Under Sumlin, Texas A&M becoming a recruiting force
For years, recruiting in the state of Texas has played out like an unfairly weighted draft. First, that school in Austin takes its pick of 20 to 25 prospects, most of whom commit nearly a year before Signing Day. Then the state's other top programs divvy up the best of the rest.
But now, on the heels of its best football season in 56 years, Texas A&M is asserting itself as the new Lone Star recruiting juggernaut. The momentum from its memorable upset of national champion Alabama, a final top-five AP ranking and a Heisman-winning quarterback is translating into a class that will likely finish among the top three in the SEC and the top 10 nationally for the first time since 2005. For the first time in at least 15 years, the Aggies are poised to assemble a more highly touted haul than their two former Big 12 nemeses, Texas and Oklahoma.
"A lot of people have asked, when is the last time you've seen something like this?" said TexAgs.com's Billy Liucci, who has covered A&M recruiting since 1997. "Well, I've never seen it at A&M, but I've seen it in the state with Mack Brown. What's jumped out to me is the parallels between 2012 and 2013 when Kevin Sumlin arrived to Mack Brown's first two [classes] in Austin in 1998 and 1999."
Like Brown did then, Sumlin, 48, has immediately turned A&M into the "it" school in the state. From breaking out all-black uniforms to introducing a hipper on-field entrance to dropping in on Friday night high school games via a booster's helicopter, Sumlin knows what grabs the attention of 17 year olds. He also hired key recruiters like receivers coach David Beaty, a former Dallas high school coach who has blanketed that area, and running backs coach/recruiting coordinator Clarence McKinney, a Houston-area high school coach as recently as 2007.
"It starts with coach Sumlin," said McKinney. "He's a player's coach, he understands what they go through at that particular age in their life. He does things to make those particular kids feel comfortable."
Like Brown has long done at Texas, Sumlin jumped out to a fast start with the 2013 class, notching nearly 20 commitments by last June. That included verbals from Rivals.com's fourth-rated dual-threat quarterback Kenny Hill (Southlake, Texas), four-star offensive lineman Ishmael Wilson (Dallas) and a pair of four-star defensive backs, Noel Ellis (New Orleans) and Tavares Garner (Manvel, Texas).
"It's kind of the way recruiting has gone," McKinney said of early commitments. "Before anyone knew who Johnny Manziel was, they believed in coach Sumlin and us enough that they gave us commitments before our season began."
But the class truly blossomed around the same time Johnny Football took home the Heisman on Dec. 8. That week, Rivals100 defensive tackle Justin Manning (Dallas) -- long considered a lock for Oklahoma (where older brother DeMarcus Granger once played) -- instead chose A&M, and receiver Ricky Seals-Jones (Sealy, Texas), a top-50 national prospect and onetime Texas commit, picked the Aggies over LSU.
That pair not only bolstered an already solid class, but they also held symbolic significance for A&M fans. They chose the Aggies over the three longtime recruiting titans -- Texas, Oklahoma and LSU -- which long kept A&M locked in a recruiting "Bermuda's Triangle," said Liucci. "You can count on one hand the number of times A&M ever beat Mack Brown head-to-head on a guy." As a result, the Aggies generally hovered closer to 20th than 10th in Rivals' average class rankings from 2002-12.
This year's class currently sits at eighth in Rivals' rankings and even higher -- fourth -- on Scout.com's list. The latter rates A&M as the top-ranked class in the SEC.
|Texas A&M class rankings from Rivals.com|
"If someone would have told you a couple months ago they'd have the top class, no one would have believed it," said Scout.com's Jamie Newberg, "but no one would have believed Johnny Football would win the Heisman and they'd have the success they did on the field. They're the hottest team in the SEC right now."
Scout's loftier ranking is partly a byproduct of the size of A&M's class. The Aggies currently have 32 commitments, the highest of any major-conference program, and they could still add two more on Signing Day. Sumlin is believed to be holding spots for a pair of four-star in-state defensive ends, Torrodney Prevot (Houston) and Daeshon Hall (Lancaster, Texas), who are currently committed to USC and Washington, respectively. Sumlin has already flipped at least seven players previously committed elsewhere, including those from SEC adversaries LSU, Auburn and Tennessee.
"They're recruiting like an SEC school, which means cutthroat and heartless, the way you have to do it," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell. "They're essentially oversigning a little bit, which is the SEC way."
The Aggies' bloated class has raised eyeballs from oversigning watchdogs, but it does fall within the SEC rules passed in 2011 that limit schools to 25 signees per year (same as the number of scholarships allowable by the NCAA). Because A&M signed smaller classes the past two years, it was able to count last month's eight early enrollees as part of last cycle's class of 18 (two of which counted toward 2011). That currently puts the Aggies at 24 signees for 2013, and at least one of those is not expected to qualify academically and might not sign.
USC used a similar strategy in 2011, when nine of its eventual 30 signees enrolled early to count toward the previous year's class. But at the time, Lane Kiffin was attempting to mitigate impending NCAA sanctions. Sumlin is loading up simply because he can.
"They've got to strike while the iron's hot," said Farrell. "If you're Kevin Sumlin and you're the coach of one of the hottest teams in the country, you take as many as you can right now. That's what he's doing."
There's no guarantee recruiting seasons like this will become the norm for A&M. For one thing, it will have to sign a smaller class next year. And it benefited in part because Texas had fewer scholarships available this year. Brown's program is still signing plenty of blue-chippers -- including five-star defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson (Fort Worth) and four other Rivals100 prospects -- but the 'Horns class of 15 commitments currently ranks an uncharacteristic 17th nationally.
"It's a very fickle world in recruiting, its what have you done for me lately?" said Farrell. "A lot of recruits look at Texas as that 'old' program, Mack Brown is an older coach, and the Vince Young national championship [in 2005], these kids were 10. A&M is the fresh face with the dynamic coach and this hot quarterback."
That quarterback, Manziel, has had a noticeable impact on at least one aspect of A&M's class. The Aggies have a staggering seven commitments from projected wide receivers, six of whom garnered Rivals four-star ratings. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Seals-Jones is the headliner, but he's joined by the likes of 6-3 Kryion Parker (Manvel), 6-3, 205-pound JaQuay Williams (Fork Union, Va.) and 5-10, 148-pound slot man LaQuvionte Gonzalez (Cedar Hill, Texas).
Sumlin, whose offense relies entirely on four- and five-receiver sets, needed to fortify that position with three starters graduating. Three additional receivers had committed at one point but defected, including Rivals100 prospect Tony Stevens, now heading to Auburn. But last week, four-star USC commit Sebastian Larue (Santa Monica, Calif.) flipped to the Aggies.
"That's the Johnny Manziel effect," said Farrell. "These kids see how fun that offense is and they want to catch passes from Johnny Manziel. Wide receivers are lining up to play for Texas A&M and it's because of that offense."
In truth, the Manziel effect may not truly be felt until next year, particularly with the accelerated recruiting cycle. A&M already has seven commitments from juniors, including two -- linebacker Hoza Scott (La Porte, Texas) and defensive back Nick Harvey (Lancaster) -- listed among the Rivals250 in 2014.
All of this is exactly what Aggies fans dreamed might be possible when A&M decided to leave the Big 12 in 2011. The opportunity to play in the SEC figured to be a selling point to distinguish it from the Texas and Oklahoma programs. But the school had no idea then that Sumlin would even be the coach -- much less a significant game-changer on the recruiting trail.
"This was the end goal, what's happening right now," said Liucci.
Instead, it might only be the beginning. Recruiting in the state of Texas no longer runs through its capital.