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Small, modestly-ranked 2021 Texas recruiting class will test program’s evaluations and development

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Tom Herman and his support staff also took a smaller class with the expectation of adding a handful of players through a pending blanket transfer waiver.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

“You’re going to run out of superlatives talking about JT, and we are extremely excited about him.”

The superlatives that Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman noted regarding his prize 2021 recruit, Denton Ryan’s Ja’Tavion Sanders, who is ranked as the nation’s top athlete, were in comparatively short supply overall on Wednesday as 17 total signees officially joined the class.

After all, Herman had signed two top-three classes in 2018 and 2019, then followed those successes with the No. 10 class last year. The 2021 group, which ranks No. 17 nationally, is currently the lowest-ranked non-transition class for Texas in the last 20 years, a stretch that encapsulates the modern era of recruiting. It’s unprecedented for the Longhorns.

Keeping Sanders in the class despite on-field struggles and questions about Herman’s job security made Herman’s ability to even offer those superlatives about him as a Texas signee remarkable enough given the current climate surrounding the program.

To illustrate just how fractured things are for the Longhorns, former Texas player Jerrod Heard spent Tuesday evening publicly talking about lobbying Sanders to change his pledge away from the Horns. Heard even spent two years playing for Herman.

And, in fact, all those issues did have a tremendous impact on the class. The nation’s No. 2 athlete, Denton Ryan’s Billy Bowman, landed at Oklahoma after decommitting from Texas during the fall. The nation’s No. 4 dual-threat quarterback, Jalen Milroe of Katy Thompkins, flipped to Alabama. Even a backup option after other misses, Florida center Michael Myslinski, decommitted last week.

Those misses are the difference between a historically sub-par class and a more-than-respectable accomplishment given the circumstances.

Even within the larger context of those defections and all the uncertainty surrounding Herman, it was something of a miracle that Sanders joined 16 other commits in signing with the Longhorns on a day when another embattled head coach, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, lost several recruits and signing day flips remained a consistent theme across the country.

This is going to sound like the kind of faint praise afforded to crumbling coaching regimes — because this is absolutely a crumbling coaching regime — but it could have been worse.

Herman said that he never even met a handful of signees in person — he won’t until they get to campus.

Beyond the difficulties imposed by the pandemic that every coaching staff faced, those problems were exacerbated by having a staff that featured five new assistants and two new coordinators. When those coaches arrived, some of them in late January, they only had a week or two to go on the road recruiting before the pandemic shut down all in-person evaluations and all recruiting visits.

Herman was forced to ask those assistants to build relationships as quickly as they could through virtual channels.

“The message to the players was, ‘Allow us to do as good a job as we can building these relationships with you I know it’s not ideal. I know we would rather see you in person.’ But I think our coaches did a tremendous job, over Zoom and Facetime, and all of the different virtual ways that we had to recruit this year, given the circumstances that they were hired into,” Herman said.

And, to a certain extent, the low ranking is something of a choice made by Herman in concert with his support staff.

When Herman arrived in 2017, he purposely decided to take a smaller class because he and his staff knew that the Houston-heavy 2018 group would represent a tremendous opportunity. The plan worked — Texas signed the No. 3 class nationally.

With the NCAA closer to approving a one-time blanket transfer waiver for all athletes, Herman is betting on being able to fill holes in the roster with proven players from smaller schools or former top recruits looking for playing time. Whether the current plan works will unfold over the coming months pending the NCAA’s decision.

“If that passes, the portal will be like something that it’s never been before,” Herman said.

The first piece of the plan did fall into place on Wednesday — the addition of McNeese State graduate transfer cornerback Darion Dunn, who flipped his pledge from North Carolina State. With both starting cornerbacks returning, the move seemed curious on the surface, but Herman suggested that there could be some more positional changes in the secondary next year.

“We feel like we have some tweener bodies on our team that could play either corner or safety or Spur,” Herman said. “And we feel like Darion is a guy that that can play corner, could play a lot of different positions, as well. We needed experience at that position.”

So look for players like cornerback Jalen Green, cornerback Josh Thompson, and Spur Chris Adimora to potentially change positions next season with Dunn in the mix for a staring cornerback job.

Depending on what happens with Derek Kerstetter and Denzel Okafor and their respective decisions regarding whether to return for another season, offensive line coach Herb Hand may ratchet up his pursuit of graduate transfer offensive linemen, with two already on the radar.

The defensive line is another area the Longhorns could look to supplement via transfer.

As for the non-Sanders recruits actually in the class already, Herman spent his time on Wednesday emphasizing their winning traits. Now, that’s not entirely uncommon for Herman, but those attributes are even more important for a high school group that will ultimately become defined by the staff’s evaluations and ability to develop.

The latter area, of course, was lacking enough a year ago that Herman publicly cited it as a reason for turning off so much of his staff.

“Who are they? What’s their character? Are they a team captain? Are they from a winning program? All of the above?

“These guys all really check the box[es],” Herman said.

Take Florida wide receiver Jaden Alexis.

He’s one of the seven signed recruits with a ranking of four stars or better and boasts legitimate speed with a 10.75 in the 100-meter dash and 22.27 in the 200-meter dash.

“His speed is second to none. He just has a different gear, different level. I think that’s part of what makes him one of the top athletes,” Monarch offensive coordinator Calvin Davis said.

The 6’0, 185-pounder is also built like a running back; that makes sense because his father, Rich, spent four years at the position in the NFL. Since his son has proven speed, why does that pedigree matter? Because coming from that background means that Rich has taught Jaden what it means to train and prepare at the highest level. Herman cited workouts that Alexis did during quarantine that always included helmet and full pads — train the way you play.

Alexis was also the junior class president at Monarch.

Pearland Shadow Creek linebacker Terrence Cooks has NFL pedigree, too — his father of the same name spent a year with the Patriots. Cooks is a winner, helping Shadow Creek secure a state championship in 2019.

Hallettsville running back Jonathon Brooks is a prime example of the staff’s evaluations looking stronger and stronger. During a breakout junior season for Brooks, Texas became his first offer. The only other Power Five school to offer Brooks was Texas Tech. But running backs coach Stan Drayton saw something that others didn’t. As senior, Brooks led Hallettsville to the 3A state title and finished the season with more than 3,000 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns this season. In one playoff game, he scored six touchdowns on the ground and another on an interception.

Just as impressive was the fact that Brooks was a key architect in a massive turnaround for the Hallettsville program — as a sophomore, the Brahmas went 3-7. On Thursday, they narrowly lost a state title game that represented the first appearance of its kind in school history.

Since Herman arrived in Austin, he’s prized versatile players who are capable of playing multiple positions. Everman athlete Juan Davis — who is listed at 6’4 and 215 pounds — fits that bill after a high school career that saw him line up at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker, and in the defensive backfield, according to Herman.

“Big athlete, great movement skills, can go up and get it,” Herman said. “We’re really excited seeing what [strength and conditioning] coach [Yancy] McKnight and our strength and conditioning staff can do with with that frame and athletic ability.”

As a senior, Davis had over 700 yards rushing and receiving with 18 total touchdowns after throwing for 380 yards and six touchdowns as a junior.

Texas was able to land an early commitment from Davis in July of 2019 when his only other offers were from Baylor and Southern Miss. In February, Texas A&M made a run at Davis with an offer, but he held firm with his long-time commitment.

Another versatile signee is Morice Blackwell, whom Herman believes can play just about any position in the secondary, was heralded by his head coach as one of the best players to come from the Arlington Martin program. Not bad for a school that produced NFL superstar Myles Garrett.

Other evaluations still look more questionable, like that of Louisiana wide receiver Casey Cain. Praised by Herman for his body control, ability to high point the football with strong hands, and red-zone upside, the reality is that Cain didn’t have any other Power Five offers and is on the short side for a jump-ball receiver at 6’2. He’s not ranked among the top 1,000 prospects in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite.

For wide receivers coach Andre Coleman, Cain is the level of talent that he’s used to coaching at Kansas State, but with a lack of progress from some of the younger receivers this year, it’s still fair to wonder about how well Coleman does develop talent.

Make no mistake, though — there is still talent.

Kennedale’s JD Coffey, for instance, was a four-year starter with massive production like 28 tackles for loss, 19 interceptions, and 10 touchdowns in his high school career.

Even a four-star prospect like potential Jack Derrick Harris Jr. missed out on a potential bump in the rankings from a strong senior season after he sat out with an injury. An injury also kept defensive end Jordon Thomas from playing during his junior season. California didn’t play football at all this fall, costing four-star cornerback Jamier Johnson his chance at a senior season.

Now the task for Herman and his staff is to fill some of the remaining nine or so spots with high school, junior college, or transfer prospects, while ensuring that the staff hit with its evaluations by maximizing those evaluations and doing something Herman and the Texas program in general have struggled with for years — actually develop that talent.

With the sub-par rankings for this class, the pressure is higher in to get those evaluations right and develop those players with 2019’s failures, the subsequent coaching staff turnovers, and the questions about Herman’s job manifesting in recruiting.