John Mackovic not only had trouble attracting talent, he had a lot of trouble retaining it. Of his 2002 crop of high school recruits, only 12 finished or will finish their college careers as Wildcats. Of the 12 only three were offensive players. Two, Kili Lefotu and Gilbert Harris, have graduated, while the third, Tanner Bell, is still on the team but has been injured all season. In essence, there are no redshirt seniors contributing to the offense.
That class featured some well regarded recruits, but none have made an impact on the D-I level. Ryan O'Hara, Biren Ealy, Matt Padron and Mike Jefferson left the program and are now at lower division schools. Ra'Sahwn Moseley never enrolled thanks to grades, and he too is at a lower division school. Beau Carr and Keith Jackson were both kicked off the team for various reasons, while John Parada had to give up football thanks to injuries.
The 2003 class is only marginally better. There were eight offensive high schoolers added in that class and five are still on the team, though Kris Heavner left the program and returned as a walk-on. The Cats start, of have started four players from the class on offense. Syndric Steptoe, Anthony Johnson, Chris Henry and Pete Graniello are all part of the class of 2003. Ismael Garcia and Brent Bolden left the program early on and Marcus Thomas never qualified academically and eventually landed at UTEP.
In essence there are just five four or five year players on the team. Only Steptoe and Bell are four year contributors, but Bell has yet to play this season thanks to injury.
The Stoops classes have had their share of problems as well, most notably his first class. When Stoops was hired in December of 2003 the recruiting class was half full and the administration insisted they honor the scholarships. That wound up being a bad decision. Nine players verballed to the prior staff and of them only five remain. All told eight high schoolers from the class have either left the program or are no longer playing football, most of them on offense.
Tight Ends Justin Walsh and Chris Wilson and center Danny Espinoza never played a down for the Wildcats and left the program either during or right after the first season. WR Gerold Rodriguez and OL Eddie Rollman left the team prior to this season. To make matters worse, OL's Sheldon Watts and Dillon Hansen have medical issues that have ended their playing careers.
The rest of the class has just been okay. Brad Wood, Brandon Lopez and Joe Longacre are regular contributors. You'd expect that Travis Bell would be playing quite a bit if he was healthy. B.J. Dennard played a lot early on, but left the team for a week and has since been nursing an injury. Bobby McCoy was injured in the off-season, and although he was cleared to play a week ago, he has yet to see the field.
The fact that the Wildcats had to honor the scholarships really hurt the class. The coaches wound up not taking a running back or quarterback in the class and were limited in the number of receivers they could take. In hindsight, a running back seems to be a bigger priority as the Cats currently have just two juniors and three freshmen in the backfield. In essence, the Cats play just eight offensive players that have spent 3+ years in the program.
The last two classes have brought in a greater level of talent, but there have been some losses that have been huge.
No loss has been felt greater than the loss of B.J. Vickers. Vickers was a junior college player who many, including the Wildcats coaches, felt could provide and instant big play threat to the offense. He had a great spring and a solid fall camp and was poised to really bolster the Wildcat receiving corps. Then on the even of the 2004 season opener it was revealed that he took some fraudulent classes at a California community college and he was ruled ineligible.
In many ways the Wildcats have never recovered.
For the most part, the class has been a good one. Three other offensive players from the class are not with the team. Jordan Lowe never qualified, while FB Paul Nichols left mid year and Joe Baresi left prior to the start of fall camp. Seven offensive starters hail from this class, while injured Adam Grant may have contended for a starting spot at tackle if he was healthy.
The fact is the Wildcat offense is inexperienced. That is not an excuse, but a reality. It is the coaches' responsibility to get the young players ready.
This season the Wildcats have started five players on offense who had never played a game prior to this season. Adams Hawes, Brandyn McCall, Dennard and Henry had seen little action in previous seasons. One must also remember that Willie Tuitama has still started only nine games in his Wildcat career.
Youth is a major problem, but not the only one. The offense lacks big play players. There isn't a legitimate deep threat at wide reciever. Vickers was supposed to be that guy, but now they do not have one, or at least do not have one ready. They also don't have a breakaway running back. Henry has the speed, but has not shown the ability to break off the big run. Chris Jennings has also had some big runs, but it remains to be seen if he can be that home run back the really good offenses have.
To paraphrase the movie A Few Good Men, "these are the facts, and they are undisputable". The Wildcats offense is both young and inexperienced. It lacks older, seasoned players, especially on the offensive line.
Mackovic's last two classes have been little help to Stoops and his staff. Part of that is the level of talent Mackovic was able to attract, part was due to the players he ran off and part is the players who did not want to play for Stoops, or felt they would not get an opportunity to play much for the new staff.
Because of a lack of upperclassmen, the Cats have been forced to play a lot of young players. Unfortunately, when they struggle there is no one else to go to.
This is the reality of what exists for the Wildcat coaches to work with. It is a reason the offense has had its troubles, but it is not an excuse. Many teams have gotten by with young players.
In the next article we'll examine the development of the players, and whether or not enough of these players are getting better.