Q: What's the most difficult position to recruit?
A: Most coaches that I've talked to point to the defensive tackle spot. It's a coaching cliché, but a coaching truism as well, that if a player is big enough and athletic enough to play defensive tackle, he's generally going to have a lot of people interested in him.
At Texas, it isn't as much of an issue, as the Longhorns often get first choice. But a lot of other schools must go to more unconventional routes to find their tackles, like evaluating defensive ends that have the frame to add weight. You saw this at Texas recently with Greg Daniels, who came in as a 6-foot-5, 250-pound player and bulked up to a defensive tackle spot.
Some teams actually prefer that method as well, as they're typically choosing between an athletic 250-pound player (who, in turn, could be an athletic 280-pounder) and a sloppy 280-plus pound player. Of course, at Texas, the choice is typically neither of the above, as the Longhorns have the ability to grab kids — like Malcom Brown — who are athletic and already weigh 280-plus.
Q: What's the toughest position to evaluate?
A: You'll get split answers here, depending on who you talk to, but the most commonly given answers are quarterback and cornerback. Both are because of what you can't typically evaluate on film.
Quarterback depends on so many intangibles: football aptitude, an ability to read defenses, the ability absorb a large playbook, leadership, poise and moxie. Accuracy can also be somewhat difficult to gauge as he'll have to fit the ball into different, and smaller, windows as a college player. And even a lack of arm strength can be somewhat overcome if a player gets into the right system and if he has the accuracy and instincts to get the ball into openings quickly (think of Philip Rivers, for an NFL comparison). The bigger schools are usually going to get the players with the most obvious quarterbacking skills: size, speed, arm strength. But the other categories are why you'll routinely find a quarterback situation like the Texas one in a worse spot than the quarterback situation at Houston or Northern Illinois.
At cornerback, the problem is simply that it's so tough to simulate the conditions they'll face in college. A top high school cornerback is rarely tested, and even when he is, he's rarely facing a college-level wide receiver with a college-level quarterback whizzing the ball in. As a result, many of the top college cornerbacks play different positions in high school. A popular tactic is to play those players at safety, where teams can't avoid them by throwing to the opposite side of the field. Other teams employ those players on offense to utilize their athleticism. So many college coaches wind up projecting cornerbacks from other positions based on their feet and hips. Texas did that in this class in projecting out Orlando Thomas, an excellent athlete with change-of-direction skills that he showcases on offense. Nelson Agholor is another one. Despite playing mostly WR/safety, Texas believes he has the hips and ability to become an elite corner.
Q: You always see a number of top recruits not pan out. What football-related things can keep a top recruit off the field?
A: Most often, it's an inability to take complex football concepts and apply them to the field. I talked with a college coach recently who once had a gifted fullback with an ideal combination of size, power and speed. He was a dominant running back in high school, and it appeared that he would be able to make an easy transition to fullback in college. There's just one problem: once he went on the field, he kept making the same mistakes. It wasn't necessarily an issue of learning the playbook, it was more that he had trouble making those adjustments at full speed.
Another common issue is when a player doesn't develop as he's projected physically. Some people just don't gain weight, for one reason or another. Still others never develop the confidence needed to adjust to the fact that the competition is also bigger, faster and stronger. And others just never develop the work ethic needed to improve.
The thing about five-star prospects are that they are typically the players who are ready right away. A five-star linebacker might be 6-3 230 and run the 40 in 4.6 seconds. That's a lot of physical ability. But if he doesn't work on himself as a football player, he might get caught by somebody who was undersized coming out of high school. Look at former Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. He was under-recruited out of Jasper, in part due to his size, which ranged between 195 and 205 pounds. When he graduated, he was one of the biggest and fastest linebackers in the Big 12, and a skilled player.
So while another linebacker in that class might have been ranked higher because he was more ready initially, there's nothing to stop that two-or-three-star player from catching up, especially if the five-star player stagnates or doesn't put the work in.
Q: You hear a lot of questions about which defense is harder to recruit for, a 3-4 or a 4-3. Which is it?
I find it funny that a lot of people claim that the 3-4 is harder to recruit for, citing the difficulty in finding a big nose tackle. A HUGE reason R.C. Slocum mentioned making the original move to that formation was because it was so much easier to recruit for.
Slocum's point was simple: it's a lot easier to find a linebacker-type athlete than a defensive tackle (see point above). And when you think about it, that's really the change that you're making. You're just swapping a tackle for a linebacker.
I think the other thing that he didn't mention was that it's easier to find defensive linemen with the skill set needed for a 3-4 at the college level. Think about it, which player is going to be more recruited: the 250-pound end with an ability to rush the quarterback or a 250-pound run stuffer? Coaches will pursue the 250 pounder — who is probably a better athlete — every day of the week. Coaches want players who shed blocks more than they want those who hold them. So the latter are more readily available.
In college, a 3-4 end should be 270-plus pounds. He doesn't need to be any bigger than that. A college nose tackle should be 290-300 pounds. He can be bigger (remember "Mount" Cody for Alabama?), but he doesn't need to be.
In fact, the hardest player to find in a 3-4 might be the rush linebacker. As said in the above graph, players who can run, shed and get to the quarterback are typically highly pursued. Still, it's easier to find players with that skill set than it is to find defensive tackles, so in the end, you come out ahead.
Q: If you could change one thing about the way Texas recruits, what would it be?
I would change the number of early offers — and the ensuing early commitments — that the Longhorns put out (and then receive). When you fill up your class so early, there are so few spots remaining for emerging talents.
Are there some players who should be offered immediately? Sure. Quarterbacks commit early on, so there might be a necessity to go after that position a bit earlier. And players like Johnathan Gray are no-brainers for an early offer. But where you harm yourself is when you take borderline players — not that they aren't great players, but guys who might not be No. 1 on your board, or players that you can have down the line — early.
And it's not necessarily about recruiting "misses" as much as it is about getting the best possible player. Texas landed Malcolm Williams in 2007. As somebody who became a starter, he wasn't a "miss."
But when you add context, and look at the fact that Texas could have had somebody like Cedar Hill's Dezmon Briscoe (one of the Big 12's all-time leading receivers, and a player who went pro early after a pair of 1,000-yard seasons), the Longhorns didn't get the most bang for their buck. Briscoe, of course, went to Kansas. One of the coaches there told me that they thought he would be "pretty good" after seeing him in the spring before his senior year. After his senior year, the coach said the staff thought he was a game-breaker.
That's the point. By filling up early, there's no room for players who emerge later. And there's no chance to get two players to camp and make one of them earn the scholarship over the other. That's a big disadvantage.