Sunday, December 23, 2007

As The Recruiting World Turns

Every year, almost without fail, it happens. Not always exposed in the harsh light of day, not always at every program, but it happens. A highly touted recruit tells one coach, "I'm coming." Days, weeks, sometimes months pass, all the while opposing coaches still press the kid to reconsider, look at all his options, slow the process down. You don't want to rush things, they'll say. And then right at the end, just when Coach A has prepared to shower the prospect at his Signing Day press conference, having kept his word not to overrecruit the position, having let the kid know "You're the guy we need", he gets the phone call. Prospect tells him, "Listen, it's not you, it's me..."

Breakups get messy in life. In the bare-knuckle world of college football recruiting, they tend to be even messier because the significant others now do the dirty business in front of scores of recruiting analysts who draw up complicated flow-charts designed to show how one indecisive 18-year old's whim causes a shockwave the likes of which deal football programs a punishing blow the likes of which they can't recover from. Or some bulls&*t like that. One of the key believers in this convoluted interpretation of chaos theory is Florida's Urban Meyer. He would know all about it I guess: last season, his consensus Top 3 recruiting class featured 7 players who'd originally committed elsewhere, as he and Greg Mattison used the momentum from thrashing Ohio State to handpick prospects from the verbal pledges of Texas, USC, Notre Dame, Indiana, & Florida State. Meyer would naturally tell you that turnabout is merely another step of fair play, since committed prospects from Florida's class blew him off for FSU, Miami, & LSU.

It's not like it's anything revolutionary to see a player flip his commitment, but Meyer's seemingly golden touch when it comes to telling a recruit, "Hey, I know you thought [insert name] was the place for you, but trust me..." leaves many coaches feeling uneasy right up until the moment the letter comes through the fax in February. Another thing that's not revolutionary is Meyer's well-documented and, like, totally rational opposition to an early-signing period in college football:
"I'm not comfortable signing kids you don't know,'' Meyer said. "I'd rather move later. I want to quit making mistakes. A mistake in recruiting just devastates a program. The only way to minimize the mistake-factor is to get to know someone.

"I think they should all come to camp. I think we should know their families. I think they should meet my family. That's when you usually get a good deal going. If you have an early signing period, that's not going to happen.''
How selfless. While I agree in theory with Urban that every recruit in the country should be afforded the luxury of a beautiful late-January tour of Gainesville and the chance to sample a catered home-cooked meal by Shelly, his claims sound a bit hollow when you factor in how adept he's become at turning kids over to his school at the expense of other coaches.

Which now brings us to the case of Omar Hunter. Hunter, a 6-1, 300+ defensive tackle with the ability to stop most running backs by stare alone judging from the above photo, hails from Buford, GA and the same high school as Darius Walker. Long thought to have been leaning towards Michigan, he surprised some with his public pledge and has been considered part of the Irish since June. The prototype of a defensive tackle in the 3-4 scheme, Hunter would be a perfect complement to the emerging Ian Williams and round out a great defensive line haul for the Irish when coupled with Brandon Newman & Hafis Williams along the interior and Ethan Johnson at end.

Apparently though, Hunter's earlier mistake with Notre Dame can be corrected once he gets to know Urban Meyer. According to his high school coach Jess Simpson, whom Hunter credited with helping him pick a school in the first place:
"I think he's just starting to reconsider where he's going to school and how far away it is and the weather and the climate, and how easy it is for his family to come see him."
Call me a member of the lunatic fringe, but this is (hysterically enough) what Urban Meyer is referring to when he speaks of letting kids "get to know" him late in the recruiting game. He wants the natural advantage of getting a kid to visit Gainesville with its postcard weather in January and casually mention, "It's 11 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground in South Bend. You sure you don't want to think things over?" Because those foolish 18-year olds with their priorities all screwed up, they don't really understand what commitment and planning for the next four years is all about during April-December. But Florida in January - that's what provides sweet, precious clarity.

Assessing things as they stand at this moment (like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did earlier this week when saying Simpson stated "shortly after 1 PM" Tuesday that Hunter had not de-committed, as if the news was likely to hit the wire at any moment) Hunter has remains a publicly committed prospect to Notre Dame, but all signs point to him visiting Florida once recruiting starts up after the bowls, and possibly USC - though his apparent emphasis on family accessibility would seem to disqualify the Trojans even more swiftly than the Irish.

The bigger question is not how Hunter chooses to go about his business, but rather how Charlie Weis and the Irish go about theirs. South Bend Tribune columnist Jeff Carroll seems to think that for Weis to maintain his word as bond, he must revoke Hunter's scholarship in the wake of his decision to re-open his recruitment, just like Weis promised he would last year when announcing he would be redefining the word commitment. Which would be in keeping with everything Weis said...except that's not what Weis said or promised to do it all.

The "blustering" Carroll was referring to was a simple truth: 'College coaches shouldn't have to be held hostage by potential recruits', Weis was arguing. 'We're taking back a little bit of control concerning our program. We're not gonna hold a gun to anybody, threaten to remove a scholarship if they take a phone call or contemplate a visit - but once they've indicated their willing to look around, it's not right nor fair to us to be left holding the bag if they move elsewhere'. Having been burned by Justin Trattou and Arrellious Benn a year ago, Weis made a simple statement: if you're willing to commit to us, fine. If you're not willing to commit, that's fine too. It's not like we don't want you - but don't expect us to save you a spot if we find another kid who is.

That, in a nutshell, is where Hunter stands right now. It's far less about Weis trying to establish some principal than it is upholding one he already laid down: 'We want kids to consider their options if that's how they feel. But that non-exclusivity gives us the right to consider our options too'. It's why in the middle of a score of internet rumors, Notre Dame earnestly reopened their pursuit along the defensive line, something they didn't do until after Justin Trattou switched his pledge to Florida and left the Irish with just one true d-lineman last season. Even finalizing that commitment, Williams, required a last minute push from the Irish staff to stave off Urban Meyer, who really had no reason to offer Williams since he already had two of the country's best nose tackles. Maybe he just enjoyed the experience of stealing a commitment from Notre Dame so much he went back for seconds.

No matter - Ian chose to honor his word and came on strong at the end of the season: despite being 12th on the defense in minutes played and making only two starts, Williams finished sixth in tackles with 45. In a very promising stat (or very damning depending on your point of view), he gained more stops than outside linebacker John Ryan despite being on the field for 130 fewer minutes and despite being at the position least counted on for tackles in the 3-4 scheme while Ryan plays the position looked to as the lead tackler.

The good news for the Irish is that even the worst-case scenario, Hunter choosing to decommit and sign with Florida, doesn't leave them short-changed at a crucial position like past late defections have. Aside from the still very-much committed Newman and Williams, the re-purposed pursuit of defensive linemen has brought the Irish in close proximity to Datone Jones, a UCLA commit opening things back up in the wake of Karl Dorrell's firing and DeWayne Walker's likely exit, plus Mike Martin, a Michigan commit who may be considering more visits, though that's a pretty big "may" since he was also considering a visit to West Virginia, former home of new UM coach Rich Rodriguez. There's also Kapron Lewis-Moore (himself reconsidering in the wake of a Texas A&M coaching change), and a host of other factors and prospects that could shift over and over again all before the dust finally settles on National Signing Day (February 6th). A year ago Brian Smith was a non-entity until the final 10 days of recruiting.

Maybe Urban has a point - after all, we don't want anybody out there making mistakes.

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