Shortly after everything was finalized on National Signing Day in February, Idaho State head football coach Rob Phenicie surprised his inside wide receivers coach, Aaron Prier, with a promotion.
“We were at our signing day party where we have the boosters and we pretty much present all the guys that we got signed on signing day,” Prier said. “He was introducing all the coaches, and then we he got to me, he was like, ‘Yeah, he doesn’t even know it yet, but he’s going to be our (recruiting) coordinator here. I was like, ‘Oh, alright. Cool.’”
Prier’s first assignment after taking over?
Find a way to keep ISU’s recruiting on track in the unprecedented atmosphere of the coronavirus crisis, which struck just weeks after his promotion, throwing things into limbo and cutting off all face-to-face communication.
“(Prier) has hit the ground running, he’s highly organized and has done a great job getting everything set to go,” Phenicie said. “That is probably one of the biggest changes that we’ve made and it’s been for the better, because Aaron’s been doing a fabulous job really going after things and getting things organized and all that stuff, so we’re very fortunate that he accepted the job with open arms.”
A former running back and wide receiver at ISU, Prier, like every coach on the staff, has been involved in recruiting since he was hired. Recently, he started to expand his efforts in that area above and beyond what assistants are typically asked to do.
“When I really started working on things was the end of last year, beginning of this year,” Prier said. “To be honest, a couple of the coaches on staff had already been in my ear about it, just with my personality and how I am. ... We didn’t even have a recruiting coordinator at the time, so (they were saying) just start doing the recruiting coordinator stuff and see what happens.”
With the coronavirus pandemic forcing everybody to work from home, Prier’s first priority was to keep everybody on the same page.
Recruiting is a communication-intensive activity, with evaluations and opinions bouncing back and forth between coaches.
The Bengals dedicate at least one of their multiple Zoom meetings every week to recruiting, but a lot of the interaction between coaches now takes place on Front Rush, an app that aggregates tape and allows ISU’s staff to see all the players they’re targeting in one place.
Idaho State subscribed to Front Rush — along with a few other, similar apps — before Prier’s promotion, but one of the new recruiting coordinator’s biggest initiatives has been to push their use as ISU’s main recruiting tools.
“I started using those things more, so we have a more clear and concise evaluation pipeline, just to make it easier for the guys,” Prier said. “I was able to upload lists from this other system that we have, so it’s all the guys that we could possibly be recruiting are in the system already. It has their Hudl, has their Twitter, everything in there.”
Prier’s second task was figuring out how to overcome the lack of personal communication with recruits. The coronavirus made it impossible for recruits and coaches to meet face-to-face, and shortly after it hit, the NCAA instituted a recruiting dead period, further limiting the staff’s options.
ISU was scheduled to bring a group of potential 2021 recruits to campus for junior day in April to coincide with the Bengals’ annual spring game. It’s a chance for high schoolers to see the campus, meet the coaches, and get a sense of the culture around the program.
With that out of the question, Prier and his “think tank” — what he calls the group comprised of cornerbacks coach JB Hall and graduate assistants Hagen Graves and Kody Hensley, who help him with ideas for recruiting — had to brainstorm another way to interact with those recruits.
They settled on a virtual junior day, posting video tours of campus and live video chats with the coaches on ISU football’s social media accounts.
“We called one of our guys and said, hey, we want to get some drone shots,” Prier said. “He found a guy with a drone, coach Hensley figured out how to fly it, so we got footage of the weight room with the drone, all over town with it. Coach Hall had a camera, so we were recording stuff around campus, got to record the coaches. ... A lot of kids were following along, contacting us like, ‘Can I get an invite? I want to get an invite.’ It ended up being a bigger deal than we thought, so that was pretty cool.
“That was one of the things we had to be quick on our feet with and adjust to the coronavirus, not being able to do that in person, but it turned out pretty well.”
Recruits seemed to enjoy the novelty, or at least understand that ISU’s coaches were doing the best they could.
“I thought it was interesting,” said Highland defensive end Logan George, who has a 2021 offer from the Bengals. “It was the very first virtual junior day I had ever been to, (and) they had their own spin on things and had great energy. Overall I thought it was a good experience.”
With only 14 seniors listed on the 2020 roster, ISU’s 2021 recruiting has started slowly for what’s expected to be a small class. The Bengals have offers out to George and his Highland teammate Mason Mickelsen — Prier is staying true to Phenicie’s mandate of winning with local talent — as well as a few others.
More challenges will certainly be coming down the pipe — no one knows, for instance, if there will be a high school football season, which would make it difficult to evaluate talent in the fall.
Prier is confident, though. Starting with his unorthodox promotion, his whole life for the past few months has been one big game of adjusting to changing circumstances.
“Once the coronavirus hit, things changed, so I had to be quick on my feet,” Prier said. “... I was once recruited by this school, and to be able to change roles and help change some of these kids’ lives and bring them here, it’s actually really personal for me. I’m just grateful for the opportunity and always trying to find ways to help out and contribute more.”