Cal football’s innovative virtual recruiting style pays dividends

Cal Football
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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With the Pac-12’s Tuesday decision to cancel all sports competition through 2020, Cal fans, players and coaches must now face the harsh reality of a fall with no football. Without the excitement of taking to the gridiron under a cool autumn sky to look forward to, the Bears have plenty of time to throw into the recruiting front — with no football in the present, there is all the more reason to invest in the future.

“It’s different when you can’t see them face to face, but that’s where we’re at right now. And that’s OK — we’re going to do the best we can,” said Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox of recruiting high school prospects. “Our coaches and recruiting staff, they’ve just done an unbelievable job of communicating and talking to people and creating those relationships, which is so critical.”

The Bears’ investment into the virtual recruiting realm has been quite successful thus far, to say the least. Cal’s 2021 recruiting class is currently ranked third in the Pac-12 and is on pace to become the school’s first top-25 class nationally since 2012. The Bears have already reeled in five four-star recruits, according to 247Sports, easily the most in the Wilcox era.

Normally, Cal has the ability to flaunt its physical perks to lure in recruits — a newly renovated locker room, extraordinary Bay Area views, a beautiful campus and a historic stadium, just to name a few. But for the time being, none of that is possible. June is normally a time when the recruiting and coaching staff’s schedules are jam-packed with campus visits. But now, those Google calendars are filled with Zoom links and phone numbers.

The team has put together unique tours and pitch videos to give recruits as much of a taste as possible. In reality, they don’t really have a choice. Recruiting in the Pac-12 is fiercely competitive, so in times like these, Cal is aiming to innovate in any way possible. For instance, it is set to release 3D, 360-degree virtual tours of team facilities, hoping to give prospects an accurate feeling of stepping foot onto campus.

One of the program’s biggest differentiators, though, really has nothing to do with football at all. The Life After Ball, or LAB, program gives Cal players the career development that many student-athletes at other schools often miss out on. The goal is to make sure that “if plan A doesn’t work out, which is the NFL, plan B is just as good,” explained Benji Palu, Cal’s director of on-campus recruiting.

With UC Berkeley consistently ranked among the top public universities in the world, the pull of the LAB program is even more amplified. LAB provides Cal’s student-athletes with bountiful opportunities to network with professionals and alumni, leading to career paths of all sorts.

“For Marshawn (Lynch) and Aaron (Rodgers), they probably get to choose when they retire. But for most people, football retires them. And then there’s a lot of life left to live, and that’s where this LAB program really comes in,” Wilcox explained. “We spend a lot of time on it.”

There have even been prospects who requested to talk to not only specific coaches or recruiters, but also professors. The gravity of a UC Berkeley education cannot be understated, especially when schools aren’t as able to amuse recruits with glamorous amenities and facilities.

Just as recruits look for more than purely on-field opportunities, Cal’s coaching staff also takes a holistic approach when scouting for the team’s next cohort of talent. The central focus for the recruiting team is not just a potential recruit’s high school stats or how fast they can run a 40-yard dash — it’s whether they show the determination and dedication that is characteristic of the Cal football program.

“It’s the mindset and the drive. The kid’s got to want it. It’s very hard to measure that trait, and I think that’s what separates good scouting departments from great ones,” said Marshall Cherrington, Cal’s director of recruiting strategy.

For families separated by the pandemic, these last eight months of ambiguity have not been easy. The same holds true when your family has more than 100 members and is growing with every commit landed.

Even though members of the Cal football family may not suit up together this year, devoting the energy necessary to build an unshakable foundation will only make the day they get to take the field again all the more worth waiting for.

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