MADISON – Nobody would have blamed Quintez Cephus for changing his mind.
A raw, yet talented, two-sport athlete out of Macon, GA, Cephus was finally starting to get major recruiting attention in the weeks leading up to national signing day. Coaches from Miami came to his basketball game and talked with his coaches. In-state Georgia also started to show interest under its new coaching staff.
“I stuck with Wisconsin,” said Cephus, “because I trust Coach Gilmore.”
Cephus is just one of a dozen examples in Wisconsin’s 2016 recruiting class of the Badgers masterfully identifying under-the-radar talent, building those relationships and securing the commitment before other schools knew what hit them.
So while Wisconsin’s four four-star commits – tailback Sam Brodner, linebacker Griffin Grady, nose tackle @Garrett Rand and offensive lineman Cole Van Lanen - and two early enrollees – linebacker Dallas Jeanty and quarterback Kare Lyles – will get the headlines, it’s the leg work to find the next gem that was the most satisfying to the staff.
“It was a team effort,” said running back coach John Settle. “You look across the board, the one thing happened with this class is it wasn’t a one-coach deal. There’s a lot of overlapping, and I think this staff as a whole did a good job putting this class together.”
Because of those big star athletes, Wisconsin’s recruiting class ranks No.25 in the country by Scout.com – the best ranking UW has received since Scout first started ranking recruiting classes in 2001. Because of those three-star sleepers, UW has a chance to remain competitive in the Big Ten conference.
Pickerington (OH) Central safety Seth Currens was a two-star prospect without much attention outside the Mid-American Conference when he committed in May. By the end of his senior season he was a three-star prospect, a first-team all-state selection and the team MVP.
“We saw his leadership and his competitiveness,” said secondary coach Daronte Jones. “We had him at camp, he was already committed, and he wasn’t going to work out. The competitive nature came out. He wanted some cleats and to get out there.”
Kendric Pryor was also rated just two stars when he committed in September but played for one of the top high school programs in Illinois. Pryor’s skill set is so versatile that he has coaches from the offense’s meeting room and the defense’s meeting room fighting with each other over.
“His film was mostly receiver, so that’s how we were looking at him, but he’s definitely athletic enough (to do both),” said tight end coach Mickey Turner, who first recruited Pryor before outside linebacker coach Tim Tibesar took over. “It’s a good problem to have for us.”
A number of Wisconsin’s committed prospects got plenty of late scholarship interest from power five conference schools once those schools knew what they were missing. Grafton (WI) High defensive lineman Luke Benzschawel, the younger brother of Beau Benzschawel, got calls from North Carolina and Oregon; Salisbury (CT) High tight end Jake Hescock was pursued by Florida and Florida cornerbacks Dontye Carriere-Williams and Ke'Shan Pennamon both got new offers to choose from.
But based on the trust they developed with their recruiting and position coaches, none of them wavered, just like Cephus.
Gilmore didn’t know Cephus was a basketball commit to Furman from watching the tape. All he knew was the 6-2, 190-pound player’s athleticism stood out, which warranted a closer look when he got an email about him back in May.
“As you did your homework and visited with the coaches there, this kid hasn’t played a lot of football,” said Gilmore. “When I did look at the basketball, I was like whoa. I don’t know a lot about basketball, but I know enough that I think he’s a pretty good player.”
Cephus' head coach, Mark Farriba, certainly agrees.
“He’s very smart,” said Farriba. “He’s a very attentive guy and hears what you say. He takes it all in. Secondly, he just loves the competition. He loves to get out and compete. Those are two great things to have … I can’t even imagine what (level) he can get to.”
The unknown also brings an excitement level for fans. With Denver East athlete Deron Harrell, although he was a first-team all-conference pick as a quarterback and a defensive back, he didn’t generate one scholarship offer. Turner kept looking for the red flags but found none.
“Anytime you see a guy who is the leader of his football team, his basketball team, he’s playing quarterback and corner, it’s worth at least checking on; I’m glad we did,” said Turner, who said he was tipped off to Harrell by a couple of UW graduates. “He was just a basketball guy who slowly fell into a football role.”
Throughout his press conference, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst used the word “fit” to describe the reason why he was so excited to sign 25 scholarship players and a handful of walk-ons Wednesday. Considering the head coach is limited to only one in-home visit, Chryst relied heavily on his staff to deliver. The final rankings validate his decision.
“Coach Chryst does a great job of giving us the trust to go out and trust our evaluations, so you don’t feel you are going to get second guessed on everything” said Turner. “Our recruiting staff do a great job of minimizing the quantity of people we’re looking at. We trust ourselves as evaluators, and that trust comes from Paul.”