We are the Joneses.
We were the Joneses.
For several years now, talent has been leaving the Lone Star State, often heading to the schools in the SEC or California, but in the 2017 cycle, the trend has been more pronounced than normal — of the top 10 prospects in Texas, only two of them will remain in state to play college football, marking a big hit to a Texas Longhorns football program struggling for relevancy.
The Texodus was truly remarkable this year — the ‘Horns didn’t sign any prospect in the top 10 for the first time since 1999 — that’s the full history of the modern internet age of recruiting evaluations.
In fact, early enrollee quarterback Sam Ehlinger at No. 20 is the highest-rated signee for the Longhorns. Only three players ranked ahead of him are staying in state.
So what’s happening?
A key turning point came when Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012 during a stretch of national dominance that helped increase the conference’s cachet, but that doesn’t totally describe what’s happening, especially this season.
With the Aggies no longer experiencing the boost afforded by Johnny Manziel and his Heisman Trophy-winning season, head coach Kevin Sumlin is still recruiting well, just not at the level he was recruiting at several years ago, so top in-state prospects aren’t picking A&M at the same rate.
And there’s a wider power vacuum in the state created by the struggles at Texas dating back to 2010, the Baylor scandal, and the lack of traditional recruiting pull at TCU — in other words, the state that produces as much talent as any other is ripe for regional and national schools to make headway.
In that void stepped Ohio State this year. The Buckeyes have long been a presence in the state, aided by new Longhorns head coach Tom Herman when he was the offensive coordinator in Columbus, as well as the work of co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck over the last two years.
However, the Buckyes were unusually successful this season, as three of the top six players in the state signed with Ohio State — safety Jeffrey Okudah, linebacker Baron Browning, and all-purpose back JK Dobbins.
Okudah was a somewhat unusual recruit in that he’s not from the state and doesn’t have any deep ties to Texas, while Browning wanted to play early, compete for championships, and was swayed by the recruiting pitch of Urban Meyer, especially his emphasis on life after football.
For Dobbins, the winning culture for Ohio State also played a role, as did the fact that Meyer has been able to design offenses to feature players like Dobbins in the running game and passing game.
The rise of Oklahoma has been a big story in the state, too. For years the Sooners either strategically withdrew or were simply largely unable to make headway across the Red River, but stormed back into the state this year in landing nine players in the state.
Getting Mesquite Horn quarterback Chris Robison committed early played a large role in the class, as the relationships that he built with wide receivers like Charleston Rambo and CeDe Lamb helped play a role in keeping them in the class. As a whole, the class also coalesced around several big personalities from Oklahoma, like linebacker Levi Draper and cornerbacks Justin Broiles and Tre Brown.
Having a Sooners legacy like Robert Barnes available in the state also helped — he was one of the ringleaders in that group.
If that trend continues, as it well might in the 2018 class due to the relationships those aforementioned signees have with younger players, the draining of talent could continue into the next recruiting cycle.
There’s also LSU, which has long recruited well in Texas, especially in the Houston area. New head coach Ed Orgeron is known as a closer and excellent overall recruiter and he and his staff helped star pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson “feel more comfortable” with LSU late in the process.
Chaisson was supposed to be the crown jewel of the recruiting class for Texas. Instead, he’s headed to Baton Rouge with a number of other prospects targeted by the Longhorns — wide receiver Mannie Netherly, offensive tackle Austin Deculus, offensive lineman Ed Ingram, cornerback Kary Vincent, and safety Grant Delpit.
After landing standout safety Eric Monroe last season, it’s clear that the Tigers have strong relationships at Galena Park North Shore and throughout the Houston area down to the coast.
Moving forward, that could be an issue for Texas — if LSU is landing three to six prospects targeted by Herman and his staff every year, that’s a lot of talent heading over the border into Louisiana.
Another consistent problem for the Longhorns in recent years has been recruiting against Stanford. Primarily related the academics, the decisions of Texas prospects to head to Palo Alto is also connected to the weather and California lifestyle.
The state’s third-ranked prospect, Walker Little, signed with Stanford on Wednesday, continuing the steady stream of Texas targets to the Pac-12 school, a group that also includes former cornerback commit Obi Eboh from the 2016 class and defensive end Solomon Thomas in 2014.
And key offensive tackle target Stephan Zabie, who played his high school football at Westlake with early enrollee quarterback Sam Ehlinger, opted for UCLA, saying that he “fell in love with LA.”
Also notable, No. 1 defensive tackle Marvin Wilson didn’t pick Texas because the ‘Horns failed to show the improvement on the field during the fall, though the ultimate final breaking point was the termination of former head coach Charlie Strong.
In that sense, the stakes were incredibly high for the Longhorns last season. Had Strong clearly demonstrated that the program was back on track, the top recruits like Wilson likely would have flocked to Austin.
Instead, the losing helped spark the Texodus and Wilson will now play his college football for Florida State after Tim Brewster wooed another highly-rated Lone Star State prospect after landing Dontavious Jackson last year.
However, it wasn’t just blue-chip schools with a history of success that beat out the Longhorns for coveted prospects — the Buffaloes and Utes landed players Texas wanted down the stretch.
Offensive tackle Grant Polley visited Texas, but it wasn’t enough to sway him from his long-time pledge to Colorado, while teammate Chris Miller, a two-way standout recruited as a wide receiver by Herman, never even visited campus.
Then there was the case of Javelin Guidry, who played for Cedar Park before moving to California for his senior season. The state track champion in the 100m picked Utah over Texas, despite the fact that he was previously committed to Herman at Houston.
One school that didn’t have as much of a recruiting impact in the state as past years was Alabama, but expect the Crimson Tide to continue selectively targeting and landing top players from the state of Texas in future cycles.
For Texas, the key to stopping the Texodus moving forward, just as it was key this year, will be winning games — that’s probably more important than building successful relationships with prospects.
Unfortunately, it seems clear that the affiliation with the Big 12, a conference that recruits rather accurately perceive doesn’t compete for national championships, isn’t doing the ‘Horns any favors.
Because of that continued association and a host of losing seasons that have significantly devalued the Texas brand, Herman will have to battle that negative perception, even if he manages to return the state’s flagship university to winning ways.
Of course, Charlie Strong landed two remarkable classes despite the conference affiliation and lack of winning, so it’s not everything. But as Herman noted on Wednesday, Texas no longer has the luxury of selecting top prospects — the competition is much more fierce, especially from out-of-state programs poaching Lone Star State talent.
Fierce enough to spark a Texodus.