February 16, 2011
Of the many, many reasons cited last weekend in the Austin American-Statesman's lengthy examination of Texas' stunning descent to 5-7 last season, you could probably guess most of them without looking: Complacency, a sense of entitlement, head coach Mack Brown's disengagement from the team, fissures between teammates and coaches, lack of leadership, poor work ethic, etc. The one you might not guess, considering the Longhorns' perennial presence near the top of the national recruiting rankings: A lack of talent.
That part of the equation seems murky at best: Texas routinely tops the Big 12 and finishes in the top five or ten nationally in the recruiting rankings with hauls most schools would die for. Can the overall athleticism really fall off a cliff that dramatically, that quickly, at a place that so thoroughly dominates recruiting in the most (allegedly) talent-rich state in the Union? If its process of evaluating that talent is warped, then maybe it can:
More than one close observer pins the Longhorns' decline to poor evaluation in recruiting and the pattern that Texas has fallen into of extending scholarship offers before players' senior seasons, thus severely limiting the amount of data to evaluate.
"The biggest contributor, in my opinion, is they lost their talent advantage," said one source with deep connections to Longhorns coaches. "There was no wide receiver worth a (expletive). They didn't have an offensive line that was prepared because of poor development or evaluation.
"Name me a (Longhorns) running back that will play in the NFL. Look at every single running back Texas has. How many did Texas pass over who are going to be NFL running backs? Ten to 15? Would you rather have [Oklahoma State running back] Kendall Hunter or Tré Newton? Would you rather have [Texas A&M running back] Cyrus Gray or Fozzy Whittaker? [Texas A&M running back] Christine Michael the next year? You just go down the list."
At the top of that list for Texas is quarterback Garrett Gilbert, the poster boy not only for the Longhorns' total offensive collapse last fall in his first season as a starter, but also for one of the proposed causes: Premature infatuation with recruits. Gilbert, an Austin native, was the Longhorns' top-ranked signee in 2009, and the first to commit, pledging to UT on Feb. 7, 2008, as a junior in high school. Within a few days, he'd been joined by six classmates who committed during Texas' annual "Junior Day" camp the following weekend; by the end of February, another half-dozen had added their names.
That was a continuation of the Longhorns' accelerated recruiting strategy for the 2008 class, when they landed commitments from 14 rising seniors by the end of February 2007, and accelerated even further the following year, when a whopping 16 prospects in the class of 2010 committed by the end of February 2009. In all, 67 of the 89 players (or roughly 75 percent) that Texas eventually signed from 2007-10 committed to the Longhorns in February or March of their junior year of high school. Only 13 of those 89 committed after the start of their senior season. Most recently, 17 members of the eventual 22-man class of 2011 that signed earlier this month committed last February, the vast majority on (or immediately after) Junior Day, and all 22 had verbal pledges to Texas before the start of their senior season.
No other recruiting machine anywhere could even begin match that level of efficiency, and after the results of that strategy on the field last year, they may be beginning to they don't want to match that level of efficiency if staying ahead of the curve means compromising the evaluation process. And even if the competition's not wary, apparently Texas is: Junior Day quietly came and went last weekend with only four verbal commitments, a far cry from the bonanza of pledges it's regularly yielded over the past three years. (At the moment, in fact, Rivals only lists one commitment for the 2012 class, Scottsdale, Ariz., quarterback Connor Brewer. The others likely haven't been added yet to the 2012 database.)
Maybe we assume too much – the slow-down must be also be due in part to the complete overhaul of the coaching staff since the end of the season, and in part to the team limping in with an unthinkable record at the hands of lowly Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor, et al. But it also shows some caution on Texas' part, possibly the first time in recent memory a major program has taken a step back in a process that's been rapidly accelerating on an annual basis for most of the last decade. We'll see how long that gun-shyness lasts – a few more weeks? Throughout the rest of the year? – especially with a more veteran team likely to restore some measure of respectability in the fall. In the meantime, though, Brown seems to be falling back on the old reporter's axiom: Speed matteres, but it's always more important to get it right than to get it first.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.