History or Future: What are Recruits Buying?

Ryan Robertson Editorials Leave a Comment

College football is ever changing. Some patterns are easy to predict, but long-term recruiting projections have been something that analysts cannot predict. Partially because recruiting is only as successful as a staff makes it, but also because it is impossible to predict how long coaches will stay with specific teams and long term conference success is almost as important as team success.

Schools often try to figure out what their biggest draw is and recruit based around that. USC recruits with focus on past success and the ability to live in Los Angeles. Oregon could (and probably does) recruit based on their relationship with Nike and Phil Knight. Alabama and Ohio State can recruit on being, easily, the two greatest programs in college football history. Washington recruits based on a nearly 30-year-old National Championship.

The question remains: what works on recruits now?

Two schools that are indicative of the national trends are Washington and Clemson. Both teams made the 2016 College Football Playoff after dominating their conferences with fantastic defenses, great offenses and innovative head coaches.

Washington

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It takes a bold team to claim a division title after skipping 1/3 of their games

The 2016 Washington Huskies were very good. They had a phenomenal defense full of NFL players, and a dangerous offense capable of putting up a lot of points in a hurry. Chris Peterson was a good game-planner with the personnel to execute his system to perfection. Husky fans the world over still remember 2016 as the year that they did to Oregon what Oregon had been doing to them for well over a decade.

Fortunately, that was as good as it got for the Huskies. Jake Browning never developed, the defense failed to replace many of their stars as they departed and the receiving corps could never touch the talent of the 2016 group. The coaching staff has to take the blame for the lack of QB development, but they should have been able to capitalize on a CFB Playoff appearance to boost recruiting.

So what happened? Well UW hung a banner in their stadium. A banner that essentially read “we came in third or fourth place this year, isn’t that great?!” Great it wasn’t, as the Huskies would levy that third or fourth place finish into only the 22nd ranked class, three spots behind the team in Eugene, who finished with a decade low four wins. The No. 22 class was full of stars, but it would be the final class along those lines.

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Slot defender Elijah Molden has been exceptional as of late, but he’s an outlier from an otherwise underwhelming Huskies defensive group.

They did slightly better the following year, finishing with the 16th rated class. Two of their top three players were QB’s who would transfer out of the program, their highest rated player was a wide receiver with three career catches as of right now. The following two classes have had solid returns without any home runs. They finished in the mid-teens both years, and their top players have not become phenomenal.

It all culminated in the 2021 cycle where the Huskies finished with the 35th ranked class, possessing only four highly rated (four and five star) recruits. The smaller returns are due in no small part to a coaching change and diminishing on-the-field returns.

The issue with Washington is that they celebrated a loss. Recruits go to schools where they think they can play, show their individual abilities, and win. Washington showed that they were okay with a loss. All the while, trying to sell recruits on a “national championship” bid from when the current recruits parents were in college. They believe themselves a blue blood, but modern recruits want the promise to win moving forward.

Clemson

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Deshaun Watson actually won in the playoffs.

The Clemson Tigers finally got the monkey off their back in 2016. The didn’t have their annual meltdown, previously known as “The Clemson Game,” they blew out Ohio State in the semifinals, and they beat Alabama in a fantastic National Championship game. Clemson lost a lot of production to the draft. Deshaun Watson went on to become an all-pro caliber QB in the NFL, Mike Williams has been a stand-out wide receiver when healthy, and four other Tigers were drafted with several contributors.

The fact of the matter is that Clemson didn’t have a lot of space following the 2016-2017 season. Their recruiting class had only 14 players, but had several players that went down as some of the greatest at their position in school history. Clemson, as a result, has not missed the playoff in any season since. Their recruiting classes since have ranked; 7th, 10th, 3rd, and 5th.

But Clemson’s success did not start with their 2016-2017 national championship. It started long before that, with recruiting players on the basis that they would win at Clemson, not on the basis that 20 years prior they were really good. They didn’t hang a banner for losing the national championship the year before. As a result, “The Clemson Game” is no longer in the vocabulary of analysts.

Conclusion

Clemson became a national brand due to a weak conference, a good coaching staff, and a “never satisfied” attitude. They have kept themselves there by selling kids on the future; the games those players can win, the idea that they can make it to the NFL. Their recruiting has been among the best in the country as a result.

At the same time, Washington was trying to sell kids on what the school had already done. Putting hype videos of players on stationary bikes online, hanging banners celebrating being invited to the big stage, and telling people that Oregon’s recent success meant nothing made them look like has-beens. They are the middle aged guy in a small town who wears his state championship ring, bragging about how many yards he had back in the day, while the whole world passes him by.

Remember kids, banners are for special occasions, the fastest way to irrelevance is to hang them up when you failed.

Ryan Robertson
Yuma, Arizona
Top Photo By Tom Corno

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