Unofficial visits can matter more at LSU

It's a famous motif in the world of college football.

Two top-ranked teams are battling it out on a fall Saturday, 90,000 rabid fans have packed into one of the sport's monstrous cathedrals. And in the middle of it all, a dozen or so coveted recruits are taking it all in -- the electricity in the air and the product on the field will help them determine their college decision. It plays out all over the country, and it's as synonymous with the sport as live mascots and option pitches.

Except, not really. Not anymore. Not in Baton Rouge at least.

LSU is in the midst of fall camp, and the season still sits two weeks away. But while the current team has yet to take a live snap, the next batch of signees is already almost complete. The Tigers' 2013 class is currently sitting pretty with 22 of a possible 25 commitments already on board. They've been coming in bits and pieces since January's junior day, or during spring practice. Some of them made their decisions this summer during recruiting camps -- a few made the call as far back as last summer, before their junior seasons.

Whatever the time table, there's one common denominator: LSU has landed 22 verbal commitments without the aid of an official visit to a home football game. The explanation, like so many others in the digital age, is the increased speed of communication.

"With social media and technology and YouTube and the different videos, kids are able to show off their highlights and game tapes. The accessibility is more available and frequent than ever before," said Frank Wilson, the Tigers' running backs coach and recruiting coordinator.

Whereas it used to be a matter of necessity to wait until a recruit's senior year to evaluate him, Wilson said that's no longer the case. Technological advances have allowed teams to get a jump on the process.

"It speeds up the process from the days where you have to wait for the high school coach to put together the tape. You get to view and evaluate them a lot earlier," Wilson said.

And what about the recruits? These days, the Tigers' top targets have received offers as early as the spring of their junior year -- if not the summer before their junior season. That gives recruits plenty of time to check out their schools of interest, which is exactly what many of them do.

LSU sophomore guard and former bluechip recruit La'El Collins committed to LSU in the fall of his junior season, giving him more than a year to visit campus and acquaint himself with the program. Collins, a Baton Rouge native, said the dozens of unofficial trips he made helped him feel like part of the family. By the time he made his official visit in the fall of his senior year, the decision was ancient history.

"Pretty much any time we had something going on for [our class], I was there," he said. "To us, it brought us together -- it brought us closer together ... With us coming in already knowing each other from going to camp and seeing each other around, it brought the best out of us because we were comfortable."

But these visits don't just help confirmed commitments. Senior defensive tackle Bennie Logan waited until a week before national signing day to pledge with the Tigers. Logan said his official visit to campus in January helped him decide over the likes of Michigan and Nebraska, but that doesn't mean he was idle in the months leading up to the decision.

"I came down to Baton Rouge pretty often -- pretty much for every home game," he said. "Unofficial visits allow you to see the game and the inside of the practice facility. On an official visit ... they really just kind of break down college for you in a more timely fashion."

Of course, there will always be a place in the process for official visits. Programs aren't allowed to spend any money on recruits during an unofficial visit, which can sometimes put a strain on geographically distant prospects. The financial burden of travel and lodging prevents some recruits from visiting until they take an official visit, when the school can pay for it. Junior defensive end Sam Montgomery, a coveted prospect from Greenwood, S.C., decided on LSU after just one trip to Baton Rouge -- an official visit.

"It's really better on an official because you get to hang out with the players and do a lot of things -- you get to experience, semi, what it's like to be on the team," Montgomery said. "My biggest impression was just the leadership on this team ... The way they bonded together really drew me to this place."

But that might become the exception more than the rule. Not surprisingly, Montgomery said he made plenty of unofficial trips to his homestate powers -- Clemson and South Carolina -- during his recruiting process.

Of the top 10 classes in ESPN's recruiting class rankings, only No. 7 Texas has fewer than 16 commits to this point. LSU boasts 22, while fellow powerhouses Michigan and Georgia have 23 and 26, respectively. It's a testament to the importance of the unofficial visit -- a trend that looks likely to continue.

"The opportunity to get them on campus and host the prospects on campus and show what you have to offer -- there's a sense of urgency," Wilson said. "It's getting more and more aggressive."