The most unpredictable portion of the college football calendar year occurs after regular-season results have been decided. Coaches come and go at a torrid pace in January, placing added pressure on programs as prospects approach their final decisions.
The domino effect of staff changes reverberates greatly in the recruiting spectrum, often straining or strengthening a player's relationship with teams of interest. Several coaching maneuvers set the tone for this final stage of the 2014 recruiting cycle.
Alabama coach Nick Saban—on track to secure a fourth-straight No. 1 overall recruiting class—could've turned the college football world upside down if he bolted for Texas. Instead, the four-time national champion stayed put in Tuscaloosa and the job eventually went to Louisville coach Charlie Strong.
The Crimson Tide essentially secured a top class with the decision, while the Longhorns enter a new phase with an unfamiliar leader.
Strong won 23 games in the past two seasons, punctuating those campaigns with bowl victories over Florida and Miami. His hiring has resulted in mixed reactions on the recruiting trail.
Texas swiftly lost commitments from defensive tackles Zaycoven Henderson, Trey Lealaimatafao and Courtney Garnett when it was announced Texas defensive line coach Bo Davis was departing for USC (though he ultimately ended up at Alabama). Strong has since added top junior college tight end Blake Whiteley and 4-star in-state linebacker Edwin Freeman.
However, the Longhorns whiffed on top in-state target Solomon Thomas. The 5-star defensive end from Coppell, Texas eliminated Texas from his finalists earlier this week.
Rumors swirled around Penn State's coaching vacancy as soon as Bill O'Brien bolted for the Houston Texans job. His exit created a revolving door of potential candidates, including Mike Munchak, Greg Schiano and Al Golden.
The university eventually settled on Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, who quickly went to work in an attempt to improve Penn State's incoming class. He didn't have to search far, flipping his former Commodore commits Trace McSorley (quarterback), Grant Haley (cornerback), Lloyd Tubman (defensive end) and Brendan Brosnan (offensive tackle).
Franklin picked apart the Vanderbilt class he built, bolstering Penn State's future prospects in the process. However, Penn State did lose a key commit during the coaching shuffle.
Defensive tackle Thomas Holley, rated a 5-star prospect by 247Sports, flipped his pledge to Florida.
"It would have been difficult building a relationship with a new staff in two weeks," Holley told New York Daily News reporter Julian Garcia. "Especially after I built one with the previous staff over the previous 10 months."
Personal relationships are the key at this stage of the process.
High-profile prospects often start communicating with coaches during their sophomore years. Two years later, as decision time nears, that familiarity is at the foundation of any recruiting relationship between a program and player.
Head coaches aren't the only ones making moves. We've seen several top assistants play musical chairs since bowl season, and you can expect the shuffle to play a role in national signing day.
Doug Nussmeier was allowed to leave his offensive coordinator post at Alabama to accept the same position at Michigan. Saban struck fast in the search for his replacement, hiring former USC and Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin.
The Crimson Tide's new play-caller hasn't enjoyed much success in the win column as a head coach, but he is a top-notch recruiter who is already hitting the pavement in search of more weapons for Alabama's offensive attack.
SEC rival Georgia also underwent a rotation in its staff, watching defensive coordinator Todd Grantham leave for Louisville. The Bulldogs then bagged Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Pruitt's presence provides Georgia with more than just a game-planner. He has plenty of experience recruiting SEC territory after coaching defensive backs at Alabama prior to a one-season stint with the Seminoles.
Larry Johnson, a highly respected defensive line coach and recruiter, was the final holdover from Joe Paterno's regime at Penn State. He moved over to conference foe Ohio State shortly after Franklin's hiring.
Johnson replaces Mike Vrabel, who now works for Johnson's former head coach with the Houston Texans. He gives the Buckeyes a formidable recruiter throughout Big Ten country, where Johnson has flourished for decades.
Aside from initial decommitments and flips, we must wait and see how this flurry of coaching changes ultimately affects the final two weeks of 2014 recruiting. New staff members are attempting to prove their worth immediately by pushing hard to land top prospects before the clock ticks down to signing day.
It's a tricky time for uncommitted recruits, who must quickly comprehend how staff alterations impact their prospects at programs under consideration. New coaches will truly enter the spotlight next fall, but their efforts are already well underway on the recruiting trail.
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