New College Football Coaches Killing It on the Recruiting Trail
P.J. Fleck has yet to coach a game at Minnesota, but it's already clear from the early results on the 2018 recruiting trail that he is one of the new head coaches changing his college football program for the better.
In all, there were 21 new hires in this year's rendition of the coaching carousel, many of whom have yet to do much of anything at their new schools. (Lane Kiffin does know he's allowed to recruit players to Florida Atlantic, right?)
At the other end of the spectrum, though, are several new coaches like Fleck and Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, who have done more in the past four months than their predecessors had done in the previous four years.
Because some of the coaches had less than a month to prepare for 2017's national signing day, we're only interested in how they're faring with the players that they actually have the time to recruit to their new programs. These are the ones who have done the most with that time.
8. Major Applewhite, Houston
Noteworthy Commitments: Kelan Walker (4-star RB)
2017's national signing day wasn't a great one for the Houston Cougars. Heck, it wasn't even a decent one for a school geographically surrounded by top-notch recruits every year. Per Scout's team rankings, the Cougars placed 72nd nationally without a single 4-star recruit—the fourth time in the past five years they were denied a player of that caliber.
But just nine days after the most recent NSD, Major Applewhite already has things looking up for the next one. He signed Scout's No. 290 overall player in next year's class, running back Kelan Walker. Thus far, Walker is the only player the first-time head coach has signed for 2018.
It's one heck of a starting point, though.
In addition to being, by far, the highest-rated running back Houston has signed in over a decade, the back from Desoto, Texas, establishes Applewhite as a force to be reckoned with in the local recruiting hotbed.
It might be a little while before Houston is competing for the 5-star guys from Texas, but there are still 34 uncommitted 4-star or 5-star players from the Lone Star State, 10 of which are among Applewhite's top 12 targets.
7. Tom Allen, Indiana
Whereas new Houston coach Major Applewhite was able to sign one of the many quality players in the Houston area, Tom Allen hit the ground running at Indiana by nabbing one of the only noteworthy recruits in his entire state of influence.
According to Scout, the 2018 class has just six 4- or 5-star players from Indiana, including soon-to-be Hoosier running back Kristian Pechac. Michigan and Notre Dame each has a commitment from one of the other five guys, but the remaining three uncommitted players all have Indiana listed among the schools they are considering.
We're primarily focusing on the 2018 class for this exercise, but it's worth noting that Allen is also already working the phones for the following year. There are currently just two local 4- or 5-star recruits in the 2019 class, but they each have Indiana on their short lists of schools of interest.
Getting good players to come to Indiana has been a hurdle that coaches have been unable to clear for several decades. The Hoosiers have just one winning season in the past 22 years and have not won a bowl game since 1991.
Occasionally keeping guys from signing with Notre Dame or the non-Indiana Big Ten programs is the first of many steps on Allen's path to turning this program around. With Pechac, he has already done so once.
6. Matt Rhule, Baylor
Even before the scandals that irreparably altered the public perception of Baylor, Waco was never much of a landing spot for exceptional talent. The Bears had a top-25 class just once in the past decade, placing 23rd in 2014.
But recruiting has been particularly difficult for the program in recent years. Once we rule out Tren'Davian Dickson and Jeremy Faulk—who never played a down at Baylor before either forcibly or voluntarily leaving the school—the Bears are left with a grand total of two 4-star signees (2017 WR Gavin Holmes and 2016 DT Bravvion Roy) in their last two classes.
The arrival of former Temple head coach Matt Rhule has already turned Baylor back into a school that the local talent is willing to consider. In addition to Scout's No. 260 Josh Fleeks of Cedar Hill, Texas, the Bears have signed 10 3-star recruits from the Lone Star State in the past three months.
That's a far cry from the caliber of classes already signed by Willie Taggart (Oregon), Ed Orgeron (LSU) and Tom Herman (Texas), but Baylor's current national class ranking (19th) is better than any other year since Scout started ranking the classes in 2002. That's a big, early win for Rhule.
5. Ed Orgeron, LSU
LSU's recruiting class has ranked top 12 in the nation for 12 consecutive years. The only other schools with an active streak of more than five such years are Ohio State (seven) and Alabama (10). This sets the bar for success for Ed Orgeron much higher than for any other new head coach.
At first glance, it appears he's clearing that bar with room to spare as LSU is currently No. 2 in Scout's team rankings for 2018.
However, the devil is in the details.
That ranking is more quantity than quality as only one of LSU's 15 commitments is ranked in Scout's Top 100. Orgeron did have two Top 100 players until a few days ago, but Caden Sterns flipped to Texas. Moreover, two of the top six players left in LSU's 2018 class (Kelvin Joseph and Nadab Joseph) had already committed to the Tigers long before Les Miles was relieved of his duties.
Still, Orgeron has signed six 4-star and six 3-star recruits in the past four months. Miami is the only school that has done more during that time, but the 'Canes are basically just reeling in local talent while half of LSU's commitments have come from states other than Louisiana.
Of the 14 remaining uncommitted top 25 recruits for 2018, LSU is in the running for 12 and is considered the favorite to land No. 1 CB Patrick Surtain. As long as one of those players eventually becomes a Tiger, it'll be a big step in the right direction after LSU failed to sign any top-25 recruits in the 2017 class.
4. Willie Taggart, Oregon
Given Oregon's national prominence since the 1990s, it should come as no surprise that the program usually does well on the recruiting trail. The Ducks have signed at least six 4-star recruits in each of the last 11 years, but it's doggone impressive that Willie Taggart has already hit that plateau for the 2018 class.
In fact, he did so in the span of just one weekend.
In early April, the Ducks didn't have a single player in their 2018 class. But between April 29 and May 1—right after Oregon's spring game—Taggart received commitments from each of the six players listed above.
Those six players come from five different states, so it's not as if a bunch of high school teammates simultaneously decided they wanted to continue playing together in college. Rather, it was six individuals independently buying into Taggart's ability to bring Oregon back to life just like he did for Western Kentucky and South Florida.
Up next for Taggart is convincing Oregon's remaining talented recruits to stay close to home. All four of the 4-star recruits from Oregon in the 2017 class opted for other Pac-12 programs, but one of Taggart's primary goals for the next few months will be getting Talanoa Hufanga, Chase Cota and Eli'Jah Winston to become Ducks.
3. Tom Herman, Texas
Even more impressive than the level of talent that Tom Herman has been signing at Texas is who and where he's taking it from.
Justin Watkins is playing high school ball in Clermont, Florida, and had originally committed to Florida State and Jimbo Fisher. But in late February, the running back/athlete flipped to Texas, temporarily becoming the top recruit in Herman's class.
Two months later, Herman made an early splash in the Red River Rivalry by getting a 4-star QB from Newbury Park, California, to flip from Oklahoma to the Longhorns. Despite the fact that Texas had just signed another 4-star QB (Casey Thompson) a few days prior to the move, Cameron Rising decided to commit to Texas and shut down his recruitment.
The third and biggest flip came in early May when Scout's No. 52 overall player, Caden Sterns, opted to back out of his commitment to LSU for the chance to play close to home at Texas.
To recap, Herman is pilfering players away from rivals and national powerhouses, and he's signing players from all over the country. Time will tell whether he can bring his success at Houston over to Austin, but it's safe to say he is enjoying and capitalizing on his new recruiting pull.
2. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota
"Minnesota" and "recruiting prowess" haven't exactly been synonyms in college football. In fact, since Scout started ranking classes in 2002, the Golden Gophers have only finished in the top 35 in the nation once, placing 27th in 2008, primarily thanks to four junior college transfers.
But P.J. Fleck is already making major waves at Minnesota. In addition to flipping a bunch of Western Michigan commitments in the 2017 class, Fleck has already signed a dozen 3-star recruits for 2018, giving the Golden Gophers a current class ranking of No. 17 nationally.
If this just so happened to be a big year for high school talent in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, we wouldn't think much of the influx of talent. Local kids wanting to play for a young and exciting new head coach would hardly be a groundbreaking development.
However, only two of the players Fleck has signed for 2018 hail from Minnesota. He isn't loading up on guys who might have been geographically close to him at Western Michigan, either. Rather, Fleck has signed a combined 10 players from Georgia (four), Ohio (three) and Illinois (three).
Considering Minnesota rarely produces 4-star or 5-star level players, the ability to continue recruiting those markets will be of the utmost importance for the longevity of Fleck's career with the Golden Gophers.
1. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati
Outside of big programs LSU, Oregon and Texas, no school with a new head coach has signed as many 2018 4-star recruits as Cincinnati and Luke Fickell.
This goes against just about everything we've come to expect from the Bearcats.
From 2014-17, Cincinnati signed a grand total of one 4-star recruit, and even Joel Dublanko barely qualified for that distinction. He was rated by Scout as the 43rd-best DE in 2016, making him the lowest-ranked 4-star player at the position.
But the longtime defensive coordinator from Ohio State has already tapped into a hometown pride that former head coach Tommy Tuberville was unable to find.
"It was a chance to stay home and give back to my community; something for them to get excited about and look forward to for the upcoming season," Malik Vann told Scout's Bill Greene in April. The high schooler from Fairfield, Ohio, turned down offers from the likes of Alabama, Michigan State and Wisconsin to commit to the local AAC school that went just 4-8 this past season.
The big domino to keep an eye on is Vann's HS teammate, Jack Carman. Rated by Scout as the No. 31 overall player in the 2018 class, the offensive tackle has Cincinnati on a long list of schools he is still considering. If he signs with the Bearcats instead of Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and others, it could signal the start of a Group of Five dynasty under Fickell.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.