Last year, Texas became one of the nation’s biggest signing day stories as the Longhorns rocketed up the national team rankings as seven highly-rated prospects, one after the other, announced they were signing on. It was a steady 4-star stream, from Brandon Jones to Jeffrey McCulloch to Erick Fowler to Jordan Elliott.
The Longhorns’ class began the day rated 31st nationally. By the time the smoke cleared, Texas had a top-10 class.
This year? Not so much.
Tom Herman, in his first UT class, signed 18 players. Texas’ group began the day ranked 25th and sat at 26th when he took the podium Wednesday to talk about the Longhorns’ group, which included no five-star recruits, seven four-stars and a slew of three-stars.
He seemed OK with that, though.
“It’s about building the complete man,” Herman said. “The Texas man.”
Herman took on this year’s recruiting philosophy. He talked about attrition and analytics, pointed to the dangers and pitfalls of pulling together transition-year classes on the fly. He certainly embraced the concept of recruiting rankings and star ratings as real things, but pointed out that there’s more to it than that.
“There is validity (in rankings),” he said. “Every analytic you look at, you look at the correlation and causation of top-10 recruiting classes and 10-, 11-, 12-win seasons and they’re real. Usually a five-star kid has five-star talent.
“What rankings don’t do though is crack their chest open and look at their heart,” he continued. “They don’t look at work ethic, don’t look at what their coaches say about them. There are a lot of three- and four-star guys who are undervalued because of those potentials. I don’t frown upon rankings. I think they’re real.”
How will this class be judged? As always, it all depends on what happens on the field. Strong’s three UT classes ranked 16th, 10th and seventh nationally. You can make the case that he left Texas’ cupboard better stocked for Herman than Mack Brown did for Strong in 2014. Texas’ 2017 roster will be heavy on sophomores and juniors.
Perhaps the Longhorns, who were expected to sign a smaller class anyway because of roster numbers, were better suited to cherry-pick here and there to address specific holes and needs right now. Perhaps Herman, who in January noted that Urban Meyer’s transitional first class in 2012 ended up yielding only three substantial signings, knew that 2018, not 2017, was always going to be the more important group.
Will this be a quality vs. quantity thing — looking beyond star ratings?
He got a quarterback, which was needed. And Westlake’s Sam Ehlinger, who’s already on campus, will go through spring workouts and is expected to challenge Shane Buechele for snaps and perhaps even the starting job come fall. Tyrone Swoopes, after all, is gone and has taken his 18-Wheeler package with him; Herman’s offenses have favored quarterbacks with wheels, which Ehlinger has.
Herman said he fell in love with Ehlinger for two reasons: First, the quarterback had to mature quickly after losing his father. Second, the fact that Ehlinger kept wanting to get back onto the field during his injury-plagued senior season, to Herman, spoke volumes.
“Put that into perspective: ‘Injury-laden senior year,'” he said. “It didn’t have to be. That tells me a lot — one, how much the kid loves football and two, how great of a teammate to get back out there.”
Herman was asked if he hopes Ehlinger pushes Buechele for the starting job. “I hope so,” he said. “I hope everybody pushes everybody.”
Trent Domingue also has left, leaving the Longhorns without a kicker on the roster. Enter Josh Rowland, the No. 1-ranked junior college in the country who hit 25 of his 31 field goal tries over the past two years and nailed 76 of his 77 extra points. Surely UT fans can appreciate that.
Speaking of No. 1-rated JUCO recruits, Texas also got inside linebacker Gary Johnson, who many expect to be able to start on Day 1. If so, that kills two birds with one stone. It’s been awhile since that middle linebacker spot was a position of strength for Texas; Malik Jefferson has been forced to man that spot out of necessity, so if Johnson can step in, it’ll allow the state’s No. 1 recruit from 2015 the luxury to move back to his more natural outside ‘backer position.
In all, Texas signed one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, two tight ends, a guard, a tackle and a kicker for the offense; and three defensive ends, a defensive tackle, an inside linebacker, two cornerbacks and an athlete who’ll probably play safety on the defensive side.
“What a phenomenal athlete Gary Johnson is,” Herman said. “He loves to hit, and you feel it when he hits you.”
What didn’t Texas get?
The Longhorns went 1-for-3 on their three remaining targets who announced on signing day. Galena Park North Shore defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson, who was the highest-rated uncommitted player on the American-Statesman’s Fabulous 55, picked LSU over Texas. Westlake tackle Stephan Zabie, another four-star, went with UCLA. Only Florida receiver Jordan Pouncey came through, a three-star signing day get who picked the Longhorns over Miami and Tennessee.
And consider this: For the first time in the 28-year history of the Fab 55, Texas failed to secure one of the state’s top 10-ranked players. Even during the pre-Mack lean years of the 1990s, Texas always managed to get at least one top-10 state recruit. Since 1989, the Longhorns ended up signing six of the state’s 10 highest-rated players four times (1999, 2000, 2010 and 2011); five players five times (2002, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012); four players six times (1993, 1997, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008); three players three times (1998, 2001 and 2016); two players three times (1992, 2013 and 2015) and only one recruit seven times (1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2014).
What went wrong?
“You’ve got to win,” he said. “At this point, this class of 2018 coming up, they’re 16 years old. Since they were 10, they’ve seen two winning seasons of Texas football. … Winning helps. The Texas that they know is different than the Texas we know. We’ve got to show them what Texas is capable of, what Texas was in the past and what Texas is capable of being in the future.”