So, you want to play DI football. Now what?

This article is first in a series by Paul Reppenhagen, father of current Texas Christian University player Ben Reppenhagen. His articles will discuss the recruiting process for those wanting to play Division I football.

Nothing beats Friday Night Lights. No matter where you live, high school football is awesome! The only problem with it is, when you’re a senior, it ends. If you’re good though, you likely have the dream of playing Saturdays, on TV, with huge crowds, great bands, cool SWAG, and all the pageantry that goes along with it. That means you’re dreaming of playing D1. Fantastic!  But how do you go from high school standout to D1 commit or walk-on? Read on.

I played DIII football and baseball in Michigan. But it has been 30 years since I last put on the football pads. I was recruited to play at D1 schools – Army, Air Force, WMU, EMU — but had no idea how to go about the process. Things have changed a lot in recruiting since then but most parents and players still have no idea how to go about it. It’s full of land mines, potholes, and dead ends. I learned the hard way; by going through it.

My son, Ben, was a top linebacker in MN for St. Thomas Academy. Sometime between his sophomore and junior year, he came to us and said he wanted to play football at Michigan (I’m a Michigan fan since I grew up watching them). Whoa! Ok. That’s certainly an audacious goal.  So, I went to work trying to figure out how to make it happen. Long story short, he’s now playing at TCU and had offers at Wake Forest, San Diego, UPenn and Stanford. But it was a roller coaster ride and I wish I had known then what I know now.  

First, know the numbers. There are 255 D1 Schools (130 FBS, 125 FCS) and approximately 29,000 rostered D1 football players. That’s about 5800 new D1 players each year. There are approximately 500,000 high school seniors in the US playing football. So, that means about 1.2% of high school senior football players are going to play D1 each year. The reality is, no matter how much you may want to play D1, it’s hard to make it. It’s even harder if you don’t have an organized approach or don’t have someone that can help guide you – what to do, when to do it, how to go about it, etc.

The first question to ask yourself is “Do I really want to play D1 football?” A lot of kids think they want to play D1 because of what they see on TV. They think it will be an extension of their high school experience. It isn’t. College football is a business. It’s a huge commitment and it’s hard. Yes, it’s fun, you meet a lot of great guys and have great experiences. But make no mistake, you sacrifice a lot of the traditional college experience to play in college. You must really, truly want to play the game at that level. You need to love it because if you don’t, it will show up on the practice field. Coaches at that level have no time for players that don’t love playing football. Simply put, their jobs and livelihoods are on the line.

The next question to ask yourself is “Do I have the necessary combination of size and skill?” Just about everyone playing D1 was a stud on their high school team. Everyone is going to be big, fast, or big and fast. All programs are looking for fast guys. If you run a legit 4.4 or faster, you will find a place to play. Schools will find you if you go to camps. Coaches never feel they have enough speed. If you are big – 6’6” or taller, 275 or heavier, you will find a place to play. Schools will find you if you go to camps. Coaches never feel they have enough size on the OL and DL. If you’re not really fast or really big, then you better have some compelling combination of the two. You should also know that you have your work cut out for you. You’re going to have to do a lot of networking, go to a lot of camps, send out a lot of correspondence to get coaches interested in you. It’s not impossible. It just takes more work.

The third question you need to ask yourself is “What am I really willing to give up to play D1?” If you’re dead set on playing only a certain position, only at certain schools, you’ll narrow your chances. If you really want to play at that high level, you may need to switch positions, choose a school with lower academic standards, or look at schools in different geographic areas. Those choices aren’t inconsequential. You need to be honest with yourself on what you are willing to do to play D1 ball.  

Now here’s the deal. You kind of want to have all that figured out by your sophomore year of high school. What? That seems crazy. Yes, it does seem crazy but you can’t wait until your senior year to get going on the recruiting process. It’s too late by then. You’ll be relying on hope which is never a good strategy. You want enough games to be able to generate good film content. You need time to cultivate conversations with coaches. You need to go to enough camps to get a good look. You need time to visit colleges to check out the vibe and see if you’ll like the campus and people. Sometimes, you don’t know if you’ll like a school until you physically walk the campus, see the stadium, check out the surrounding city, etc. All of that takes time. To get my son recruited, we visited 16 different D1 programs the summers of his sophomore and junior year. That means eight weekends of each of those two summers we spent on the road going to camps/colleges. As I said, all of that takes time.

Does everyone that plays D1 have to do that?  No. As mentioned, if you’re really fast, really big, or have some compelling combination of the two, college coaches will likely find you. Those are the three-, four-, and five-star recruits. If you’re not one of those, then yes, you do need to do quite a bit of work or be willing to live with what you get. If that isn’t enough to motivate you into action, consider this fact. There are 86 D1 FBS players rostered from MN high schools. That’s only 0.6 percent of all the FBS players rostered. The point is, while we have some great talent here in the state, we aren’t necessarily a recruiting hot bed. D1 college coaches aren’t constantly canvasing MN looking for talent. If you want to get noticed coming out of MN, you have to work at it.

What does that mean – work at it? It means you have to approach your recruiting like a communications or ad campaign. You must establish your message, outline who’s likely to be interested in you and why, script out how you’re going to differentiate yourself and get attention. You have to plot out when and where you’ll attend camps, who you’ll talk to when you’re there, how to send out teaser communication before the camp so you’re top of mind with coaches. You need to prioritize and rank your school preferences; investigate the type of players they recruit and the offense and defensive schemes they run. Find out where their coaches are from and where they played ball so you can make some connection and stand out from others. Send follow up notes to coaches and update them on your progress. As I said, you have work at it.  

In my next article I will get into more specifics about the recruiting process – things to do, things to avoid, tips to consider. While the process seems daunting, it’s also very exciting and fun. You may send out dozens of letters and hear nothing and then, one day, boom, you get some interest from a coach. The key take away here is if you want to increase your chances for playing D1 ball coming out of MN, you must drive the process yourself. Don’t leave it up to your coach. Don’t leave it up to your parents. You have to drive the recruiting bus yourself.