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Is the Big 12 in the Middle of a Recruiting Crisis?

Mike Gundy

Mike Gundy

Mike Gundy sat in his office, admiring the framed jerseys of the six first-round NFL Draft picks of his time at Oklahoma State. He considered, too, where they came from.

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“Four of them weren’t even recruited,” Gundy said.

Not coveted prospects, carrying the sparkling five-star status that every prep player desires. Not the talk of recruitniks on National Signing Day. “The other guys,” Gundy said, “they weren’t very highly recruited. For that reason, I don’t put a lot of stock in recruiting rankings.”

Perhaps not, and Gundy has a strong track record of making more out of less in terms of prospect perceptions, evident in the jersey wall decorations adorning his office: Brandon Pettigrew, Russell Okung, Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden and Justin Gilbert.

Still, others are taking stock of Big 12 recruiting as a whole, coming off a February in which the conference lagged significantly in the rankings. That stock watch is trending down.

Moreover, the Big 12 hasn’t claimed a national championship since 2005, and it hasn’t played for one since 2009. It found itself shut out of the first College Football Playoff, failing to land even one of the four spots to conclude last season. Maybe some concern is in order?

This Feature and More are Available in the 2015 Athlon Sports Big 12 Preview Magazine

Don’t expect anyone in the Big 12 to cop to such a stance. No coach ever met a recruiting class — his recruiting class — that he couldn’t gush over publicly. Case in point, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads, whose class was ranked No. 9 in the Big 12 and No. 70 nationally by the 247Sports Composite, just ahead of Kansas, which was recruiting with a just-hired head coach:

“We had a great finish with the class of 2015,” Rhoads said on Signing Day. “In previous years, we pretty much had a full understanding of where we were by the middle of January. With this particular class, we were in a lot of fights in the last two weeks leading up to Signing Day. We closed in tremendous fashion. We picked up much-needed size, physical explosiveness on both lines, great skill in the backfield and overall numbers that were necessary for success in 2015.”

Critique of Big 12 recruiting doesn’t focus on Iowa State, but rather the league’s regular contenders. Even there, you’ll find warning signs. Texas was the only Big 12 team to crack the 247Sports Composite top 10, and that was at No. 10. Oklahoma came in at No. 15. From there, it was a major drop-off to Texas Tech at No. 31. The rest: No. 35 West Virginia, No. 36 Baylor, No. 39 Oklahoma State, No. 40 TCU, No. 53 Kansas State, No. 70 Iowa State and No. 72 Kansas.

Big 12 teams signed but nine of the 247Sports Composite’s top 100 players and three of the top 70.

Equally troubling is the league’s performance in the fertile recruiting landscape of Texas, where the Longhorns and Sooners have long dominated and the rest of the Big 12 has scored strong as well. But in February, the conference pulled only two of the Lone Star State’s top 10, while 26 of the top 50 — the state’s premium prospects — fled to other conferences, 21 to the SEC. It appears to be a trend, too, with the SEC plucking five of the top 10 prospects in 2014. The Big 12 managed signatures from only 23 of the top 50 that year. The SEC also grabbed three of the state’s five-star recruits.

“Three years from now, look at the signing class and see how those kids are playing,” says West Virginia assistant coach Joe DeForest, long considered one of the Big 12’s top recruiters. “That’s when you know.”

The hope come 2018 may be that it’s not too late.

Of course, that’s assuming the outside recruiting analysts are to be taken seriously. Coaches, for the most part, suggest otherwise.

“It’s about, what does the film say, first and foremost,” says Oklahoma assistant Jay Boulware. “Once you identify a guy on tape, then you go out and see what he looks like physically, in person. Can he play at this level physically? If those two things check out, then it doesn’t matter whether, excuse my language, some reporter has labeled this kid as a four- or five-star. What matters is what we see as coaches. I can look at a guy like Dimitri Flowers, who is here and was a three-star. He’s a true freshman who is playing for us on Saturdays. That’s big. That’s not one of the top-notch guys in the country. I don’t care where I’ve been, that kid will be playing for us anywhere. He’s that type of player.”

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That’s the evaluation side of the recruiting process from a coaching standpoint; a trained-eye standpoint. Not just stopwatches and bench-presses, but other measurables, along with intangibles, too. “It’s not just talent,” DeForest says. “There has to be a personality fit as well.”

During Gundy’s run, Oklahoma State has signed just one high school recruit who received a five-star ranking by any of the recruiting services, running back Herschel Sims out of Abilene, Texas. Sims got in trouble, was dismissed and is now at Abilene Christian, after also washing out at Lamar.

“I will say this,” Gundy says, “five-star guys, they’re pretty accurate because they’re easy to identify. Just like McDonald’s All-Americans in basketball, most times they’re pretty good. There’s only so many of them.

“You don’t see many five-stars in football, so most of them have been pretty accurate. We had one; didn’t pan out.”

The Cowboys have made their rise in the Big 12 on the backs of players they evaluated differently than others. To an extent, so have Baylor and TCU, who have accounted for the past two Big 12 championships, winning with 3-star recruits at quarterback — Bryce Petty for the Bears and Trevone Boykin for the Horned Frogs — both of whom have been All-Big 12 and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.

Mack Brown recruited supposedly elite classes almost annually to Texas yet was fired amid complaints about his evaluation skills. In 2012, Texas ranked second nationally in recruiting, and OU was No. 12. Yet no player in that Longhorns class has played on a conference title team. Instead, it’s been TCU and Baylor, who ranked No. 29 and No. 26, respectively, that year, who have upped the ante in the league with their cast of three-stars.

“I’ve been at West Virginia now going on my fourth year,” DeForest says. “I’ve coached two Freshman All-American safeties, the Lou Groza Award finalist, an All-American kick returner, an All-American punt returner. But those guys weren’t all that in the recruiting world.

“Karl Joseph was a ‘Mike’ linebacker in high school in Orlando, Fla. Now he’s one of the best safeties in the country. Josh Lambert had nothing in the way of a scholarship offer until I got there in January and we were in dire need of a kicker. Two years later, he’s a Lou Groza Award finalist.”

The second part of the evaluation equation: development.

Even five-star players need to be developed, no matter how college-ready they seem. But for teams like TCU, Baylor, OSU, West Virginia and Kansas State — Bill Snyder is considered the king of player development — molding players is their calling card.

When Snyder’s 2014 class actually made a ripple in the recruiting rankings, the coach hardly sounded any trumpets. “I think it is a good class,” Snyder says. “How will it rank? Who knows? A bunch of those guys are ranked extremely high by ESPN. There are 13 of our guys who are ranked, at their position, in the top 44 of the country. Some of them are high school; some of them are community college. You know me. That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. That doesn’t mean it will be a great class or a bad class or anything else. … It will prove itself out.”

The Horned Frogs have ranked higher than No. 30 in the 247Sports Composite rankings only once — they came in at No. 29 in 2012.

“I really think it’s about player development. I think it’s about fit and player development,” DeForest says. “I don’t think rankings mean anything. The people who get caught up in that are the fans. The coaches don’t. Now, some coaches have bonuses tied up in it, if you get a top-10 class, you get a bonus, things like that.

“Social media, rankings, the fact that ESPN is doing an entire day on it — on Signing Day — I think it’s gotten out of hand. That’s my opinion. But I do think that coaches who get ‘two-stars’ and develop them into three-year starters at the Division-I level and give them an opportunity to go to the NFL, those are the coaches who are lot more valuable.”

Boulware sees it similarly. And he finds value in a very specific style of player. “There are a lot of guys that go off press clippings,” Boulware says. “It means something to their staff to have a top-five or top-10 recruiting class. That’s nice. I get it. What matters to me is winning football games and winning football games with the right people.

“The guys that fit into our program, good character young men that physically have all the tools and the things that we look for, if they have those, that’s who we’re going after.”

-by John Helsley,