The December, 2017 implementation of the Early Signing Day (ESD) period in college football was welcomed with mixed results. Many viewed it as an opportunity for underdog programs to actually reap the rewards of their scouting and persistence, getting their diamonds-in-the-rough to sign early without some blue blood swooping in at the last second in January/February and swaying them away. Others viewed it as a way to make it harder for elite talent to fall to the non-blue bloods and as further restrictions on the athletes themselves. Look no further than the timeline of hiring/firing assistant coaches, which has now fallen squarely on the week after ESD. That’s right: an assistant creates a relationship, works with a kid through his junior and senior year, pitches him the school over and over, gets him to sign early...and then either gets fired or gets a new job once the kid has signed his letter of intent.
The least anticipated fallout, however, impacted those who have been hired as head coaches at a new school and their ability to recruit. It wasn’t that long ago that brand new coaches provided a noticeable bump to a school’s recruiting profile. The new guy would come in, assemble a staff in December, and then spend the next two and a half months salvaging the recruiting class and pitching his vision and culture to any recruit who would hear him out. It was perfect: excitement was high and everything he pitched had no way to be disproved because he hadn’t coached a game yet! Schools would routinely see a 10-15 spot jump in the rankings compared to their prior 4-year average, and that crop of recruits would provide the foundation that would allow a Year Three (or earlier) breakthrough in the win/loss column.
Now? Well...a coach gets hired away from his current team in December, immediately starts compiling a staff, and then has about two weeks to salvage a class. Pitching his vision to a thousand athletes? Forget about it; most of them are signed and off the market. What’s left are 5-stars who already know where they are going, but are enjoying the wooing process, and character/grade issue guys who are high risks for programs to take on. We’re at a point where a coach’s first recruiting class is a total dud that potentially can set a program back an additional year because - in this version of Year Three - the upperclassmen leadership is the clunker class that was scraped together last second. And when a third-year jump doesn’t happen, coaches tend to either find themselves on the hot seat or are outright fired.
Obviously, this scenario plays out differently from school to school, so I thought it would be worth taking a look at the hiring class at the end of the 2017 year/beginning of 2018 year to see what, exactly, the effects of ESD had on the programs. For the sake of our interest (and my time), I’m focusing purely on the Power 5 conferences. So, for each school that hired a coach at the end of the 2017 season, I will show you what the 5-year/2-year/prior year’s recruiting efforts looked like, what the first class the new coach recruited looked like with a time-crunch (2018), and then what this past year’s effort ranked (2019). Let’s go alphabetically:
Arizona Wildcats- Kevin Sumlin
2017 5-year average rank: 64.9% - 39th
2017 2-year average rank: 62.8% - 42nd
2017 class rank: 66.1% - 41st
2018 class rank (1st class): 55.4% - 53rd
2019 class rank (2nd class): 51.8% - 55th
Not great, Kevin! Each class under Sumlin has gotten progressively worse and neither has come close of touching the 5- or 2-year average bar set by previous coach Rich Rodriguez.
Arizona State Sun Devils - Herm Edwards
2017 5-year average rank: 75.8% - 30th
2017 2-year average rank: 68.9% - 38th
2017 class rank: 62.7% - 44th
2018 class rank (1st class): 70.3% - 36th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 73.9% - 31st
Despite spending one season in the college ranks, Edwards has been able to compile a staff that recruits pretty well. Both of his first two classes exceed the 2-year average and prior class that Todd Graham brought in, and each class has gotten better, including the projected Top 15 class of 2020. He has yet to hit the 5-year average but — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — I trust Herm Edwards to be able to improve upon that.
Arkansas Razorbacks - Chad Morris
2017 5-year average rank: 74.3% - 31st
2017 2-year average rank: 78.1% - 26th
2017 class rank: 78.4% - 25th
2018 class rank (1st class): 52.7% - 58th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 86.8% - 22nd
These next two will be especially pertinent since they’re at SEC schools. And this one, especially, since Morris and his staff really dominated the recruiting circuit last year but were absolutely dreadful in game planning and development. His first class was absolutely dreadful, but he improved upon the one/two/and five year performances in just the second year. It would have been interesting to see how he did this off-season; as it is, Sam Pittman will be tasked with salvaging the Hogs’ 2020 recruiting crop.
Florida Gators - Dan Mullen
2017 5-year average rank: 92.8% - 10th
2017 2-year average rank: 94.1% - 8th
2017 class rank: 93.6% - 9th
2018 class rank (1st class): 90.3% - 15th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 96.9% - 7th
Even blue-blood programs struggle with this phenomenon. Dan Mullen’s first class was incredibly disappointing...at 15th in the country. Nice problem to have, huh? He has since righted the recruiting ship but this is Exhibit A for “ESD makes new coach recruiting tough.”
Florida State Seminoles - Willie Taggart
2017 5-year average rank: 97.7% - 5th
2017 2-year average rank: 98.9% - 3rd
2017 class rank: 98.7% - 6th
2018 class rank (1st class): 95.1% - 10th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 92.3% - 17th
Jimbo Fisher and his staff are elite recruiters so there was going to be some regression when Taggart took over. The first class of 2018 didn’t meet expectations but that 2019 class was even worse! FSU wasn’t winning games and Taggart’s staff took too long to move on from the blue-chips; long enough that their second and third options were gone and they had to settle for lesser players. Of course, they still ranked 17th in the country, which just goes to show “struggling” can be influenced by perspective.
Mississippi State Bulldogs - Joe Moorhead
2017 5-year average rank: 78.0% - 25th
2017 2-year average rank: 76.2% - 31st
2017 class rank: 79.4% - 24th
2018 class rank (1st class): 77.3% - 25th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 86.4% - 23rd
Moorhead came in with enough offensive fanfare that he was able to quickly salvage the 2018 class with only a minimal dip in percentile and rank. The 2019 class finished with a much higher percentile, but minimal in overall rank. Whether it was luck or skill, Mississippi State was able to survive the first-year slump.
Nebraska Cornhuskers - Scott Frost
2017 5-year average rank: 77.9% - 26th
2017 2-year average rank: 82.2% - 22nd
2017 class rank: 83.2% - 22nd
2018 class rank (1st class): 81.5% - 21st
2019 class rank (2nd class): 88.8% - 20th
Scott Frost was the guy that everyone wanted once the 2018 season wrapped up. He came into Lincoln, looked around, declared that the roster was “crap”, and then recruited the hell out of the country. Because of his undefeated year at UCF, and the “proud son comes home” appeal, it isn’t much of a surprise that Nebraska’s first ESD class not only didn’t regress, but actually improved. Frost and his boys are excellent talent identifiers and developers, and even though the on-field results aren’t there yet, they’re certainly tearing it up in the recruiting circuit.
Ole Miss Rebels - Matt Luke
2017 5-year average rank: 87.9% - 18th
2017 2-year average rank: 84.9% - 20th
2017 class rank: 72.1% - 33rd
2018 class rank (1st class): 74.7% - 29th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 85.9% - 24th
Another SEC gig, another fired head coach. Luke’s staff was able to outperform the previous year’s recruiting class but was far away from the 5- and 2-year average. Their second year class was an improvement, but still not back to glory years of Hugh Freeze. Guess Freeze took the bagmen with him when he was fired, huh?
Oregon Ducks - Mario Cristobal
2017 5-year average rank: 84.9% - 22nd
2017 2-year average rank: 81.8% - 23rd
2017 class rank: 85.6% - 19th
2018 class rank (1st class): 89.8% - 17th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 96.8% - 9th
With the power of the Nike “swoosh”, Oregon has always recruited at a Top 25 level. Cristobal came in, overhauled the offensive approach, made defenders a bigger target on the recruiting board, and actually outperformed their 5/2/prior year performances immediately, and improved in Year 2. Getting a 5-star defensive end certainly helps, but Cristobal, despite not being a big name hire, has gotten big name results on the recruiting circuit.
Oregon State Beavers - Jonathan Smith
2017 5-year average rank: 58.4% - 49th
2017 2-year average rank: 62.4% - 43rd
2017 class rank: 61.4% - 47th
2018 class rank (1st class): 42.6% - 70th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 42.2% - 67th
It’s tough being Oregon State. It’s basically what Oregon would be without Phil Knight’s money cannon. Smith is an excellent offensive tactician but has regressed the school’s recruiting over the past two year. The dip in that first class was very noticeable and still hasn’t gotten back to the Gary Andersen years in the second class.
Tennessee Volunteers - Jeremy Pruitt
2017 5-year average rank: 91.9% - 13th
2017 2-year average rank: 91.2% - 14th
2017 class rank: 88.8% - 15th
2018 class rank (1st class): 82.2% - 20th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 96.1% - 12th
Even elite recruiters from elite recruiting teams struggle in their first class! Jeremy Pruitt knows the ins and outs from both Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban, but still had Tennessee’s first class drop 25% from previous finishes. 2019’s class was a much better finish, and 2020 will be as well, but he still fell victim to the first-year bump.
Texas A&M Aggies - Jimbo Fisher
2017 5-year average rank: 93.9% - 9th
2017 2-year average rank: 92.0% - 12th
2017 class rank: 93.2% - 10th
2018 class rank (1st class): 90.0% - 16th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 97.5% - 4th
Most schools would take a first class ranked 16th but of course, for A&M, that was rough. Fisher got them back to 4th last year and will continue to finish that high, but once again, another sample in the effects that a rushed first class can have.
UCLA Bruins - Chip Kelly
2017 5-year average rank: 92.2% - 11th
2017 2-year average rank: 90.2% - 15th
2017 class rank: 84.4% - 21st
2018 class rank (1st class): 86.9% - 18th
2019 class rank (2nd class): 62.6% - 42nd
Chip Kelly hates recruiting. He hates the visits, he hates hosting, he hates anything that doesn’t deal with development and game planning. His first class was a gift from the fired Jim Mora who convinced the kids to stay with Chip, but that second class...well, they didn’t put much effort into it. You can see that 2018 didn’t match the extended averages and, even though he’s doing better in 2020, I can’t see UCLA getting back to the recruiting highs of the Mora years.
(...also, I figured you all would be interested in having this exercise run on Missouri. Barry Odom, obviously, was hired at the end of the 2015 season so ESD was implemented while he was already here. But if you want to know what recruiting looked like before and after ESD with Barry, here ya go:
2017 5-year average rank: 66.6% - 38th
2017 2-year average rank: 56.8% - 50th
2017 class rank: 60.3% - 51st
2018 class rank (1st ESD class): 64.9% - 42nd
2019 class rank (2nd ESD class): 67.1% - 36th
What does it all mean? When you take the differences between prior year recruiting and the first class of a new coach, it averages out like this:
Recruiting Percentile Change from Prior Year’s Coach to New Coach: -4.5%
Recruiting Rank Change from Prior Year’s Coach to New Coach: -5.5 spots
For Coach Drink and Missouri, that would mean a regression in percentile performance from 67.1% to 62.6% and a fall in the rankings from 36th to 41st or 42nd. That would be the fourth worst recruiting class of all time (2017-49th, 2011-48th, 2016-46th) and that’s before we count in scholarship reductions and limiting visits.
But what about that second-year improvement? What could we reasonably expect with Drinkwitz’s first full run at a recruiting class? Well, based off of the averages above, you can expect an improvement of about 4 spots, again, without taking into consideration the recruiting restrictions Missouri will have to deal with.
We’ll see what this weekend’s recruiting-salvaging-pow-wow will do to this class and if any of his App State commits are good enough (and interested) to play for Missouri. As it is, we’ll have to wait a few more days to see the first round of signatures, but just go ahead brace yourself to be slightly disappointed with the results.