FootballFootball Recruiting

Gameplan: National recruiting strategy and the offensive line

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Thus far into the 2022 recruiting class, Steve Sarkisian and his staff have made 12 scholarship offers to out of state recruits along the offensive line alone. The program has come quite a long way in 10 years since Mack Brown’s 2011 recruiting class, which ranked fourth in the country but included just one scholarship offer to an out of state offensive line recruit.

Under Charlie Strong Texas looked a little more nationally, offering 11 out of state linemen in 2015 and five in 2016, but many of these were JUCO projects Joe Wickline had his eyes on. Tom Herman’s staff offered 10 out of state offensive linemen in 2020 and then just seven in the infamous 2021 cycle in which Texas only signed two players to the unit and missed on the state’s best prospects.

Texas hasn’t been staying in state because they’ve been loading up on the top Texan prospects either. In the last six recruiting cycles, here’s how 247 has ranked the top 5 players within the state and where those recruits have committed.

The year in which Texas fared best in terms of snatching up the top recruits was 2018, which 247 had as a down year for offensive line recruiting within the state. Texas also did well in 2016 to snatch up Pat Hudson and Jean Delance (in part because of Baylor’s collapse), but Hudson medically retired and Delance transferred to Florida, so it didn’t amount to anything.

In talent-rich years like 2017 and 2021 Texas was shut out from the top five recruits while firing their coaching staffs. This is all taking place in an era of National Recruiting within college football, in which the top programs are stockpiling elite athletes to man the trenches. Sam Cosmi is proof recruiting rankings are an imperfect proxy for measuring elite athleticism for college football players, but glancing at the rankings for Texas’ starting offensive line in 2020 contrasted with the lines for the four playoff teams is instructive.

Things are proceeding quite differently already in the Steve Sarkisian era. Coming from the Alabama program which fielded the strongest offensive line in the country and lured Ohio State into foolishly deploying a 4-4 stack defense trying to match them up front in the National Championship game, Sark and his staff understand what elite O-line recruiting can do for a program and are tweaking Texas’ model to aim for this standard.

Can Texas be a program with elite O-lines?

There’s only so many people on this planet with the genetic coding to become NFL-caliber athletes at 300 pounds or more. The players with the ability to bend and explode at 300 while also possessing the natural reach to make first contact and utilize favorable spacing and angles aren’t super common. Most programs can’t really expect to field elite offensive lines because the populations within their natural recruiting area don’t produce enough “dancing bears” to fill out their lines.

There are two ways to be an exception and fill out a line with elite players. One is to have a natural recruiting turf which produces a high number of monstrously big people. Wisconsin is the fun example here, their state is both rich in large people and often exclusively composed of Badger recruits due to the state’s relative geographic isolation from other programs. Now and again another Big 10 team will pull a blue chip O-lineman out of the state but the Badgers tend to get their own plus 1-2 lower ranked or even walk-on kids who end up growing into NFL players within the program.

The state of Texas produces a decent number of elite offensive linemen, as you can see from the numbers above. However it’s also a competitive territory with invaders from Oklahoma, LSU, and Alabama to say nothing of Texas A&M who will always be an obstacle to Longhorn aspirations of total recruiting dominance. To land 2-3 of the top five in a given year would be a real achievement.

The other method is via national recruiting, which is the model Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame all employ. National recruiting requires a lot of infrastructure as well as a national brand. Texas has been working on the former since hiring Tom Herman and bringing over some Ohio State people to fill out Texas’ football department, the latter has been in place for a long time despite the frequent tarnishing done to the Longhorn image by their inability to win on the field.

Texas is currently on track to attempt both methods.

Here’s a glimpse at the top five in Texas per 247 right now:

  1. Devon Campbell: .9929
  2. Kelvin Banks: .9823
  3. Kam Dewberry: .9515
  4. PJ Williams: .9369
  5. Jaylen Early: .9211

Texas is in good or decent shape with the top three, A&M has already seen Williams commit, and Early seems to be a wildcard. Three of these top five are in the Houston area, where A&M is currently surging, and two are from DFW (Early, Campbell).

As you can tell from doing the math on how Texas would need to do in recruiting every year, filling out an offensive line with NFL caliber athletes at all five positions is extremely difficult. It’s not a goal many programs can realize and if it’s the standard for playoff contention (questionable) then it’s a really high bar.

Sarkisian’s plan for a national recruiting strategy is not literal national recruiting but rather a focus on the West Coast. Here are the top five players out west in the class of 2022, per 247:

  1. Earnest Green, Los Angeles, .9789
  2. Josh Conerly, Seattle, .9729
  3. Malik Agbo, Seattle, .9629
  4. Dave Iuli, Seattle, .9199
  5. George Maile, Utah, .8959

The top three all have Texas offers, we’ll see if they’re able to successfully sign any of them. If Texas can sign the two of the top five in Texas in a given year and one of the top five from the states west of Texas, they could be on track to match what Alabama has done in terms of fielding sheer talent along the offensive line.

This sort of approach is definitely new for Texas. Back in the 2006 Rose Bowl, which connects elite recruiting, the West Coast, Texas, and Steve Sarkisian, the offensive lines involved were different from one another.

USC had blue-chippers at both tackle and both guard spots while center was manned by former 3-star Ryan Kalil, who’d go on to be drafted in the second round and make five Pro Bowl teams. Their 3-star O-lineman was probably the best athlete of the whole bunch and the blue-chippers flanking him were all drafted as well.

Texas fielded just two blue chips for their 2005 line, bookend tackles Jonathan Scott and Justin Blalock. The interior of Kasey Studdard, Lyle Sendlein, and Will Allen were all 3-stars, or in the case of Allen, recruited before star rankings were an established feature of the recruiting media market. Three of their five linemen would go on to be drafted, Scott, Blalock, and Studdard.

When the Longhorns returned to the National Championship in 2009 their line was composed of even lower ranked athletes. The right side of Michael Huey and Kyle Hix were the only blue chips in the bunch and no one in the unit was drafted.

Historically, Texas hasn’t really been a program to win championships via elite O-line play. The 2005 unit is remembered fondly but they overmatched opponents with speed in the backfield and spread-option tactics to give them a plus one at the point of attack. They struggled to consistently move either the 2004 Michigan Wolverines or the 2005 USC Trojans (or the 2004 or 2005 Oklahoma Sooners) but beat them with speed at quarterback and running back. The 1969 and 1970 units similarly had a few All-SWC players up front but the wishbone scheme did a lot of the heavy lifting for the Horn run game.

You’ll struggle to find an era of Longhorn football where the offensive front and run game were powering championships, even if they were routinely on top of their local world in the Southwest Conference. Within the 21st century the best seasons by Texas running backs working as the feature of the offense (2003 with Ced Benson, 2007 with Jamaal Charles, 2016 with D’Onta Foreman) were amongst some of the more disappointing seasons for the team.

So while you can work out how Texas could theoretically leverage in-state talent and the Longhorn brand to be another Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State who field entire units of future pros up front, it’s not something we’ve seen before on the 40 Acres.

What does the future hold for Texas football’s offensive fronts?

Alabama was smoking people in 2020 with the capacity of their offensive line to execute a fairly wide variety of schemes in the run game and to generate endless time for play-action shots in the passing game. This was partly due to the experience level of the unit but also the relative athleticism of its members. Whereas a typical Big 12 offensive line is often hoping to be proficient at covering opponents up with inside zone and maybe have a gap scheme or outside zone scheme to mix things up, the Tide had high enough caliber athletes to realistically be effective executing a diverse array of schemes.

Here’s how Texas looks for 2021 along the offensive line with 247 rankings again as an imperfect proxy for relative athleticism.

Left tackle: Andrej Karic/.8918
Left guard: Junior Angilau/.9458
Center: Jake Majors/.9218
Right guard: Denzel Okafor/.9045
Right tackle: Christian Jones/.8647

Alternates: Tyler Johnson/.9722, Isaiah Hookfin/.9084.

This is actually a step up from recent seasons. The Alamo Bowl already made plain Jake Majors, Andrej Karic, Christian Jones, and Tyler Johnson may not have the power and skill to control and drive opponents off the ball on inside zone but they do have the agility to crease teams moving laterally on outside zone. Indeed between the late season tweak of fielding the youngsters and giving Bijan Robinson more carries, Texas’ run game was pretty devastating by the end of the year. What will they be capable of after another offseason of strength and conditioning and instruction from new coach Kyle Flood? We’ll have to wait and find out, just as we will to see whether Sark’s staff can recruit at a level comparable to Ohio State or Alabama along the offensive line.

Another interesting question to consider is what will happen to the Sarkisian era if they cannot recruit at that level along the line. What if Texas doesn’t fill out their roster with enough talent to be able to start players with NFL athleticism across all five positions on the line?

Clemson is the exception to the other playoff teams above because they didn’t have an overpowering offensive line. The Tigers were defeated this season but the years in which they won also included lower ranked members across their offensive lines. The reason Clemson has won two championships and virtually never miss the playoffs is their philosophical approach to the game. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers aren’t trying to win games in the trenches, they beat opponents on the perimeter.

Deshaun Watson beat Alabama operating from four and five-wide sets throwing to NFL wideouts next to a flex tight end in Jordan Leggett and precise slot receiver Hunter Renfrow. Trevor Lawrence did it throwing to Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. Dabo would lean on Travis Etienne and spread spacing to muscle and run through the ACC but the Tigers weren’t good enough up front to win against Notre Dame or Alabama. They certainly weren’t athletic and physical enough to win by such big margins as they managed in the 2018 run, but they didn’t have to be.

If Texas cannot join the ranks of the elite in terms of fielding professional level offensive lines, they’ll need to be able to adjust to lean on strengths and advantages which do come more naturally to the Longhorns. Such as having unlimited access to highly skilled quarterbacks and receivers every year.

Watch for this dynamic in the Sarkisian era, first if he can transform Texas into a national recruiting heavyweight and secondly if he can pivot or otherwise maximize existing Longhorn advantages in terms of fielding highly skilled products from the in-state high schools. The class of 2022 should reveal a lot about what’s in store for this new era of Texas football.

Cover photo courtesy of MGoBlog

History major, football theorist.