Highlights from the 2016 ESPN National Signing Day media conference call (January 29) with ESPN Director of Recruiting Tom Luginbill’s:
- I was trying to find out what positions are particularly strong in this class and what positions seem to lack that if they’re not as strong as usual?
TOM LUGINBILL: That’s a really good question, because it is cyclical year in, year out. And you start to focus on premium positions, positions like offensive tackle, defensive line, corner, and quarterback. You start looking at positions that usually come in significant numbers like running backs, wide receivers, the athlete category, for example.
So I would pick two positions that I think are remarkably strong. The defensive front both at the defensive tackle and at the defensive end position as reflected in the ESPN 300, particularly within the top 20 to 25 overall ranked prospects.
And then in the 10 years that we’ve been formulating our player rankings, we have never had this many wide receiver prospects in any given class included in the ESPN 300. It’s a very eclectic group with size, speed, strength, a combination of all three. And so those two positions certainly stand out for us.
I think for a couple of years now we’ve seen a little bit of a downturn in terms of depth top to bottom at the linebacker spot, both inside and outside linebacker. Now, there are going to be some top‑heavy players, you know guys like Ben Davis ,Keandre Jones, and Jeffrey McCulloch, and those are the names that everybody knows.
But then there’s a pretty decent shelf and drop‑off beyond that. I think that would be the position that I would say hasn’t been as strong for 2016.
- First of all, thanks to Tom and the folks at ESPN for doing this. This is very helpful. My question is more of big picture look at the Big 12. When you look at the top 100 player rankings, it seems like the Big 12 significantly trails the other power conferences in terms of the amount of announced commitments right now for the elite players. And I just wanted to ask Tom, is that, one, kind of indicative of the drop‑off in recruiting in the Big 12? And two, do you have any theories about why this has occurred in the Big 12?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, I think first and foremost, the answer to that question also revolves around sheer populous and the numbers of prospects within the player pool that the Big 12 is drawing from.
And so I’m going to make this analogy. You’ve got the state of Florida in the southeast and the states that border Florida are all high‑volume states in terms of personnel and your recruiting pool.
You don’t necessarily have that with some of the states that border the state of Texas. So your player pool’s not going to be quite as large, which means you may not have as many high profile prospects and then of course that’s going to have an impact on the amount of high profile prospects that you have that remain uncommitted.
I wouldn’t disagree with you that the numbers seem down. But I would also say that with the SEC bleeding over into the state of Texas, particularly with Texas A&M and how that has influenced recruiting over the last two to three years, it has made an impact with prospects in the footprint of the Big 12 in relationship to broadening maybe what they would consider in their recruitment. Whereas prior to that I don’t know if you had that much of an influence making an impact on the Big 12 playing pool.
- We had a question regarding that four of the top, four of the 13 prospects that are going to be announcing on ESPNU are considering Texas. Could you talk a little bit about what the draw of the University of Texas is for football recruits, even though they’ve had a really disappointing last two seasons?
TOM LUGINBILL: This is a great question.
I was hoping it would come up, because I truly believe that what got Texas into the predicament they’re in right now was the fact that things became so accelerated and they were drawing commitments from freshmen and sophomores and having their class all locked up in the spring before signing period was eight months away.
And so now what you’re seeing is Charlie Strong and his staff not only pursue a different type of player, because maybe they feel that player is the right player for them, but they’re not rushing to judgment and taking the easy guy.
What I mean by the easy guy, is that player that might be a good player, maybe overhyped. May be tapped out but he’s been a Texas kid his entire life that’s where he wanted to go and he’s a easy recruit. They’ve chosen not to go that route, which I think is really, really wise.
I think what you’re seeing is, over the course of time, Charlie Strong and his staff slowly but surely make more inroads with the high school coaches across the state of Texas, and as a result making more of an impactful lasting impression on kids across the state of Texas.
And I will say this: There are going to be some guys they’re in on that people are going to say that’s exciting that’s great. There’s going to be some guys that are going to commit to them and sign on Wednesday that people are going to go, huh, I just don’t know about that guy. There’s a method to the madness oftentimes in recruiting, and it’s never the same for everybody.
I just think that the time to scrutinize and evaluate is resonating with kids in relationship to them knowing that this Texas staff is invested and they are doing everything they can to avoid making errors and make the best possible decision going forward, and that’s not going to happen by just taking the early guy in the process.
It’s going to happen by continuing to evaluate, reevaluate, scrutinize, vet and ensure that not only are you getting the right player athletically but the right player in terms of the guy you want. And I think kids can feel that and it’s natural.
- Just wanted to ask you a little bit about the quarterback group heading into the SEC. I guess fairly or unfairly the SEC kind of gets a reputation sometimes for not developing quarterbacks, but you obviously have the two top guys in Eason and Patterson among the more pro style, and the guys like McElwain and others on the dual‑threat side. So is this a group that can potentially either help shape some of that reputation or shift a little bit of the perception?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, I think so. I don’t know if I would expect it to happen in the blink of an eye or the wave of a magic wand. Now certainly a guy like Feleipe’ Franks or Jacob Eason, given the current status of the quarterback situation at Florida and Georgia, are going to be given every opportunity to compete, and it will be an open competition. And I really don’t think either of those coaching staffs really care what year the guy is, they want the best guy to help them win games. And I think you could maybe see on the east there, the SEC, some youngsters maybe having a greater early impact.
As far as a guy like Shea Patterson, I think so much of, first of all, developing the quarterback position but also having the position pan out, is marrying the skill set of a player with the offensive scheme and what that program does, because being in the right place at the right time works the right fit is oftentimes is half the battle. That’s what Shea Patterson did with his verbal commitment to Ole Miss. I’m not saying that Shea Patterson couldn’t go play for Jim McElwain in a multiple pro‑style scheme or go play for David Shaw at Stanford, but what I’m saying is he’s much better suited to a multiple, spread‑option type of offense where you can use his athleticism and he can be utilized in a variety of ways to maximize his strengths.
So I think long term, and Chad Kelly deciding to come back, the ability to hopefully redshirt but at least be the number two and hope that they don’t have to play with him, could be an ideal path for him to mature properly and then be the right fit for the offense going forward.
And, yeah, there’s a lot of player development that needs to take place. The one thing that I would also argue, though, in relationship to the SEC and maybe that of a perceived development of quarterbacks in other conferences or with other teams, is the strength of the SEC has always been in the trenches and it’s always been on the defensive side activity football.
So a lot of the quarterbacks in this league are facing defensive personnel week in week out that other quarterbacks across the country are not. And I think that’s something that can be noted and it’s sometimes overlooked.
- Will Muschamp at South Carolina speaks about the difference between recruiting and evaluation, about how coaches who may be good at one may not necessarily always be good at the other. And I wonder, in your mind, is there a real difference there, and was evaluation perhaps the biggest issue for South Carolina in the last couple of years under Steve Spurrier?
TOM LUGINBILL: That’s a great question. I do think there is a distinct difference. Because what recruiting, the term recruiting, we all think of as going out, luring the guy, getting the guy. And that is a part of it.
But to get to that point it’s entirely about evaluation. And it’s entirely about scrutinizing the player. The whole player. So what we’re talking about is the athletic side, the emotional side, the social side, a lot of boxes need to be checked in terms of what we call critical factors and many coaches do as well, everything from mental competitiveness to temperament, academics, psychological profile, and the whole gamut.
Because at the end of the day what this is all about is avoiding misses. And that’s what’s made recruiting so dangerous, the more it’s become accelerated when you’re out there having to evaluate and make an offer and assessment on a 15‑year‑old kid, there are way too many unknown variables that you cannot account for that are going to lead to being wrong more than you want to be.
So to take that time and to scrutinize and to evaluate and not only make sure you’re getting the best player, but to make sure you’re getting the right player is absolutely critical.
As it specifically relates to South Carolina, I would argue the distinct difference between South Carolina and Clemson within the state of South Carolina is that if there’s been a down year in South Carolina, where maybe the top to bottom crop isn’t very good or maybe it’s not a top‑heavy year. Where Clemson has, I think, exceeded expectations and done a better job than South Carolina to this point is they’ve been able to fulfill those needs from other states.
So they’ve gone to Georgia and they’ve gotten Deshaun Watson. They’ve gone to Florida and gotten Sammy Watkins and Mackensie Alexander, and Stephone Anthony goes from North Carolina to Clemson. South Carolina has struggled to do that. And if you look at those really good teams that Steve Spurrier had ‑‑ look at where all their top‑echelon players were from ‑‑ Stephon Gilmore, DeVonte Holloman, JaDeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery ‑‑ all in‑state kids that chose to go to South Carolina. So Will Muschamp not only has to win the state versus Clemson, who is hot right now, he’s got to come up with answers in other states, in other back yards to be able to fulfill a need if it’s not in his immediate state.
- I wanted to ask you, going into Wednesday, are there any surprises, some teams that maybe you think will jump out that may be some surprise to people in the next couple of days going forward?
TOM LUGINBILL: Yeah, you know we’ve touched on it a little bit on this call. I think Texas is certainly one of those teams that is going to end up being somewhere around 21 verbal commitments in signees.
If you look at them right now, Texas has an opportunity to make a big jump with a lot of players. They’re only sitting at 14. So there’s going to be a lot that’s going to happen for the Texas Longhorns.
I also think a team that’s kind of sitting there out of the Pac‑12 that nobody’s really talking about that has been a slow burn of improvement has been the Washington Huskies. They continue to make a late surge. They’ve jumped into the top 30 now. I think they’re in the mix, even in the top two or three for the services of tight end Devin Asiasi out of the state of California. I think that’s another one. And the third one I probably would say, there’s a lot of hype, a lot of exposure around the Michigan Wolverines, and with some of their remaining needs and some of their remaining spots that they’re going to have an opportunity to fulfill. They sit there at No. 5. They could find themselves jockeying for one of those top two or three spots when it’s all said and done if things fall their way.
- My question is about the University of Houston. As it stands right now I believe they have four commitments off of your ESPN 300, including Ed Oliver at the top. My question is, in the span of a year how surprised are you at how quickly Tom Herman has been able to go out and get this top level talent and put them on the verge of a top 25 class? And moving forward do you see this as maybe an indicator of what they may be able to do in terms of challenging not only within the state but outside of it for some of these top talent as they pursue maybe a Power Five invite?
TOM LUGINBILL: Number one, I’m not surprised in any way, shape or form that Tom Herman’s been able to hit the ground running and make an immediate impact. That part doesn’t surprise me.
What has not just surprised me but shocked me is that he has been able to withstand a constant barrage of what you know has to be negative recruiting and has somehow held on to the likes of an Ed Oliver, Tyrie Cleveland, D’Eriq King, Courtney Lark and some of these upper echelon top prospects that, quite frankly, Houston has gone out and beat all the big boys on. And with that being said, there’s such noise out there and such clutter about where Tom Herman will be after this year.
You hear so much discussion about when kids commit or they sign, are they committing to the program for a variety of reasons or are they committing to an individual? And so the fact that these kids who you know are hearing it from every direction are still committed to the university, I think that speaks maybe more volumes about Tom Herman and his staff than anything else in this entire process.
But it does show and reflect that there is a vision on behalf of the university. There is a plan going forward, whether that’s a five‑year plan, a seven‑year plan, whether it includes a Power Five affiliation, what have you. We know the facilities and the stadium upgrades have happened and they’ve happened quickly. So there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and regardless of those questions being answered, the kids remain committed. And that is something I’m going to be keeping a close eye on come Wednesday, because if he signs all of these guys, it’s going to be very, very interesting to see what happens going forward with Houston expected to have another big year on the field. We know there may be some jobs coming open next year and then people will be looking back at this class and saying, okay, what happens now.
- Wanted to talk to you about Florida and Jim McElwain. Obviously he came here with the number one priority of fixing the offensive side of the ball and getting kind of a late start in the 2015 cycle he was still able to bring some guys in that made an early impact this past season like an Antonio Callaway and a Martez Ivey. You look at the end of this cycle and they’ve missed on some guys like Nate Craig‑Myers and Nick Eubanks. But looking at what they’re bringing in this class and what they were able to do with the guys they brought in and you look at Feleipe’ Franks and these receivers, and they’ve got the number one JUCO running back. Are you sensing that things are moving in the right direction as far as offensively as he tries to go to that side of the ball?
TOM LUGINBILL: Oh, I absolutely do. And this is what you expect to see. You expect to see this in the first full calendar year of a new staff that’s no longer having to scrap and scrape up and up against the wall because they’re trying to figure out how to close this thing up because they just got the job. We’re seeing what’s happening at Florida happen right now at Michigan. Next year at this time we may be talking about this exact same conversation with Kirby Smart at Georgia and Mark Richt at Miami after they’ve had their full year at their institutions. Jim McElwain knows and anybody who watched Florida knows Florida is always going to have great defensive personnel. They’re going to be able to play good defense which gives you a chance right off the bat. He was hired for an offensive identity, a proven history of winning with multiple programs, multiple quarterbacks, and still producing results. And so he knows as well as anybody that the quarterback position has to be fixed. It’s that simple.
And if you look across the board at the teams that are making a difference, they’re built from the inside out. Offensive front, defensive front, and at quarterback.
And if that gets solidified, I think anybody, whether it’s in the SEC or it’s in the ACC or from a national perspective that looks at this program, they know if the quarterback position gets fixed at Florida, Florida is a different program to every opponent they play as a result of that one fix.
And so I think he inherited talent at some key spots, added more of it in a short period of time as you referenced, and then we’re going to find out just how ready or not ready a guy like Feleipe’ Franks is to come in and compete right away. Is he better than what they had last year even though he’s a true freshman? He may very well be. Or could we see a lot of growing pains and go through this a little bit more because you’re forced to play a young guy that’s not ready but he’s better than what you have.
So there’s a lot of dynamics and variables still at play here but they are going in the right direction and I think they’re making a good impact on the recruiting trail.
- Kind of a two‑part question here. LSU’s class right now number one. Just kind of wanted your take on how, when you look at it, how the class was built and why it’s number one. And second part of the question LSU didn’t sign any linebackers last year’s class, didn’t sign any defensive tackles in last year’s class. How does that kind of affect the long‑term recruiting and success of a program?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, I think what they did is they tried to address some other areas that they felt were maybe more of a specific need. And the one thing that you start to find out as you’re recruiting underclassmen, you start to get a pretty good gauge on, okay, where can we place some of our emphasis. We may feel good about the next class coming up and could fill some of those needs in the following class, and they need to place our focus on another position or two predominantly in this class. And you kind of divide your priorities a little bit.
And to me that’s exactly what they did with this class. If you looked at their highest graded guys, look at the positions at which they’re at ‑‑ Rashard Lawrence, Willie Allen, Rahssan Thornton, Edwin Alexander, the list goes on and on within the offensive and defensive line. ‑‑ That’s something that, to me, is very, very important, because the other challenge in all of this is you’re always recruiting in anticipation, not only of graduation, but of early departure to the NFL.
So you essentially have two boards on your wall. You have your board if everybody stays and you have your board if everybody leaves early. And how do we address those things in recruiting. You’re juggling two balls in the air at one time.
But this class is heavy in‑state, which it should be. It’s hit other marquee players out of other states that are important, like Rahssan Thornton out of Texas, a Saivion Smith out of Florida. I don’t think they’re done yet. That’s the value of a state like Louisiana. It’s the blessing and the curse ‑‑ you’re going to be able to build your program with one state, but you’re also going to have to fight off all the border states that are going to come in and try to mine for talent as well.
I think that’s where LSU has done as good a job as anybody in college football this year. In recruiting is keeping guys at home.
- Wanted to ask you about Nate Craig‑Myers, one of the players scheduled to make his announcement on ESPN on Wednesday. What qualities do you see in him that may lead you to believe he can make an impact early in college, and are you surprised that he will make a decision that doesn’t involve a state of Florida school ultimately?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, number one, I think he’s got a competitive hunger. I go back to the completion of his sophomore year. And in our ESPN Junior 300, which are kids that are going to be the next class, he was our number one ranked receiver.
Then he has an injury that not only affects his junior season but also affected his ability to get back and prove in the spring and the summer through the camp and combine circuit that he was back to 100 percent.
And what he’s really done is worked extremely hard to get back and get healthy, prove his worth, and to me that tells me a little bit about his maturity, tells me about his competitive temperament, and those type of things generally lend to a young man being able to contribute and maybe have less of a learning curve than some others.
They’re all talented. They’re all physically gifted and able. But when it comes to some of those intangible traits, that’s what usually separates some true freshmen from others. So I do think that he has those.
You know, I don’t know if I would always read too much into a guy not having the big three instate as his finalist. I think you’re going to see that. I think there are more anomalies and more exceptions than they are the norm, because of how relationships impact recruiting and how guys get tied with certain coaches and have certain comfort levels with certain coaches. Oftentimes what we’re seeing in this climate is that kids are gravitating more towards that than they are a program or an ideal perception of a program. It can be more about people.
Sometimes that’s a good thing. Oftentimes it’s not a very good thing because as we all know in the tumultuous coaching profession the chance that you’re going to play for your position coach or coordinator over the span of three to five years is highly unlikely, but I don’t think kids necessarily think about that in the early going, but I think that has had an impact on Nate.
- Following up on Jacob Eason, knowing what you know about him from camps and high school and what Georgia has at quarterback, what do you expect from him in 2016 and overall when you look at this class? What are your impressions of it, what’s missing, what do you think could fill it in during this stretch?
TOM LUGINBILL: With Jacob, certainly he’s very physically gifted and not only is he physically gifted but he’s the type of player that Jim Chaney wants under center. Jim Chaney is a multiple, pro‑style, NFL mindset, win with aptitude and anticipation in your mind and you’re going to do it by being technically sound, you’re going to throw the football from within the pocket and work through progressions, all those things.
So Jacob fits that mold. The challenge is that it’s such a steep learning curve from one level to the next and you’re going to be asked to do so much more than you were ever prepared to do at the high school level when it comes to managing an offense or running an offense. The knowledge that you’re going to need, the work ethic, and all the different things that are going to be introduced that are going to be foreign.
The good things is he’s enrolled early, can get acclimated academically, acclimated with the old winter workout situation, going into spring football without pressure on him, then move on to the summer, and now all of a sudden he comes back in August and he’s not your normal true freshman. I think he’ll be given every opportunity. I can tell you right now after evaluating him and other players within that roster he’s going to be the most physically gifted player that they have.
The question is will he be the most prepared and ready player. And it may not matter. They may say, you know what, we’re going to take our lumps. There’s going to be speed bumps in the road, but we’re willing to back this guy and be in it for the long haul.
So don’t be surprised if that happens. You know with this class, and Kirby Smart knows this, to answer the last part of your question, one of the reasons why I think he was hired is not only because he’s a Georgia guy but because Georgia cannot allow the top players in the state to not stay at home. They can no longer allow a Montravius Adams, a Carl Lawson, a Reuben Foster, or some of these guys to leave the state and go to another program. They need to keep the best players at home. So whether it’s a Mecole Hardman, whether it’s a Derrick Brown, or guys left on the board, I think it’s important, is he going to hit on every one of them in this class? I don’t know. I think it’s important that he hits on at least a third or two‑thirds of those guys that are still out there as a statement type of situation going forward with this program.
- Normally teams take a dip during a coaching transition. But I notice on ESPN’s rankings you’ve got both Georgia and Miami right now as having top‑15 classes. I was curious, do you credit that more to what was established by the previous staff, what the new staffs have been able to do, or are we just talking about two programs that should always have top‑15 classes?
TOM LUGINBILL: I think we’re talking about two programs where there’s already a certain perception that is positive and it’s not something that the incoming coach has to overcome. I think that’s number one.
Number two, there is such familiarity in recruiting circles when it comes to the personnel. What I mean by that is let’s just say Kirby Smart had decided to take the head coaching position at Texas Tech or at Nebraska or what have you.
Now you’re talking about having to completely introduce yourself, your entire staff, your entire way of going about things, to an entirely different player pool that you’re completely foreign to, and you’ve got three weeks to signing day to pull it off. That hasn’t been the case for either of these two head coaches. They know the player pool. They’ve probably had all these kids on their campus at their other respective institutions on more than one occasion.
I think that helps you hit the ground running and allows for you to not miss a beat. I also think that with some programs out there, the program itself and how they are viewed and how they are perceived overcomes one individual or overshadows an individual. So regardless of who the coach is going to be at either of those places, the way Georgia and Miami is viewed helps both of those coaches, without question.
- What’s kind of your overall assessment of where Florida State is? Looks like three kids potentially with Florida State in the next committing, on signing day, which seems a little bit higher than usual. Looks like potentially more drama for Florida State late than usual.
TOM LUGINBILL: Yeah, there could be a little bit more drama with this team and sometimes that drama is a good part of relevancy, not obviously that Florida State is not relevant but it keeps people talking. You’re in the mix. You’re part of the news cycle on signing day which is always very, very important. As they’re sitting there with a top five class, when you look at the components of this team that are returning and then you look at the components that are being added, I mean there are some really good fits at some needs, most notably at corner.
Certainly more depth at quarterback. In the offensive line maybe more so than any interior line in this entire class. Baveon Johnson, I think, is a plug‑and‑play guy at either guard or center for an offensive line that certainly needs some upgrades for Rick Trickett as well along the front.
So it could be interesting for Florida State, as we talk about some of these programs or some of these kids that are out there that are considering an FSU like a Trayvon Mullen and some of these kids that are still considering FSU aren’t in‑state Florida kids.
It would be another opportunity for the Seminoles to make an impact just outside of their immediate footprint.
- First, does the depth at wide receiver and the relative lack of linebackers sort of reflect the rate at which the spread now dictates the way that high schools assign their personnel, particularly in Texas, and perhaps the manner in which colleges run offenses and defenses now?
TOM LUGINBILL: That’s a really good question. And I think that ‑‑ I don’t know if it would necessarily affect the receiver class. You’re going to have a ton of receivers out there.
What I think it’s affected, is the quarterback position and the athlete position. And then to your point, I do agree that defensively ‑‑ you know, the discussion at the college level all the time now is: How do we have the right personnel on the field versus tempo offenses that are going to spread you out? how do we avoid having our first and second down personnel with a linebacker that’s going to be exposed, and how do we avoid having that guy on the field on third down.
That’s where you’re seeing the Landon Collins of the world and those types of players that are the hybrid safety‑weakside linebacker that’s a tad bit undersized that can play within the box, yet you don’t feel like you’re going to be overly exposed at corner.
So what’s happening now is you’re seeing a lot of those players not just line up at safety anymore with high school, they’re already being played at linebacker.
And so they’re kind of being put in that role that’s going to prepare them for the next level. If they’re going to especially be in a conference like the Pac‑12 or like the Big 12 where they’re going to see four and five wide and they’re going to see up‑tempo all the time.
I go back initially to the quarterback comment that I made in the athlete category. I think some of the quarterback development has been really struggling because people are now going to a true spread and sometimes they want to go to that zone read stuff and they’re just taking the best overall athlete on their team and putting them at quarterback.
Well, that player is going to end up either being a corner or wide receiver at the next level. Certainly not going to be a quarterback. Where does that leave your true quarterback? And I think that’s had an impact on those two positions, aside from just that linebacker/safety discussion we had.
- And also to what degree ‑‑ you mentioned the number of late commitments. To what degree do you think that the dramatic platform that ESPN now offers in terms of allowing student‑athletes to make decisions on television to a degree reflects the fact that people are putting off making announcements, do you think that sort of changes ‑‑ do you think the television to a degree has changed the way that recruiting takes place now?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, television obviously, and the coverage of recruiting, has made a significant impact, because it is national. It is branded. It is receiving a lot of exposure and things of that nature.
I would argue throughout the fall, whether it’s been part of our recruiting nation orweekly show on ESPNU where we’ve had kids come on, make their announcements as well, as early as Eric Cuffee, who committed to Texas last night on our air, all the way up to the Under Armour All‑America game, throughout the week and at the game you’ve got announcements.
And as things come about, as we lead up to signing day, yes, it’s introduced. It’s thrown out there. It’s thrown out to the principals and to the head coaches and kids, hey, is this something that you would be interested in doing with us and making a day of it.
The one thing that I would wholeheartedly stand up and say is not a part of the equation is getting involved in altering the timeframe by which a prospect wants to make their commitment in order to satisfy our television needs.
We can go 11 straight hours live television the entire day without having a single commitment. So we’re not worried about that part of it. There’s plenty of content.
If it’s presented and a young man wants to do it and it works out for both parties, then, great, we’ll try to make it happen. If they don’t want to do it, then we’re going to wish them the best of luck and they need to do things on their own terms.
It’s very, very important to us that people understand that there is an influence involved. There’s opportunity here.
- My question is regarding Penn State. Last week Coach James Franklin noted that he’s had other programs kind of negative recruiting against him. I want to get your take on how do you define negative recruiting against Penn State, and is it a different tactic than any other program either uses or faces?
TOM LUGINBILL: I think there are a variety of levels of negative recruiting, all the way from vicious,nasty, and uncalled for down to what I would probably term to be everyday harmless usage of trying to recruit against your competitors.
Now, without knowing the specific reasons why somebody now would be recruiting against Penn State, unless you know exactly the particular reason is that he referenced, I would say that it’s always been my belief, in dealing with college coaches, talking with college coaches, every program has distinct strengths and weaknesses they have to work around, that they’ve got to accentuate to transition into positives. But at the end of the day what you generally find out is if you’re not focusing on your own program’s positives and you’re spending a lot of time worrying about everybody else, you will eventually lose out. You will not win the battle.
Because everything becomes negative. What you admit becomes negative out of your mouth, out of your body language, every conversation, instead of becoming about what you guys bring to the table, it’s always about why they shouldn’t do anything else.
In the interim, it may be something that coaches use that they feel like can get a kid to open up his mind a little bit and give some things a thought. But I think if you drag it on and you linger it, it only hurts you in the end.
So it’s going to happen to everybody. I don’t think anybody’s immune from having used some form, whether it be very mild or extreme of it at some point or another in your coaching career.
At the end of the day, I think publicly everybody would like for it not to happen and for everybody to just focus on their positives, but that’s not the reality of the world we’re living in either.
- Just wanted to get your thoughts on Notre Dame, how you think the Irish’s class is stacking up?
TOM LUGINBILL: I think the one thing that always stands out to me, and if you’ve been on our calls before, if you’ve paid attention to our focus and where we place a high value or premium, and that is how you’re stacking your board and where are you placing your premiums on the positions that you need to build a championship caliber football team.
And if you look at essentially the top eight to 10 prospects in Notre Dame’s class, where do they reside? Defensive front? Offensive front? Defensive secondary?
Those are all those positions that we talk about as we go through the college football season and we say: Why are people not able to stack against Ohio State on defense and why can’t anybody handle Alabama on defense?
And whatever it may be, it’s because of these types of positions in trying to stockpile as many of them as you possibly can. And so in looking at Notre Dame, looking at their losses within the offensive line, top two graded guys in this class are offensive linemen.
You take a look at some of their losses within the defensive front: What do they do? They go out and address the edge pass rushers, which they feel like they’ve got to have to add to guys like Andrew Trumbetti and some guys they’ve taken in past classes.
I really like the direction that they’re going because, in my opinion, it’s the only way for the Notre Dames and the other Power Five conference teams, if you’re really going to be competing for championships, you’re not going to do it with just skill guys.
Skill guys will get you so far. They know they’ve got quarterback depth. They know they’ve got players at quarterback. They’ve got to continue to do what they’ve done the last two years in recruiting which is proven dividends on the field and that’s to continue to load up front, and I think they have.
- I want to talk about Mr. No. 1. What made Rashan Gary No. 1? What type of impact do you see him having next year? And how does he stand historically with the guys you’ve rated at a similar spot?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, I will say this: it’s a big responsibility when you start putting that label on guys. And, you know, the hope is when you have a label of a guy that’s going to be a No. 1 player, the hope is that he not only pans out; but in order to pan out, he kind of has to be the No. 1 player in all the other areas that will contribute to his success or failure.
So what you’re trying to do is identify red flags. And I would make the argument, and I don’t want to speak for our staff, but I think that they would agree with me, outside of maybe Leonard Fournette, I don’t know if we’ve had a No. 1 ranked overall player with as few identifiable negative traits or what people might term to be red flags as Rashan Gary has. You don’t have classroom issues. You don’t have personality conflict issues.
He’s got a terrific home life. He is a young man that will break your hand when he shakes it and look you dead in the eye. He can carry on a conversation. He’s never backed down from competition.
Oftentimes you get some of these upper echelon guys and they get into a camp or combine circuit, they either stand on the sideline or don’t show up. Or when they get into an all‑star game setting, they kind of disappear.
That has never happened with Rashan Gary. So the talent aside, it’s all of those factors that give us a very, very strong belief that this is a young man that will not just succeed in football, but he’ll succeed in the areas that will help him past football.
So he’s not committed. And it can be oftentimes difficult for a true freshman certainly to play, and generally you play because either there’s a need or you happen to maybe be better athletically than what they have, but even though you’re not mentally ready, you play anyway. This is one of those kids. I don’t care where he signs, he’s playing. He’s that type of talent.
And I think he’s mature enough to not only handle the jump but handle the expectations that go along with having that label. And that’s the reason why he’s our No. 1 player.
- Can you evaluate Penn State’s recruiting under James Franklin in light of the NCAA sanctions and also against the competition in that division? And also how do you think they’ve addressed their needs up front on both sides of the ball?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, first and foremost, when he got there ‑‑ and I know when visiting with him, they were just aghast. They were so stunned at what their personnel was in the offensive line, and the lack of scholarship offensive line that they knew they had to immediately address that quickly, which was the focus of those previous two classes.
They have continued to do that more so at the guard and center spot in this class as opposed to the tackle position. But really where you see the needs addressed is in the defensive front. Shane Simmons, in my opinion, has an opportunity to be special. Certainly Daniel Joseph. And then you’ve got the undersized tackle in Ellison Jordan, high motor, great player, reminds me of Issac Gross down at Ole Miss, undersized, but just plays his tail off.
I think they’ve addressed areas of significant need but they’ve done it maybe with upgraded athleticism and in guys that, certainly towards the end of Joe Pa’s tenure, the beginning of Bill O’Brien’s tenure, they may not have had access to getting in those particular positions and now have kind of gotten past the wave. As we get scholarships back and can move forward, can start building your roster the way you want to.
- Can you evaluate Michal Menet who was from my area?
TOM LUGINBILL: Yeah. This is an interesting guy, because he has the look of an offensive tackle. But in my opinion, when you’re going to be that tough physical point of attack player, I think the development is what’s going to determine which one of those positions that he plays. We think he’s a little bit of a better fit at offensive guard. He’s played some on defense.
He’s got some of that natural toughness you want out of an offensive lineman. It’s not just all about height, weight, arm length, hand size,and all that stuff.
He brings an edge and a demeanor, which generally it’s been my experience, when freshmen offensive linemen have that, they find a way to break into the lineup sooner rather than later. With a significant need there in this group, I think that’s very important.
- In terms of winning the state, and you always want to win the state, and in my state, Alabama, what would a player like Ben Davis do for Auburn if he does choose Auburn over Alabama or his other offer, and what would he bring to the table for Auburn?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, I think it would be significant, because if you go back a couple of years back and the whole Rashaan Evans saga of Rashaan being at Auburn High School and decide to sign with Alabama, I think it would be a great opportunity for Auburn to get one back.
As you talk about winning the state, there are very few states in this country that have two such high profile, prominent programs within the same conference within the same proximity to each other.
So I think that it would speak volumes, particularly being that he’s a defensive player, number one. Number two, Auburn not having the type of season they were expecting to have, that’s very, very important.
I think one of the reasons, too, as you look at the position at linebacker, there’s a need there for bodies for Auburn, and if you look at linebacker, even though Reggie Ragland is departing with Alabama, there’s still a lot of depth at that position for Alabama.
So it will be interesting to see how that one goes down the stretch. And when Ben Davis took his visit to Alabama last week, he’s expected to visit Auburn this week. When you get that last opportunity to make that impression before signing day, that could always pay some dividends, too.
- One part, I guess a side note, away from the big‑time recruits that get talked about, after the dust settles for national signing day and schools look to fill some holes they have, a lot of guys have an opportunity to be preferred walk‑ons at bigger schools. So based on some of the success stories you’ve seen on guys that have taken that route and some of the not so successful stories, what are some ‑‑ what advice or what are some factors you would give to a kid that’s maybe weighing a chance to play at an FCS school or maybe going to be a preferred walk‑on at a bigger school?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, I think first and foremost, the number one thing that I would be looking at is what is the financial situation of the young man and his family and his support structure, because if one’s involving a scholarship opportunity to earn a college degree and not have to pay for school on your own and the other is not, that’s going to be, in my opinion, significant in the overall decision‑making process, as well it should be.
There are going to be certain players that don’t have any type of hardship in that regard. And it’s about just, if I want to be a Division I player, I want to be a part of this program, I don’t care who else is recruiting me, this is what I want to be.
And for those kids, those kids generally, with that type of drive, somehow find a way sometimes to earn that scholarship eventually, whether it’s a year down the road, two, or even three years, or going into their last year of eligibility.
So I think the answer to that question as I’ve kind of outlined with a couple of different scenarios really depends on what is the situation of the individual prospect.
I know that walk‑ons are a vital part of each and every program across the country, particularly as it relates to the kicking game, and certainly as it relates to continued depth.
And sometimes what ends up happening ‑‑ because this is how many, many mid‑level or Group of Five programs are built ‑‑ is that player who is a really good player but just maybe wasn’t quite the scholarship‑type guy that a Power Five program wanted, decides to walk on anyway. And all of a sudden he’s a late bloomer. He redshirts. Two years down the road he grows an extra three inches, gains an extra 50 pounds, wow, he’s a different player three and a half years down the road than he was before and he ends up being a guy for you. That’s what makes projecting all this so difficult is nobody has a crystal ball.
Unlike the NFL draft where you’re dealing with 22‑year‑olds and a multitude of definitive variables, at this level you’re dealing with kids with a ton of unknown variables and that’s why it’s hard.
- We see every school, every Big Ten school obviously pumping to recruits how many guys they have in the NFL. We’ve seen it a lot with Ohio State, a bunch of guys at the Super Bowl, coaches on social media touting that. Where, for schools like Ohio State, where does, in their recruit’s mind, which school will pump me into the NFL the quickest, where does the NFL rank in their decision‑making process?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, unfortunately for probably far too many of them, it can rank number one on top of the list. First and foremost, they all think they’re playing in the NFL. They all think they’re going to play for three years and they’re going to the league and they’re going to be first or second round draft choices.
Very few of them have the foresight and the big picture scope at this age to look at all the variables, the different parameters, and the different types of things that can impact whether you’d have an opportunity to play professional football.
So I think what you do is outline the realities but you also, tout and promote the job you’ve done with your particular roster and developing the type of players that are capable of moving on to the National Football League.
When you’re dealing with the Alabamas, Ohio States, USCs, or the Floridas, and some of these programs that are out there that are routinely putting guys into the National Football League, you’re really trying to sell your way of developing that player.
What’s unique to you guys that you’re doing in player and personal development that has lent to these players having these opportunities to move on and play in the NFL, what separates you from somebody else? Because everybody is going to say they develop the players the best and as evidenced by the guys we’ve put in the league.
Well, if everybody’s been able to do that, which many have, how have you done it differently that you think gives you an edge than the other program?
And that is where the gathering of intel and research information over the course of 18 months to two years on a specific kid is so vital to know what makes that kid tick, how that kid needs to be approached, how he needs to be pursued and talked to, and what’s important to him. And it’s never the same for any one kid.
So it is something that is a big, big factor in recruiting and it weighs heavily with these kids.
- I had a question about Rashan Gary. You touched on him a bit, talked about what a unique player he is. I’m curious, through your years of evaluating players and following the college game, is there any type of comparison that you’ve seen with him that you could compare him to either a prospect or a guy that really developed into a tremendous talent through his college years?
TOM LUGINBILL: I would say that the guy that he reminds me the most of, but at the same stage of coming out of high school Rashan might be a little more technically polished, is Leonard Williams, the former USC defensive tackle who just obviously went in the first round last year.
And when we were looking at Rashan as a junior and Leonard was still in college, our whole staff, almost to a man, was like: This guy looks like Leonard Williams looked. And so I think that is a fair comparison.
I also see many comparisons to former Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley. Obviously for Rashan Gary he hopes he doesn’t have anywhere near the injury history that Dominique had that impaired him at times. But the reason why I make that comparison is what Dominique could do that many guys can’t, is he could play all four spots along the defensive front in any type of multiple front.
And Rashan Gary can do that. And that makes those guys rare.
- I was just wondering about Virginia and Virginia Tech, both dealing with new coaches this offseason. How are the two schools doing so far? And what are the challenges of having to have a new coach in an offseason with this recruiting?
TOM LUGINBILL: I think the obvious challenge is for Justin Fuente is replacing the guy. I think that everybody always says: Don’t replace the guy, replace the guy that replaced the guy.
But I think to be honest with you, Justin Fuente has been able to do things rather quietly and do them kind of on his own timetable without a lot of hoopla, without a lot of external exposure or clutter surrounding the program, and as a result you’re looking at an upper echelon corner that he’s committed in this class in Khalil Ladler.
He’s got a receiver out of the state of North Carolina in Divine Deablo who I think is an exceptional talent, and that is a need position.
In fact, three of the top four highest graded guys for Virginia Tech are wide receivers and the other one is a quarterback, which is also a need position, and he’s a dual threat guy, which that style of offense would prefer to have. So I think they’ve got to be excited with their 18 verbal commitments to this point.
Things are really slow right now for Virginia. And I expect them to be that way. The numbers are relatively high, which in my opinion is a tribute to how Virginia has been viewed. Despite a tumultuous coaching change and struggles on the season this fall, kids have remained intact.
And in doing so, if you heard me earlier on the call talking about the challenges for taking over a new job and maybe not doing it in your same region, I mean, there couldn’t be a greater example of that than Virginia right now.
So I think it speaks volumes about how kids view the program right now as much as anything else.
How did we get through this call without a single Michigan question? I better jump off.
- I wanted to ask about the job Baylor has done now with what looks to be, and obviously subject to change, top recruiting class in the 12, and in the past they’ve gotten the two and three star guys that are now in the hunt for the four and five star guys, and what do you make of the progress Baylor has made in recruiting?
TOM LUGINBILL: It’s been unbelievable. When we talk about that question earlier about the difference between recruiting and evaluating, you could argue that Baylor has done as good a job of evaluating of any program in college football over the last five to seven years.
What’s ended up happening, which is also a blessing and curse, keep in mind, in the old days, Baylor could ‑‑ we could really just count on Baylor offering a guy and nobody cares. Nobody pays attention. It doesn’t draw attention. Other programs that they were competing against didn’t care.
So they had the luxury of recruiting whoever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and not having to compete for anybody.
Now, the curse is when Baylor offers a guy, they are not going to recruit him by themselves. They’re drawing attention to that player. It’s a tribute to the success in their process and what they’ve been able to do, and they’ve continued to do such a good job in that regard and still win on guys.
Still get a Devin Duvernay and still get a Patrick Hudson or Tren’Davian Dickson, and I think what that shows is that certainly not a flash in the pan, but not only could they recruit and gather good players and evaluate when it was easier, now it’s getting harder, they’re able to stack up against the big boys.
- You mentioned the difference in recruiting strategies between Charlie Strong and Mack Brown. Mack did very well early on in Texas by going on and getting early recruit commitments. Is there something that changed about the nature of recruiting between then and now or has something changed about the players or the process of recruiting? Why does something that worked so well for Mack early on no longer work or is not something that Charlie or other coaches are doing now?
TOM LUGINBILL: The competitive climate was so dramatically different. A&M was down. Baylor was nonexistent. They weren’t a factor. Oklahoma State was just trying to be competitive within the conference.
You didn’t have the SEC influence. The whole cool factor as we’ve seen it with recruiting now has dramatically changed, because there’s so much exposure and so much information out there with the Internet,television, and radio.
I just think the dynamics ‑‑ what worked before, you could get away with, and it was an easier job. Now, the competitive field is so dramatically different. And the downside to the state of Texas is that you’re going to have a lot of finished products because the kids are so well trained and oftentimes overtrained. That’s the downside.
So if you’re going to take that early guy, there’s a likelihood that he’s not going to pan out because he’s going to be the same guy at 18 that he was at 14. And at worse the same guy at 22 that he was at 18.
And I think Texas ran into that quite a bit. I think that’s what Baylor’s avoided. Oklahoma State has done a great job of further scrutinizing, developing players. And I also believe this, and this is something that has changed for everybody: The inability now to redshirt players.
When you get a great player, everybody expects him to play right away and he’s got to make an impact. The reality of that happening with everybody is not realistic.
Unfortunately, that’s the world that we’re living in. How to avoid it, there’s no perfect recipe, and different people do it different ways. But I do believe that player development and further scrutinizing and slowing down, if you can, only helps you avoid misses.
- Is it now a player’s market, perhaps, in the sense it was a coach’s market back in the 1980s ‑‑ 1990s, rather?
TOM LUGINBILL: Yeah, I think so. Just because now the players can control so much more of the process than they ever could before. And unfortunately they can all talk to each other. Used to be you could recruit a kid back in the old days and he may never even talk to another kid that’s being recruited by the same staff. They might not even know them.
But those dynamics have certainly changed and made an impact on recruiting.
- So as one who’s been around, as you’ve seen coaching over the years, is this something that’s been, beneficial do you think, for college football, or is it a negative? Or is it just the reality of the way communications is these days?
TOM LUGINBILL: As far as the Internet?
- Yeah, just in terms of the fact that the players have much more control over the process now than they used to.
TOM LUGINBILL: I think it’s made it far more difficult. Far more headaches. There’s more entitlement. There’s a ‑‑ I think with many kids there’s this notion that I shouldn’t have to compete for anything anymore. I should be given everything. They can create bidding wars for, well, this guy they’re going to play me right away, how do I fit into your offense, are you going to run the spread if I come.
There’s just too many dynamics that I don’t think are good or overly positive, and maybe most importantly, when you’re no longer just recruiting the kid through the parent and the high school coach, that creates anotherwealth of issues, and I think we’re obviously in that realm and it’s not something that coaches enjoy.
- You can’t get that back in the box, can you?
TOM LUGINBILL: Oh, no.