For the last three years, former Louisville Cardinals players have been the talk of the NFL Draft for Texas Longhorns fans, evidence that head coach Charlie Strong can build something in Austin by identifying and landing overlooked prospects. With the resources and prestige of Texas now at his disposal, Strong is signing higher-caliber prospects than he could at Louisville, but there are still three-star recruits in the 2016 class who look like potential impact players like those Strong found at his previous stop.
So how does Strong manage to find so many guys passed over by big programs? Former Louisville assistant coach Kenny Carter, who coached running backs under Strong and is now the Delaware State head coach, detailed to the Austin American-Statesman how Strong goes through the evaluation process:
He said the key to the staff identifying underrated prospects was the result of an objective evaluation process that Strong took from his time on Urban Meyer's staff at Florida. In that system, numeric values are assigned to various skills including physicality, hand movement and ball pursuit. A player's height and weight is also considered, but not dwelled on.
Each assistant coach watches film independently and provides an assessment without discussing the prospect under consideration as a group. Only prospects with a high enough score would receive a scholarship offer. However, even if the recruit in question has big offers and prototypical height and weight, Strong defers to the evaluations of his assistants rather than outside assessments or measurables.
"All we cared about was our evaluation of the kid," Carter told the Statesman. "Charlie was always really, really good about that. We didn't have to worry about what our recruiting class was going to be ranked at the end of the deal."
By removing emotion from the process, Strong ensures that his coaches don't play favorites. By removing outside opinions, Strong eliminates the potential for groupthink.
That philosophy explains why Texas was the first school to offer sophomore running back Kirk Johnson two years and why the 'Horns extended a somewhat controversial offer to undersized Florida edge rusher Shemar Smith, who ended up at Oregon State. The latter move especially was hard to understand at the time since Smith was a two-star prospect perhaps generously listed at 6'1.
In addition to those tactics, Strong and his staff often take longer than other schools to evaluate prospects to ensure that players don't peak too early. Notable examples of waiting for see senior film from the 2016 class include Flower Mound Marcus defensive end Andrew Fitzgerald, Baton Rouge (La.) Madison Prep defensive end Malcolm Roach, and Euless Trinity defensive tackle Chris Daniels, and Belton offensive lineman Zach Shackelford.
"A lot of players have been missed here and at other places over the last five years because of early commitments of guys that didn't pan out," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said last fall. "So we're trying to do a great job of evaluating guys and getting down to the nitty-gritty of making the right decisions."
Not only are early commitments dangerous because recruits may not improve after pledging so early, Bedford understands that the Longhorns can't get afford to be put in a position where coaches want to pull an offer but can't afford to negatively impact relationships at that school.
"(Football recruiting has become) like basketball," Bedford said Wednesday. "You can make a lot of mistakes when you try to commit guys three guys two years out, because sometimes, they don't get any better. If you have to make a decision to let them go, we're at the University of Texas, if we offer a kid who's a sophomore, we can't pull out in this state, because we're the satellite school."
Not all major programs feel that way, but for Strong, the process of building a comfort level with Texas high school coaches was too difficult to achieve and too valuable to risk.
While none of these philosophies are particularly revolutionary, when combined with Strong's ability to win over parents and earn the loyalty of his players, it makes for a whole that allowed the Texas head coach to send nearly half of his 2011 Louisville class to the NFL.
If he can achieve even remotely similar success with the Longhorns, the dark days of the last six years will end with a vengeance.