Grading Every New Power 5 Conference Coach's First Recruiting Class
Whether it's a crucial game week or an uneventful offseason stretch in the winter, college football coaches must always bring effort to a frenzied recruiting trail. Among America's most elite high school prospects, the vast majority begin receiving significant collegiate interest as underclassmen.
National signing day, which took place last Friday, is the culmination of years on the grind for coaches who've pursued players through multiple seasons. The process becomes even more challenging for a university when administration elects to make a coaching change or the head coach departs for an opportunity elsewhere.
When the 2016 season kicks off, there will be 13 head coaches in Power Five conference competition who weren't in that position a year ago. While wins and losses will ultimately develop the narrative of their respective inaugural endeavors, the first opportunity to impress arrived on signing day.
Some of these new regimes had just weeks to salvage past commitments and piece together fresh pledges during a frantic final stretch. Here's a look at how we graded each initial class for these 13 head coaches, considering overall talent value and the program dynamics they inherited.
Georgia: Kirby Smart
Former Job: Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
Date Hired: Dec. 6, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 7 overall; No. 4 in SEC
Kirby Smart faced double-duty in December, preparing to punctuate his Crimson Tide tenure with another national championship while handling new duties as head coach at a rival school. Ultimately, he deserves high marks in both categories.
Smart and new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney possibly pulled a blue-chip quarterback back from the brink of decommitment in December, solidifying things with 5-star Jacob Eason following flirtations with the Florida Gators. The national Gatorade Player of the Year enrolled early in Athens, along with a pair of pass-targets acquired by this new regime—No. 1 overall tight end prospect Isaac Nauta and 4-star Florida receiver Riley Ridley.
The new Bulldogs staff, bolstered by Richt-era assistant holdovers Tracy Rocker and Kevin Sherrer, managed to maintain several other longtime commitments, including Top 10 offensive tackle Ben Cleveland, 4-star running back Elijah Holyfield and dynamic receiver Charlie Woerner. Smart bagged perhaps the Peach State's biggest prize on national signing day, securing a commitment from 5-star athlete Mecole Hardman Jr. over several SEC contenders.
Illinois: Bill Cubit
Former Job: Offensive coordinator, Illinois
Date Hired: Nov. 28, 2015 (served as Illinois' interim head coach since Aug. 28)
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 71 overall; No. 12 in Big Ten Conference
University administration surprised some when it provided Bull Cubit with the keys to the program on a permanent basis following a 5-7 campaign that finished with six defeats in the final seven games. Unlike his contemporaries on this list, Cubit essentially oversaw his team's recruiting efforts throughout the 2015 season.
After signing a Top 50 recruiting class last year, the Illini dipped near the basement of Big Ten rankings. Illinois is tasked with handling itself better home turf moving forward after failing to land a single player listed in the Top 20 overall in the state (conference rival Michigan State signed four such prospects, including No. 1 and No. 2).
The Illini welcomed Florida quarterback Eli Peters to campus this winter and did a nice job beating out other Big Ten teams for Maryland linebacker Dele Harding, but you have to wonder if this class is ready to elevate a squad that hasn't finished above .500 in conference action since 2007.
Iowa State: Matt Campbell
Former Job: Head coach, Toledo
Date Hired: Nov. 29, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 53 overall; No. 8 in Big 12 Conference
Matt Campbell left his post at Toledo following a third nine-win campaign in four years, taking over an Iowa State squad that hasn't claimed that many victories in a season since 2000. The Cyclones welcomed a collection of early enrollees to campus last month, headlined by junior college cornerback D'Andre Payne and Georgia quarterback Zeb Noland, but the most marquee members won't arrive until summer.
Missouri tight end Chase Allen and Illinois offensive tackle Sean Foster are both considered Top 10 overall recruits in their home state, while scintillating Cincinnati standout Deshaunte Jones offers promise on both sides of the ball. A class loaded with JUCO talent also features Garden City (Kansas) Community College defensive back Lonnie Johnson, rated No. 5 nationally among JUCO safeties.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin
Former Job: Defensive coordinator, Michigan
Date Hired: Dec. 2, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 42 overall; No. 7 in Big Ten Conference
The previous Terrapins regime touted its recruiting efforts as "The Movement", an effort to encourage local recruits from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia to build something special together. The vision seemed to develop into reality last spring when 4-star quarterback Dwayne Haskins (Potomac, Maryland) committed to the Terps over dozens of schools.
Though Haskins continued to reciprocate interest with LSU and Florida, he remained firmly pledged until the coaching change. He opted to spend an official visit at Ohio State in December and ultimately flipped to the Buckeyes, along with former 4-star Maryland linebacker pledge Keandre Jones.
Big Ten teams managed to sign nine of the state's top 12 targets, but it was Penn State (four) and Ohio State (two) leading the charge. Defensive end Terrell Hall—a Washington, D.C., rated No. 6 among weak-side defensive ends—chose Alabama over Maryland on signing day despite a major Terps push for his signature.
Miami: Mark Richt
Former Job: Head coach, Georgia
Date Hired: Dec. 2, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 21 overall; No. 3 in ACC
Many expected Mark Richt to take some personal time and perhaps pursue ventures beyond the football field following his departure from Georgia. Instead, he stepped up to take on a rebuilding project at Miami, where the Hurricanes haven't won a bowl game since Larry Coker was head coach and the most recent 10-win season occurred as a Big East member (2003).
Richt didn't wrap up his abbreviated cycle at Miami with massive fireworks, but he also didn't allow a high-profile coaching change to shatter the foundation of a class that spent early stages rated No. 1 in national rankings.
Quarterback Jack Allison, linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and running back Travis Homer are among several in-state standouts who remained on board, while 4-star receivers Sam Bruce and Ahmmon Richards each seriously considered alternative options before firming up future plans in Coral Gables.
Minnesota: Tracy Claeys
Former Job: Defensive coordinator, Minnesota
Date Hired: Nov. 11, 2015 (served as Minnesota's interim head coach since Oct. 29)
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 48 overall; No. 9 in Big Ten Conference
Tracy Claeys spent four seasons as Gophers defensive coordinator before replacing Jerry Kill midway through his fifth campain with the team. Kill, who previously coached alongside Claeys at Northern Illinois, retired due to health concerns.
Minnesota, riding a four-year bowl appearance streak, signed key in-state studs on both sides of the ball. Dual-threat quarterback Seth Green, a former Oregon pledge, played high school football in Minnesota before finishing his prep career in Texas. Linebacker Carter Coughlin, considered the state's top overall player and the cycle's No. 9 outside linebacker, provides a defensive boost.
Coughlin, a 4-star talent, headlines an impressive in-state haul that also features 6'6" offensive tackle Sam Schlueter and athlete Tyler Johnson. Claeys claimed signatures from six of Minnesota's top nine high school seniors.
Missouri: Barry Odom
Former Job: Defensive coordinator
Date Hired: Dec. 3, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 52 overall; No. 13 in SEC
The Tigers competed in two SEC title games before things went off the rails in 2015, when dozens of players threatened to boycott if university administration didn't respond to growing racial tension on campus. Midway through November, 15-year veteran head coach Gary Pinkel announced the season would be his final campaign in Columbia, and Missouri slumped to 5-7 with mounting question marks.
Administration elected to promote former Tigers linebacker and longtime assistant Barry Odom to head coach, sustaining a sense of continuity with recruits. Missouri managed to land two of the state's Top Five talents in defensive end Tre Williams and tight end Brendan Scales but secured just one prospect who received higher than a 3-star composite grade (4-star junior college running back Natereace Strong).
Scales is the only high school senior signed by Missouri who landed in final Top 500 rankings for the 2016 cycle. That presents quite a challenge for Odom, who encounters several SEC teams that routinely sign Top 10 classes.
Rutgers: Chris Ash
Former Job: Defensive coordinator, Ohio State
Date Hired: Dec. 7, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 75 overall; No. 13 overall
The 2015 recruiting cycle lost a ton of momentum late, and it seemed former Scarlet Knights head coach Kyle Flood was unable to reverse the tide throughout a frustrating 2015 campaign that ultimately cost him a job. Rutgers, centrally located in a densely populated area between New York City and Philadelphia, failed to sign a single prospect rated Top 500 overall in composite rankings.
To make matters worse, the Scarlet Knights' top-ranked in-state signee (linebacker Solomon Manning) is located at No. 15 on the list of 2016 Garden State products. Meanwhile, the region was ravaged by Big Ten rival Michigan, which signed six New Jersey prospects, including five of the top eight.
Among the 30 recruits who were rated Top 10 in-state talents during the past three cycles, none signed with Rutgers. It's an alarming trend that must be dealt with by Chris Ash, who is now within a short drive of several powerhouse New Jersey high school programs.
South Carolina: Will Muschamp
Former Job: Defensive coordinator, Auburn
Date Hired: Dec. 6, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 26 overall; No. 10 in SEC
Will Muschamp is no stranger to the SEC recruiting scene given his recent experience as Florida Gators head coach and Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator. His hiring officially started a new era at South Carolina, where Steve Spurrier enjoyed immense success but caused some recruiting setbacks due to his tenuous long-term plans.
Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper managed to maintain grips on promising Pennsylvania passer Brandon McIlwain and brought 4-star wide receiver Bryan Edwards back into the fold after it looked like he might bolt elsewhere with a Gamecocks decommitment.
Travaris "T-Rob" Robinson is known as a dynamic recruiter and brings that element to Columbia as defensive coordinator, helping secure the late additions of 4-star New Orleans defensive tackle Stephon Taylor, former Florida State defensive end commit Keir Thomas and No. 1 overall junior college cornerback Jamarcus King.
USC: Clay Helton
Former Job: Offensive coordinator, USC
Date Hired: Nov. 30 (served as USC's interim head coach since Oct. 12)
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 8 overall; No. 1 in Pac-12
The embarrassing conclusion to Steve Sarkisian's tenure as Trojans head coach threatened to unravel this recruiting class, and it immediately cost USC commitments from prized linebacker prospects Daelin Hayes and Mique Juarez.
However, the internal promotion of Clay Helton and his ensuing staff moves (notably elevating highly respected receivers coach Tee Martin to offensive coordinator) helped the program finish with a strong push as signing day approached.
USC signed four of the cycle's Top 30 wide receivers, headlined by Tyler Vaughns (No. 3) and Michael Pittman (No. 8), while Feb. 3 itself was filled with late gifts for Trojans fans. Helton capped things off with 5-star cornerback Jack Jones, Top 10 offensive tackle E.J. Price, former Oregon running back commit Vavae Malepeai and former Florida State "athlete" pledge Jamel Cook.
Early enrollee Oluwole Betiku, who spent time in UCLA's class, is arguably the most compelling defensive recruit in the country after recording 28.5 sacks in two seasons since emigrating from Nigeria.
Syracuse: Dino Babers
Former Job: Head coach, Bowling Greens
Date Hired: Dec. 5, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 64 overall; No. 13 in ACC
Syracuse moves on to its fifth head coach since 2004, the final year of a lengthy Paul Pasqualoni reign, so Dino Babers is charged with assuring recruits this is a long-haul situation at a program defined by leadership changes this past decade.
Babers, who racked up 30 total wins during the past three seasons at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois, will look to the 2017 cycle as a measuring stick of what he can do with time at Syracuse, but the program's lowest-rated class since 2013 isn't a program-changer on paper. A slew of post-hire decommiments was headlined by eventual LSU signee Lindsey Scott, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Louisiana.
Syracuse didn't sign a single prospect rated Top 500 overall in composite rankings and secured just three Top 800 athletes, making Babers' first class look like a myriad of "diamond in the rough" recruits.
Virginia: Bronco Mendenhall
Former Job: Head coach, BYU
Date Hired: Dec. 4, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 61 overall; No. 12 in ACC
Bronco Mendenhall spent 11 seasons at BYU before bolting to take on a new challenge with the Cavaliers. Virginia's preceding recruiting classes steadily fell since its last Top 25 haul (2012), dropping to 29th, 32nd and 50th overall in composite rankings during the final years of former head coach Mike London.
Virginia lost five prospects to decommitments after Mendenhall's hiring, according to Doug Doughty of the Roanoke Times, adding three new pledges in the aftermath. Across the board, you wonder if this roster infusion will be enough to instantly help turn the tide for a team that hasn't finished above .500 since 2011.
Among high school seniors headed to Charlottesville or already enrolled, only two are considered Top 40 overall talents at their respective positions (North Carolina running back Tre Harbison and New Jersey quarterback Sonny Abramson).
Virginia Tech: Justin Fuente
Former Job: Head coach, Memphis
Date Hired: Nov. 29, 2015
247Sports Composite Class Ranking: No. 41 overall; No. 8 in ACC
The writing was on the wall this season in Blacksburg, as legendary Hokies head coach Frank Beamer declared in early November it would be his final fall with the program. Justin Fuente, fresh off a 19-6 record at Memphis during the past two seasons, was pegged as his replacement before December.
Florida linebacker Eron Carter and New Jersey athlete Tyree Rodgers were late additions to a class that includes just one composite 4-star prospect (junior college quarterback Jerod Evans) and remained largely intact despite the coaching change.
Virginia Tech will likely aim to improve recruiting efforts in its backyard moving ahead, as the Hokies came up short with the state's top 12 recruits in Virginia composite rankings while ACC rivals North Carolina and Florida State each secured multiple members of that list.