Texas building stellar recruiting class despite subpar 2010 season
At Texas, Signing Day is akin to Groundhog Day. Every year, the Longhorns spend most of the prior 12 months ranked No. 1 by the various recruiting services. Every year, somebody else (Alabama and/or Florida State this time around) passes them in the home stretch due to more recent commitments. And every year, the ‘Horns still finish in the top five.
But this year is different. This year, Texas coach Mack Brown is pulling off the feat despite a decidedly uncharacteristic five months for his program. Despite an inexplicable plummet from 13-1 to 5-7, despite two-thirds of the coaching staff changing and despite going nearly a month in December and early January without an offensive or defensive coordinator, Texas kept nearly its entire class intact.
“I found out it’s a whole lot easier to win and go to a bowl game than lose and do what I’ve been doing [the past two months],” Brown said Monday. “[Wife] Sally got sick of me. I saw more bowl games than I have in my entire life. I said, ‘I’m going back to work to make sure this never happens again.’”
Brown spent nearly every day on the road the past three weeks visiting with committed prospects and their families. It’s not a new thing, but with so much coaching turnover, “I was by myself more often,” Brown said. “I had to get some maps.”
The work has paid off. Barring any 11th-hour stunners, Texas will have lost only one previously committed player: four-star offensive lineman Christian Westerman (Chandler, Ariz.), who opted for Auburn instead. It’s not as though the 22 incoming Longhorns did not have time to reconsider. All committed before the start of last season, including 13 within 10 days of last year’s Signing Day.
“It’s not a coincidence the kid they lost was [one of only two commits] not from the state of Texas,” said Rivals.com National Analyst Mike Farrell. “That’s just the way Texas football is. Kids grow up dreaming of playing for Texas. A bad season, waiting on hires — none of it matters.”
That reality didn’t stop various fan sites and message boards from erupting in full-on panic during the days and weeks following defensive coordinator Will Muschamp’s stunning departure for Florida on Dec. 11. While most had expected (and likely welcomed) the resignation of Brown’s 13-year offensive coordinator, Greg Davis, Muschamp had been Brown’s designated successor and one of his top recruiters.
At one time or another, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, former Miami coach Randy Shannon, former Florida defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and many others were rumored to be “done deals” as replacements. All the while, opposing coaches did their best to use the uncertainty against Texas on the recruiting trail.
“The kids I’m recruiting were 5 years old when I got here, so they’ve been watching Texas win their whole lives,” said Brown. “They knew it wasn’t going to stay this way, and for some of them, it felt like it gave them a better chance to play [right away]. They trusted me and that I was going to hire the right guys.”
Brown finally announced the biggest of those hires the first week of January: co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, both in their mid-30s and considered among the rising stars in their profession.
Brown said the plan all along was for running backs coach and former star quarterback Major Applewhite to serve as co-offensive coordinator with one outsider. He selected Boise State’s Harsin because, “When I brought him down [to interview], he and Major had great chemistry. I think they’re on the cutting edge of new and fun stuff offensively. [Boise State] is outside of the box, and they have the ability to throw deep and keep their toughness.”
Meanwhile, Brown had admittedly never laid eyes on Mississippi State’s Diaz, who, in his first year in Starkville after previously working at NC State and Middle Tennessee State, helped improve the Bulldogs from 5-7 to 9-4 and from 71st to 21st in scoring defense. “Everyone I called, all my friends in the SEC, they all told me you’ve got to look at the guy at Mississippi State,” said Brown. “He’s aggressive, he’s outside the box, and he’s got blitz packages we’ve never seen.”
So Brown tuned in to the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day and, after watching the Bulldogs shut down Denard Robinson-led Michigan, placed the call two days later.
Harsin and Diaz join a program that is all but starting from scratch. “It’s my first day at Texas and I’ve been here 13 years,” said Brown. As a result, “We’ve told everyone — both our players coming back and our recruits — that all positions are up for grabs. The freshman class will only be 15 days behind the [incumbents] when they arrive in the fall.”
Hence, there could be increased opportunities for incoming recruits.
While Texas’ 2010 struggles could be blamed on any number of factors — a failed attempt to switch from the shotgun-spread to a power-I offense, a leadership void left by four-year star Colt McCoy’s departure, a team-wide sense of “entitlement” that Brown said he sensed as early as preseason practice — there was no denying the talent drop-off at several key positions.
In particular, Texas has somehow failed to produce a top-flight running back since current Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro Jamaal Charles’ departure following the 2007 season. No ‘Horns tailback has rushed for more than 552 yards in the three seasons since. A host of former four-star recruits like Cody Johnson, Vondrell McGee and Fozzy Whittaker have fizzled.
Enter Malcolm Brown (Cibolo, Texas), one of the two most touted tailback prospects in the country depending on which service you use. The 6-foot, 220-pound prospect will carry a far bigger burden than just a football next season: ‘Horns fans are counting on him to be an impact true freshman on par with South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore or Auburn’s Michael Dyer last season. In their wildest dreams, Brown is the second coming of similarly built former star Cedric Benson.
“He has to be one of the three or four guys [in the country] that has to come in and make an immediate impact,” said Farrell. “He’s big, he’s physically ready for a pounding, he carried the ball a bazillion times in high school already. He’s got good hands, too, so he can be a three-down back. It’s just a matter of adjusting to the speed of the game, picking up blitzes and those sorts of things.”
For Texas fans’ sake, hopefully their expectations aren’t unrealistic. Some analysts soured a bit on Brown after a so-so showing at last month’s U.S. Army All-America Game, and SI.com’s partner site 247Sports.com knocked Brown to a four-star ranking.
“He reminds you of Adrian Peterson a little bit, but he didn’t have the same great speed and quickness,” said Scout.com National Editor Allen Wallace. “But he’s big, fast and powerful.”
Beyond Brown, Texas’ other most highly regarded skill player goes by a familiar name: Top 10 receiver Jaxon Shipley (Brownwood, Texas), younger brother of former ‘Horns standout Jordan. Meanwhile, Texas loaded up on the offensive line, one of its weakest spots the past two seasons. Even with Westerman’s defection, the ‘Horns will still land five o-linemen, including four-star tackle Garrett Greenlea (Klein, Texas) and guard Sedrick Flowers (Galena Park).
On the other side of the ball, Scout.com ranks commit Steve Edmond (Daingerfield, Texas) as the nation’s No. 2 middle linebacker and Desmond Jackson (Houston) as a top five defensive tackle.
But Mack Brown doesn’t believe the Longhorns were lacking for talent last year, and the recruiting pundits certainly back him up. Four of Texas’ past five classes were ranked in the top five by Rivals.com. “I don’t think we developed the kids as well last year,” Brown said.
We’ll find out soon enough if he’s right.
While it’s realistic to assume Diaz will breathe fire into a defense that wasn’t all that bad to begin with (Texas ranked sixth nationally in yards allowed last season), Harsin and Applewhite have their work cut out with an offense that was downright inept at times. They’ll need to either restore confidence in rising junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert (who threw 17 interceptions against 10 touchdowns last year), or unleash touted redshirt freshman Connor Wood. And they’ll need to develop a more powerful running game.
Most importantly, however, Brown’s newly revamped coaching staff must earn the same degree of confidence from the returning players as from the 22 soon-to-be signees.
“Last year we had a hangover from the  national championship game, especially me, because it hurt so much to lose that game [to Alabama],” said Brown. “As a program, we didn’t have the same energy and spark. We’ve got so many changes now, it brings new energy.”
Every Signing Day is cause for new excitement in Austin, but there’s reason to relish this one more than usual.