The nation’s consensus No. 3 prospect, Houston Episcopal defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, is already on record as saying that he won’t consider the Texas Longhorns if head coach Charlie Strong is terminated after the season.
But the problems for the ‘Horns on the recruiting trail are even more immediate than that — prospects like Wilson were vocal about wanting to see improvement his season.
With four losses in the last five games, Texas is cratering on the field and cratering in recruiting, according to ESPN. This particular quote was especially telling:
#Pac12 coach on #Horns' recruiting status: “The only guys they can even sniff right now are die-hard Longhorn fans.” https://t.co/svFS8LtxfY— Jeremy Crabtree (@jeremycrabtree) October 27, 2016
“You know, we're going to always be able to recruit well,” Strong said. “We're going to always be able to get the guys we get.”
But what else is he going to say? He surely wasn’t willing to admit the truth on Monday, nor is it fair to ask him to do so in a press conference. That’s not how this works.
And here is the unfortunate truth — those hopes of landing Wilson and Houston Episcopal teammate Walker Little, the star offensive tackle, and linebackers Baron Browning of Kennedale and Anthony Hines of Plano East?
Evaporated like the water from Lake Travis during a prolonged Texas drought.
Wilson wanted to see nine wins this season from the Longhorns — eight might have been enough — but with only three wins currently and five games remaining, reaching nine by winning out and coming out victorious in a bowl game seems virtually impossible.
Little is high on Stanford and could still consider Texas if Strong is forced out because the West Coast is so far away and the other leading candidate, Ole Miss, isn’t particularly close to Houston, either. In the 247Sports Crystal Ball, 18 of the last 19 predictions favor the Cardinal.
As for Browning, the recruitment of the nation’s No. 2 outside linebacker hasn’t seen many twists of turns of late, but the relationship that he built with linebacker Malik Jefferson is likely much less valuable for the ‘Horns with the poor season from the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year.
He’s taking a visit to Florida State this weekend, with Ohio State, TCU, and UCLA likely all more serious contenders than Texas at this point, even though there hasn’t been any recent movement
Hines is a key target because of numerous misses at middle linebacker over the last several years. Unfortunately, he’ll likely face off against Texas in the Cotton Bowl wearing crimson or cream in the future or don maroon for Texas A&M.
Recent decisions haven’t been positive, either — star Lancaster wide receiver Omar Manning picked TCU even though he looked like a Texas lean late in the summer, while DeSoto offensive lineman Xavier Newman flipped to Colorado.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger remains the leader of the group and vocal in his support of the program he cheered for growing up:
They're gonna ditch you when you're losing and come back when you're winning. #HookEm— Sam Ehlinger (@sehlinger3) October 22, 2016
However, noted recruiter Tim Brewster at Florida State continues to pursue Ehlinger and probably has a non-zero chance of flipping him as a result of the coaching instability and the rise of freshman quarterback Shane Buechele.
Ehlinger certainly owes it to himself to evaluate whether the Seminoles program makes more sense for him.
As usual, though, Strong isn’t concerned.
“Recruiting will be fine,” he said. “It's just there are a lot of guys still sitting there. I always tell them that I don't need an early commitment, because I think guys make a reservation... Come December and January, we'll put the hammer down, start getting after them. We'll go get what we need to go get.”
While skepticism about Strong doing exactly that over the last two years proved unfounded, the circumstances were markedly different. In the 2016 class, the staff was, remarkably so, able to sell hope last season despite the 5-7 finish. This year, hope is a floundering currency with no value, even if Strong does somehow manage to keep his job.
And some of the seven current commits are looking around, including wide receiver Damion Miller, who is set to visit Texas A&M this weekend, and cornerback Kobe Boyce, who is seriously considering Oklahoma.
The top-rated recruit, defensive end Lagaryonn Carson, seems unlikely to make it to Austin as a result of academic and disciplinary issues at Liberty-Eylau.
“It's going to come down to what our needs are,” Strong said. “We don't have many scholarships. We have to be smart about who we select.”
Texas does have some serious needs in this class — a running back, tight end, offensive tackle, and middle linebacker — with the 2013 class serving as an example of how much missing at multiple positions can set back a program.
Unfortunately, Texas isn’t going to be able to just select players, even though needs will influence the players the ‘Horns scramble to land down the stretch.
As the Pac-12 coach suggested, only the recruits with the most outsized confidence or long-term connection with the school are thinking seriously about joining the 2017 class at this time.
If Strong loses his job, the next head coach will have plenty of talent available, but will almost certainly lack ideal depth and superstar talent as a result of how the 2016 free fall will continue to impact the 2017 class.