May 28, 2020

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It's everything and it's nothing. It's the most over-rated part of following college football and it's the single best way to predict what will happen in the future. Multiple times per day I switch back and forth between "it's so over-emphasized" and "it's so under-appreciated". So since this month is just "Robert rambles on and on and on about a topic", I figured I'd do that as it relates to recruiting.

First off, to understand what I'm saying, you're going to have to check your stances at the door. Free your mind and the rest will follow. Recruiting is the most stance-able topic in the college football world. If you don't like the coach (and I mean any coach), you can just point to the players you've missed on. You're going to "miss" on more than 200 players every year, so if that's your stance, you'll have an unlimited supply of HE WHIFFED AGAIN.

If your stance is I MUST PROTECT THIS COACH, you, too, have a nearly unlimited supply. All you need are names. Once you have some names, all of them can be spun. Decent list of offers from when the kid was a sophomore? "Illini landed this kid over Auburn and Florida" (Auburn and Florida were no longer recruiting him). Only FCS offers? Sleeper with great film. Even a recruiting class with zero in-state recruits can be spun as "just give me players who want to be Illini". If you want hope, there's always hope.

For the most part, it's consequence-free #stancing. Right now, think of the name of your Illini friend who is the most negative towards recruiting. They have the easiest life imaginable, right? They can rail against every assistant coaching hire, every recruit, every coaching decision, all protected by their stance:

  1. If the team wins, they're happy.
  2. If the team loses, they were right.

That's always the easiest way to go about it. I should know - I lived in St. Louis the last 25 years. Nearly every Cardinals fan I encountered (and yes, I'm a Cardinals fan as well) followed this edict. Question every single decision that LaRussa/Matheny/Schildt has ever made. Claim that Mozeliak couldn't handle free agency if the top three free agents showed up at his doorstep wanting to sign for the minimum. Say "wrong" at every turn and you're safe. If they win, nobody cares that you were wrong and you can just cheer the team in the playoffs. If they lose, you were right all along.

The Cardinals are probably the best example of this because they win so much. In the playoffs 13 of the last 20 years. If the Illini were one of the top 10 teams in college football 13 of the last 20 years (with four title game appearances and two titles), I don't think you'd ever pry the smile off my face. Cardinals in the playoffs 13 of 20 years? FIRE EVERYONE. Shorting the team is the simplest, easiest way to fan.

Yes, I understand that this is just part of being a fan. Especially being a fan in 2020 with the ability to share one's opinion far and wide. This is not a post about fan discontent, something that has been and forever will be part of the fabric of following sports. I'm not really trying to get into "why didn't he go to the bullpen there?". This is a post about recruiting.

Let's start here. I'll use the Big 12 because the Big Ten gets a little too close for comfort. If this college football season is played, Big 12 teams will play 90 conference games. Those teams are guaranteed to go 45-45 in those games. Yet if you read the recruiting snippets for Big 12 teams, honestly, these teams are probably going to go 62-28. There's no way Oklahoma State can land that high three-star safety (over LSU and Penn State!) and then go 3-6 in the Big 12, right? I mean, it's just not possible that Baylor can land those two four-star running backs and then not be an offensive powerhouse. I'm telling you, these offensive linemen that West Virginia is landing (did you SEE those other offers?) - they'll have a dominant running game for pretty much the next five years.

I'm not making the "fans are optimistic" point, although that's part of it. I'm saying that the way recruiting is viewed - the certainty found in the numbers - is completely beyond any meaningful calibration. For the last decade, Texas has been pulling in 4-star after 4-star after 4-star. Their record in the Big 12 the in the 2010's? 47-42. They finished the season in the top-25 only twice. Two times. The Texas recruiting rankings from 2007 to 2016 (the players that made up those teams from 2010 to 2019)? Here you go:

2007: 3rd nationally (1st in the Big 12)
2008: 8th nationally (2nd)
2009: 6th (1st)
2010: 2nd (1st)
2011: 4th (1st)
2012: 2nd (1st)
2013: 17th (2nd)
2014: 17th (2nd)
2015: 10th (1st)
2016: 7th (1st)

Their recruiting class, for ten consecutive years, ranks either first or second in the Big 12. Often top-5 in the country, and never out of the top-17. And they finished the season as a ranked team twice. They didn't win the Big 12 a single time and only finished second in the conference standings twice.

Now, there are many takes that can spin out of that. It's the coaching! The last four years of the Mack Brown era he lost his coaching touch. Charlie Strong was an idiot! Tom Herman isn't the wunderkind he was made out to be!

Or maybe you can set up the recruiting rankings for target practice. The players aren't evaluated - they're given rankings based on which school they choose! Choose Texas and you're an automatic 4-star! They weren't recruiting well but their recruits were all getting four stars because they're Texas!

Why has Texas failed to turn recruiting into wins? Who knows, really. It's a combination of a lot of things as a once-storied program tries to recapture their magic. I'm not really here to figure that out. I'm here to figure out why no one cares about TEN YEARS of positive recruiting tweets that led to nothing on the field.

I'm using Texas here, but I could be using, like, 40% of all college programs. For some reason (hint: the reason is "hope"), fans will never tire of recruiting news being spun as future success. I'll give you an example.

I picked a random 4-star recruit who recently picked Texas (Jordon Thomas). I searched his name on Twitter. I found these tweets from when he committed in early May:

All Texas fans have to eventually reach a boy-who-cried-wolf view towards recruiting, right? How many "in the last week, Texas has landed..." tweets have they read over the last TEN YEARS? And yet, 47-42 with zero conference titles (and only two second-place finishes). Month after month, year after year, it's all "BOOM" and "keep 'em coming!" and DJ Khaled "another one" gifs. Aaannd... 42 conference losses in a decade.

This is not to say that recruiting doesn't matter, though. Just the opposite. It's everything. The playoff is basically going to be Alabama-Clemson-Ohio State-Oklahoma for the next five years simply because of recruiting. More than "Saban can really coach", more than "Lincoln Riley's offense is amazing", the reason those teams are better than the others is because they have 30 future NFL guys to utilize. They're bigger, they're faster, and their stronger, and that's 90% born-with-it and 10% weight room. The Bosas pick Ohio State, and because the Bosas pick Ohio State, Ohio State consistently wins the Big Ten. The end.

In my view, that's why it's so easy to spin. You see Ohio State landing the Bosas and you think "I want my team to land some Bosas" and then Jordon Thomas picks Texas and it's so easy to sell you on "Texas just landed a Bosa". It doesn't matter to you that the last six Jordon Thomases never came close to Bosa levels. The next one is going to help us turn the corner.

This trickles down to all programs. Recruiting is both overrated and underrated. It's everything - it's how you separate yourself from the teams you're trying to be better than - and it's also nothing (hi Texas).

Once people see that, the pendulum swings to the other side. College football must just be "coaching". A good staff teaching good players how to play football. This defensive line coach teaches his defensive ends to jab like this, the other defensive line coach teaches his defensive ends to jab like that, and the guys who jab like that get past the tackle and sack the QB and go team go. Better teachers have better teams.

That kind of thinking lasts about 22 minutes when watching practice. I go back to this one way too much, but it's my go-to for this topic: Fall practice, 2011 I think(?), watching all of the defensive ends go through the same drill. Tim Kynard goes through the drill, then Kenny Nelson goes through the drill, then Whitney Mercilus goes through the drill. Take the most "just find athletes and coach 'em up" person you know, stand them next to that drill, and in three minutes they'll turn to you and say "OK, yeah, two guys look like high school players going through the drill and one guy looks like a Decepticon". The speed, the lateral quickness, the burst - you can't teach it. You can only recruit it.

But here's the thing. Whitney Mercilus didn't look like that as a freshman. In fact, he didn't even play until his third (redshirt sophomore) year. He was just another name on the roster in 2008 and 2009. We had a future All American (and future Pro-Bowl) edge rusher on the roster and nobody knew it for nearly three years. Honestly, not even the coaches. They had recruited someone they thought would grow into an athletic defensive end, they offered him, they landed him (over Purdue and Syracuse, as I recall), and then, after 2-3 years in the strength program, he's an All American.

And they also put 11 other players into the same strength program thinking they'd blossom into another Whitney Mercilus and not one of them did. Because, for the most part, defensive ends accepting your offer over Purdue and Syracuse aren't going to blossom into All-Pro edge rushers. Part of it is skill - identifying the right seeds which, when you plant them, will blossom into fantastic plants - but part of it is luck. Let's come back to that because I'm getting to the finish line before I'm ready to cross it.

Next we need to discuss the fan side of these things. And I'll use myself as an example. I WANT my team to win. I get excited at the possibility of my team winning. I was that guy when I was 11 watching games with my dad and I was that guy when I was 19 in Block I and I was that guy when I was 33 and sitting in the stands and I'm that guy when I'm 47 in the press box. There's always hope. I booked plane tickets to the Michigan State game right after we lost to Eastern Michigan because YOU NEVER KNOW. Every huge Illini football fan needs to be this way or else they'll never survive. This program can eat you alive.

Because I'm that guy - because HOPE - I'm absolutely guilty of spinning the same players two different ways. When there's a coaching change - and we have a lot of coaching changes - the single easiest thing to do as a fan is to immediately blame the previous coach. Beckman recruits Jevaris Little and Darwyn Kelly? "Found some real solid athletes here - uncovering some hidden gems for the defensive backfield". Beckman (and then Cubit) are fired, Lovie is hired, and I immediately switch to "what was Lovie supposed to do? Beckman left him with players like Jevaris Little and Darwin Kelly." The same player was both "give it three years and I think we'll have a hard-hitting safety" and then "Lovie basically inherited a MAC roster at safety".

This is one of the reasons I started the Tom Cruises in 2013. I wanted to be on the record. I wouldn't be able to make Darwyn Kelly a 4-star for Beckman and then say Lovie inherited a 2-star. I wanted a baseline for the talent I thought I saw in the program. There are obviously many levels to that - Iowa's offensive line recruits would struggle if they switched to Purdue's offensive scheme - so a defensive end in the Tim Banks defense might not be the right kind of athlete to play defensive end in the Lovie Smith defense. You will still see analysis like that here. It's not all "we have X amount of talent and the new coach should be able to win within X number of games". But, overall, I wanted to rate each player so I could build a baseline.

As I've done that, though, I thought it would make me more recruiting-centric ("college football recruiting is all about identifying the next Whitney Mercilus"), but I feel like it's made me a little more "it's all about implementing a system". I'll use two examples that make me look good.

I watched Sydney Brown's film and realized that he was the exact player Lovie was looking for in his defense. I had watched Lovie's defense for two seasons, and I knew what he wanted (yet didn't have apart from Pat Nelson who had just been dismissed from the team), and so my rating for Sydney Brown went way up. For this defense, that's the player that fits. If I knew this in 2016 when the 2017 recruiting class was being recruited, I would have given Jamal Woods way more Tom Cruises. Lovie loves that kind of hybrid DE/DT recruit (way more than any other Illini coach), and has continued to grab recruits like that (Jerzahn Newton, Sedarius McConnell), and I get it now.

(Yes, a paragraph on "I wanted to establish a baseline of talent" followed by a paragraph on "talent is so scheme-specific" is a bit confusing. Stay with me. I promise I'll land the plane.)

My point with all of this: the way I settle "recruiting is everything" and "recruiting is nothing" is basically two things:

1. It's about climbing over the teams around you.
2. It's about developing players in your schemes to be future pros.

Some words on both of those.

1. It's about climbing over the teams around you.

Illinois is not competing with Clemson. Illinois isn't even competing with Wisconsin. Illinois is trying to establish itself as "no longer a doormat in the Big Ten West". Wisconsin and Iowa are established - what can Illinois do to stand out from Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Nebraska? These are the losses that need to be spread around. In division games, Big Ten West teams are going to go 21-21. So often in the last few decades 4, 5, or 6 of those 21 losses end up headed our way. So if we want that to stop happening, the very first task is to position ourselves above some of those other teams.

That's why the Big Ten standings last year were important. Here's how the Big Ten West standings shook out:

Wisconsin 7-2
Minnesota 7-2
Iowa 6-3
Illinois 4-5
Nebraska 3-6
Purdue 3-6
Northwestern 1-8

That's the focus for now. Minnesota will come back a little bit after graduating most of their defense. Nebraska and Purdue were really young last year and should take a step forward. Northwestern will bounce back. In very specific terms, our recruiting must keep up with those four teams (and our play on the field must consistently beat those four teams.

Which, for a Power Five team attempting to rebuild, is a really good spot. The task for Arkansas right now is "recruit well enough to stay within striking distance of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, & Auburn and then maybe think about trying to hang with LSU and Alabama". For us, Wisconsin and Iowa are the mountain top and those others are the competition to get there.

So when I go to evaluate recruiting, I boil it down to that. Stay educated on the recruiting happening in Lincoln, West Lafayette, Evanston, and Minneapolis. And see if we're going to be able to stand toe-to-toe.

2. It's about developing players in your scheme to be future pros.

I emphasize "in your scheme" there because of places like Texas. They've recruited well and have had 16 draft picks since 2015. But they still can't put all the pieces together. So simply saying "develop future pros" doesn't get us all the way to the top. Yes, NFL players mean you'll play better football, and recruiting higher-ranked kids give you a better chance at cranking out NFL players. But you can find those players and still not win. See: 19 NFL draft picks recruited by Ron Zook in the 2006 through 2009 classes resulting in 5-7, 3-9, 6-6, 6-6 in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.

So I look at it as "do your thing and find your guys". Wisconsin is probably the best example. They don't recruit well. That run that Texas had above where their classes ranked 3rd-8th-6th-2nd-4th-2nd? Those same years Wisconsin classes were ranked 32nd, 37th, 42nd, 46th, 44th, and 65th. Wisconsin used those classes to start the decade 11-2, 11-3, 8-6, 9-4, 11-3, 10-3. Texas used their recruiting run to start the decade 5-7, 8-5, 9-4, 8-5, 6-7, 5-7.

Obviously these are two extreme examples - Clemson recruits well and they win; Rutgers recruits poorly and they lose - but I think it illustrates that building a machine is everything. Do a thing, recruit to that thing, develop players within that ecosystem, and crank out winning season after winning season. At that point, recruiting is more about "make sure there are no weak links in the chain" than anything. One bad position group can kill a season, so recruit and recruit and recruit to make sure you don't lose momentum at any spot on the depth chart.

That's why I say "developing players in your scheme to be future pros". Wisconsin had 41 players drafted since 2010 with recruiting classes all ranked in the 30's and 40's. Yes, some of that is "a player going to Texas gets an automatic four stars", but much of that is the Wisconsin machine. Keep feeding the right athletes in and keep winning.

And yes, there's some luck. You're recruiting a 17 year-old kid not for who he is at that moment but for who he will be when he's 22. There's some skill in that, but there's also some "wow, we never thought Mercilus would be THIS good". Wisconsin didn't have any idea what they had when JJ Watt left Central Michigan and walked on in Madison. On that one, they got lucky.

But overall, it's about getting the engine running. Recruits are the fluids the keep it running, not the parts that build the engine. Texas just cannot rebuild their engine and so 4-star synthetic oil doesn't matter. Wisconsin can feed in low-grade oil and keep it going because they built a great engine in 1993 and have kept it humming for nearly three decades.

Illinois? Illinois finally got the engine to fire on October 19th. And it revved up really nicely the next four weeks. But then it sputtered at the end there and now we have to crank it again. And add high-octane fuel. And get the oil right. And add antifreeze. And find the right blinker fluid.

To me, that's recruiting. You can rebuild with classes ranked in the 60's (Jerry Kill) and you can fail with classes ranked in the top-15 year after year (Tennessee). The higher the classes are ranked, the higher the odds, but for the most part "our solid recruiting means wins are coming/our poor recruiting means losses are coming" is way over-emphasized. Build the right engine, add the right oil.

And find another Mercilus or six.


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