A little more than two months after being hired as Texas’s head coach and about seven months before his first game in charge of the Longhorns, Tom Herman had questions to answer. It was National Signing Day, a turning point for a proud program hoping to flush away a second consecutive sub-.500 season that included an embarrassing loss to Kansas, and Herman was trying to put a positive spin on a lousy recruiting class. According to 247Sports, since 1999 the Longhorns had never finished outside the top 25 in the team class rankings, nor had they failed to land at least one of the state of Texas’s top 10 players. It was up to Herman to explain how both of those things had happened.
The numbers looked ugly in the aggregate, and a pair of decisions on signing day underscored the dearth of premium prospects in the Longhorns’ first haul under Herman: Stephan Zabie, a four-star offensive tackle out of nearby Westlake High in Austin, spurned the high-major heavyweight in his backyard for a college career out west (he picked UCLA), and K’Laivon Chaisson, a four-star defensive end from North Shore Senior High in Houston, chose LSU. Getting a yes from Winter Park (Fla.) High receiver Jordan Pouncey eased the sting of those two big whiffs, but Texas was justifiably labeled a signing-day loser.
At the flagship program in a state with a deep pool of highly touted high schoolers, the first Wednesday of February should be a celebratory day to welcome in the wave of players set to power the program’s next conference and national championship drives. Instead, Herman, the top head coaching candidate on the market last year, one who had long been viewed as the ideal replacement for Charlie Strong in part because of his recruiting ties in the state of Texas, was left trying to talk up a group of prospects that, at least according to the rankings, didn’t amount to all that much.
Pinning Texas’s weak recruiting returns in 2017 on Herman would have been a mistake. He had to scramble to piece together a class after taking over late in the cycle at a program awash in coaching change speculation for months leading up to Strong’s axing, and Texas hasn’t really been, you know, Texas, for a while: It has recorded only one season with more than eight wins this decade and posted only 16 total victories in Strong’s three years at the helm. The prolonged dip emboldened other programs looking to raid the Longhorn State for top talent, which it reliably produces in spades.
At his signing day press conference, Herman erred in taking a brief trip to Butch Jones land with a comment about how recruiting rankings “don’t crack their chest open and look at their heart,” and discussed trying to find undervalued players with good intangibles. The stale coachspeak came off as an attempt to explain away some negative headlines by shifting the blame to the talent evaluators upon whose scouting assessments those rankings are predicated. Only that’s not what Herman was really doing.
He conceded that the rankings have value, talked about the correlation between highly rated recruiting classes and wins and mentioned how “usually a five-star kid has five-star talent.” Then he made a prediction that felt like a reach considering the lackluster class he was defending on that day: Texas was going to climb those rankings pronto. Texas, Herman said, would sign a top-10 haul in 2018. “To have a realistic expectation of a transition class that only signs 19, 20 guys to be in the top 10—I mean, that’s silly,” he said. “Are we going to be there next year? Absolutely. Absolutely we will.”
It’s looking more and more like Herman won’t have to eat his words. Texas’s 2018 class ranks No. 4 in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite, trailing Ohio State, Miami and Penn State, in that order. The Longhorns’ position, however, is limited by their number of commitments (14), which is at least two fewer than the number the Buckeyes (16), Hurricanes (19) and Nittany Lions (20) count. Texas’s average player rating of 92.75 is second only to Ohio State’s 94.58, and about three-fourths of the players in the class have been assessed four or more stars.
The Longhorns have left their home turf to score a few recruiting wins, including a pair of coveted quarterbacks. Southmoore (Okla.) High quarterback Casey Thompson, whose father, Charles, played the same position at Oklahoma, opted to leave the Sooner State for a Big 12 rival, and Texas flipped Newbury Park (Calif.) High QB Cameron Rising from the Sooners. Ritenour (Mo.) product Ayodele Adeoye, the No. 4 inside linebacker in the country according to the 247Sports Composite, was another solid out-of-state pickup, and on Tuesday night Texas landed a commitment from Arizona Western transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson, considered the top Juco tight end in the country. But the most encouraging aspect of this class to date is its accumulation of top-end in-state recruits.
Last month alone, Texas got pledges from three of the state’s top-10 prospects, according to the 247Sports Composite, all of them from the Houston area: Alief Taylor High wide receiver Brennan Eagles (No. 3), Heights High cornerback Jalen Green (No. 5) and Lamar High wide receiver Al’Vonte Woodard (No. 9). Two more top-10 in-state recruits are also Longhorns verbals (Angleton High safety BJ Foster and Steele High safety Caden Sterns), as is No. 11 (Arp High safety DeMarvion Overshown).
Set aside, for a moment, the fact that Texas is set to bring in an all-time safety haul. What’s key here is that the Longhorns are cleaning up in one of the most important recruiting battlegrounds in the country. That’s something to get excited about in any context; Texas is flush with Division I caliber players, including a sizeable group of blue-chippers. But in light of the Longhorns’ poor in-state showing in 2017, this is a striking turnaround in the short-term that should pay off in a huge way in the long-term. The highest-ranked player they signed from the state this year, according to the 247Sports Composite, was Westlake High quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who committed well before Herman was hired (the summer before Strong’s second season).
Even if the Longhorns regain some of the in-state sway that used to nullify serious challenges to their top targets from out-of-state programs, it’s unrealistic to expect every four- and five-star from Texas to wind up in Austin. There is too much competition from too many powerhouses with national cachet. Just last year, for example, Ohio State and LSU plucked five of the state’s top seven players: South Grand Prairie High cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, Kennedale High linebacker Baron Browning, Chaisson, La Grange High running back J.K. Dobbins and Cy-Fair High offensive lineman Austin Deculus.
That said, Herman and his staff have quickly turned Texas into the biggest force within state lines for the 2018 cycle. The Longhorns may have a hard time keeping the nation’s No. 13 overall player and Texas’s No. 1 prospect in the class, cornerback Anthony Cook, away from Herman’s former employer, the Buckeyes, but they’re in good shape for a handful of the state’s other big-time guys, like Westfield High defensive tackle Keondre Coburn (who committed to Texas on Aug. 7) and cornerback D’shawn Jamison, a teammate of Cook’s at Lamar High.
The Longhorns’ run on top-shelf local recruits obviously will serve them well going forward, but it could also help stabilize the Big 12. The conference’s best programs reside either in Texas or a state bordering it (Oklahoma), but its 10 teams landed only one of the Longhorn State’s 12 top prospects in 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite (Frisco High offensive lineman Jack Anderson, who signed with Texas Tech). The league’s talent problem was amplified three months later, when it produced fewer NFL draft picks than the American Athletic Conference (15 to 14).
With its 2018 class, Texas is bringing in the type of players who can deliver the Big 12 College Football Playoff appearances and first-rounders. True, the Longhorns and Oklahoma (ranked No. 11 nationally in the 247Sports Composite) make up an exclusive upper tier among Big 12 programs in this year’s recruiting cycle—the next highest-rated program from the conference is Oklahoma State, at No. 25. But if Texas can keep this up, the on-field success that should follow will stabilize a conference less than a year removed from a frenzied expand-or-not faceplant that was once described by one of its school’s presidents as “psychologically disadvantaged”.
The timing of Texas’s recruiting success is another cause for optimism. Herman is stacking Ws off the field before he gets a chance to lead his team to any on it. Any national championship talk is premature, but the Longhorns will enter the season with a legitimate claim to being the third-best team in the Big 12, behind the Sooners and Cowboys. As Strong said late last year, “The cake has been baked.” It may not take Long for Herman to get Texas back to something resembling its Mack Brown–era peak.
Year one of a new coaching regime can produce a wide range of results. Herman’s two-year stint at Houston suggests Texas is about to make a huge leap. Maybe that won’t happen, but it’s reasonable to expect that the Longhorns’ performance this season will serve more as a selling point than a repellent for recruits. Rather than relying on hazy concepts like his “vision” for the program, Herman will be able to point to results. A bunch of esteemed prospects have already bought into a future under him. More could follow once they see what the Longhorns can do on fall Saturdays under his watch.
And the next time Herman has to speak at a press conference about recruiting, he probably won’t spend much, if any time, time addressing what went wrong. Reporters will want to know how everything went right so quickly.