Assistant coaches changing schools don’t make the big waves, but they have an impact.
By JC Shurburtt,
It’s that time of year when the college football coaching carousel is in full swing. While the newly-appointed head coaches make the headlines, it’s the assistant coaches who make the difference from a recruiting standpoint.
That’s why when Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin hired some of the top recruiters in the Southeast for his first Vols staff (Eddie Gran, Lance Thompson, Frank Wilson), it was major news. These are the coaches who went out and earned a top 10 recruiting class for the Vols last year. And that’s why it can cause some turmoil in recruiting when assistant coaches leave for other jobs. Recruiting is about relationships and the assistants are the coaches charged with developing those bonds with recruits.
Instability is the biggest hurdle a program has to overcome on the recruiting trail. Losing big games or rivalry games can hurt over the long haul, but it’s coaching changes that make immediate waves. The dismissal of a head coach is the biggest cause, but the departure of a key assistants can cause ripples as well. They are usually, for the most part, just ripples, but they should not be completely ignored.
Take Wilson leaving Tennessee for LSU, for example. Wilson is a New Orleans native. Prior to entering the college coaching ranks, he was a high school coach and athletics director in the Crescent City. Those ties allowed him to build a strong early relationship with Anthony “Freak” Johnson (New Orleans, La./Edna Karr), one of the top prospects in the country for the Class of 2011, when he was coaching under Kiffin.
Of course, assistant coaches can’t call prospects before Sept. 1 of their junior season, but Johnson reached out to Wilson and was an early commitment to the Vols on May 8.
“I have known coach Wilson my whole life,” Johnson said. “He basically is part of our community. He used to coach at my high school and won championships at my high school. He’s the cornerstone of why I committed to Tennessee.”
There is little doubt that Wilson’s departure back to his home state earlier this month was not a positive thing for the Vols when it comes to Johnson, but it wasn’t a complete deal breaker, either.
“There are a couple of things about Tennessee,” Johnson said. “It’s a good college and has a good football program. Some of the best players to ever play college football have gone to Tennessee. I had a great relationship with coach Wilson, but I also have a good relationship with coach (Kiffin), (UT defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin, and (defensive line coach) Ed Orgeron.
“I think it’s a great opportunity and I like the campus. When I went up there to visit, I saw mountains. I really like everything about it up there. Hopefully, if I stick with my commitment to Tennessee, it’s a place I can reach my goals.”
Obviously from Johnson’s comments, he’s looking around a bit, but the point is if a switch does happen (and when a prospect commits as early as Johnson did, there’s a good chance he will go through a period of doubt regardless), it wasn’t as simple as an assistant coach that he built a relationship with leaving.
Gran also left the Tennessee staff and joined Jimbo Fisher’s staff at Florida State. Gran is one of the nation’s top recruiters in the South Florida region (Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties) and had seven players from that area committed in the 2010 Vols class. So far six of the seven are still firmly pledged to the Vols. Four-star defensive tackle Calvin Smith (Hialeah, Fla./Hialeah) committed after the departure of Gran. A source familiar with his recruitment said that while he believed that Gran would do well at Florida State recruiting the area, Smith committed to the Vols because of the opportunity to play for Monte Kiffin and Orgeron.
So this was another situation where a departure did not hurt in the short term. That’s not to say that these moves won’t hurt Tennessee in the long run in New Orleans or South Florida, because there is no replacing Wilson in the Big Easy and it’s going to be a challenge for whichever assistant comes in to even come close to the in-roads that Gran had in South Florida. But it’s not something that can kill your class, either.
Here are some other recent examples that the departure of an outstanding recruiter doesn’t necessarily kill your current class.
• Billy Gonzales is one of the top recruiters in the country and recently left Florida’s staff to become passing game coordinator at LSU. The Gators’ recruiting efforts continue to hum along.
• Stanford assistant Willie Taggart recently took the head coaching job at Western Kentucky, his alma mater. He was responsible for the Cardinal making in-roads in the state of Georgia. While Under Armour All-American receiver Tai-ler Jones (Gainesville, Ga./Gainesville) did switch to Notre Dame during the season, it was well in advance of Taggart’s departure. The other three Peach State pledges, Jones’ high school teammate Daunte Carr, defensive lineman Henry Anderson (College Park, Ga./Woodward Academy) and offensive tackle David Yankey (Roswell, Ga./Centennial) are all still committed.
• South Carolina offensive line coach/running game coordinator Eric Wolford accepted the head coaching job at FCS program Youngstown State on Tuesday. He was heavily involved in the recruitment of all seven of the Gamecocks’ offensive line commits, including Under Armour All-Americans A.J. Cann (Bamberg, S.C./Bamberg-Erhardt) and Eric Mack (Saint Matthews, S.C./Calhoun County. Thus far, there have been no de-commitments.
Again, like Tennessee, that’s not to say Florida, Stanford and South Carolina are free and clear. There is still plenty of time before national signing day, but right now, these moves haven’t made any big waves.
Under Armour All-American cornerback John Fulton (Manning, S.C./Manning-) has shown why he is potentially special this week during practices leading up to Saturday’s Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. So far, he is the top prospect.
Fulton plays for a good high school program in South Carolina, but rarely gets tested by passing teams. During workouts this week he has had several battles with highly-regarded receivers like ESPNU150 Clemson commit Martavis Bryant (Anderson, S.C./T.L. Hanna) and won most of them. He is tall, has long arms and the ability to time his jumps well and play the ball. Fulton will make his decision (expected to be Alabama or South Carolina) at the Under Armour All-American game on Jan. 2 (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET) at Tropicana Field in Saint Petersburg, Fla.
On the Tar Heel side, the top prospect has been Alabama commit Keenan Allen (Greensboro, N.C./Northern Guilford). His size, speed and versatility make him a huge pick-up for the Crimson Tide.
Others among the elite at the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas practices are ESPNU150 running back Marcus Lattimore (Duncan, S.C./James F. Byrnes), Lattimore’s high school teammate, Under Armour All-American defensive end Corey Miller, who is committed to Tennessee and North Carolina linebacker commit Darius Lipford (Lenoir, N.C./Hibriten).
The Hot Sell: California
The Golden Bears set the tone early in this recruiting cycle and the pieces are falling into place for an outstanding class for Jeff Tedford’s bunch, who swiped away two previously-committed prospects during the past week. ESPNU150 defensive lineman Chris Martin (Aurora, Colo./Grandview) switched from Notre Dame to Cal, while running back Trajuan Briggs (Los Angeles, Calif./Birmingham) switched from Southern California to head north to the Bay Area and Cal.
Cal associate head coach/running backs coach Ron Gould, who has been in Berkeley for 11 years and coached players like Marshawn Lynch and Jhavid Best, recruits Briggs’ part of Los Angeles and should be credited with getting the switch. We have talked plenty (and deservedly so) about Bears defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi and his success on the recruiting trail this cycle, but Gould is one of the best in the business as well.
Miller defends Vols
Miller addressed the situation at Tennessee, where the NCAA is investigating the role of university hostesses in recruiting Miller and his teammate, ESPNU150 defensive end Brandon Willis.
“People have their own opinions about it saying we did this or we did that,” Miller said. “All they did was come down for a football game. They got them a little place or whatever and went back to Tennessee the next morning. People are trying to say people can’t come to a football game. It’s the same situation like saying a guy from Byrnes like (Florida State safety) Justin Bright can’t come back. That is the situation. They came and watched the game and went back to Tennessee. People have all their opinions. Yeah we took pictures together and everything, but there was no sign that said come to Tennessee, as the photo showed.”
While Willis is scheduled to take other visits, including one to Miami (Fla.) this weekend, Miller re-affirmed his pledge to the Vols.
“My commitment is still 100 percent,” he said. “I am not at all thinking about taking any other visits.”
Jeffcoat visiting Houston
ESPN.com’s Gerry Hamilton says that the nation’s top prospect, five-star defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat (Plano, Texas/Plano West) will make an unofficial visit to Houston this coming weekend where his father, Jim Jeffcoat, is an assistant coach. Texas, Southern California, Houston, Oklahoma and Arizona State are the main schools in the mix for the 6-foot-5, 230-pounder.
Mississippi State picked up two big commitments on Tuesday night when athletes Robert Johnson and Jay Hughes (Hattiesburg, Miss./Oak Grove) both committed to the Bulldogs.
Johnson picked Mississippi State over a host of offers, including in-state rival Ole Miss. He projects as a receiver at State and should continue to add speed and athleticism to the Bulldogs’ offense.
Hughes is the son of Mississippi State recruiting coordinator Tony Hughes, who is one of the top recruiting coordinators in the SEC and one of the best recruiters in the country. There also are very few coaches that know the Magnolia State like him. His son is a talented athlete that can contribute in a variety of ways.
Overall, it’s been an impressive effort in recruiting by Hughes and State head coach Dan Mullen. It will be interesting to see what happens with his program once young talent is stacked on top of what is already a talented young team that features what ESPN.com’s SEC insider Chris Low two of the SEC’s top true freshman in receiver Chad Bumphis and cornerback Jonathan Banks.
ESPNU150 athlete Matt Elam (Palm Beach, Fla./Dwyer) has been committed to Florida for more than a year and announced earlier this week he was sticking with the Gators and will enroll in January at UF. … Ohio State is moving in on Vanderbilt commit Bradley Roby (Suwanee, Ga./Peachtree Ridge). The Buckeyes offered the speedy receiver/cornerback earlier this week and he has expressed an interest in taking a serious look around in recent months.
JC Shurburtt covers recruiting for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.