As head coach Tom Herman and most of the current Texas Longhorns staff, from assistants to support personnel, moved from jobs with the Houston Cougars to Austin, an incredible opportunity presented itself in recruiting — a 2018 class heavy with Space City products.
Director of Player Personnel Derek Chang advised Herman to save some spots from that transition class, then take advantage of those area ties while drawing on the staff’s 100-plus years recruiting the state.
The result? A true revolution in Austin that featured an historic collection of defensive backs in the midst of the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings.
While Herman attempted to resuscitate a program in the midst of a rebuild that spanned close to a decade, recruiting rival Texas A&M hired national championship head coach Jimbo Fisher thanks to the lure of $75 million dollars guaranteed.
By the time the 2018 class signed, Herman and Fisher were already sizing each other up from the Colorado to the Brazos.
“Better pick our game up,” Herman said on National Signing Day 2018. “Trust me, we’ve had that conversation in our staff room on numerous occasions. I know how good a recruiter Jimbo Fisher is and his staff is. I know that’s a great place, for the right person.”
“We’ll end up being one or two,” Fisher said. “I’m talking about 10 guys that are right [there]. I’m talking about first-, second-round draft pick guys. There’s some phenomenal players.”
And though Texas joined Georgia as the only two programs to land top-three recruiting classes in 2018 and 2019, according to the 247Sports Composite team rankings, and narrowly out-recruited Texas A&M overall in the latest cycle, the in-state momentum favored the Aggies early and largely didn’t waver through the summer.
Less than two months after arriving in College Station, Fisher and his staff landed a monumental commitment from elite safety Brian Williams, who had previously expressed a high level of interest in the Longhorns. In late February, it was another safety, Demani Richardson, another Texas target. In April, rising tight end Baylor Cupp and, all of a sudden, key defensive line target DeMarvin Leal, who eventually took an official visit to Texas, but never wavered from the Aggies more seriously than that. In June, elite offensive tackle Kenyon Green. In August, athletic wide receiver Dylan Wright.
In all, the Horns ended up losing nine in-state head-to-head battles against the Aggies as Fisher sold the optimism that followed the high-profile coaching change and SEC cachet. Two other out-of-state prospects with Texas offers chose College Station over Austin.
Interestingly enough, however, despite the obvious Herman vs. Fisher narrative that emerged as the 2019 cycle truly got underway when the 2018 recruiting class concluded on National Signing Day last February, that ultimately wasn’t the precise narrative that defined this Longhorns class.
In 2020, that may change, but in 2019, the story is really about how Herman and his staff were forced to go national to make up for those misses and the other prospects that Texas backed away from during the process, according to Herman.
Even beyond the head-to-head losses against Texas A&M, Texas experienced some issues in state, nearly across the board in recruiting. Star edge rusher Nana Osafo-Mensah chose to continue his Catholic education at Notre Dame, center Branson Bragg picked Stanford, and local wide receiver Garrett Wilson opted for a return to Columbus to play for Ohio State.
The loss of Osafo-Mensah highlighted issues recruiting the Metroplex — wide receiver Theo Wease and offensive guard EJ Ndoma-Ogar picked Oklahoma and continued the tradition of Allen products eschewing the Longhorns. Five-star linebacker Marcel Brooks chose LSU, in addition to the other regional defeats by Texas A&M.
As the in-state issues piled up — call it a confluence of factors, similar to the Texodus of 2017 — Texas cast a wide net across the nation for top prospects with interest in or connections to the Longhorns while continuing to evaluate in-state recruits.
Early commitments from other key Lone Star State targets like wide receiver Jordan Whittington and offensive tackle Tyler Johnson helped, but the out-of-state momentum also picked up.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando went to California and landed a top linebacker with a tie to Austin in De’Grabriel Floyd. Safety Chris Adimora sided with Texas, too, despite a lack of any such ties.
Arizona products like tight end Brayden Liebrock and wide receiver Jake Smith followed Floyd in pledging during the midst of the in-state issues.
In May, the pledge of cornerback Kenyatta Watson II showcased the staff’s ability to go into the heart of SEC country and land an immensely talented prospect from state powerhouse Loganville Grayson. Buford running back Derrian Brown, who is currently hospitalized due to a serious medical condition, followed Watson by pledging during the football season and signing in December.
Landing wide receiver Marcus Washington from St. Louis marked a second straight cycle that the Horns secured a signature from the Gateway City.
The Longhorns ultimately signed 12 out-of-state prospects, capped by the transfer of the nation’s No. 1 athlete, Bru McCoy, from USC after his early enrollment with the Trojans. For a program that has long been reticent to risk the ire of Texas high school football coaches by appearing to prioritize prospects from outside the borders of the Lone Star State, it was a remarkable development. Historic, too, as my colleague Cody Daniel pointed out in December:
Of the 22 talents who have signed and solidified their future on the Forty Acres, 11 hail from beyond Texas’ borders, marking the most significant haul since the recruiting services began tracking prospects back in 1999. The only class that comes notable close is Charlie Strong’s 2015 coup, in which 10 of the 29 signatures came from out-of-state prospects.
Yet even then, that 34.5 percent out-of-state prospect clip — 29.6 percent if you consider that Florida 5 members Devonaire Clarington and Gilbert Johnson never qualified academically — pales in comparison to a mind-boggling 50 percent of Herman’s 2019 class — Javonne Shepherd excluded, as he’s still evaluating options — coming from six other states, with California, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and Louisiana each represented.
As we know now, the class only increased by two by National Signing Day, as Shepherd ultimately signed with the Horns after taking three official visits to SEC schools and McCoy joined the class to maintain the same ratio of out-of-state signee to in-state signees.
Last week, Herman was quick to pay due respect to the talent produced in Texas and his desire to land in-state prospects, just as he did in December and just as he did last February and at virtually every other opportunity.
“I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face, I’ll say it until I retire here, if we can sign 25 kids from the state of Texas that we believe can help us win a national championship, that is nirvana,” Herman said. “That is the plan. That is the ideal.”
Every recruitment is different, so the staff doesn’t begrudge prospects who make personal decisions or feel like Austin isn’t the right place for them. The late-second decision by one-time Denton Guyer standout running back Noah Cain to sign with Penn State was a perfect example.
“Honestly it came down to where would I be the most focused at and not around distractions,” Cain told BON’s Joe Hamilton on Early Signing Day. “Everybody knows Austin is a big city but I have to be focused throughout. I’m a business dude, I gotta handle my business. And just be different. It might not be the most popular decision, but it is the best decision for myself.”
Sometimes it goes the other way — for a second straight year, Herman mentioned that the staff recruited some prospects it ultimately felt weren’t a fit on the Forty Acres.
“I am really, really proud of the diligence of the methodical nature in which we have gone about our business in recruiting in the last couple years in our operation,” Herman said.
The support staff makes a difference there, in part by relieving pressure on the assistant coaches to handle the front end of the Texas evaluation process. After that, the impetus falls on the coaching staff to create the type of enduring relationships that can survive, say, the enrollment at another school.
And reduce headaches for the staff late in the cycle.
“You know, it is truly built on relationships, and when you see — when you build those relationships with the young men, with the parents, with the coaches, and they’re genuine relationships, you see very little drama,” Herman said. “You see very little issues along the way, speed bumps, guys going elsewhere, doing other things because I think, you know, when they commit to the University of Texas, it is a decision that they are not 99% sure, but for the most part, 100% sure.”
Despite the losses of skill players like Demariyon Houston and Peyton Powell, Texas largely had a quiet recruiting class from the standpoint of defections and commits taking other visits. Those relationships especially paid off late in the cycle with one of the few wavering prospects and the early-enrollee-turned transfer.
Director of Recruiting Bryan Carrington was able to help convince Marcus Washington to stick with Texas instead of staying close to home and going to Missouri. Wide receivers coach Drew Mehringer’s relationship with the McCoy family was ultimately a significant factor in McCoy choosing Texas.
When the staff did decide to build relationships with prospects, Herman maintained his heavy emphasis on ensuring that the offers extended were committable.
“Also, proud of the fact that in the last two years each year we have finished in the bottom six as far as — in the country, as far as offers extended,” Herman said. “So we’re very proud to say that when a young man gets an offer from Texas, it does mean something.”
Taking that approach has multiple benefits for a program that increased costs for recruiting-related expenditures while recognizing in-state recruiting realities and making strategic decisions on the national level.
For the 2019 cycle, Alabama offered 287 prospects, Georgia offered 286, Texas A&M offered 195, while Texas only offered 137 recruits. In press conferences, Herman sometimes seems as if he’s reciting the same recruiting pitches that he makes to prospects and high school coaches about the offer process, but there’s no question that Herman follows through on his promises about committable offers.
And that’s the result of a key understanding — Herman knows that the relationships that he and his staff have built over so many years recruiting Texas can survive taking a large out-of-state class, as long as an offer means something and the assistants show up even when there aren’t any prospects at a school.
One staff member even took a trip down to the Rio Grande Valley recently.
“So, again, perfect world, signed 25 guys all from the state of Texas that all can help you win a National Championship, if that perfect world is unattainable because of whatever personal decisions some of these kids make, then we cast our net a little bit broader to try to bring in the best in America, and we’re really proud of this class and the fact that we were able to do that, and that’s kudos to Derek Chang and his staff down in recruiting, and kudos to our staff for recognizing the necessity and turning a negative into a positive. A really, really big positive.”