On February 1, 2017, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman felt like he was living in bizarro world.
The Texodus of the recruiting class that signed that day was historically significant in the modern recruiting era — for the first time since the rankings began in 1999, the ‘Horns didn’t sign any of the top 10 prospects in the state. Only three of the players ranked in front of the highest-rated Longhorns signee, No. 20-ranked Sam Ehlinger, opted to remain in the Lone Star State to play college football.
Herman knew that needed to change.
“We have to get out in front of it and we have to make sure that the three out of the top six players in the state of Texas don’t leave the state again,” he said. “That has to be our mission is to keep the best players in the state of Texas in the state of Texas.”
Despite the relative disappointment felt by many of the burnt orange faithful on National Signing Day 2017, the stage was already set for success a year ago.
“We’re well on our way, and our relationships with the high school coaches is phenomenal, paying great dividends We’ve already started building really quality relationships with a bunch of the top players in the 2018 class,” Herman said at the time.
Landing a top-10 class in the transition year wasn’t realistic, according to the Longhorns head coach, but Herman was willing to set high standards for the following class.
“Are we going to be there next year? Absolutely. Absolutely we will.”
The Longhorns will finish the 2018 recruiting class with the No. 3 group in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and No. 1 in the Big 12.
Texas accomplished that task by building a wall around the state — only Houston Episcopal wide receiver Jaylen Waddle opted for a college outside the Lone Star State, choosing the reigning national champions. More importantly, 11 of the state’s top 15 players signed with the Longhorns, a remarkable turnaround in only one season. And it was a turnaround accomplished despite the lack of notable on-field success last fall.
If Herman made his name at Houston with the #HTownTakeover, the 2018 class was a case of different city, same story for a Longhorns coaching staff that largely coached the Cougars, too. The ties formed during that time helped the staff, while assistants like Corby Meekins, the former Houston Westfield head coach, tapped into even deeper connections to the Space City.
A late run at Manvel wide receiver Jalen Preston didn’t pay off for the Longhorns, but Herman and his staff largely dominated the city by landing the top Houston targets, including the state’s top cornerback, Jalen Green, and three prospects from Lamar High School — the state’s former No. 1 player, cornerback Anthony Cook, cornerback D’shawn Jamison, and wide receiver Al’vonte Woodard.
Other ties, like the Angleton connection between former star Quandre Diggs and his successor, BJ Foster, helped the ‘Horns.
There were also impressive recruiting efforts, like stealing the state’s top prospect, safety Caden Sterns, away from LSU, the school that stole the mantle of DBU from Texas.
“We had to make sure that these players stopped leaving the state,” Herman said in December. “That going out of state wasn’t more attractive to them.”
And the ability and willingness to go outside the state to fill recruiting needs at weak in-state positions paid off, as well. Missouri products Ayodele Adeoye and Daniel Carson, a linebacker and a defensive lineman, respectively, were key additions on defense, while both quarterback signees hailed from out of state.
Both had deep Oklahoma ties — Casey Thompson is a Sooner State native and Oklahoma legacy, while Cameron Rising was committed to the Sooners when he flipped to the Longhorns.
It was all about the relationships.
“These coaches love their recruits just like they do their own players they have earned the trust of the key decision makers in that person’s family,” Herman said. “Not just the young men, but the parents, and the coaches, and the grad parents and the uncles and the people that raised them and everybody. You’ve got to have time to get your tentacles around all those different people and get them to trust you. And we were able to do that and plan to continue to do that.”
The coaches don’t deserve all the credit, though — multiple recruits, including National Signing Day addition Joseph Ossai, credited the work of Assistant Director of Player Personnel Bryan Carrington as instrumental to the class. Herman cited Carrington’s background from Houston and ability reinforce the staff’s messages to recruits as why he’s “the best in the country” at connecting with prospects.
Then there were the players, especially the hosts on official visits, which almost uniformly made a remarkable difference with recruits.
“Coach, have we got the number one class yet? Is it number one? Is it number one?” the players repeatedly asked Herman.
“I want to thank our players,” Herman said. “Our players are unbelievable recruiters for us. They’re unbelievable recruiters for us.”
As with the transition class, Herman also put a major emphasis on character.
“We signed some unbelievable young men, some great players,” he said in December. “Make no mistake, great players, but also really, really great young men with unbelievable families, unbelievable support systems, and unbelievable maturity.”
All of it added up to an elite group of what Herman called OKGs — Our Kinda Guys. In fact, Herman said that the Longhorns walked away from some talented players.
“We’re hopefully never going to be in a position where we’re going to have to take character risks, culture risks, academic risks just because a kid can run fast or jump high. We were very firm in our patience and had to walk away from guys.”
As the staff looks forward to the next cycle after spending the weeks since the dead period ended visiting recruits and extending offers, Herman knows that returning the program to prominence require high-level recruiting every year.
“Again, this needs to be the new normal, and I’m committed to making sure that it is,” Herman said.
With the Aggies already building momentum in the 2019 recruiting class with some important recent additions, maintaining that new normal won’t be easy. Not that it matters.
“That competition is real, but we welcome it.”