who committed to the previous staff, decide if they still want them, and go hard after those they do, while also building a staff and infrastructure. Sometimes the new staff decides the old commits aren’t a match.
Other times, it’s the player who changes course.
Highland Park defensive back Raymon Taylor, No. 6 on the Catch 22 list, had what he called an “unstable” offer from former U-M coach Rich Rodriguez, so he decided to commit to Indiana last summer. But when Lynch was fired, and Brady Hoke replaced the fired Rodriguez, Taylor decided to go back on the market. He took his college visits and whittled his options to Michigan, Indiana and Iowa before switching his commitment to the Wolverines a week ago.
“(Hoke) was a straight-forward guy. He came in and let us know the direction he wanted to take Michigan in. Defense was his main priority,” Highland Park coach Cedric Dortsch said. “They assembled a really nice staff at Indiana. It was a hard choice for him.”
Michigan’s late effort under Hoke is getting good marks – Scout.com has the class at 32nd nationally as of Friday. That was second-highest ranking among schools in the middle of coaching changes, behind only Florida at No. 27.
Among prospective Gators is Madison Heights Madison defensive back Valdez Showers (No. 10 on Catch 22). He decided to stick with Florida, despite its coaching change from Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp.
Traverse City West offensive lineman Jacob Fisher (No. 8 on Catch 22) also has an offer from Florida and visited there last weekend, as well as Michigan State two weekends ago.
He formerly had been a solid Michigan commitment since summer – until Rodriguez was fired.
The definition of “commitment” comes under question in these “scramble” situations. When players initially commit to a college, they commit to a coach – who in turn makes the commitment he won’t offer that scholarship to someone else.
Trieu says that with every coaching change, there are always a few players who end up, in so many words, being told by the new guy that they should “consider other options.”
When Schlachter realized he was no longer wanted at Indiana, he looked into two schools – Wisconsin and Missouri – which had previously offered him scholarships back before he chose Indiana. But he found out those schools had moved on to other players and no longer had spots to offer.
Time was running out.
Luckily, Corunna coach Chris Curtiss was able to help and put Schlachter in touch with Ball State and its newly hired head coach, Pete Lembo.
This time, the “scramble” worked to Schlachter’s advantage.
He visited last weekend, and, despite a late burst of interest from Minnesota, made his commitment Monday. And this one he hopes is final.
Schlachter’s winding recruiting journey was filled with a range of emotions. But in the end, the excitement at his new opportunity came through as he spoke of his next home.
“It got me really excited, to see the campus. When I was thinking Ball State, I was picturing Central Michigan, smaller and stuff. But it’s like a huge college and everything’s new there,” Schlachter said. “Everything happens for a reason. It worked out great for me.”