At the many club tournaments and recruiting combines which I attend and speak at each year, I always get questions about when certain playing positions are recruited. This question tends to come from a Libero family, as they have seen other players get recruited and make commitments, while waiting for the same recruiting attention themselves.
In general, and please understand that each year a college team may not recruit each position, college volleyball programs will recruit the positions in this order - Outside Hitter, Middle Blocker, Right Side/Opposite Hitter, Setter and Libero/Defensive Specialist.
The Outside Hitter, an attacker that can serve receive, play defense and attack from the left or right side antenna is the most important position on the court. It is no coincidence that Stanford won 3 of the last 4 NCAA DI Women's Volleyball Championships and their primary Outside Hitter was considered the best in the country in her position for all of those years. Beyond DI Women's Volleyball, it is rare for any team at any level to achieve great seasons without having an elite level Outside Hitter on their roster.
From my college coaching experience, my best seasons were when we had a good outside hitter and my least succesful seasons coincided when we did not have a good primary Outside Hitter available.
Because a talented Outside Hitter is so critical to the success of a program and literally means job security and advancement, this position will always be recruited first.
The Middle Blocker used to be more important back in the day of sideout scoring and monochromatic volleyballs, but the nature of rally scoring has diminished their importance just a bit. They a remain key to program success and college coaches will be keen to secure a tall, talented Middle Blocker to anchor their team's blocking ability.
The Right Side/Opposite position takes home the Bronze Medal, but it was a down to the wire finish with the Setter position. The RS/OP traditionally has been the home of the left handed outside hitter and/or the fall back position for those Middle Blockers who were not quiet elite in their position or the taller Outside Hitter who struggled with passing/defense. With the increased importance of the Outside Hitter (who predominantly attacks at the left antenna), the need for the defense to have a tall, effective blocker at their own right side antenna also increased in importance. Also, an effective RS/OP attack will relieve pressure on the Outside Hitters and Middle Blockers.
Setters, and this is difficult for me to say having played the position at a high level, have diminished in importance in college volleyball rally scoring. Teams can be successful with an average setter, if they have very good Outsides and Middles, but rarely does a team reach elite success with a very good Setter, when they only have average attackers. College coaches understand this scenario, and they also understand there are many good setters which they can recruit after the OH's and MB's.
Liberos are Last. With the hundreds of Recruiting Education Talks that I provide, I have to express this rough saying to many families. A talented Libero is important to the success of a team, as they are in theory the best passer on the team and serve receive is the critical touch in any rally. The reason Liberos are last is simply Supply versus Demand. There are many, many good Liberos in club volleyball and a few great Liberos, but college coaches do not recruit this position every year.
With the Libero being the catch all position for the shorter player with good ball control (shorter/less powerful OH's, short Setters or players who just have always played backrow because they have always been not tall), there is an abundance of talent within this very specific position. College coaches know that they can focus their recruiting on the other positions initially because they can always find a good Libero later in the process, just because of the sheer numbers recruits vying for backrow positions in college volleyball.
Each playing position per graduation year will have a different recruitment timing. Talented Outside Hitters may need to be focused earlier than anticipated; Middles, Right Side/Opposites and Setters have a bit more time. Liberos will have to be the most patient to succeed in college volleyball recruiting.