Welcome to the new normal for the Texas football program on National Signing Day.
It features a coaching staff that scrambles to lure last-minute signees away from other schools, even if that requires reaching all the way to the East Coast. It involves efforts to offset six January defections, including three defensive tackles, and accepting a pair of 2-star signees as part of the 23-member class presented for public consumption.
It does not include any 5-star talents or a top 10 approval rating from any national recruiting service. Nor does it include any apologies from new coach Charlie Strong, who succeeded silver-tongued predecessor Mack Brown — the gold standard for Lone Star State recruiters the past 16 years — on Jan. 6 and did the best he could to make this class viable.
Most national analysts placed Texas’ haul between 16th (ESPN.com) and 20th (Rivals.com) in Wednesday’s knee-jerk grades. In other words, not bad for a transition class. But well below the Coach February standards of the Brown regime.
“We know there is some work we need to do. We can do a lot better and we will do a lot better [in the future],” Strong said. “We know we have to control this state and get that worked out.”
Strong is counting on better relationships between his first-year staffers and Texas high school coaches leading to more blue-chip signees in Austin next February. The concept makes sense to Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
“The transition class is never what a coach is judged on. It’s tough,” Farrrell said. “The worst recruiting class Urban Meyer ever had was his transition class at Florida.”
That group arrived to less-than-glowing reviews in 2005. In 2006, the Gators won their first of two national championships in three seasons.
Before Texas fans start demanding similar returns from Strong, understand this: The primary talent pool Strong will tap at his new school is overrun with savvy fishermen who have gotten the best of Brown in recent recruiting seasons.
The state’s new Coach February? That would be Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, who landed three five-star signees Wednesday — two more than the entire Big 12. The current flavor of the month? That would be Baylor coach Art Briles, architect of the reigning Big 12 champs. Briles’ commitments were so firm that he brought zero prospects to Waco for official visits during the final weekend of the recruiting calendar.
Strong definitely is playing catch-up and he knows it. While Briles relaxed in Waco, here is how Strong spent his final Saturday of recruiting season: a breakfast trip to Cedar Hill, followed by speaking engagements in Katy and New Braunfels. Then it was back to Austin to meet with recruits at 1 p.m. before addressing the crowd at the Kansas-Texas basketball game. After that, it was back to wooing prospects.
By Wednesday, he landed last-minute signatures from two defensive tackles: Poona Ford from Hilton Head, S.C., and Chris Nelson from Lakeland, Fla. Texas needed them to cover voids left by the January defections of three DTs who pledged allegiance to Brown but chose other schools when Strong arrived. In all, six of Brown’s former commitments went to other schools, including two to A&M (DT Zaycoven Henderson, LB Otaro Alaka), two to LSU (DE Sione Teuhema, DT Trey Lealaimatafao) and one to Oklahoma (DE Courtney Garnett).
Adding the two last-minute Longhorns, said Strong, was important. The move gave him six out-of-state signees in the 2014 class, more than Brown ever had in any year.
“Six does seem like a lot. But when you lose players, you have to find a way to make up for it,” Strong said. “We knew we were going to lose some guys because they really don’t know who we are. But you can’t worry about the ones you didn’t get.”
Instead, Strong plans to lean on the ones he landed. He said he’s willing to give major roles to incoming freshmen, a group Brown typically designated for special teams duty.
“We’re not going to hold anybody back. If you’re ready to play, you can play,” Strong said. “If a freshman gets you beat, then I think we did a poor job of coaching that cat.”
Among the most prized freshmen in Strong’s initial haul include safety Edwin Freeman, a four-star prospect from Arlington Bowie who joined the fold after Brown’s departure, as well as two holdovers: quarterback Jerrod Heard, a two-time state champion from Denton Guyer, and defensive end Derick Roberson, who had 20 sacks last season for San Antonio Brennan and developed a quick affinity for his new coach.
In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Roberson said: “I think Coach Strong is better than Mack Brown in some points. Texas has been kind of lackadaisical.”
Strong’s energy was evident Wednesday with two last-minute additions to salvage his initial class. But he vowed the best is yet to come.
“We are still the University of Texas. We will always be the flagship program in this state,” Strong said. “You have to go recruit and not be afraid to go battle those Southeastern Conference teams, whomever they may be.”
The SEC team in College Station, no doubt, will take exception to Strong’s “flagship program” comment. The true test of whether Strong can back those words comes next year. It did not occur Wednesday.