Days after the ink dried on high school seniors’ National Letters of Intent last Wednesday, final rankings for college football recruiting classes went online. Looking at various recruiting services’ Football Championship Subdivision class rankings, football fans may be surprised at three of the teams that broke into the top 10, as all of them are members of one conference: the Ivy League.
Yale headlined not only the Ivy League but also the entire FCS, according to the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. Columbia came in the No. 2 spot, and Harvard was at No. 5. In another review of FCS recruiting classes, Brian McLaughlin of HERO Sports ranked Yale at No. 2, Harvard at No. 8 and Columbia at No. 18.
Ancient Eight teams have never appeared in the FCS playoffs, and they cannot offer athletic scholarships, ostensible downsides to playing football there. Yet the Ivy League’s unique high academic standards serve as both an advantage and disadvantage: They establish a threshold that greatly limits the pool of recruits available to an Ancient Eight program but also attract players other top FCS programs would not be able to sign.
“There are two reasons why [the conference is improving across the board],” Yale head coach Tony Reno said. “The first is that families are looking at the big picture. Our pool of recruits is expanding because people are coming to see that the Ivy League is affordable and presents a life-changing opportunity on and off the field. The second is that recruiting is more aggressive in terms of volume and frequency of contact. The assistant coaches throughout the league are excellent and do an incredible job of finding top prospects.”
Yale football’s class of 2020 — according to a list compiled through recruiting sites, Twitter and news clippings — holds 29 recruits, six of whom are classified as three-stars and five of whom are two-stars. A pair of those two-star recruits has some of the gaudiest statistics in the FCS: wide receiver JP Shohfi, whose 2,464 receiving yards in 2015 set the national single-season high school record, and running back Alan Lamar, who racked up 2,372 yards and 38 touchdowns in his senior campaign.
“The quantity is there, the quality is there and when you compare it with the rest of the Ivy League and even the FCS, this group is definitely a top-10 group, depending on how you look at it,” McLaughlin told the News when discussing Yale’s class.
Meanwhile, though Columbia has recently struggled to remain competitive in the Ivy League — the Lions only just ended a 24-game losing streak that stretched from 2013 to 2015 — the team is now a beneficiary of over 20 years of recruiting experience. Head coach Al Bagnoli, who arrived in New York City’s Morningside Heights after 23 years at Penn, needed less than a season to whip the Lions into shape.
Just months after Bagnoli broke the losing streak and then notched his first conference victory, a 17–7 win at Yale, his first recruiting class at Columbia is now reminiscent of his powerhouse teams in Philadelphia. The veteran coach snagged six three-star recruits, including pro-style quarterback Matt Dame, who declined an offer from the University of Miami to attend Columbia.
Noting that Dame, a Riviera Beach, Florida native, could have become Miami’s starter in two years, McLaughlin said the quarterback is among the reasons Columbia deserves a spot in his top 10.
Harvard’s incoming class, which includes three-star dual-threat quarterback Lavance Northington and a pair of highly recruited linemen, has big shoes to fill: The Crimson is coming off its third consecutive Ivy title, a record streak for the program, and in May will see the graduation of many key contributors, including eight first-team All-Ivy players.
One of those linemen is Carter Hartmann, a two-star defensive tackle from Mission Viejo, California, who drew interest from Princeton and Yale. Hartmann cited the educational opportunities offered by Ivy League schools as a deciding factor in his decision to consider the three schools.
“I still think you can make it to the NFL if you really wanted from the Ivy League, so I’m not really worried about that,” Hartmann said.
For many coaches in the league, a main barrier to recruiting in the Ivy League is transmitting that message broadly enough to fill the class. Because of their strict academic standards, Ivy League schools must recruit nationally to find enough players who meet proper qualifications both in the classroom and on the field. Yale’s 29 recruits come from 15 different states, which is fairly common.
With the advent of the Internet, it has become much easier to recruit more aggressively, a change that Reno cited as a reason for the Ivy League’s rise. The ubiquity of online recruiting aides, such as Hudl.com or Scout.com, has transformed the process of finding recruits because players can market themselves, creating public Twitter profiles and posting videos online. Rather than combing through hard copies of highlight reels, coaches can simply log on to video recruiting services and see the top prospects from all over the country.
In today’s digital age, coaches do not have to worry about leveraging personal connections or missing a diamond in the rough: The players come to them, and in huge numbers.
Individual rankings, too, have become much more accessible. Sites like 247sports.com or Rivals have created algorithms that use player statistics and combine data to rank players by position, state and overall ability. The top prospects in the country are deemed four- and five-star recruits so that FBS schools can easily identify them.
McLaughlin cautioned against putting too much faith in rankings because, he noted, an athlete can see his stock fall after committing to an FCS school. Ratings sites cater to their subscribers, McLaughlin argued, and top-tier football programs do not want to look at players who are considering playing at less competitive universities.
But the Ivy League may become more competitive in the near future. Last season, which ended in a three-way tie between Harvard, Penn and Dartmouth at the top, also saw each of those teams crack the FCS Top-25 rankings. With its newest recruiting class, Yale — which boasted the top offense in the FCS in 2014 — will look to do the same next year.
“When I went on my official, they played me some highlight tapes,” three-star wide receiver and Yale commit Abu Daramy said. “I can tell that we got a lot of speed coming in for next year. Speed kills, and if we’ve got speed, we can beat teams down the field all the time. Our defensive backs are physical, our receivers are fast and shifty, so they did a great job recruiting this year.”
According to NCAA regulations, coaches are not permitted to comment on specific recruits. Once all the athletes have formally matriculated, the football programs will officially release their incoming classes sometime in the spring and be permitted to discuss them.