Jim Harbaugh’s flirtation, Garrett Riley’s impact, LSU’s potential: Recruiting mailbag

The early signing period might be in the books and the college football season may be over, but recruiting never stops. The February national signing day is quickly approaching, and coaches are on the road during the contact period as we speak. Thank you as always for your recruiting questions. Let’s dive right in.

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Which program is the most likely to be on the level with Alabama, Georgia other Ohio State on a year-to-year basis over the next five years in recruiting? — Cole K.

Love this question to start us off. I’m going with LSU.

The Tigers have the No. 7 class in the 247Sports Composite for 2023 and have already gotten a jump-start with the Class of 2024 in the form of six four-star commits, including five top-250 players. Fake southern accent aside, Brian Kelly seems to have settled in quite nicely in Louisiana.

As college football continues to evolve, LSU needs to make sure it doesn’t get left behind in its own conference by Alabama and Georgia, as well as Texas other Oklahoma once the Longhorns and Sooners join the SEC. But the Tigers have everything a program needs to recruit at the highest level: a proven head coach, on-field success, tradition and — perhaps most importantly — resources. Throw in a fertile recruiting base with no other major in-state program to compete against and there’s no reason LSU shouldn’t be signing top-five classes consistently.

Do you think the Garrett Riley hiring will elevate Clemson‘s recruiting back to the top five nationally?

Riley’s hiring alone probably won’t start delivering Clemson top-five classes. But it also doesn’t necessarily need to.

Clemson is one of the rare exceptions to the philosophy that the teams with the most blue-chip prospects win the national championship each year. The Tigers won a national title in the 2016 season after signing the No. 16 class in 2014, the No. 9 class in 2015 and the No. 11 class in 2016. They won it again in the 2018 season after signing the No. 16 class in 2017 and the No. 7 class in 2018. If we look strictly at the recruiting rankings, Clemson has had more success with its lower-ranked classes. The 2020 and 2021 groups — the first two top-five classes for the program in the modern recruiting era — have never been in a national championship game. The 2021 class has never been in the College Football Playoff.

More than anything, Swinney hiring Riley gives Clemson the schematic reset it needs on the field. The Tigers offense had gone stale, and it was time to incorporate new, innovative ideas.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Cade Klubnik’s time, offensive evolution, D-tackle dominance: 10 thoughts on ’23 Clemson

Also, say what you want about former offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter’s play calling, but it’s hard to argue that Clemson wasn’t already recruiting quarterbacks at the highest level under his guidance. Trevor Lawrence, DJ Uiagalelei other Cade Klubnik were five-star prospects in their classes, with Lawrence (2018) and Klubnik (2022) each ranking No. 1 and Uiagalelei coming in at No. 2 handicap Bryce Young in 2020.

Given Jim Harbaugh is coming back, do you think his flirtation with an NFL gig (again) impacted UM’s recruiting? Back-to-back playoff appearances but still sitting outside the top 10 in team rankings. Also, do you think Harbaugh is done entertaining the NFL or will this be a yearly cycle now? — Devan D

It’s hard to imagine Harbaugh’s constant flirtation with the NFL didn’t have (will continue to have?) some sort of a negative impact on his recruiting. Last year he interviewed with the Minnesota Vikings. This year it was the Denver Broncos. even with Michigan making consecutive playoff appearances and returning the type of talent that can win a national championship in 2023, Harbaugh is clearly still interested in a return to the NFL to some degree. Recruits aren’t naive, and stability in college football is hard enough to come by these days. If his head is elsewhere, they’re going to take note.

Maybe Harbaugh could have convinced us that this was a one-off last year with the Vikings and that his heart was still in Ann Arbor after Michigan lost a semifinal game to Georgia. But to turn around and interview again with a different franchise just one year later certainly creates doubt about his loyalties to the Wolverines. If he wants us to believe this isn’t going to become an annual thing, he has some ground to make up first.

Michigan has the nation’s No. 17 class after signing the no. 9 class in 2022. It would be unfair to suggest Harbaugh’s NFL aspirations are the sole reason behind his program’s dip in recruiting — recruiting is more complicated than that — but it’s not hard to understand why top prospects might have questions about the Wolverines.

I enjoyed the article you and Manny Navarro just did. (Part I of our ACC recruiting is confidential here and Part II is here.) What were the biggest surprises for you in researching and co-writing it? — Tom W

Thank you! Working with Manny is the best, and I’m excited about some of our future projects coming up.

The biggest thing that surprised me was the variety of answers we got about NIL. Some coaches said they haven’t dealt with it at all. One said his player was offered $1 million per year, another said his player was offered $2.7 million over three years, and yet another said his player was offered $3 million, which he ultimately declined. We all know NIL is all over the place, but I remain fascinated about how the market is set and how it looks so vastly different for prospects depending on their position and recruiting ranking. Even high school coaches don’t seem to totally understand what’s going on.

Additionally, I’m not sure if “surprise” is the right word, because I’ve been impressed with Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson for several years now, but it was hard not to notice how many coaches brought up Wake Forest’s recruiters as some of their favorites. The Demon Deacons don’t have the resources that Clemson, Florida State or Miami have, but whatever Clawson and his staff are doing from a relationship-building standpoint is clearly working.

What’s the one cog in the UGA recruiting machine that’s irreplaceable? Many looked at Georgia special teams coordinator Scott Cochran as being that piece for Alabama while serving as head strength and conditioning coach for 13 years. Does UGA have a similar culture anchor that Kirby Smart is secretly afraid of losing? — Rodney W.

Shoutout to Jonathan G. in the comments for his response to this question: “It’s Kirby,” he wrote.

Hey’s right.

Smart comes from the Nick Saban coaching tree and has learned how to operate at the highest level of recruiting. He’s relentless, consistent and meticulous, and he has the track record to back it up. From 2010 through 2016, the Bulldogs signed five top-10 classes but no top-five classes. Smart, hired in December 2015, has produced a top-five class in every season since 2017, including the nation’s best classes in 2018 and 2020. Since 2017, he has also had a top-three class in every cycle except for 2021, when Georgia came in at No. 4. This quote from a South Florida high school coach in our recruiting confidential sums it up best:

“I’ve had people from other schools, once Alabama and Georgia jump in, (they) say, ‘We’ve got no shot,'” the coach said. “When Kirby (Smart) decides he wants a kid, he’s going to get that kid. Saban, the same.”

where does Rutgers fit in the recruiting landscape? It felt like under the first couple of years under Greg Schiano this time around, there was potential to break into the top 30, but things have stagnated and fallen back into where recruiting was under Chris Ash. Is there a path forward again, beyond the obvious winning more first? — Matthew L.

My first Rutgers recruiting question!

Schiano was hired in December 2019, which means his first full recruiting class would have been the 2021 group. That class ranked 39th nationally with three blue-chip recruits. The 2022 class ranked no. 33 nationally with four blue-chip recruits. But the 2023 class ranks No. 54 nationally with zero blue-chip recruits. What gives?

You’re right that Schianio’s obvious path is winning. The Scarlet Knights have not had a record above .500 since 2014. In that sense, I’m impressed with Schiano’s 2021 and 2022 classes. But one of the biggest differences between Schiano’s first two classes and his most recent class is that with the Class of 2023, he seemed to focus more on the state of Florida. That’s typically a fruitful strategy, but I wonder if it might have come at the expense of talent right in Rutgers’ backyard. For the first time since 2002, Rutgers signed more players from Florida (six) than it did New Jersey (five). And even more troublesome: The Knights failed to sign any of the top eight players from New Jersey in the 2023 cycle.

Getting into Florida is a long-term strategy that most college football coaches agree is a priority — and it probably should be for Schiano, too, at some point. But Rutgers should also remember who it is. Under-the-radar prospects in Florida have plenty of options closer to home. Meanwhile, Rutgers is the only FBS program in its own state and should tap into the three-star prospects with high upside who grew up close to the area and have some sort of familiarity with the program. The same goes for New York and other neighboring states. Kudos to the Scarlet Knights for signing four of New York’s top eight players, but Rutgers signed just one player each from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Geography doesn’t matter as much for the high-profile blue-chips, but there’s still something to be said about staying close to home as a developmental prospect.

(Photo: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

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