Arkansas State University football's Class of 2021 recently arrived on campus to join the program ahead of Coach Butch Jones' first season in charge.
And as the Red Wolves' group of incoming freshmen -- recruited almost exclusively via Zoom, FaceTime and other forms of social media due to covid-19 -- filed into ASU's team room for an orientation session, the 52-year old head coach was struck by the scene in front of him.
"Never in all my years of coaching did you have an entire signing class that had never been to campus before," Jones said. "I would say 99% of them it was their first time even being in Jonesboro."
When the Class of 2022 comes to campus in a year's time, they should be more familiar with their new home -- much to the pleasure of coaches and prospects alike across the country.
June 1 marked the end of a nearly 15-month dead period on in-person and on-campus recruiting across the NCAA. With the change, the floodgates for visits, camps and workouts have opened, offering Jones and his coaching staff a first chance at chasing the next class and beyond, as well as a return to normal recruiting.
"It's been very welcomed," Jones said. "This whole past week has been a blur, but it's been great to kind of get back."
Jones has spoken since he arrived at ASU in December about the importance of relationship building and the ability to show off the program and campus in Jonesboro, so when the NCAA announced in mid-April that the dead period would end on June 1, he and the ASU staff began ramping up recruiting strategies it hadn't yet been able to unfurl.
On campus, they scheduled official visits through the month of June, prepared to host camps and got organized on how to make use of a new rule allowing recruits to work out for teams for the first time away. Away from Jonesboro, assistants planned off-site trips to talent camps across the country, resuming travel for the purpose of recruiting for the first time since at least March of 2020.
"June 1st hits and coaches are on planes going all over the country working camps," Jones said. "We were ready."
And while his assistants looked for where to evaluate talent away from home, Jones prepped for ASU's four on-campus football camps in the month. The Red Wolves hosted the first session on Sunday and will hold another on Friday, welcoming prospects to campus after nearly a year and a half.
According to Jones, the camps offer key opportunities for in-person player evaluation and coaching and also gives ASU a chance to give recruits a taste of the program, something it hasn't quite been able to do since Jones arrived.
"They get a feel for what we do," Jones said. "The energy. Kind of where we're going. The vision for the program. That's why these camps are so so important because there's so many things that go into it that are extremely positive.
In addition to the camps, the Red Wolves are taking advantage of in-person evaluations, the individual workouts that were strictly prohibited before this year. Rules cap the sessions to one hour and are limited to one coach working with one player among other stipulations, but the workouts provide another opportunity for both evaluation and communication. ASU has already completed a series of sessions with recruits since June 1.
"You get the one-on-one relationship building," Jones said. "Something where it's just you and him and you're able to communicate directly and spend an hour together. Then there's the coaching aspect and the teaching of fundamentals."
After 15 months without in-person recruiting, Jones and his staff will take every opportunity they can get.