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FROM THE STANDS: Class of 2015

I saw a very interesting thing last week leading up to the Super Bowl- not a single five-star player started in it. If you are unaware of what a “5-star player” is, I will explain: High school kids about to play college football are ranked on a star system with zero stars being the lowest and five being the highest. When you consider what it HUGE deal it is to be listed in the Rivals 250 or ESPN 300 (meaning you are one of the best 250/300 of the thousands and thousands of high school football players in the nation) you can imagine what an honor it is to be one of the 25-27 that get rated 5 stars. It means, obviously, that you are one of the 25-30 best players in the USA. Being a 5-star player means attention from every school and all the trappings that go along with that, and it almost certainly means early playing time. 5-star players are household names in the recruiting world by the time they sign with a school, and by the time they are NFL draft-eligible, most are on their way to The League. A Miami Hurricane-based blog did a study of 5-star recruits from 2001 to 2008 and found that more than half of them got drafted into the NFL, which was higher than any other classification (four stars and down). Just as important, those 5-star players had a 39% retention rate in the NFL, meaning they made it to year three of a four-year contract. Even deeper, the top-half of the 5-star class (Nos.~ 1-15) had a 61% chance to get drafted and a 52% chance to stay there. That means the top tier of the top tier of every year’s high school talent are likely to be making NFL money 3-5 years later…  But not a single one of them from classes past was a starter in the Super Bowl this season. Off the 44 starters in the game, four of them were 4-star players and 40 were three or below. Quarterback Russell Wilson was a two-star player (Tom Brady pre-dates the star system). Interesting, yes? I think so.

The big takeaway, however, isn’t so much the complete lack of 5-star players from high school starting in the Super Bowl; it’s the terrific success of the 3- and 2-star recruits that are. The evaluations of the 5-star players are pretty right on coming out of high school, evidenced by how many are still playing football 6-10 years later; however, the evaluations of the “3 and under” are educated guesses many times. Sometimes guys are late bloomers in high school and don’t hit their stride until later, sometimes football doesn’t make sense at that level, sometimes they are playing completely out of position in high school and don’t find their groove until college… There are lots of things that contribute to being underrated coming out of high school, the biggest one being this: they were just better than people thought they’d be.

That’s not just an NFL thing, either. While half of those 5-star players go to the NFL, it means half don’t. Many never get the chance to make a dent in the NFL because they flame out in college due to grades, girls, jail, injuries, transfers etc. And conversely, many of the 2- and 2-star players that fan bases were thoroughly underwhelmed about signing go on to All-American careers. Most coaches try to look beyond those stars to find guys that fit their system, can be expected to stay out of trouble and are good football players. Some traits are more important to some coaches than others, but they are all looking for talent. Some are better at seeing potential than others, but every single coach out there thinks they can take a good player and make him better, and the better that player is when he get to campus, the better the team is.

Texas just wrapped up the class of 2015 and it was a HAUL. They amassed a lot of talent at positions of need and I expect everyone in this class to be contributing pretty quickly. The Horns finished with a top 10 class in the nation, which was also tops in the Big 12, and that’s really something. A 6-7 team that was blown out in the final two games locked up the a top 10 CLASS IN THE COUNTRY, the only team in the top 10 with a losing record. Amazing stuff. Imagine how this will be when they are hitting on all cylinders? Texas is on the move, and I like it.  Let’s take a look at the new Texas Longhorns


Texas Longhorns Recruiting Class of 2015

Kris Boyd DB Gilmer (GHS) 6’0″ 180 4 stars
John Burt WR Tallahassee, FL (Lincoln) 6’2″ 180 4 stars
Cecil Cherry LB Lakeland, FL (Victory Christian Academy) 6’0″ 235 4 stars
Devonaire Clarington TE Miami, FL (Washington) 6’5″ 224 4 stars
DaVante Davis DB Miami, FL (Washington) 6’2″ 188 4 stars
DeShon Elliott DB Rockwall (Heath) 6’2″ 205 4 stars
Breckyn Hager LB Austin (Westlake) 6’3″ 210 2 stars
Holton Hill DB Houston (Lamar) 6’2″ 175 4 stars
Brandon Hodges OL Scooba, MS (East Miss. C.C) 6’5″ 290 3 stars
Tristian Houston RB Galena Park (North Shore) 5’10” 200 3 stars
Malik Jefferson LB Mesquite  (Poteet) 6’2″ 218 5 stars
Gilbert Johnson WR Atlanta, GA (Georgia Prep) 6’4″ 189 3 stars
Kirk Johnson RB San Jose, CA (Valley Christian) 6’0″ 200 4 stars
Du’Vonta Lampkin DT Houston (Cypress Falls) 6’4″ 306 3 stars
PJ Locke DB Beaumont (Central) 5’10” 185 3 stars
Kai Locksley ATH Baltimore (Gilman School) 6’4″ 185 4 stars
Ronnie Major OL Huntsville (HHS) 6’6″ 300 3 stars
Deandre McNeal ATH Mesquite (Poteet) 6’2″ 210 3 stars
Matthew Merrick QB Dallas (Cistercian Prep) 6’2″ 182 3 stars
Tristan Nickelson OL Corsicana (Navarro J.C.) 6’8″ 300 2 stars
Ryan Newsome WR Aledo (AHS) 5’9″ 175 3 stars
Charles Omenihu DE Rowlett (RHS) 6’4″ 227 4 stars
Garrett Thomas OL Many, LA (Many) 6’5″ 310 3 stars
Cameron Townsend LB Missouri City (Ridge Point) 6’1″ 206 3 stars
Patrick Vahe OL Euless (Trinity) 6’3″ 315 4 stars
Quincy Vasser DE Corsicana (Navarro J.C.) 6’4″ 265 3 stars
Anthony Wheeler LB Dallas (Skyline) 6’2″ 216 4 stars
Chris Warren RB Rockwall (Heath) 6’2″ 223 4 stars
Connor Williams OL Coppell (CHS) 6’5″ 271 4 stars

 

I am going to spend the next few weeks breaking this class down, spending a week on each side of the ball. But first, I want to talk about this class as a whole.

This was the CRAZIEST recruiting season I’ve ever seen at Texas. So many twists, turns, ups and downs, everyday seemed to bring something new. This year was the polar opposite of everything we saw in the Mack Brown era. Remember when Texas would do its very best to lock up the recruiting class in the spring and summer before that class started their senior year? There were a few late surprises, but for the most part everything was done by the time the spring semester started. Charlie Strong is the total opposite. He and his staff evaluate for much longer, taking their time to find the late bloomers as well as the obvious talent. He doesn’t mind letting guys take the entire time to figure out, and he doesn’t mind reaching out very late when sees a player he wants. The later time frame for recruiting, the staff’s willingness to let kids take their time and zero fear of reaching out late in the process created the most signing day drama in the history of Texas football.  I think there were more signing day flips and decisions this year than in the Mack Brown era combined. Good stuff.

The Flips

On the morning of signing day, Texas got two flips from commits to other schools- Ryan Newsome and PJ Locke. Did anyone see Ryan Newsome’s press conference when committed to UCLA? It was clear he was torn and the 45-second delay before he announced UCLA seemed to stun everyone on the stage, including Ryan Newsome. It was the shakiest commitment I’ve ever seen and immediately speculation began that Newsome was far from a Bruin lock. Considered one of the premiere kick returners in the nation, Newsome has the quickness and ability to change a game with one punt/kick return. As National Signing Day approached, Newsome let the media know that Texas was still “…all in” on him. You could tell his was torn at the original announcement and he said going into the dead period (the Monday and Tuesday before signing day) he would decide on signing day. On signing day he picked Texas, and he’ll be playing for the Horns and his presence makes the abysmal return game for Texas immediately better.

South Oak Cliff’s head coach left for a job at Texas Tech for Kliff Kingsbury, and in the process of taking that job Texas lost safety commit Jamile Johnson, who is obviously from South Oak Cliff and now is a Red Raider. With that safety spot open, Texas offered Oregon commit PJ Locke the final weekend of the recruiting season. Locke had been committed to Oregon since last summer, but the lure of the big home-state school offering was very intriguing to Locke and in the end- the “end” being early in the morning of signing day- Locke decided to stay closer to home. He’s considered very similar to Johnson in that he’s a smallish (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) safety, but is incredibly physical at the point of attack in the running game. He’ll obviously need to work on the coverage aspect of his game, but he’s a definitely a big-time safety that should jump right in the mix for playing time.

And let’s not forget about the Monday flip of quarterback Kai Locksley, the four-star Florida State commit. With the change of the offense to the spread, Texas obviously needs spread quarterbacks. They took a shot at Kyler Murray and missed, but they landed a super talent in Locksley. The son of Maryland Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley, Kai Locksley committed to Florida State last summer and it was a bit surprising after he attended Charlie Strong’s “Under the Lights” event over the summer. Strong and Locksley’s dad are good friends and it seemed like a good fit, but the offense wasn’t what Kai wanted so he jumped in with Jimbo Fisher. When Texas made the switch, they reached back out and made a late push for Locksley and he was listening. Rumors last week said he was would stick with the Noles after his in-home with Jimbo Fisher where he laid out a plan that included a redshirt in the coming year to the Locksley family. But Monday night (at the behest of coach Charlie Strong to get some late momentum) Locksley decided to make the flip to Texas and said he’s “coming in to win the starting quarterback job now.” Whether he wins the job or not, Texas has a great athlete that knows the spread and runs it well. He’s feet are terrific and, evidenced by him moving to wide out in the Under Armour game, he’s a team guy that will do what his team needs. Texas had to get another quarterback in this class and the Locksley signing was huge.

In the coming years you can expect more late-inning flips from Strong & Co. as Texas will continue to fight for the players they want. I love it.


Signing Day Decisions

A lot of these players like to wait until signing day to make their announcements. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s the way it is. Some of them like to build the drama (Daylon Mack) and some just don’t know yet (Ryan Newsome). Everyone signing a letter of intent on signing day usually is involved in some sort of ceremony at their high school, either as the lone college-bound player or part of a group. The better the group/player, the more media in attendance, meaning the 5-star recruits are usually doing this on live TV. I know some people think it a bit over the top, but I love it. I can’t at all blame a kid for enjoying the limelight and attention that signing a piece of paper brings them; I would have done it had the chance been there. Anyway, a lot of these guys waiting for signing day to commit had Texas in the mix, and that’s a direct result of Charlie Strong’s take-your-time, minimal-pressure approach. It’s the complete opposite of the Mack Brown we-need-you-to-commit-right-now (the spring or summer prior) approach. That new philosophy meant waiting until that ceremony to find out who goes where in several cases. Not surprisingly, Texas lost out on Plano West running back Soso Jamabo to UCLA (if you follow him on Twitter he gave a very honest and hilarious Childish Gambino reference as to why), Florida DB DeAndre Baker to Georgia (already committed there), Demarkus Lodge went to Ole Miss, and Daylon Mack to A&M. That’s the way it goes. But they did get running back Chris Warren, son of running back Chris Warren of Seattle and later Dallas. Like his dad he’s a big, strong and powerful runner. At 6-foot-2, 223 pounds coming out of high school, he’s ready-made to hit the field in college. He’s long been a target of Charlie Strong, like since the moment he got here, because he’s the sort of back that can take over games and punish defenses. I know the staff is very happy with redshirt freshman Duke Catalon and senior Jonathan Gray is a known commodity, but I expect they plan to have Warren in the mix this fall as well. He looks like the closer at the goal line and short yardage at this point, but he could win more time in fall camp with this ability to block and pick up the blitz. He’s the total package and running back and a guy the Texas staff has coveted since they got to Austin. When you wait until signing day, you win some and lose some, and while Texas lost some, they got a big win as well. It’s exciting, isn’t it?


The Stars

The Horns pulled in some very, very big fish this year and I see some potential breakout stars right away. With the depth on the current team, don’t be surprised to see several of these guys playing early, but I see a few that could make an immediate impact above and beyond.


Offense- The Linemen

I know that’s not a sexy pick, but I think the two junior college transfers Brandon Hodges and Tristan Nickelson will be the starting tackles when the season starts this fall. Everyone wants John Burt and Devonaire Clarington to come and take off at wide out and tight end (me, too) but I think these two are the cornerstone of the offense going forward. As you know, Texas struggled along the offensive line last year and with these two guys on campus this spring they could be immediate upgrades at the tackle spot. I think that’s exactly what happens. Hodges is more polished, but Nickelson is just a beast at 6-foot-8, 300 pounds. Keep in mind this isn’t a 17- or 18-year old at 6-foot-8, 300 pounds, but instead a guy that’s two years into college already. That may not sound like a big deal, but those two years are huge in development. He’s likely done growing at this point and this is his size. Texas doesn’t have to worry as much about his weight exploding as he gets to college and grows up. He’s (pretty much) grown up.  And with two years of junior college, they have played against college-level talent already and they are more known commodities than kids coming out of high school, where the competition can be very inconsistent. And they’ve actually been in college for two years, meaning they are acclimated to being away from home, going to class, living on their own, etc. And they are good football players as well. I expect both to be day one starters and that’s going to make the offense so much better.


Defense- Malik Jefferson

Malik Jefferson has been compared to Derrick Johnson coming out of high school. At 6-foot-2, 218 pounds with 4.5 speed, you can see why. I hope he also wears No.11. Jefferson was the No.1 rated linebacker in the state of Texas this year and No.2 overall prospect and, of course, a 5-star national recruit. Everyone in the country wanted him, but he picked Charlie Strong and Texas and that decision helped land some of the other big names in this class. Jefferson is on campus now after graduating high school early and he will go through spring practice and the off-season. I fully expect him to be one of the starting linebackers going into the fall. He surely could be joined by other incoming freshmen like Anthony Wheeler and Cecil Cherry, but Jefferson is here now and will have a solid five-months to learn the defense and what Vance Bedford want. I can’t wait to see him on the field. He’s the biggest recruit Charlie Strong has gotten in his short time at Texas and you’ll see why he was so in demand at Notre Dame in the fall.


Special Teams- Ryan Newsome

Listening to the signing day stuff on the radio, Erin Hogan summed up Newsome very well: Peter Warrick. If you remember, Warrick was a dynamic wide out and return man for Florida State in the late 90’s that could cut on a dime, get deep and generally seemed like he was a step ahead of everyone else on the field. He was the key weapon on the 1999 Florida State National Championship team and had he not been a complete knucklehead he likely wins the Heisman Trophy that year. I am not saying Newsome will be Warrick, but I think his game compares with Warrick’s very well… No, I’ll say he’s Warrick, but without all the Dillard’s stuff.  I think you’ll see Newsome out there returning kids to start the year and you’ll see why Texas and UCLA were so eager to get him.

There could be others. Who are they? Let know your thoughts!


So…

This recruiting class is the cornerstone of the Charlie Strong era at Texas. This is his first full year and these are all his guys, and this class will set the table for things to come. I really, really like this class a lot and I think you’ll see most of these guys on the field early.  It’s a different type of class than the past in a lot of ways: Texas went heavy on out-of-state recruits, pulling in nine this year. That’s just unheard of here. Charlie Strong went where he had success at Louisville, pulling five kids from the state of Florida. Strong likes the edge they have and there’s no doubt they do. And there’s no doubt they would not be Longhorns under the last coaching staff. Strong wants guys who love football and will do whatever it takes to be here. Watching the great Texas Exit last year from the football team, it’s pretty clear that guys who loved football and would do whatever it takes to be here wasn’t the case with everyone on the team before he got here. But these guys, handpicked by he and the staff. There is speed, talent and attitude, which you need to win. I love what Charlie Strong is setting up here.

Back next week with the breakdown of the defensive recruits.

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