Charlie Strong tapping into out-of-state connections in recruiting

04/29/2014 2:08 PM

04/29/2014 2:08 PM

Bob Wager was 27 and at his first job at Class A Tolar when newly hired Mack Brown stopped by with his Texas coaching staff. Tolar didn’t have a single NCAA Division I prospect. But Brown and his assistants made a point to establish a connection with Wager and his players.

“Can you imagine being a 27-year-old first-year coach, and the University of Texas comes through your town? I was beside myself,” said Wager, now coach at Arlington Martin. “And I never forgot it.”

Brown grew those connections deep into the Lone Star State. From 2002 to 2013, nearly 92 percent of UT signees were in-state products. Of those 236, 156 were four- or five-star prospects, according to Rivals.com.

Brown’s successor, Charlie Strong, has also initially tapped in to the state’s fertile recruiting ground. But Strong hasn’t shied from reaching beyond the state’s borders for recruits since taking the job in January.

He signed his first class of Longhorns about a month after replacing Brown. It included 17 Texans and six out-of-state prospects, the highest number of out-of-state signees in at least 12 years. Rivals and Scout.com maintain signing class data as far back as 2002, when Texas signed five out-of-state players.

After arriving in Austin, Strong landed commitments from Lakeland, Fla., defensive tackle Chris Nelson and Hilton Head, S.C., defensive tackle Poona Ford. He also recruited Alex Anderson, an offensive tackle from Louisiana. At Louisville, Strong signed 30 players from SEC states his last two seasons.

Those out-of-state connections have held Strong and staff over until they can gain a foothold in Texas, said William Wilkerson, who covers Texas football and recruiting for Scout.com.

“[Initially], he got into a lot of high school doors [in Texas],” Wilkerson said. “I think he’s still a little bit behind the 8 ball. What he’s done in the process is he’s used what he knows. That’s the state of Florida, the Southeast and [recruiting] numerous kids from the state of Louisiana.”

Strong has sealed nine recruits for the 2015 class, with eight coming from Texas. But according to Rivals, the Longhorns have extended 40 of their 90 2015 offers to out-of-state prospects. Strong’s initial shift toward out-of-state recruits could be attributed to a couple factors.

He didn’t take over the Texas program at its mid- to late-2000s peak. Vince Young and Colt McCoy have been gone for years. The Longhorns went 5-7 in 2010, before winning 25 games over the past three seasons and splitting the last two Alamo Bowls.

That plateau — after reaching the BCS Championship Game in 2009 — coupled with the rise of Texas A&M and Baylor has presented a different dynamic in the state recruiting scene.

“[Texas] A&M being in the SEC, that changes the landscape,” said Jason Howell, a recruiting analyst for Rivals. “It’s no longer go to the Big 12 and play for A&M and go to the Big 12 and play for Texas. It’s now, ‘I can go to A&M and play in the SEC.’ ”

Strong’s first coup at Texas was Edwin Freeman, a four-star safety from Arlington Bowie. TCU had an in on Freeman through his former high school coach, Kenny Perry, who coaches cornerbacks for the Horned Frogs but joined the program last year as a high school relations director.

Eventually, Freeman chose the Longhorns over Texas A&M.

“That was a head-to-head win [against A&M] for them,” Howell said. “I don’t claim to know him personally, but from what I’ve seen, I think Charlie Strong is a lot like Coach [Kevin] Sumlin: He’s not afraid to go head-to-head against anybody. He’s going to give it a fight.”

Aledo receiver Ryan Newsome received an offer from Texas in February. Newsome doesn’t have a favorite yet, but he said he respects what Strong has been able to do since being hired by Texas.

“He’s a nationwide guy,” Newsome said. “He’s going to recruit the state pretty hard, but he’s going to branch out. Texas is always a nationwide brand. They’ve always been able to get guys primarily in the state. It’s definitely cool to know that I’m a priority to [Strong], especially since he’s a national guy.”

Ultimately, the direction of Strong’s recruiting efforts could come down to how the Longhorns fare this fall. Their success — at least on the recruiting front — almost surely will.

“I think they’re trying to do what they can,” Howell said. “A lot of it will come down to the product that’s put on the field. If you’re not putting the wins on the table, then the chances are, you’re not going to have much buzz.”

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