For Texas A&M, it's make-or-break time to revive recruiting momentum
Johnny Manziel played his last game for Texas A&M on Dec. 31, 2013. He completed 30 of his 38 pass attempts for 382 yards with four touchdowns and ran for 73 yards and another score in a four-point win over Duke—a statistical flurry indicative of his brilliance during his short career in College Station. Not only did Manziel lead Texas A&M to 20 wins over two seasons and help it upset No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa in ’12 , he was instrumental in easing the Aggies’ transition into the nation’s toughest league, the SEC. When Manziel declared for the ’14 NFL draft, he left a gaping hole for Texas A&M to fill.
Yet about a month after Manziel announced he was turning pro, the Aggies’ future under coach Kevin Sumlin could hardly have seemed brighter. On Feb. 5, 2014, they signed one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, a group stocked with elite talent at several positions including defensive end Myles Garrett, quarterback Kyle Allen and wide receiver Devante “Speedy” Noil. Even though Texas A&M was losing Manziel, it was filling its roster with the sort of players who could help it maintain, if not eclipse, the success the program enjoyed during Manziel’s time on campus. In Allen, for one, the Aggies had a five-star passer ready to pick up right where Manziel left off.
A little more than two years later, Allen is playing for another Texas-based program (Houston), and “unfavorable” would be a charitable characterization of the Aggies’ outlook under Sumlin. Texas A&M’s recruiting woes spilled into the general sports discourse earlier this month, when wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead sent out a stream of tweets expressing frustration over misconceptions about loyalty and the sensitivity of society shortly after Tate Martell, the top-ranked quarterback in the class of 2017, renounced his commitment to the Aggies. (Moorehead later apologized for what he described as “impromptu comments.”)
Yet that was merely the low point in a decline on the recruiting trail for Texas A&M. Two years after pulling in a class ranked seventh nationally with an average star rating of 3.90, according to Scout.com, the Aggies signed the No. 21 class in the country with an average star rating of 3.38 this February. Texas A&M’s 2017 class—stripped of Martell*, the No. 12 recruit in the country, and Mannie Netherly, a four-star wide receiver who withdrew his pledge to the Aggies the same night as Martell and ranks No. 184 in the country—currently checks in at No. 33 nationally, with six commits registering a 3.33 average star rating.
*Given some recent comments from Martell’s father, Texas A&M may not feel as though the loss of Martell is as costly to its offense as the optics of the nation’s No. 1 QB jumping ship would otherwise suggest.
Any diagnosis of the causes of Texas A&M’s recruiting dip must begin with its performance on the field. The Aggies have been merely adequate the last two seasons, posting 8–5 records in 2014 and ’15 with only seven conference wins combined. But that’s not the only reason top-tier prospects may be souring on the idea of spending 3-4 seasons in the SEC’s lone Lone Star State outpost. Texas A&M’s “cool factor” that seemingly helped it win over recruits both in and outside of Texas has been obscured by the sense that the program cannot leverage upper-echelon talent into on-field success, that it’s more flash than substance.
The Aggies’ standing in the eyes of recruits may have taken another hit late last year, when they watched both Allen and the five-star quarterback prospect they signed the next year, Kyler Murray, transfer. ESPN.com reported that among the factors leading to the transfers were “uncertainty with the direction of Texas A&M’s offense, the future of the offensive coaching staff, trust issues between the quarterbacks and coaches and how the quarterbacks were utilized.” Allen later told CBS Sports that he thought a “big part” of why he decided to leave the Aggies was a “culture” that he thought stemmed from Manziel’s time at the school.
Meanwhile, the recruiting dynamics in Texas continue to evolve, with Big 12 programs like TCU and Baylor and the American Athletic Conference's Houston emerging as appealing alternatives and the SEC plucking top-end talent from the state. In 2016, for example, the Aggies landed two of Texas’s top-25 recruits, according to Scout.com. It’s possible Texas A&M failed to capitalize on a window of recruiting opportunity: Texas, a longstanding national power with a seemingly unassailable perch atop the state’s football hierarchy, has yet to crack .500 in two seasons under Charlie Strong. But the Longhorns closed with a flourish in the ’16 recruiting cycle, reeling in the nation’s No. 8 class.
All of this paints a pretty bleak picture for Texas A&M, but it has the potential to halt its slide. Greg Powers, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, points out the distinction that should help the Aggies win recruiting battles against Texas and other local programs. “If there’s an in-state recruit who wants to stay closer to home and play in the SEC, then Texas A&M is always going to be a strong option for that recruit,” Powers says.
It’s important not to lose sight of what the Aggies already have. While Texas A&M has parted ways with three five-star quarterbacks over the last six months, it still possesses the talent required to make a run in the SEC and make noise nationally. Garrett and senior Daeshon Hall compose one of the nation’s top defensive end tandems, Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds are dangerous weapons in the passing game and, at his best, Oklahoma graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight is capable of torching Alabama. The Aggies won’t be favored to win their division, but they don’t need to do that much to get back on solid ground with prospective recruits.
Texas A&M needs to perform well enough to stoke optimism about its future under a coach who will enter the season at the top of everyone’s hot seat lists. Until then, some prospects may be hesitant to commit to a future with the Aggies. The resultant unease of a 2017 class with potentially sub-par ratings won’t help the situation, but Texas A&M can by beating UCLA on Sept. 3, Auburn on Sept. 17, Arkansas on Sept. 24 and so forth. Whereas a few years ago the Aggies could point to their recruiting as an indicator of a fruitful future, there’s now a sense of urgency regarding the program’s ability to attract high-level prospects.
Social media item of the week
Notre Dame added a commitment from one of the nation's top quarterback prospects Monday. Here's a photo of Pine-Richland (Pa.) Academy class of 2018 standout Phil Jurkovec standing by the school's famous Word of Life mural, better known as Touchdown Jesus.
Three things to know
• Braxton Burmeister committed to Arizona … for the second time. Burmeister first pledged to the Wildcats in November 2014 when he was a sophomore at La Jolla Country Day (Calif.) School. He stuck with the program for more than a year before deciding to reopen his recruitment this March—a couple of months after Rhett Rodriguez, a two-star quarterback in the class of 2017 who attends Catalina Foothills (Ariz.) High and is the son of Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, committed to the Wildcats. Burmeister reportedly then visited several schools, including Washington and South Carolina, before electing last week to recommit to the school to which he first pledged. Burmeister had been the only uncommitted QB in the 2017 Scout 300 other than Martell. He joins an Arizona class that now counts nine pledges—including two others in the Scout 300, athletes Greg Johnson and Nathan Tilford—and checks in second in the Pac-12 in Scout.com’s team rankings.
• Florida State likely won’t have star running back Dalvin Cook around for 2017, but the Seminoles have the next best thing lined up to replace him a year later. Cook’s brother, James, will reclassify from ’19 to ’18, he announced on Twitter on Monday. Had James Cook remained a member of the class of ’19, a Florida High School Athletic Association rule regarding the maximum age of high school athletes would have prevented him from playing at least part of his senior season at Miami Central Senior High. As a freshman last year, Cook rushed for 715 yards and eight touchdowns and recorded 178 yards and three scores on the ground to help Central beat Armwood High 48–13 and capture its fourth consecutive state title, according to the Miami Herald. Listed at 5’10” and 188 pounds, Cook committed to Florida State in March but also counts reported scholarship offers from Alabama, Georgia, Miami and Ohio State, among other programs.
• At least one highly regarded recruit still liked Texas A&M enough in the wake of the Martell-Moorehead-Netherly fiasco to commit to the program. Derrick Tucker announced his pledge to the Aggies last week. The No. 7 safety and No. 113 overall player in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com, Tucker drew reported scholarship offers from Arkansas, Texas and USC, among other programs. “Texas A&M is like a Alabama for Texas for me,” said Tucker, who attends Manvel (Texas) High. Interestingly, Tucker omitted the Aggies from the top five he released in February, instead listing Houston, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas and UCLA. Yet Tucker ultimately went with a program outside of that group, one in need of recruiting momentum. His choice should provide some measure of comfort for Aggies fans concerned that Sumlin and his staff would have trouble winning in-state recruiting battles against programs like Texas.