Stuart McNair

Arizona State bypasses California recruiting grounds in 2017 cycle

After relying on the fertile recruiting grounds of California to stockpile its program with talent for the last 15 years, Arizona State failed to sign a single high school prospect from the Golden State in its 2017 recruiting class.

Miners who traveled from across the country and across the world to California in the late 1840s and early 1850s share a common quest with Pac-12 football coaches. 

For well over 150 years, everyone headed to the Golden State has entered with hopes of striking it rich.

In today's college football landscape, California is one of the nation's top producers of talent, lined with nuggets of gold that have the potential to help programs from around the country raise a trophy made of crystal at the end of each season.

In the 2017 recruiting cycle alone, the state produced 46 blue-chip prospects from the high school level, and many of the nation's top junior college recruits as well. 

While programs from around the country often mine the talent-rich Southern California region for potential immediate impact contributors, in-state schools and universities within a 500-mile radius of the most populous state in the union have often found that success on the field depends on their ability to draw from one of the country's deepest recruiting hotbeds.

Through the years, Arizona State is one of the many programs whose on-field performance has often directly correlated with how well the Sun Devils recruited in California. 

Historically, regardless of which coach has been at the helm of ASU's program, the Sun Devils have prioritized the state of California, and specifically the southern part of the state, as a region where the team could add a high volume of talent on an annual basis. 

When the program has been at its best, like it was in the 1996 Rose Bowl season, ASU has demonstrated it can lure some of the top players in California across the state border. When the Sun Devils took on Ohio State in Pasadena on New Year's Day in 1997, starters like Pat Tillman, Juan Roque, Keith Poole, J.R. Redmond and Scott Von der Ahe, all California natives, played pivotal roles in helping ASU back to the national stage.

When the program has been stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, as it was for the majority of the decade following the Sun Devils' last Rose Bowl appearance, ASU suffered as a result of failing to compete for enough high-caliber talent in the state.

Still, regardless of whether ASU was successful or not in landing high-priority targets from its western neighbor, the Sun Devils have persisted in the region. That is, until 2017, when head coach Todd Graham failed to sign a single high school prospect from the Golden State.

Between 2002 and 2016, the Sun Devils signed an average of 10.8 recruits from California on an annual basis, and in recent years, had more success landing a higher-caliber of prospect. Under Graham's watch, ASU signed more than 50 recruits from California during his first five recruiting cycles, and those signees boasted an average star-rating of 3.13. 

Beginning in 2014, the Sun Devils made even more impressive strides with their California recruiting operation, signing 30 recruits over a three-year period whose average star-rating measured out at 3.40. 

Despite arriving at ASU without ties to the Sun Devils' traditional recruiting hotbeds --Arizona and Southern California-- Graham's on-field success early in his tenure helped the program make serious inroads in both regions, allowing the Sun Devils to pick up steam on the recruiting trail.

After landing 24 recruits including 11 blue-chips prospects over a two-year period between 2014 and 2015 from California, ASU began a sudden regression in the state. 

In 2016, the Sun Devils signed just six players from California, five of which came from the junior college ranks. ASU's 2016 haul from California represented the Sun Devils' lowest intake from the state in the Internet era, as 12 of the previous 14 signing classes had included at least a double digit number of prospects from California.

After a surprising departure from the program's traditional recruiting strategy in 2016, Graham and his staff produced a 2017 class that is unlike any the Sun Devils have seen in the Internet era.

On National Signing Day, ASU announced a class of 19 signees, with nine hailing from the state of Arizona and just two coming from California. The program's nine in-state high school signees represented ASU's greatest total in 15 years, while the Sun Devils' two California recruits demonstrated a shockingly low return from a recruiting ground historically responsible for driving the program's success.

Furthermore, for the second straight cycle, ASU essentially whiffed on acquiring high school talent in California, as both four-star quarterback Blake Barnett and four-star Devil backer prospect Doug Subtyl are junior college transfers. For rankings purposes, only Barnett counted toward the Sun Devils' 2017 class, as Subtyl failed to academically qualify after signing as one of ASU's five junior college recruits from California in 2016. 

After announcing the program's 2017 signing class, Graham downplayed the Sun Devils' failure to attract recruits from California in 2017 and instead highlighted the Sun Devils' ability to capitalize on a deep in-state class of high school talent.

"That's the way it fell," Graham said of the lack of players from California. "I think a lot of that is, we signed nine guys in Arizona. So it's just the way it fell. My deal is, we're getting the guys that best fit what we're about. Gas tank away is the most critical area for us, it's our recruiting base. If you look at that gas tank away, we did pretty good. It's not that we weren't competing. And some of it had to do with positions (of need)."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Graham's Signing Day comments was his assertion that the Sun Devils pushed hard to invest time and energy in California-based recruits. Though Graham admitted ASU put more of an emphasis on local products in the 2017 cycle, he said as many as seven coaches from the Sun Devils' staff spent time in California working on shaping the recruiting class.

"It's not because we didn't have guys recruiting there," Graham said. "We had six or seven guys recruiting [California] and nine guys recruiting Arizona because it's our base. If you asked me this, if I could sign nine in Arizona every year...Arizona is more important than anywhere else."

A departure from a historical norm

When ASU hired Bruce Snyder away from Cal following the 1991 season, Snyder assembled a staff that helped lay the foundation for the Sun Devils' success on the recruiting trails in California and ultimately, on the field as well.

Snyder's inaugural staff at ASU included six assistants with ties to California, including five who worked with him during his five-year stint as the head coach of the Golden Bears.

With a staff consisting of three future NFL head coaches, Rod Marinelli, Hue Jackson and Bobby Petrino, plus assistants like Dan Cozzetto, Phil Snow, Donnie Henderson and Kent Baer who all had extensive experience recruiting in the state, early forays into California yielded ASU with some of the key pieces that set up the Rose Bowl run.

However, by the end of the Snyder era, ASU's recruiting capabilities began to slip, as the all-star cast of coaches he assembled accepted promotions elsewhere. After three consecutive seasons without a winning record, the Sun Devils fired Snyder, and replaced him with Boise State head coach Dirk Koetter.  

Koetter's first year with the ASU program was the last season predating the Internet era, but the five recruiting classes Koetter signed following the founding of Scout.com reveal why for the most part, the Sun Devils failed to escape the cycle of mediocrity that began in the latter years of Snyder's tenure.

Unlike Snyder who had the luxury of transitioning a staff with a broad knowledge of recruiting in California from the Golden Bears' program to the Sun Devils', the assistants Koetter brought from Boise State didn't have much experience recruiting in California, and those that did hadn't recruited Pac-10-caliber prospects.

Koetter's first ASU staff included six assistants who followed the head coach from Boise, Idaho to Tempe, Arizona, as well as Ron English, who started at ASU under Snyder in 1998, but left the program after just one season working under Koetter. 

Though Koetter recognized and valued the importance of recruiting in California --he signed at least 10 recruits from the state in each of the five Internet era cycles he coached at ASU -- the caliber of prospect the Sun Devils netted from the region wasn't on par with the type of impact contributors Snyder landed early in his tenure.

While over 50 percent of the recruits Koetter signed from Southern California became starters for the Sun Devils at some point during their careers, many of the players who wound up starting for ASU during the Koetter era, especially defensively, weren't highly capable.

During Koetter's six-year tenure as ASU's head coach, only one of his high school recruits on the defensive side of the ball, Jamar Williams, ever developed into an All-Pac-10 player.

So while a strong percentage of Koetter's signees from the Southern California recruiting hotbed eventually started for the Sun Devils, the average star rating of the players ASU put on the field under Koetter was consistently lower than the average star rating of the Sun Devils' starters during the Graham and Dennis Erickson eras.

Over the last 16 years, four of the Sun Devils' five lowest-rated classes in terms of average star rankings belonged to Koetter. The current Tampa Bay Buccaneers' head coach's best class came in 2006, when the average star rating of Koetter's recruits was 2.92, which is still a lower average rating than all but one of Graham's recruiting classes.

Even though Koetter managed to string together three consecutive winning seasons at the end of his ASU tenure, he was fired after the 2006 season and replaced by Erickson, who left his job as head coach at Idaho after one season to coach the Sun Devils.

Armed with vast west coast ties and experience recruiting on a national scale at Miami, Erickson entered ASU with lofty expectations that continued to grow after posting a 10-3 record in his first season with the Sun Devils. 

Ironically, part of the reason Erickson succeeded initially in 2007 was because of the recruiting class Koetter assembled in 2006, which produced five multi-year starters from the state of California, all of whom played on the defensive side of the ball. 

The recruiting shortcomings that ultimately contributed to Koetter's departure at ASU, namely his inability to compete for higher-caliber defensive prospects in Southern California, weren't shortcomings in his final recruiting class, and that allowed Erickson to start his tenure on a high note.

California high school products like three-star recruits Travis Goethel and Jamarr Robinson teamed up with 2006 junior college signees Troy Nolan and Justin Tryon to give Erickson a better defensive foundation. 

However, Erickson's honeymoon period was short-lived in Tempe, as the Sun Devils failed to produce a winning season the remainder of Erickson's tenure, missing bowls in three straight seasons before suffering an embarrassing Las Vegas Bowl loss in 2011 that concluded the Erickson era at ASU. 

For the most part, Erickson wasn't able to channel his experience recruiting in California into signing players that produced immediate results. The saving grace for the head coach, though, was the work of defensive backs coach Matt Lubick, who enjoyed more meaningful success recruiting in Southern California than any Sun Devils' coach since the program's Rose Bowl appearance under Snyder.

Considered a recruiting whiz, Lubick worked at ASU for three seasons between 2007 and 2009, and his ties to specific regions of Southern California like the Inland Empire and San Bernardino County paid massive dividends for a program in dire need of an infusion of talent.

Between 2007-2009, the Sun Devils signed 11 multi-year starters out of California, 10 of which hailed from the southern half of the state. During that time, ASU also managed to sign higher-caliber players from the region, including five-star linebacker Vontaze Burfict, four-star safety Omar Bolden and highly productive three-star defenders like Shelly Lyons, Brandon Magee and Osahon Irabor. 

Aside from the 11 multi-year starters, Erickson and Lubick helped the Sun Devils add six one-year starters from California over a three-year period, including three junior college signees. 

Though Lubick was hired away from ASU prior to the 2010 season by Duke coach David Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils didn't secure Lubick's services until after the end of the 2010 recruiting cycle. This allowed ASU to capitalize on Lubick's expertise in Southern California, and in 2010, the Sun Devils set an Internet era record by signing 19 recruits out of the Golden State.

Of those 19 signees, 18 hailed from Southern California, with two-year starter and junior college transfer Eddie Elder being the only Northern California prospect from the class. 

Six of the Sun Devils' California signees in 2010 wound up becoming multi-year starters for the program, making it the most productive slew of recruits from the state in the Internet era. 

While the Sun Devils reaped the benefits of having Lubick around for an extra recruiting cycle, Erickson and his staff felt the sudden impact of his loss in 2011, when the program signed the worst class of the Internet era. 

Additionally, as Lubick departed, program-wide discipline issues that plagued the Sun Devils throughout Erickson's tenure continued to worsen. Even though Erickson had enjoyed better overall success on the recruiting trail than Koetter, disciplinary issues that spread throughout the program prevented the Sun Devils from taking advantage of their improved recruiting prowess on the field. 

In Erickson's final recruiting cycle, ASU finished with the 64th ranked class nationally, as the class included only 20 recruits, eight of which were two-star signees. The loss of Lubick registered in a variety of ways, but the impact of his work, much like the impact of Koetter's final class, set the stage for ASU's next coach.

When Graham took over in 2012, the Texas native had a built-in advantage of plugging many of the most productive recruits from the Erickson era into new schemes. 

Players Lubick actively recruited like Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Jamil Douglas and Alden Darby thrived under Graham's watch, and led the program to an eight-win season in 2012 followed up by a 10-win campaign in 2013. 

Though Graham still had to deal with the shortage in talent produced by ASU's 2011 signing class, he found a workaround by signing an eye-popping crop of junior college talent in 2013 that set the program up for short-term success. 

With an early reputation built on winning, the Sun Devils reached historic recruiting heights, landing back-to-back classes in 2014 and 2015 that ranked 17th nationally, in large part due to the 11 blue-chip prospects ASU signed out of California. 

But since National Signing Day in 2015, the Sun Devils have encountered a more difficult pathway into the Southern California gold mine than they ever have before. 

Over the past two recruiting cycles, sophomore wide receiver Kyle Williams is the only high school player from the state of California to sign with a program that has signed over 45 percent of its total players in the last 16 years from the same state. 

On Signing Day, Graham asserted pride in signing nine in-state high school recruits, and suggested it's a model he'd follow on an annual basis if possible. However, over the last 16 years, only 27 percent of the Sun Devils' signees have called the Grand Canyon state home prior to enrolling at ASU, and it's unlikely the state offers enough Pac-12 caliber-talent for ASU to continue recruiting in a similar fashion. 

In the 2018 recruiting cycle, Arizona may not produce nine Pac-12-caliber recruits, let alone nine that have an interest in signing with the Sun Devils. 

That's why recruiting successfully in California has historically been imperative for ASU to have success, and why the Sun Devils must determine a way to make up for their lost momentum in one of the nation's most talent-rich regions. 

As the 2018 recruiting cycle begins to heat up, it's unlikely the Sun Devils will endure back-to-back years without adding a high school recruit from their next-door neighbor. However, with the current makeup of Graham's staff, ASU doesn't have the type of built-in ties that Snyder's staff or Erickson's staff did in California. 

While Snyder had a roster of coaches with experience in the region and Erickson had ties to the area and the wherewithal to hire an ace recruiter like Lubick, the vast majority of Graham's staff is tied to the Midlands region and the South. 

Of the assistants currently on Graham's staff, only wide receivers' coach Rob Likens has multiple seasons of experience coaching at a school west of ASU. Without a knowledge of the region and an immediate history of recruiting successful players from California, the Sun Devils don't have much time to re-plot their map.

Though the program's 2017 recruiting class set off a historical alarm, ASU still has room to hire at least one new assistant coach who can bridge the gap between the Sun Devils and their western recruiting rounds. Additionally, with many of the highest-touted California recruits to ever sign with ASU set to enter their junior and senior seasons, Graham and his staff can use the likes of running back Demario Richard, defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood and defensive end Joseph Wicker as examples of players with California roots who have taken on expansive roles in the desert.

If the Sun Devils don't make a commitment to returning to California in 2018, however, the program will enter uncharted territory, which could lead to uncertainty among the ASU Athletics administration regarding Graham's long-term plan for the program. Is recruiting in Texas and Louisiana and using a broader national map an efficient and effective use of the Sun Devils' resources? 

Furthermore, as ASU continues to attempt to expand its reach under Graham, recruiting in regions the Sun Devils haven't traditionally mined for prospects, the program is positioning itself to compete against other significant challenges. If the Sun Devils struggle to win recruiting battles against USC and UCLA in Southern California, they're not going to fare better reaching for recruits with local offers from SEC programs in states like Louisiana or Alabama.

The allure of staying close to home is just as strong, and perhaps more so, for marquee players in Texas and Florida as it is for recruits in Southern California. At least in a neighboring state, ASU can offer a more convincing pitch for proximity, as opposed to the Midlands region, where the Sun Devils are competing against in-state programs, SEC and Big 12 offers and other nuanced challenges. 

In 2017, Graham and his staff decided to bet on a record number of signees from the Midlands region to help generate a turnaround. Will relying on a secondary region other than California prove more fruitful for the Sun Devils? Or will ASU always need to find a way to sign enough of the highest-caliber prospects from Southern California to compete at the top end of its conference? 

Though a coach like Snyder figured out how to recruit California successfully in time to yield a Rose Bowl bid, it took Koetter and Erickson until near the end of their tenures to land their most productive recruits from the Golden State. In his fifth, and especially his sixth, recruiting cycles, Graham decided to break from ASU's historical norm and recruit in alternative battle grounds, and only time will tell if his gamble is a sustainable one. 


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