GoHens.net Spring 2018 Interview with Coach Rocco

Part II

Big R, GoHens.net special correspondent
June 28, 2018

Part 2 of the interview focuses on the recruiting process. Enjoy.

GH: Focusing on recruiting for a little bit, I had a couple of questions that are basically about how successful we were at recruiting last year. One is: “Did the Whitney Center make an impact?” and the other is: “How many of the players that we offered signed with us?” Because I believe last year, you had mentioned that all but one of those we had targeted signed with us.

DR: First of all, the Whitney Center is, and will continue to be, significant. I think that the time is now and the time is perfect, and the timing is right in terms of where we are right now at our University and within our Athletic Department, and within our league. A lot of schools have made some improvements over the last several years, and what we’re doing is substantial, and our student athletes are recognizing it. High school coaches and our high school prospects are recognizing how substantial this project is. It’s not so much the actual physical reality of the building and what it’s going to bring … it’s the message that it sends that there is this high level of commitment that’s being made for our athletics, and the high level of commitment that’s being made to our football program. That mind-set, transcends into so many other areas of the student athlete experience. Whether it’s strength and conditioning, nutrition, sports medicine, or academic support - all of these things are part of this conversation. That’s the bigger message here, and that’s the message that our student athletes are hearing - they’re recognizing the commitment, and with that recognition, our students are very interested in pursuing their interest at our university.

GH: And then the other part of that question was: “How many of our offered players did we sign this year compared to last year?” when I know you were very pleased.

DR: I think I’ll be a little more general this year than the answer I gave you last year, but, in theory, we like to be at 75%. An analysis that we use to help us determine if we are efficient with our time, efficient with our money, whether we’re fishing in the right ponds, whether we’re targeting the right players - it’s been my experience that the years we’ve been successful and felt good about what we were able to get in return for our efforts, we were signing better than 75% of the student athletes we offer. This year we were well over 75% and really felt that there were only a couple of players in this cycle that did not sign with us that we felt were going to be really good kids and really good additions to our program.

GH: One of those, I think, was Will Knight, who went to Old Dominion. We had, I think, offered him and he initially said he was going to come here. When he didn’t, we didn’t sign another running back, so did that mean you were very comfortable with the running backs we have, and, if so, I guess that means that next year, we’re going to have to be a little more aggressive to bring in a running back. Is that fair to say?

DR: Yes, that’s very well said. I would say that. And I have a color-coded roster right in front of me that I may have shown you last year, and we just went over it today in my staff meeting. It breaks down each position by how many years of eligibility the players have - it’s not a depth chart - it’s listed from senior to junior to sophomore, to freshman, or really, from one year of eligibility to two, to three, to four, to five. What we do, every year is, look at the guys in red - that’s our senior class - and we start to look at their departures to recognize these as being our needs for the following year. To your point, as I look at running back for 2019, we have Kani Kane and Kareem Williams in red - they’ll be departing, so maybe next year we sign two running backs instead of one, because we didn’t find one this year, but you’re exactly right - that’s how that factors in. If we would have signed one this year, whether it was the one you mentioned or another one, then when we moved Kani and Kareem, we probably would have just signed one for that next year because Spruill and Lee have three years left. It’s always a balance, it’s always give- and-take, and it’s always kind of a snapshot, then back away and look at the big picture. Ultimately, we want to make decisions that are in the best interest of our senior class. In doing that, you want to make offers that create the highest probability of being successful in this upcoming season.

GH: Another recruiting question: once scholarship players are signed, I believe you had mentioned to me that you have a board for preferred walk-ons like you do for scholarship players. One thing that’s confusing for myself and many of the board members is: what is that process? Is there any kind of commitment, either way, for walk-ons? And the reason I ask that, soon after this past February’s signing day, when our scholarship players were announced, a high-school player had said on his Twitter account, that he was pleased to announce that he would be furthering his career at Delaware, and he had a picture of himself sitting at a table with his UD gear on, and pen in hand as though signing something. I thought: “Well, maybe that’s just for him to be able to post something on his Twitter account for others to see”, because I’m not aware that preferred walk-ons sign anything - do they?

DR: They don’t, in theory, sign anything that would be binding. There’s a reality that, when we offer a student athlete a non-scholarship spot on our roster as a preferred walk-on, that we are guaranteeing him to have a spot on our team when we get into the season. The formality of all that is not set in stone because they haven’t done or signed anything that commits them. To really understand it, you have to go back and understand the actual process that occurs on signing day. I think most people realize this at some level, but maybe not the highest level - there are two totally different documents that are signed on signing day by the student athlete. One is the NLI - the National Letter of Intent - and that is basically the student athlete’s commitment to come to the university; and the other is the scholarship form, which is the university’s commitment to the student athlete. But one without the other is null and void. So, in order to have a binding agreement, you need both of them. That’s what’s missing in the non-scholarship situation. There isn’t that mutual document to be signed. Sometimes, a non-scholarship kid will pay the admissions fee and then not come to school. There is nothing binding them to come. So it’s a little different from that perspective, but I do think that there is value for all these young people to have that moment when they can make a decision and can have the freedom to make some formal statement that they’ve made a decision to come to the university of their choice.

GH: Are there still some that have not committed anywhere that are on our board, that could end up coming here as non-scholarship preferred walk-ons, or is that pretty much over-and-done-with?

DR: I would say that over 90% of the population is off the board. I’ll give you an example. There is a person that committed to go somewhere to play lacrosse and then changed his mind - he doesn’t want to play lacrosse. So, those kinds of situations are still out there, you know, where there are guys that are not positive they are going to stay the course. There’s a very small pocket of guys that are just undecided, that are on our board. As far as our board, I’d say we don’t have anybody on our board that fits that criteria, but we may get a knock at the door, and that does happen, you know - a guy has a change of heart, or decides he wants to play closer to home, or decides to do whatever. That’s a lot more likely to happen with a non-scholarship player than a scholarship player.

GH: We know that the end of spring practice is when the people who are considering transferring get more serious about that. Do we have any scholarships available and are you still looking for a transfer or two who could prop up positions where we could use them?

DR: Yes, we always are. You owe it to your team and to your seniors, like I’ve been saying, at the end of the year, when the dust settles, you take a hard look at your money, and some years you have one-and-a-half scholarships; some years, you may have two, two-and-a-half; one year, you might have .75. You usually want to be able to distribute that money among some guys on your present roster, and then also amongst guys that are out there on the market. Those are always difficult decisions to make. We usually are able to put guys on our current roster on scholarship in January, but if you have someone come your way who can help your team be successful and represent your program at a high level, you’ve got to be able to pursue them. I would bet we’ll find a kid sometime between now and the start of the coming season.

GH: This is, I think, the second year of the new rules as to when kids can take official visits, and, on the negative side, I guess, that takes more personal time away from the coaches, so what are you and the staff doing now, because isn’t this a recruiting period now, or am I mistaken on that? (Remember that this interview took place on April 26th.)

DR: You’re right. For us, it will start Monday - we’re going out on the road for the next four weeks. Here’s what we’re doing with this - we’ve had a model in place for quite some time, and I have a pretty strong belief in this model and the success that it has been able to offer us. It’s a model that does require patience, and we’re not the first school to offer a kid. All of our camps this summer are back-ended camps, they’re later in the summer, not earlier in the summer, and I’m in no hurry to put out offers for the class of 2019 - I’m just not. It’s been my opinion for quite some time, that a lot of guys that I want to get on my team are guys that think they’re going to play at Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers, or Maryland. I want guys that are going to do everything they can, this summer, to show people that they belong in the Big 10, or the ACC. Those are the guys I want. If I just start offering guys because I think they’re “good enough”, I may not even be communicating with the right population. One of the things that helped me immensely, when I took my first head coaching job at Liberty, having been the assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator at Virginia, I learned where that line was, and even when I was at Richmond, I was able to sit there and say: “I don’t think Virginia will offer that kid; I think Old Dominion might; we will, JMU will”, etc. I had a good feel for the pool, and I certainly feel that way here. We’re not going to jump the gun here and shift our whole philosophy. Now the one thing that is happening is the ability to have earlier official visits, but we’re not going to play that game this year. We’re going to stay committed to our camps and our evaluations. I want to get to know who these boys are. I want to have them at our camp and work with them there. I want to be able to see them perform. Those are things that we attach a lot of value to. Our spring recruiting allows our coaches to go out and get transcripts and kind of qualify the character level, and things like that, so that when we do get them in camp we are able to make some decisions.

GH: So, what I hear you saying is that, at our level, patience is a virtue and you get a lot more out of what you can do by exercising that patience rather than trying to be the first one to pull the trigger on a particular player.

DR: I think that’s fair, I really do. I’m not saying we’re better than anybody - I’m not saying that, but we are as good as any of our competitors when you are looking at the product out there - now I’m just talking about FCS football. If we’re going to lose a guy to Penn State, we‘re going to lose him to Penn State; if we’re going to lose a guy to Maryland, we’re going to lose him to Maryland, if he wants to play in the Big 10. I’m not saying we’re going to lose everybody to Maryland, but you know, I can understand that, when a guy says: “I want to go play in the Big 10”. If you are going to go FCS, and Delaware is interested, or offers, why would we have to be first? Why wouldn’t the student athlete be interested in Delaware if he has 5 or 6 other FCS offers? That’s how I feel about our product. I don’t feel like we have to beat people to the punch. I think we’ve got a good enough product that we can be patient. What you said was accurate, but it was general when you said “at this level”, because at this level, a lot of teams go fast, because a lot of teams feel like the only way to get in on a kid is to be the first to offer him. They offer 20 or 30 guys and they end up having a nice pool, but that’s how they have to do their business because they may not have the calling card at the end of the day to be relevant. I think our program does have that, I believe that does allow us to be a little more patient. I’ve said this forever, “It’s not the ones who get away, it’s the one you sign that can’t play” - that’s what matters the most - it’s the ones you sign. It’s not the ones you don’t get - sometimes you don’t get a kid. But you better make sure the ones you do get are the right ones, and it’s not going to be like that if you’re offering 20 kids in May before you even know who they are. Also, by waiting, it helps you to know who you are recruiting against.

GH: In general, when do you start making offers - after you’ve seen the kids in camp?

DR: I have a calendar that spells out everything that we do. We have days that we rate our targeted players; we have days that we evaluate in-state players; we have days that we evaluate out-of-state players. At the end of the spring recruiting cycle, on June 5th this year, our staff will meet to review and rank all of our potential prospects. Then we’ll have our first “call-in” date on June 7th. It’s these call-in days when I usually offer student athletes scholarships. We have a one-day camp on July 13th; we have one-day camp on July 14th; we have a second recruiting “call-in” on July 19th when we have our top 50 recruits call in, which includes those who we offered on June 7th, and others that have been added. Some prospects may have dropped off the first list because they committed to a BCS school, or whatever. Others have been added after camping with us, or because they were on our board, and visited campus on their own even before our camps, and we got to know them and their families better. We have a one-day camp on July 21st; we have another “call-in” day the following week. Quarterback is the one position where you almost have to see them in your own camp before offering, so they tend to be offered later in the process.

GH: Now, when they call in, do they call in individually, or is it a conference call to talk to all of them all at one time?

DR: It’s a staff effort. They call in individually, one-at-a-time, but we’ll go off our board and we’ll go from a general board, to a specific board, to a target board. The guys that are on the target board are the guys we’re most excited about, that we have the most background and information on - most all of them have been in our camp and/or on our campus. We’ve had coaches see them all this spring; we’ve done our homework; their academics; we’ve got their transcripts; we’ve got their test scores. Then we’ll start having those conversations where they are calling to their recruiting coach; he’ll talk to them on the phone; he’ll share the phone with the position coach; the coordinator; and then I’ll have that opportunity to have that conversation. We have several call-in days during the course of the year - three or four of them, and on a given night, we may talk to 50 student athletes, definitely 25 to 30 to 35. We usually have big bang-for-the-buck in terms of being able to generate a lot of momentum and energy for our program.

GH: I didn’t realize any of that, that’s very interesting - I appreciate you sharing how that works. I have just a few more questions. How do you think UD is perceived by high school coaches in our recruiting area vs. our competition, and has there been any noticeable change since you’ve gotten here, or did they already think fairly highly of UD?

DR: I think we’ve been highly thought of for a long time. I think that in some way, we’ve been able to offer a picture of hope and optimism, and I think that people are recognizing that. I think they are recognizing that things are “aligning”. There’s a buzz out there about the Whitney Center; there’s a buzz out there about the facilities, the enhancements. There’s a buzz out there about - I’ve got a really good staff, you know - I have a really good staff, and I had a staff assembled before I got here. Now, I’ve obviously made changes and things have adjusted, but we have a consistent, constant message that we’re all able to share with our student athletes, and with our fan base, and with the high school coaches, and with our recruits. With this consistent messaging, I think there is a higher level of belief in it - a higher level of confidence in it, and maybe a higher belief in the probability that success will happen. So I do think that there is alignment right now - alignment is a really big part of any organization’s success. There’s an alignment from within, and there’s also an external alignment - with our Athletic Director, Chrissi Rawak; with our President, Dennis Assanis; with our Board of Trustees; with our alumni. We are having really good alignment right now, and with that alignment, people are continuing to build enthusiasm for the future of our program. As a high school coach - be it in Delaware, or in this region - I think they feel a sense that good things are happening and they are more likely to want to be a part of that.

GH: Yeah, you mentioned your staff, and I just have to believe that: ‘I’m a high school football player, and I’m looking at the staff at Delaware and I see all of these coaches that have either coached in the pros or at the very highest levels of college football and I know I’m going to get great coaching if I go to Delaware.’ How important is that in the recruiting process?

DR: Well, I think it is extraordinarily important. There aren’t a lot of things that give off instant credibility. What would give someone instant credibility? Let’s say you have a home visit and Clint Sintim shows up at your house, and Clint was a first-round draft pick, and you want to play linebacker. That’s instant credibility, or you’re a running back and Matt Simon shows up at your house to recruit you and he’s talking to your family, and you recognize the players he’s coached in the NFL. I can go on and on and on with the guys on our staff, but that’s real. I mean, that is real in terms of the value that is attached to that during that initial introduction. Now, it goes way beyond that - you have to be able to communicate, and recruit, and build relationships, but in terms of having credibility, I think our staff certainly does offer that presence, and that’s a big part of my belief system. I have a good balance on my staff in terms of youth and experience. I’ve never been one of those guys who has shied away from bringing in people that may be perceived as more knowledgeable, more experienced, or educated - because I’m committed to getting better. I want to train young people, but in order to get better, I have to continue to bring people into our program that have experienced things, to challenge me in how I think, and in how we move our program forward. All these things are always in motion, and I think, from the recruiting perspective, it’s huge. My dad was a 20-year high school coach before he went to Penn State; my brother Frank was a 20-year high school coach; and some of the best coaches in the country have coached in high school football, there’s no doubt about that, but having said that, a lot of these student athletes, they want to move into that next realm, that next level. They want to be around guys who have been in those places, experienced those things, and can speak first hand what it’s like to have coached certain players. There is value to it, and when you’re selling a product like the University of Delaware, like the academics we have, the commitment to our facilities, and our future, I think this is more the icing on the cake in terms of the experience that the people have that are offering these opportunities today.

GH: I really appreciate your time, both for me, personally, and on behalf of the members of the GoHens board.

DR: You’re welcome, thank you, Rich.