No one has to tell Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman the dangers he faces with his first class.
He’s already seen the ugly results of a transition class first-hand.
Last Wednesday, the new Longhorns head coach signed his first class with the ‘Horns, but even though he was busy congratulating his new signees and working hard on building relationships in the 2018 class, he still had the first Ohio State Buckeyes recruiting class on his mind.
He’s been thinking about it and re-evaluating it for some time.
“I went back and actually looked at the Class of 2012 when we transitioned to Ohio State and of the 19 kids that were February signees, and only roughly about three of them were actual contributing players,” Herman said in early January. “That was the fifth-ranked class in the country. That's not very good odds and percentages. We're taking a more calculated, patient approach because of what history tells you.”
History has not been kind to that class or to many other transition classes, as research by Herman and then by ESPN have discovered:
A study of nearly 350 recruits who signed with 15 Power 5 transition classes from 2012 to 2014 showed that more than 60 percent of signees did not become regular starters, and 35 percent ended up leaving the program. Six of the 15 classes produced more busts than starters.
“We've done extensive research on transition years and signing classes in transition years,” said Herman. “By far the most instances of attrition, the most instances of off-the-field issues -- whether it be drugs, social or academic issues -- and the most instances of guys that quite frankly can't play, happen in the transition year.”
As a result, Herman developed something of a truism — don’t go chasing stars during that first class. Attrition can follow quickly.
“I think that happens for a number of reasons,” said Herman. “The biggest being you wind up chasing stars and rankings, rather than getting to know these kids. A lot of it is because of timing. It's so hard to get to know them, so I think you've got to target kids that at least you know a little bit about.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the former Houston head coach completely ignored some of the stars in the 2017 recruiting class, including top-tier prospects like Walker Little, Baron Browning, and Anthony Hines, all players with top-notch character who didn’t need more extensive vetting by the staff after arriving in Austin.
"We're gonna swing for the fences, there's no doubt, but if there's any testimony to the fact that relationships in recruiting are the most important thing, it's during a coaching transition," Herman said.
"As much as we have to sell here — from the academics to the coaching staff to the style of play to the championships we're going to win to the city of Austin to the rich, storied tradition and history — what we don't have is relationships with a lot of these guys. That makes it very, very difficult to get in."
Herman and his staff definitely struggled to make any impact on those recruitments of the top-tier players in the state, but ties in the Houston area helped the staff luck out when running back Toneil Carter didn’t have an early-enrollee spot at Georgia.
Adding No. 1 junior college inside linebacker Gary Johnson was also a big addition. Prospects from that level often contribute quickly because of their maturity and physical development compared to high school prospects.
Herman and his staff were lucky in several regards, especially compared to former head coach Charlie Strong — they got to Austin at the end of November instead of the beginning of February, still had official visits remaining for committed prospects, and had already recruited the state.
With two official visit weekends before dead period, Herman was able to secure visits from key targets like then-Nebraska commit Reese Leitao and then-SMU commit Cade Brewer, both tight ends.
Both ended up flipping to Texas — Leitao because of his prior relationship with the staff, including offensive line coach Derek Warehime, who is well connected in northeastern Oklahoma as a Sooner State native and Tulsa alum, and Brewer because he was a lifetime Longhorns fan.
Many of the other targets Herman and his staff eventually landed were players they were able to build relationships with at Houston, including former commits like running back Daniel Young, defensive end Marqez Bimage, and offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi.
US Army All-American offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter, a former Oklahoma State commit, was also recruited by Houston before flipping to Texas.
Those are all players that Herman and his staff were able to vet and evaluate for a long period of time before coming to Texas.
“We did extensive background research on all of these individuals and are really, really excited about where they fit in terms of the needs that we saw on this roster,” Herman said on National Signing Day.
Adding a starter or back-up quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, a starter or back-up kicker in Josh Rowland, and at least one early contributor at tight end were also important additions to the Texas roster from a need standpoint. So was Gary Johnson at linebacker.
Herman himself mentioned the importance of landing defensive ends like Taquon Graham and Max Cummins, both players with the height and size to eventually play multiple positions up and down the line.
The loss of D’Onta Foreman and continued concerns about the health of Kirk Johnson and durability of Chris Warren resulted in the staff needing to find two running backs. It did, and Herman hailed Young as the possible “steal of the class.”
Ultimately, a larger mark of how much the class succeeds outside of avoiding attrition is whether some of the lower-ranked players can be become contributors instead of getting recruited over in coming classes.
Herman doesn’t believe that class included signees merely serving as filler.
“And let's make one thing very clear,” he said. “We recruit and sign kids at the University of Texas that we think can play for us and win us national championships. And that's what each of these kids was assigned to do.
“Some may help us in the first year, some may be a couple years developed. But we don't sign back-ups at the University of Texas. We don't sign role players at the University of Texas. We sign guys that we know and believe through our evaluation process can help us win championships.”
If that’s the case, then Herman and his staff will have successfully pulled off the difficult task of succeeding in transition year recruiting.
Now comes the waiting to see how things work out.