Ragin' Cajun football recruits cope in era of COVID-19 and Zoom

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Imagine signing a recruit without ever actually shaking his hand after he committed. Without inviting him for an official visit. Without ever dropping by the house.

To André Maillho, father of UL football commitment Mackey Maillho, it’s “mindboggling.”

But in a world thrown off track by COVID-19, it’s also reality.

With the NCAA extending the Division I ban on in-person recruiting through April 15, even while keeping in place the fall signing period and December early signing period for football, it’s one the COVID-19 era’s many oddities.

But it’s also the world in which so many college sports programs currently live.

“It’s (something) I’m struggling with a little bit,” Cajuns football coach Billy Napier said, “because we are gonna get to December, and there’s a number of players that have committed to us … that maybe have never been on our campus, or we’ve never met.”

Since March, Zoom calls have been Napier’s only vehicle for talking with local media.

“It’s one thing for you and I to talk on these screens,” he said. “It’s another thing to sit down in the office and really get to know the family and understand what they’re about.”

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'We signed five guys off of Zoom calls

UL basketball coach Bob Marlin is in a similar situation.

Last week, UL announced its signing of Ty Harper – a California combo guard ranked by ESPN.com as the nation’s No. 100 recruit – for 2021.

“It’s a national rule; no one’s visited since March,” Marlin said. “So we did a Zoom with Ty back in August and just stayed the course.”

The case was the same for UL’s offseason signees from non-high school programs, all with the team now.

“We signed five guys off of Zoom calls without ever coming to campus,” Marlin said.

But the Cajuns coach said it was a “shot in the arm” when his team returned to campus over the summer joined by newcomers including former Mississippi State guard Devin Butts, ex-University of Portland big man Theo Akwuba, ex-Cal forward Jacobi Gordon, Texas juco transfer guard Brayan Au and New England prep school product big man Isaiah Richards.

“We pride ourselves on our relationships with our players,” Marlin said.

“That’s one thing that’s been a strength of mine in my coaching career, and not being able to be around the guys was difficult.”

Related:Ragin' Cajuns basketball team not immune from COVID-19 issues

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Some recruits are more fortunate than others

Cajuns football commit Cejae Ceasar is a safety from Iowa High, about 60 miles west across Interstate 10 from Lafayette.

“I was fortunate enough to go down on an unofficial visit,” said Ceasar, who attended a UL prospects camp before the shutdown. “I got to see the campus already, got to meet the coaches already.”

Not all Cajun recruits were so lucky.

UL’s baseball and nationally ranked softball programs added a dozen signees each this month, at least some of whom never visited.

Mackey Maillho, an offensive lineman from Mandeville High near New Orleans, briefly met a staffers when a mass of invited recruits watched a UL game his junior season.

“(The coaches) were just making the rounds and saying hello,” said André Maillho.

But Mackey couldn’t make an official visit after his offer came during crawfish season.

Two UL football commits, quarterback Hunter Herring (left) and offensive lineman Mackey Maillho (right), bumped into each during the Ragin' Cajuns' Sept. 26 win over Georgia Southern at Cajun Field.

“We’re fortunate enough we had a school like UL that was very interested in Mackey earlier this year, and close enough for us to know about the school, about the coaching staff … so we have a little bit of an advantage in that regard, as opposed to a school like New Mexico State or South Alabama, where we had very little contact with them and no opportunity to really build a relationship,” André Maillho said.

“I feel for the students who haven’t been able to … meet coaches for the first time and sort of start to establish their relationships, both at our campus and taking visits to the others. So we’re fortunate we made our decision. But I told the coaches at UL … we wanted to host them in our home.”

UL football recruiting:Class of 2021 Cajun commit bios

Unique things in a unique year

Although official visits weren’t permitted after the shutdown, Napier – who currently has 13 commits – said the nationally ranked Cajuns could take advantage of “a preview day for the university” open to all prospective students.

In late September, Maillho and his parents drove to Lafayette, visited UL’s business school, then had to buy their own general admission tickets to watch the Cajuns beat Georgia Southern on Nate Snyder’s 53-yard field goal as time expired.

Maillho coincidentally bumped into another UL commit there – Hunter Herring, a quarterback from Ouachita Christian School in Monroe.

“That was kind of fun,” André Maillho said, “and it wasn’t coordinated.”

So Maillho, oddly, was permitted to meet business school representatives – but couldn’t, by NCAA rule, officially meet the coaches for whom he plans to play.

“The limits are on arrangements of those things, and then the actual athletic facilities and the interaction with the athletic staff,” Napier said, speaking generally.

“It is one of the unique things about this year’s recruitment.”

What we learned:No. 25 Louisiana 38, South Alabama 10

Things are getting worse

 At times, Napier wished the NCAA would have pushed the Dec. 16-18 signing period – something coaches lobbied hard to get – back to its traditional early February opening.

“I’ve certainly had those thoughts. … Because we really have had minimal exposure to a lot of these kids,” he said.

Napier said it’s an issue “not only for them, to be able to evaluate their options, but also for us to be able to evaluate the pool of players that are available, and have an opportunity to meet them face-to-face, to spend time with their families.”

Now, things are getting worse.

UL’s football game last Saturday against Central Arkansas was canceled due to a COVID-19 uptick.

Wednesday’s UL basketball season-opener was canceled because of virus problems at Xavier-Louisiana. The women’s basketball team lost its first two games because of internal COVID.

In early October, Maillho’s father expressed frustration that Louisiana high school and college football teams are permitted to play but that – because of the NCAA having what he called “the final say-so” in recruiting rules – “we can’t meet the coaches.”

“I understand you don’t want a hundred kids on campus on a game weekend with their parents. I understand that’s not feasible right now,” André  Maillho said. “But let the coaches go watch football games, and let the families host coaches in their homes, where the risk is minimal, as long as everybody follows the (safety) recommendations."

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