The helicopter landed on Bountiful High School’s practice field in the middle of the game. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy made his way to the East Leopards’ sideline.
His arrival illustrated how the in-season recruitment of high school athletes can become a distraction, although East coach Brandon Matich wouldn’t blame Gundy’s bold entrance for what happened to his team that night. “We were already getting killed by Bountiful,” he said, smiling as he retold the story, “so it didn’t make a difference.”
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh once converged in the classroom of Bingham coach John Lambourne, creating an awkward moment. The presence of those celebrated coaches was another sign of how Utah prep football has become a recruiting gold mine, with extra focus on programs that consistently develop college talent.
“There’s just this bombardment now,” Lambourne said.
Open enrollment also plays into this discussion, somewhat skewing the distribution of talent. Of 247Sports’ top 33 recruits in the class of 2019, 21 come from five schools: Bingham, Skyridge, Timpvew, Alta and Orem. East has two players, including No. 1-ranked Siaki Ika, a defensive lineman.
The side effect is that managing recruitment becomes almost a full-time job for high school coaches — especially in the spring, when recruiters can visit schools without being allowed to talk to players. And now with the NCAA’s December signing period, the recruiting timetable is accelerated and many players will make official visits to colleges on weekends during their senior seasons.
“They’re going to head out on Saturdays; it’s just kind of part of the business,” Orem coach Jeremy Hill said.
That thought had not occurred to Lambourne, until he overheard Bingham linebacker Loloani Langi being asked about in-season visits.
“Recruiting is kind of crazy right now, for a lot of us boys on the team, and we’re just trying to handle it … and make sure that doesn’t get caught on on our mind, and we have a bigger picture in mind,” said Langi, who has 10 college offers including Utah, BYU, Nebraska and UCLA among others.
High school coaches have all kinds of administrative worries beyond football. Organizing the recruitment of their players can be overwhelming at select programs. “It’s not my job to get these kids recruited; however, I’ll do anything possible to make that happen,” Hill said.
Hill is is proactive, notifying coaches of practice times and providing detailed lists of Orem players and how they project in college. More than 40 coaches from various levels visited Orem in the spring. Hill is involved in the process this season from the dual perspective of coach and father; his son Hunter, an offensive lineman at Orem, is one of the state’s top 10 prospects.
Bingham has produced NFL players Star Lotulelei, Harvey Langi and Dalton Schultz in this decade, and the recruiters keep coming. “Our kids have handled it really well,” Lambourne said, acknowledging the volume can be “a little bit irritating” at times.
Matich keeps two binders, one in the East building and another at the stadium up the block, filled with his players’ academic transcripts for college coaches to inspect. That’s another reminder of what he’s continually telling the Leopards: “They need to know that it’s not about football, it’s about having a free education.”
It’s also true that having celebrity coaches come to town is cool.
“The first time Jim Harbaugh walks in your building, it’s pretty exciting,” Matich said, citing Stanford’s David Shaw and Washington’s Chris Petersen, among others. “For me, it doesn’t ever wear off. I get excited when they come into our building, and I know our kids do.”
Bingham alumni often advise the current Miners to enjoy high school football and not look ahead too far. “Part of my job is to keep these kids grounded,” Lambourne said. “What am I to them, if they’ve already got their future locked up? Well, I’d be better be the tough guy. And they’ll respect that, in the long run.”
Matich is happy the Utah High School Activities Association allows limited practice in the spring, enabling recruiters to see players in a football setting. Matich tries to arrange coaches’ visits in that window: “That’s a big deal for us,” he said.
College coaches know they can hit a few schools in Utah and see a high volume of prospects. That’s partly the effect of open enrollment.
“Legislation created that open enrollment for this very reason: You want to choose what school’s best for your son, and that applies to sports too,” Hill said. “If my son’s playing baseball, I’m probably targeting Timpanogos, across the street. If my kid’s a big band guy, I’m probably going to [American Fork]. …Football’s the same thing.”
Noah Sewell, a linebacker who’s likely the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2020, has transferred to Orem from Desert Hills in St. George and is being pursued by Alabama and other big-time programs. Hill remembers his time as an Orem assistant when in-state recruiters might stop by the school briefly. In his tenure at other schools in the Salt Lake Valley, Lambourne said, “If you got a kid an offer at Snow College, you thought that was awesome.”
Lambourne recalls being thrilled when the University of Utah signed center Lance Scott from his Taylorsville program, and he’s happy that Utah players are being discovered now, regardless of where they attend high school. In the previous century, Lambourne said, “a lot of kids did not get recruited that were capable.”
That’s changed. Utah is “actually considered a hotbed now, to a lot of these [recruiters],” Lambourne said. “Some of them come in and they think they’ve found something really new. But the truth is they’re about seven, eight years behind the curve.”
UTAH’S TOP 10 RECRUITS
1 • Siaki Ika, East
2 • Puka Nacua, WR, Orem (committed to USC)
3 • Lolani langi, LB, Bingham
4 • Logan Sagapolu, OL, Skyridge
5 • Chuck Alatini, DE, Orem (commmitted to BYU)
6 • Simote Pepa, DT, Bingham
7 • Junior Tafuna, LB. Bingham
8 • Terrance Famui, Athlete, Orem
9 • Chase Roberts, WR, American Fork (committed to BYU)
10 • Hunter Hill, OL, Orem