Coaching staffs need to excel in only one area to put a competitive squad on the field when September rolls around. Southern California, Florida and LSU have signed top-5 recruiting classes for the better part of the past five Signing Days, and those schools have won three of the last five national championships.
On the flip side, the highest-rated class that former Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins and Hawaii head coach June Jones combined to sign during the 2002-06 seasons was No. 72, but the Broncos defeated Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and the Warriors will battle Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl next month.
Recruiting can be hit-or-miss for even the best collegiate coaches, so having the ability to lure the highly-ranked prospects as well as uncovering the proverbial diamond in the rough-type athlete dramatically increases your rate of return. Davis is one of the few that possesses both of those qualities.
The Tar Heels made national headlines last February by beating Florida State for the services of Marvin Austin, but little-known Maple Heights, Ohio native Charles Brown also appeared on the Signing Day list. Austin was the nation’s top-ranked defensive prospect with five-stars etched beside his name, while Brown was an unranked student-athlete with offers from Bowling Green and Ohio.
But despite the differences in their national prowess, both signees impressed during their freshman seasons this fall. Austin finished with 26 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks at defensive tackle, while Brown posted 59 tackles, five tackles for loss and two interceptions in the secondary. Their performances were solid enough to earn spots on the CollegeFootballNews.com Freshman All-America Team.
“Marvin is a unique, rare exception,” Davis said during his postseason press conference last week. “Most of the time, your offensive and defensive lines have the toughest transition period from high school to college because it is in the trenches and it is physical, hand-to-hand combat every single play…
“Your skill position players have an easier transition, for the most part, from a physical standpoint because it’s all about athleticism for Charlie Brown and some of those guys that were true freshmen to be able to come in and do some of the things because they run fast and they have great agility.”
Similar scenarios are developing this recruiting campaign. Todd Harrelson is not the unknown that Brown was a year ago, but the Chesapeake, Va. native ranks as the No. 78 wide receiver nationally and is not even considered one of the top-10 prospects in his home state. He made a strong case for more respect in the state semifinals, however, catching 15 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns.
The Tar Heels have also become a factor with the nation’s top prospects, earning official visits from top-rated recruits in cornerback Patrick Johnson, defensive tackle Marcus Forston and linebacker Arthur Brown – all of whom possess offers from virtually every program in the country.
Johnson and Forston are both currently committed to Miami, but Davis has no problem recruiting kids that are open to discussing other options for their collegiate future – see the Zack Pianalto (Texas) and Greg Little (Notre Dame) recruitments from last year as examples.
The UNC coach points to the rush to judgment in the ever-growing trend of de-commitments in the football recruiting landscape.
“A lot of times a kid may be leaning one way or thinking that just because of magazine articles and Internet websites,” Davis said. “And then, all of a sudden, the staff gets involved and their parents start helping shape the student-athletes’ mind, saying, ‘Hey, you’re right about this, but you haven’t thought about life after football or life after athletics. How important is the alumni? How can they network you into corporate jobs? And what does a degree from this institution mean and what does a degree from that institution mean?’”
Having a diverse group of coaches definitely helps – offensive coordinator John Shoop spent more than three seasons directing offenses in the NFL, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen earned All-ACC honors during his time at UNC before playing professionally at the linebacker spot for four years, and running backs coach Kenny Browning is a former N.C. high school coach that is well-respected across the state.
But whether this coaching staff is conducting an in-home visit in Wichita, Kan., visiting a high school in Miami, Fla., or actively targeting in-state prospects as they are this week at the Shrine Bowl in Roebuck, S.C., recruiting comes down to just one thing.
“Recruiting has always been about building relationships, and it will never change,” Davis said. “You can write all of the letters that you want, and you can make all of the phone calls that you want, but until you get face-to-face and eye-to-eye with kids and their parents, that’s when the real recruiting truly starts.”