How Texas can sign top 10 classes that win

Cade Brewer (Justin Wells/IT)

Cade Brewer (Justin Wells/IT)

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One of our favorite offseason topics every year is the numbers and allocation of the precious 85 scholarships. Where Texas should load up with talent? Where do they skimp on numbers? What kinds of talents make for the best classes and bring about future success? The fact that Texas regularly outperforms most of their competition in recruiting and yet doesn’t have much to show for it doesn’t quite get as much scrutiny as whether X or Y player/savior is likely to fax in his letter.

The modern era of recruiting services and 247 calculator tools provide all kinds of interesting numbers and gauges for recruiting success, sometimes they have predictive value and sometimes they do not. Some of the challenges of sussing out the values of these rankings include the following facts.

First, that many of 247’s evaluators claim that their ranking is intended to reflect pro potential, which does not necessarily correlate 1/1 to college success. It’s nice to have as many future pros on your team as possible, sure, but the games and styles are different and with many college systems like the option you can build devastating units that don’t feature that many future pros. Or, if you do have players with pro potential you need systems that actually make the most of that potential. More on that later.

Secondly, there’s an obvious herding aspect to recruiting rankings. If a player has offers from multiple blueblood schools, the ranking is going to bump up. If a school like Baylor regularly churns out top level WRs then the Baylor offer at WR is going to start to help a kid’s rating go up. The result is that the recruiting rankings often just reflect the normal hierarchy of college football and the consensus of which players are regarded as better prospects. It’s a bit late to recognize trends in which types of players are valuable and it’s not as universal as you’d think.

Tracking Texas’ recruiting in the Big 12 era

I went back and looked up multiple stats over the years 2004 to 2016 because those were the seasons in which I was able to find the All-Big 12 team lists and it encompasses most of the Big 12 era and the modern spread era in general.

Let’s start with the numbers of how Texas fared against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and in-state Texas Tech in terms of recruiting the top players in the Lone Star state. I used the 247 composite top 50 players in Texas for this to find these numbers, which in this table include 2017 commits.

Shares of the TX top 50

As you can see, Texas has long dominated in-state recruiting and safely landed more of the best Texas talents than main rival OU or the second tier Big 12 programs that rely on the state’s talent. The Sooners have a pretty national brand and have culled from other locales to fill out their classes with blue chip talent but the state of Texas is still where much of their top talent comes from.

As a side note, the last few years have seen out of state powerhouses poaching many of the state’s top players. Whatever people may say about the quality of Texas high school talent relative to other big time football states, guys like Urban Meyer and Nick Saban seem to think that it’s pretty good.

Now in this table you can see some of the fruits of that in-state recruiting dominance:

Fruits of recruiting TX

It’s interesting to note that while Texas ranks fairly high in terms of how many players they’ve put into the NFL relative to the other Big 12 programs, that doesn’t show up very strongly in terms of winning Big 12 games or seeing players recognized on All-Big 12 teams.

It’s particularly stark that Texas has recruited five times as many top 50 Texans as Oklahoma State, have put about 150% as many players in the NFL, and yet have won only four more Big 12 games and had just 13 more All-B12 selections. In other words, the services have been right to say that Texas is landing more players with pro potential, but that has had questionable value.

Here’s a look at how those All-B12 selections have been parceled out:

All-B12 picks for TX-OU-OSU-Tech

I included fullbacks amongst running backs when perhaps they should have gone with tight ends or received their own category, and that helped bolster both the Oklahoma and Oklahoma State running back numbers since both programs have evidently had a lot of good fullbacks over the years. Anyways, don’t make too much of the running back numbers.

Overall the places where Texas and Oklahoma have had advantages relative to the other programs is in the trenches and on defense in general.

It should be noted here that the way to get recognized on an All-B12 list is by being disruptive in terms of inflicting negative plays or turnovers. You’d think from this table that Oklahoma has had far more dominant DB play than Texas and perhaps a better claim to being #DBU. However, Oklahoma currently has four defensive backs playing in the NFL whereas Texas has six, so the Sooners haven’t been overflowing with DB talent to the extent you’d think from this chart.

The answer to this mystery is found in the fact that the Stoops brothers have always put on emphasis on teaching their secondary to read tendencies and jump routes, which results in big interception numbers, while Texas in the Duane Akina era was focused on locking people down and forcing passes elsewhere. When you’re doing things the Akina way your interceptions tend to come at the safety position, if and when you have guys that know how to position themselves to capitalize.

Another important note is that the DL and LB slots are often filled up every year by guys that pile up sacks and tackles for loss, so many seasons would have multiple outside linebackers and defensive ends recognized to the detriment of guys that were providing stout play at defensive tackle or inside linebacker.

Texas and Oklahoma’s dominance of those spots are thus indicative that one of the big advantages they get from signing bluechip classes is getting guys with the necessary size/speed ratios to beat OL blocks and get to the quarterback. Even for great technicians up front it’s hard to pile up sacks and tackles for loss unless you’re just big and fast, plain and simple, and recruiting services are very good at identifying most of the guys that are big and fast.

Where you don’t see Texas wielding much advantage from their recruiting is at tight end, wide receiver, or quarterback.

The advantages of recruiting Texas HS talent

In summation, Texas has dominated in-state recruiting in a state that produces more prospects with spread 101 credits than any other in the country, yet despite playing in the most spread-heavy college conference they have failed to dominate the league or regularly field the best quarterbacks or receivers.

This is probably best explained by three factors. The first is that Texas has repeatedly failed to embrace the spread since Colt McCoy went down against Alabama and the golden era of modern Longhorn football came to an abrupt end.

Another factor is that the number of talented skill players coming out of the Big 12 every year is massive. In the same way that the NBA is now dominated by point guards and perimeter play-makers, the spacing of the spread offense allows athletic skill players who rely on finesse tactics to have a far greater impact on the violent game than back in the day.

If you’re a 5-10, 170 pound athlete the modern game sets you up to touch the ball 5-15 times a game and have a big impact without having to overpower defenders or take too many hits that would punish your lack of size. There are so many athletes that are well trained by Texas high schools in spread offensive tactics and techniques that a top ranking of the top 50 players in the state can’t possibly include every player that has the potential to become a very successful college receiver.

Finally there’s the quarterback position. Texas’ failure to dominate here despite lofty recruiting is attributable to a combination of flawed service rankings and the abundance of good Texas HS players at that position. This is where 247’s insistence on trying to use pro measurables to rank players really burns them, because college spread offenses are often not designed to require pro-level measurables to execute them at a high level, and pro-level measurables rank behind pressured decision-making and accuracy in the formation of a good college QB.

A quick-thinking, short, scrappy quarterback that can read the triangle and throw with accuracy can be dominant in college and then fail to elicit much interest in the NFL where defenses are skilled enough to force outside throws into tighter, shorter windows. Colt McCoy and Baker Mayfield are both prime examples of this phenomenon.

You will see the services make exceptions for big, speedy running quarterbacks but then their failure to recognize problems of reading the field or throwing with accuracy crop up. What’s more, those players are only elite level talents in the right systems. Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard were doomed as QBs when they were thrust into passing oriented systems that didn’t make their respective running abilities the driving force of the offense.

All that to say that snatching up guys like Jaylen Waddle, while unquestionably useful, is not where Texas can gain a key advantage over their competition as a result of snatching up Texas’ top players. The true advantages have to match Texas’ ability to recruit players with professional measurables with schemes and culture that deploy those players effectively in the college context.

The spread/pro-style convergence

There is, fortunately, an emerging trend in modern football that favors Texas’ unique advantages. That is the increase in passing skills development at the high school level that is due to a combination of the strength of Texas high school football programs and the increase in private skills coaching. At every level of the game, passing games are becoming so precise and efficient that they are now the favored way to attack modern defenses.

The modern “pro-style offense” is one that includes three receivers, a tight end, and is geared more around the passing game with the run game as an important sidekick. According to Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, all 32 teams use that personnel grouping as their base offense and it was the package on the field on 60% of all NFL plays last season.

That style is currently much more common at the pro level, where it’s nearly impossible to be good enough in the trenches to run the ball every week and teams instead try to build passing games that can carry the day. At the college level if you’re an Alabama, a Texas, or an Oklahoma you can conceivably wield enough of an advantage in the trenches to win more often than you lose with a run-centric approach. Particularly at Texas and Oklahoma, who don’t have to deal with other blueblood programs within the conference that are snatching up prized 300 pounders save for each other. A long underrated aspect of Stoops’ long run of success is how many 6-5+, 300+ pound OL he brought into Norman to pave the way for their running backs.

The move of the game towards passing and skill doesn’t necessarily benefit the blueblood programs for all the reasons we outlined above, it makes the game more about who can develop the best passing attacks rather than which teams are the biggest, strongest, and toughest in the trenches. The challenge though is that even if you gear your offense around the run game you still have to be able to run the football against an honest box and you need to be able defend opposing team’s offenses well enough that you aren’t counting on having the ball last every week.

Here then are the player archetypes that Texas has greater access to and needs to acquire in order to stand out in today’s Big 12 while making the most of the state’s spread acumen:

-The multi-dimensional OL

The offensive tackle that can line up with his hand in the dirt in a three point stance, a position that is more conducive to mashing skulls in the run game, but still be able to slide kick out and cut off an opposing pass-rusher is a rare commodity. In fact, having even one offensive tackle that can be counted on to handle a top edge-rusher without help is a major boon in executing a dropback passing game.

Derek Kerstetter. (Joe Cook/IT)

Derek Kerstetter. (Joe Cook/IT)

What’s more, having guards that can maul opponents in the run game but are smart and skilled enough to hold up to creative blitzes if you want to have your QB dropback 30 times or more is not terribly common. It takes a lot of practice time to master all of those skills and even with a redshirt and multiple seasons some guys just lack the athleticism and coordination to do it right.

-The true dual-threat QB

This descriptor is often given to running QBs that are next to worthless in the pocket and that’s not at all what I’m talking about in this context. I’m talking about guys that are good in the dropback game but who can also run the ball some on option plays or even direct snap QB runs.

The challenge of teaching your OL to pass protect and dominate opponents in the run game within the college practice parameters is a major one. However if you can mix in pass options with your QB or even up the score up front by leaving guys unblocked for the QB to read and punish with a keeper it’s a major game changer. What Oklahoma has done with their counter-trey running play is a good example of what this can look like.

-A freaking tight end

Everyone in the league can find slot receivers that know how to get open in the middle of the field, everyone can get deep threat receivers out there that can burn single coverage although those are perhaps a tad more rare. What everyone else does not have is a tight end that can help things out in the run game some and then flex out and punish opponents for trying to stop the run by torching linebackers with route running.

Reese Leitao. (courtesy of NewsOK)

Reese Leitao. (courtesy of NewsOK)

This player is more or less the difference between college and pro-style offense in general. Everyone in the NFL relies on this guy as a major part of their offense and college teams do not because the guy who can master blocking techniques and route running techniques at 6-3+ and 230+ isn’t terribly common.

-The pass-rusher

The beauty of Todd Orlando’s system is that it can turn anyone in the front seven into a dangerous pass-rusher regardless of their position, but the main spots are still along the DL, the B-backer, and the Rover. Texas has always had success recruiting explosive athletes at these positions while other teams look on wistfully.

-#DBU

You’re starting to see more of the state’s best athletes realize that learning to play defensive back in today’s game is actually the better path to turning athletic ability into dollars and opportunities in life than playing running back or even wide receiver. There’s less competition but just as much demand.

Texas has done a great job of leveraging the #DBU brand into locking down top defensive back talent. They need to do a better job of training safeties to handle their multiple duties in today’s game but that should come with the new staff’s focus on the position and its development.

Overall it’s really on the offensive side of the ball where Texas needs to make up ground in figuring out how to turn top 10 classes into champions. Texas is virtually always going to recruit better than their competition in the Big 12. The margins do matter, they’re more likely to find success recruiting top 10 or top 5 classes every single year then if they have off years, but either way they’ll have more Texas HS talent on their roster than anyone else in the Big 12. The key to finally leveraging that into results in Big 12 football games will depend on snatching up these archetypes that can blend proven college tactics with NFL skill sets.