The 2014 class has been a curious one to watch, taking on characteristics we haven't seen from a Mack Brown Texas recruiting class in well over a decade. The conventional wisdom is that we were beaten to the punch on super early - borderline neo-natal - recruiting (not to be confused with regular 'ol early recruiting, a space Mack Brown essentially defined, pioneered, and innovated in the 1990s) and that we struggled to catch up. The groundwork simply wasn't established, and this is the punishment for late adoption.
I don't doubt that analysis, and largely agree with it, but it's a contingent point that may ignore the larger truth; specifically, the larger backdrop of Texas decline. Both real and perceived. The late erosion of the 2013 class speaks to the truth of this.
If Texas had been 10-3 or 11-2 over the last three seasons, the landscape would still largely respond to our timelines even if A&M, LSU, Alabama and OU were offering 8th graders. A healthy Texas begins most races from a set of blocks ten meters in front of the field. And making up ground usually meant soothing the recruit's ego over our early hard-to-get act. But take a three year profile featuring an 11-15 record in Big 12 play, absurd humiliations at the hands of OU, another year of the SEC cementing its perception as the only league that matters, and throw in an emergent, charismatic A&M program rising in the East ("charismatic" and "Aggie", usually paired about as often as human resources employee and "sharp, go-getter") and the punishment for late adoption is swift and savage.
A strong Texas dictates markets. A weak Texas is subject to them. And the optimistic early returns for neo-natal 2015 recruiting, though encouraging, will fall apart if on-field results don't marry to the "Texas is back" narrative.
But I want to stick with 2014...because I think there are some interesting learning points, positives, and regrettable discontinuities in our current approach. It defines our transition from old to new.
Texas has 16 commits in a class that will likely go to 22-25. If you're a stargazer, 11 of the Texas commits are 3 stars, 5 are 4 stars, according to Rivals (not that substantially different elsewhere). While our aggregate ranking is 4th in the country, on a per player basis, Texas is ranked 25th. In other words, our perceived quality significantly lags a typical Texas haul, much less our desired peer group. With about 70% of the hay already in the barn. Either Texas finishes with a considerable bang, or we're looking at one of the lowest quality recruiting classes - as least as defined by recruitniks and current perception - since Brown's inaugural class, when he was trying to get warm bodies as much as land studs.
For further context, Mark Stoops at Kentucky, who also has 16 commits, has a higher per athlete star average than Texas (3.33 to 3.31). Commonwealth Stadium is a wonderful old school venue and Lexington is a pleasant enough place, but we're talking about a basketball school, the dregs of the SEC, fresh off of a 2-10 record (0-8 in the SEC). That's a cold slap of reality.
As well as a reminder how receptive recruits are to vitality, a hopeful story-to-tell, and an authentic sense of excitement.
Other schools ranked above Texas with 8+ commitments (my arbitrary cut off line for mid-June meaningfulness; 1/3rd of a full class) include Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Auburn, Clemson, and Miami. Auburn and Tennessee are puzzling recruiting leaders given their recent shakiness, but they're at least real programs. But, good God - Miami? The Miami about to go on probation averaging 30K attendance at home games? And Vanderbilt?
Hopeful fans and coaches like to sell three star recruits as perfect system fits or high ceiling athletes. The famous three stars of years past are well known to all Longhorn fans, ranging from Colt McCoy, to the beloved Acho brothers, to Brian Orakpo.
More often, they're also the guys you took because your rivals stole your milk money. Or you did a terrible job of evaluation. Or your decaying program is giving off the musty smell of Gran's Vix Vapo-Rub scented housecoat. Or it's the best you can do with current resources.
How do we define this 2014 class?
- Several of the guys we have committed are demonstrably high ceiling prospects, at least from my viewing of junior highlight film on HUDL. Few obvious Big-System high school program already maxed-out types. I'll take raw, lean, hyper, and athletic every time. I haven't yet been able to identify the LB who is guaranteed to switch to FB and never see the field, the tweener WR/TE destined to eat orange slices for four years, or the DT with an eating disorder, Texas archetypes I can usually spot every year with uncanny accuracy. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough.
- Our staff is aggressively doing its own evals. And legitimately putting in the work. I like that we're not operating with a blind adherence to reputation and recruiting rankings. They're guidelines, not road maps. I think these are heartfelt evals. That doesn't mean they're good. But I don't think they are lazy.
- For the most part, I can see a fairly clear vision in how and why this guy fits what we're doing. Even if that vision is not ultimately fulfilled, that's vastly preferable to me than the random talent acquisition model in years past (I'm looking at you TE, LB, WR, OL was a travesty, RB) where we just randomly threw darts at guys with four stars (or did our dart landing cause the four star ranking?) and declared the class talented. Bill Snyder runs a yearly seminar on the importance of matching the player to the job. I think we're recruiting with that in mind.
- I like the current headliners quite a bit - Roberson, Heard, Alaka. And Catalon seems to fit our slashing inside zone/draw direction nicely.
- There are a handful of puzzling takes. If you're going to take class filler, wait until late January when we've exhausted all other options. Are we're still trying to create scholarship scarcity with marginal takes to force the decision of the coveted recruits (a Brown tactic since arriving here)? If so, that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the current power dynamics. It's not 2005.
- The state of Texas is loaded with exceptional 2014 DB prospects. Given our history and the seniority of our current starters, this should be an easy pitch. We have one commit from a reasonably promising prospect in Louisiana. That's a problem.
- The state of Texas is loaded with exceptional DE prospects. We only have one of them.
- We have four WR commitments. None of them are considered the top guy in their respective position, though I have far more confidence in Darryl Wyatt than prior decision makers. 3 of the 4 are big body receivers, where we've done nothing but strike out since Limas Sweed. Those takes also presage the future for a few current big body WRs on campus, as well as suggest the likelihood of our landing a 2014 consensus elite. We may well be done here.
- We can afford to go light on OL given 2013 and the prospects for 2015, but I never like taking fewer than 3. If it's weak in-state, why aren't we beating down more OOS bushes?
- I'd classify nearly half of the current class as guys I'd be happy to wait on or we could circle back in on later if better options were exhausted. And if we lost them altogether, I think we could find replacement level options. Maybe our staff believes several of the big potential fish aren't taking bait and we've moved on. However, if we believe that we do have a chance with several of them, we're being tactically foolish. What if Phil Steele and the Football Outsiders are right and Texas pulls off a 12-1 or 11-2 type of season? Don't we want some breathing room for late coups?
- Volume recruiting. Throwing 18 three stars and 7 four stars a year at talent acquisition does work if you have a system built for it. Specifically, the ability to quickly and efficiently turn over your roster with medicals and forced transfers when those projects don't pan. And you need a good developmental system - both Xs and Os, individual skill coaching, and S&C. See Oklahoma State. I'm not convinced we can check all of those boxes, for a variety of reasons. Broadly speaking, Texas has to land high numbers of high quality recruits. We've simply not demonstrated the potential (or culture) for program churn or consistent enough internal development at a few key position groups.
Could it all be different now? Sure. But there's no precedent.
While I think some of the things we're doing in the 2014 class are desirable, if not laudable, from a player-role fit perspective and in terms of matching college football's direction, I don't think it's married to a complete understanding of how those parts interact with 2014 state of Texas class strengths/weaknesses or acknowledge the realities of new power relationships, program perception, or allowing the potential for fully exploiting the possibility for a strong on-field 2013. In short, this is a transitional class, demonstrating a head coach still struggling to adapt to a new landscape and new ways of thinking about talent acquisition and development. A landscape that he used to almost singlehandedly define.
I welcome your thoughts.