HELENA — Carroll College incoming freshman Ryan Daggett always wanted to play college football.
From the time he was a young boy, he used to sit on the couch with his dad and watch the USC Trojans run out of the tunnel at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
But he knew achieving his goal wasn’t going to be easy.
Hard work and dedication might be cliche, but it shows the struggle of the young quarterback from the California Central Valley.
Daggett played high school football in Ripon, California, a small city of 14,000 people that sits about one hour south of Sacramento. During his senior season, he was selected as a team captain and chosen as an all-region quarterback and the Trans-Valley League Offensive Player of the Year.
But just one year prior, his goal of playing college looked pretty dismal.
“I wasn’t really getting looked at by anyone,” Daggett said. “I was smaller and didn’t have much experience. I decided I needed to start training, working out and putting in a lot of extra work.”
Junior year is crucial to any high school student. For most, the combination of taking SATs, ACTs and filling out college applications takes up a lot of time. But for those who want to pursue college football, add onto that the notion that programs are looking to recruit players.
But for those who want to play for Carroll College, at least some of that pressure is relieved, as the deadline for signing players is less strict as NCAA universities.
According to the NCAA recruiting bylaws, NCAA Division I and Division II schools can accept letters of intent only during certain signing periods, such as National Signing Day that happened Feb. 6.
NAIA universities, such as Carroll, do not enforce letters of intent and do not have specific contact rules like the NCAA. Although NAIA coaches are allowed to reach out to students earlier, most schools wait to contact their recruits during their junior and senior seasons.
Other ethical guides include not contacting players who are at other schools unless they have their release, contacting players who have already committed to schools and recruiting non-enrolled students.
Carroll College football coach Troy Purcell was just hired last December after some time as an assistant coach with the University of Idaho. Purcell was involved with recruiting under NCAA FCS rules while with the Vandals, but there is not much of a change despite the rules being less strict.
“Overall, it really takes relationships and effort no matter what school you are at,” Purcell said. "As long as you have good relationships with the other high school and junior college coaches out there, then you should have a pretty good class.”
To get a leg up on recruiting in his first season, one of the first moves Purcell made after he was hired was retaining Alex Pfannenstiel as the program’s recruiting coordinator.
Pfannenstiel has coordinated recruiting since he arrived in 2016 and describes the recruiting process as the lifeblood of the program.
“The most important part of our football program is our players,” Pfannenstiel said.
Having worn the Saints uniform when he attended Carroll and having been a part of the coaching staff under Hall of Fame coach Mike Van Diest, Pfannenstiel said it’s important to handle each recruit on a personal level.
“If I am going to Billings, they have heard of Carroll College, but if I am going to Seattle they may have not,” Pfannenstiel said.
The recruiting cycle starts in the spring, when coaches look at what players are available. It is too late for the upcoming season since fall camp starts in August, so the entire staff looks ahead to the next season.
“Every coach goes out recruiting, whether it is traveling like the full-time coaches or just making a phone call to a player,” Purcell said.
Coaches are divided up into different areas of the country that the program feels like it has strong recruiting ties.
Purcell’s strategy is to recruit as local at the high schools near Carroll and in Montana, and then as reach out to other areas such as California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming.
He said although he wishes he could recruit in more areas like when he was in Idaho, but because of being a small school, Carroll just doesn’t have the budget or the manpower to cover more areas.
But smaller colleges, such as Carroll, can get help from newly designed programs to aid them in the recruiting process.
In 2008, JumpForward, a Chicago-based company, developed a smartphone app for coaches and players to aid in the recruiting process.
“If I wanted to find (a specific player for example), I could see what high school he is at and it would automatically link to my GPS to take me there,” Purcell said. “From there, I’d go meet with the coach and that coach’s contact information would be right there in the app.”
The app also logs dates when coaches schedule visits, documents phone calls from coaches to players and links it back to computers at Carroll to stay organized.
By 2013, the app was downloaded by 100,000 users and today has increased by 50 percent, with more than 190 college athletic departments using its products.
Even with less strict recruiting guidelines, programs like JumpForward make sure colleges follow certain protocol.
“You have to understand when you can have the opportunity to talk to players, text players and call players,” Purcell said. “This app tells me exactly when I can do that. It makes it helpful.”
Another piece of technology coaches and players use is the platform of social media.
Twitter is a common place where student-athletes can post that they are signing, which makes it a good place for coaches to see what other schools are interested.
“You can get a pretty good understanding on who is committing to who and from the player himself,” Purcell said. “Usually they are pretty proud of it once they got an offer and the opportunities they have, but we will never bad mouth another school.”
Helena High senior Zachary Spiroff had multiple offers to play college football but decided to stay in his hometown and sign with Carroll.
He used Twitter as a platform to announce he is signing, but said he didn’t want to post any of his offers for fear of speculation.
Much like Daggett, Spiroff started the recruiting process his junior season and, soon after, the offers came flowing in.
“I talked to pretty much every school in the Montana area and also some in North Dakota, South Dakota and a few in Idaho,” Spiroff said. “I went on a couple different visits such as the University of Montana Western, Montana Tech and Carroll.”
Spiroff has never held a part-time job during high school, so he didn’t really know what to expect when it came to an interview process, but he was comfortable talking about football. After all, he did finish last season as a first-team all-state punt returner.
“My (two-day) visit started off going in and talking to all the different coaches,” Spiroff said. “They walk you through some stuff and then you work out for them.”
After a campus tour and some dinner, the recruits are paired up with older host players at the college where they can bond, get to know one another and talk about if the program is a good fit.
“We talked about everything from football to campus life,” Spiroff said. “It’s super important to see if it’s a right match, since you will be with them for four (or more) years. These guys just want the best for you and make sure you make the right decision for yourself.”
But what if a player knows it’s the wrong place for him?
On one visit to Montana Tech, Spiroff received a phone call from a competing coach who was unaware that Spiroff was on another official visit.
“It was the first time I talked to coach Purcell, asking if he could do a home visit at my house,” Spiroff said. “Both Carroll and Tech offered me scholarships less than a day apart. The funny part was the Montana Tech guys I was with knew it was another coach because I quickly left the room.”
Spiroff said he went back-and-forth comparing the pros and cons between the two offers, but after a sit-down with family and his high school coach, he knew Carroll was the right choice.
With players having to make tough choices, the decision to pass on another opportunity ultimately comes down to their comfort level.
“I always thought about Carroll because I have lived here (in Helena) my whole life and been around the program,” Spiroff said. “Obviously, they have a great tradition, and everything they do there is top notch. Going into the recruiting process, I wanted to find the right fit and somewhere that felt like home.”
Not only is it hard for players to make decisions, but it is hard for coaches to receive bad news that a recruit has chosen to sign somewhere else.
“When an NAIA kid decides to go to another NAIA school, it’s hard,” Purcell said. “We don’t pressure any recruits, so we tell them if Carroll isn’t the right fit for them then it’s not the right fit for us.”
Other factors include when NAIA recruits choose bigger opportunities. Carroll can give out 24 full scholarships a year that can be divided up any way the school chooses, but that doesn’t compare to NCAA schools.
Programs such as Montana or Montana State, who play in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, get 63 full scholarships to divide, while NCAA Division II schools such as Colorado School of Mines and Colorado State-Pueblo have 36 scholarships to split.
While most of Carroll’s football team is on some sort of scholarship, whether athletic or academic, the coaching staff still has to figure out the giant puzzle involving the 100-plus players on the roster.
“It’s a business,” Purcell said. “We can only do so much to put our best effort forward to sell the college. We invest in these players to have a great product at the end.”
Spiroff and Daggett are just two of the 24 players signed by Carroll this winter, and after they graduate high school, they will go to work.
Sure, it’s another four years of school, but their days might feel like having a full-time job.
“It’s a grind,” Purcell said. “It’s a job for them to get up at 5:55 in the morning for a workout on a cold day when it’s 10 below and the wind is blowing in their faces. Some people think an athlete’s life is roses and rainbows, but when you figure out what they get paid with their scholarship, it’ll probably surprise people.“