Last week, the transfer of Texas Longhorns freshman linebacker Cecil Cherry sparked a national discussion on the national recruiting efforts of head coach Charlie Strong and his staff.
The question at the center of it is whether there's danger in recruiting out-of-state prospects and the implications of having a non-Texas team, causing a discussion that has Texas fans all up in the mentions of ESPN's Jake Trotter:
No prob w/ UT going after players outside state. But anyone who thinks Charlie will restore UT w/o TX recruits being backbone is dead wrong— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) August 12, 2015
Signing 9-10 out-of-state recruits a year is not a winning formula at Texas. That is all I’m trying to say.— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) August 12, 2015
So let's have a talk about what Trotter is missing here, which may in part just be a reflection of Twitter's limitations in having a truly in-depth conversation about a complex subject.
Texas has to recruit well to win
There are several levels to winning -- there's competing for conference championships, there's winning conference championships, and then there's winning national championships. A great coach like Bill Snyder can compete for and sometimes win conference championships with a roster full of overlooked recruits, junior college talent, and walk ons, but the Wildcats aren't likely to compete for a national championship in the current format without elite talent.
For Texas to win national championships, Strong must recruit a string of classes that rank among the top 10 or 15 groups nationally. Period. Recent history states that unequivocally.
The standard isn't as high to compete for a conference championship -- witness the success of TCU and Baylor in the last two years. But neither of those schools made the College Football Playoffs and the Bears lost in BCS games the last two years, so it's not even entirely clear that those programs can recruit well enough to reach the next level.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter where those players are coming from, Strong just has to find them, get them on campus, and develop them. So to say that taking out-of-state recruits isn't a winning formula misses the overall point about the need for talent -- recruiting well is the winning formula.
Texas has a perception problem with in-state recruiting
The times, they are a-changing in the Lone Star State. In the days when former head coach Mack Brown would clean up at Junior Days and leave the rest of the state to pick up whatever top-level prospects remained, getting an offer from Texas meant something. Often a commitment on the spot and dreams of a national championship.
After years of struggles and the rise of other in-state programs like Baylor, TCU, and Texas A&M, as well as the further encroachment of SEC powers, the positive perception of the Texas brand that once existed is now no more.
Think about this -- the 17-year-old recruits in the 2017 class were 11 years old when Texas lost to Alabama in the national championship game following the 2009 season. They were five years old when Vince Young found the right corner of the end zone in Pasadena to earn the right to host that crystal football. The shelf life for Young's heroics to impact recruits is now expired or close to it.
So there's a new dynamic that plays out on the recruiting trail, according to Longhorns defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, a Texas alum who knows what it's like to have Texas coaches place recruiting calls to him.
"You call a recruit sometimes here in Texas and they think, ‘Oh, that's just Texas,' " Bedford said. "We've got to get back to when we call a recruit here in the state of Texas, they say, ‘That's the University of Texas.' The excitement in the voice is back.
"You go back 15 years ago and Texas calls, you would've stood up and saluted," Bedford added. "But now, it's not a big deal in this state. We're not the relevant program that we once were, and we need to get back to it."
In other words, it's not so easy just to say that the Horns should recruit the state of Texas and magically the top prospects will start returning to Austin. And if Strong hadn't been able to land out-of-state recruits in 2015, there's no way that the class would have been good enough to provide the foundation he needed for the future.
Winning may be the only way to change that perception and it's ultimately unlikely to matter whether the Horns do that largely with Texas players or with a healthy dose of out-of-state prospects added.
Baylor would like to recruit better out of state
One of Trotter's main arguments is that the Baylor Bears have had tremendous success recruiting Texas players, so why should the Longhorns look out of state?
To the UT fans who have completely inundated my timeline today: of Baylor’s last 85 high school signees, 83!! have hailed from Texas…— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) August 18, 2015
Oh by the way, Baylor currently has a top 15 class for 2016, exclusively of Texas commitments. ICYMI Baylor has won 2 straight Big 12 titles— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) August 18, 2015
Texas can recruit nationally if it wants, or if it feels like it has to. But Baylor is proving you can win with Texas recruits alone— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter) August 18, 2015
Of course, no one is really arguing that a team can't win with only Texas players -- that's not the reason why Texas looks out of state. But for right now, let's talk about whether or not Baylor has an interest in recruiting out-of-state players.
Of the 90 offers put out by Baylor in the 2015 class, 23 of them went to out-of-state prospects, with only two of them signing. Many were elite prospects, but several of them were more mid-tier three-star recruits, so there's a mix here of extremely hopeful offers and more targeted decisions designed to fill specific needs the Bears were having trouble addressing in the state.
Here's what Art Briles knows -- for the Bears to win a national championship, he'll probably have to land more elite prospects and developing a national brand is one way to do that. Hence the out-of-state offers.
There are even increased out-of-state efforts by Briles and company in 2016, as there are 33 out-of-state offers out from Baylor in this class, even though the staff hasn't significantly increased the number of overall offers. So while Trotter is making his argument about the Bears winning with Texas players, Baylor is actively looking to recruit non-Texans.
There were ties in the 2015 recruiting class
Though the new staff has emphasized more national recruiting, those efforts were successful in 2015 in large part because many of the out-of-state prospects had ties to the coaching staff or school.
Other than Strong's connections in South Florida, which are a big part of the reason why he's been targeting that area, let's look at the ties that bound several 2015 recruits to the Longhorns:
- California running back Kirk Johnson -- Father Johnnie was a Longhorns standout in the early 1980s at defensive back.
- Maryland quarterback Kai Locksley -- Strong worked with his father, Terrapins offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, while at Florida.
- Florida wide receiver John Burt -- The big-boided pass catcher had a familiarity with Austin because he has family members who are employed by the school.
- Mississippi offensive tackle Brandon Hodges -- Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline's wife grew up in Aberdeen, Mississippi, which is where Hodges grew up and played his high school football.
- Louisiana offensive lineman Garrett Thomas -- Strong had connections in Many, Thomas' hometown.
So that means that other than late addition Michael Dickson, the Australian punter, Texas had significant and important ties to each out-of-state signee that wasn't a member of the original Florida Five. The need for those ties probably makes such large out-of-state recruiting classes unsustainable over time, especially with higher-level prospects.
Texas had to fill needs with out-of-state players
Is there a fine line to walk for Strong when he offers Florida prospects like consensus two-star outside linebacker Shemar Smith? Of course. One in-state assistant coach expressed his distaste for the offer because he felt like there were players in Texas with that same skill set.
But here's the deal -- if Texas is offering the top prospects in the state, which it will, year after year, and those prospects aren't coming to Austin, Strong isn't at fault for taking out-of-state prospects. Offensive line recruiting in 2015 provides a perfect example of this dynamic.
At various points in the process, the Horns held commitments from in-state prospects like Connor Lanfear, Maea Teuhema, Toby Weathersby, and Aaron Garza. Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline didn't want Garza, but Lanfear, Teuhema, and Weathersby all decommitted to attend SEC schools, with Lanfear picking A&M and the Teuehema and Weathersby picking LSU.
With other top in-state prospects like Trevor Elbert and Keaton Sutherland also pledging to Texas A&M, Texas wasn't left with many in-state options.
So the problem goes back to that perception issue in the state, not a willingness to recruit Texas.
Strong gets it
"We know this -- the state of Texas will always be our home ground," Strong said on National Signing Day 2015. "We will always build it from this state. There are great high school coaches in this state. That's what it's all about."
Can we all just move along now?