Jun. 26—Inside a dimly lit, windowless office in the Larimer Athletic Complex, the hardest working man in the Mid-American Conference gets to work early, stays late, and consumes several cups of coffee throughout the day.
His name is Ricky Ciccone, and he’s spearheaded a recruiting juggernaut.
“Obviously, he’s very good at what he does,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “He’s a star in our profession, and rising quickly.”
Ciccone, a 37-year-old Coshocton native, is UT’s recruiting czar and director of player personnel. In his five seasons at Toledo, the Rockets have signed the top-ranked class in the MAC five times, including the conference’s three highest-rated classes in history.
“If they’re keeping score, I want to be first,” Ciccone said.
Toledo’s success is in part because of Ciccone’s punctiliousness, an unearthly ability to identify players early in the process that fit the Rockets. Candle and the program’s assistants have trust in Ciccone to present recruits who can be developed into All-MAC-caliber players and beyond. It’s the coaches’ job, along with the facilities, winning tradition, and university, to seal the deal.
“We have a lot to sell from a university standpoint, from a city standpoint, and our location,” Ciccone said. “We’re four hours away from seven [major] cities. You couple prime location, academic success, great program history, and being in a city without a professional sports team where Toledo football is important, and that has a great impact.”
The proof isn’t simply in the recruiting rankings, it trickles down to NFL rosters. Toledo had 14 players in the league in 2020, including high-impact guys like Browns running back Kareen Hunt, Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson, Bills tight end Reggie Gilliam, Packers cornerback Ka’dar Hollman, and Titans punter Brett Kern.
Alabama and Ohio State attract the best players because they win national championships. But a significant factor is their capacity for producing NFL players.
Toledo can similarly point to its bevy of NFL talent, an ace that other MAC schools don’t have.
“It’s a really good selling point,” Ciccone said. “It goes to show the level of development that you get when you’re a Toledo Rocket. The NFL doesn’t care if you play at Toledo, Ohio State, or Alabama. If you’re good enough, they’ll find you. We have a track record of guys who are smart, tough, dependable, and ultra-competitive. The NFL scouts that come here know what they’re getting.”
The NCAA began allowing on-campus visits on June 1 after nixing travel in March of 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The influx of activity this month has created a surge of unprecedented visits and evaluations. Father’s Day was Ciccone’s first day off all month.
But these are the moments why Candle brought his former Mount Union teammate to Toledo. The Rockets want to get potential recruits into camps entering their junior season, and then latch on to the ones who fit their system.
“There are a couple qualities that position requires,” Candle said of leading a program’s recruiting efforts. “You need a really strong work ethic. It’s a 365-day-a-year job where something new happens each and every day that you have to be out in front of. And you have to be a relationship person. He knows all the high school coaches throughout the state, the surrounding states, and the footprint of where we want to recruit. He’s a loyal guy who’s honored the opportunity to come to the University of Toledo.”
And Ciccone does it with a barebones staff. He’s technically the only full-time recruiting staff member. A graduate assistant position with a focus on recruiting was a coronavirus casualty, though Candle is hopeful that it will return.
Working in lockstep with Ciccone is recruiting assistant Price Burton, a quality control position, and two student interns. Video coordinator Eric Walters and Steve Mathie, a video GA, churn out graphics and highlight tapes that have become a necessity in recruiting.
“Toledo has a really good off-field recruiting department,” said Allen Trieu, a recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “They do a good job of mining for talent that is under the radar. But I also think they do a good job of staying on top of guys who may seem out of reach for them. A good example would be someone like [wide receiver] DeMeer Blankumsee, who had some Power Five offers, but they stuck with him and got him. At the same time, they’ll go find a Lennard Kuhl, who was not a household name but I think will be a great player for them.”
Gilliam was a walk-on at Toledo and appeared in all 19 games for the Bills in 2020, catching a touchdown pass and forcing a fumble on special teams. Perhaps the biggest example of searching far and wide for talent and executing was the identification of wide receiver Cody Thompson, who was the 137th-ranked player in Ohio as a senior.
Thompson, a Huron native, was a small-school quarterback but attended a UT camp as a wide receiver. He proceeded to burn several defensive backs that the Rockets had offered.
“We had to decide whether those guys weren’t good enough or if he was that good,” Candle said. “It takes a position coach to stand on the table and say, hey, that’s the guy we want, and the head coach has to buy in.”
Ohio has been the center of Ciccone’s universe throughout his life. He was born and raised in the state, attended college in the state, and all seven of his coaching positions have been in the state, making him an expert on Toledo’s recruiting territory. The Rockets start in Ohio, branch out in the Midwest, and dip into the South.
The scouting process at Toledo can be more difficult than a top-10 program that recruits off of a list of four- and five-stars or an elite academic institution that only seeks 4.0 students. That’s not to say those programs don’t have an intensive process. The situation at UT just features more challenges and questions.
Sometimes they might project a kid’s position once he’s in Toledo’s strength and conditioning program or how he might grow over his final two years of high school. There’s a higher focus on future development and upside. But don’t mistake that for the Rockets not wanting the best players.
Jimmys and Joes still win football games.
“At our level, it’s a very delicate process as you identify and find out who fits you,” Candle said. “The measurables don’t come into play here as much as Ohio State, Michigan, or Notre Dame. You have to learn to trust your eye and your evaluations and do a great job of communicating with position coaches.
“And I think that’s something Ricky does a great job with.”