Which first-year coaches fared the best on the recruiting trail? Ranking the top 10

By Zac Ellis
February 05, 2016

Recruiting is always one of the top priorities on a college football coach’s to-do list. That’s especially the case when a school hires a new coach less than two months before National Signing Day. As with every off-season, a number of new coaches were forced to pull together signing classes on an expedited schedule in 2016. And fair or not, those classes often give fans their first idea of what to expect from their program’s new era.

So how did new head coaches fare on the recruiting trail in 2016? We break down the top 10 signing classes from first-year head coaches, according to Scout.com’s rankings.

• ELLIS: Breaking down winners, losers of National Signing Day

Kirby Smart, Georgia
Scout.com rank: No. 9

There’s no doubt Smart walked into a pretty favorable situation at Georgia. On Nov. 29, the day the school fired longtime coach Mark Richt, the Dawgs’ class ranked in the top 10. But despite splitting duties between Athens and Tuscaloosa during Alabama’s run through College Football Playoff, the former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator managed to keep the Bulldogs’ top-tier class intact. Georgia’s crop of signees finished ninth nationally and included five-star prospects in tight end Isaac Nauta, quarterback Jacob Eason and athlete Mecole Hardman Jr. Hardman was Smart’s big late success as the No. 16 overall recruit committed to the Bulldogs on Signing Day over Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. Eleven of Smart’s 20 signees committed under Richt, but the new coach did a remarkable job of holding things together and nabbing a few key additions.

Clay Helton, USC
Scout.com rank: No. 11

In his first go-round as USC’s full-time coach, Helton proved Trojans fans shouldn’t worry about a diminished profile on the recruiting trail. USC inked the 11th-best class in the country and second-best in the Pac-12, just behind UCLA (No. 7). On Signing Day the top athlete in the class, five-star prospect Jack Jones, committed to the Trojans over Alabama and Texas A&M. Meanwhile, Helton also secured the top receiver in the class, Tyler Vaughns, and the No. 3 defensive end in Oluwole Betiku. No program landed more five-star recruits than USC, which signed four.

Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Scout.com rank: No. 26

Muschamp’s first class at South Carolina just missed the top 25, down from a 20th-place finish in Steve Spurrier’s last recruiting cycle. But the final months of Spurrier’s tenure did little to instill confidence in the Gamecocks’ future, so fans in Columbia should be happy with what Muschamp managed. The coach’s 26-player haul features six four-star players, including cornerback JaMarcus King, the ninth-ranked junior college player in the nation, and dual-threat quarterback Brandon McIlwain. Of course, 26th in the nation doesn’t go as far in the SEC as it would in any other conference. South Carolina’s class translates to ninth in the SEC, so Muschamp still has plenty of rebuilding in front of him.

• Team recruiting rankings: Top 25 recruiting classes for 2016

Mark Richt, Miami
Scout.com rank: No. 37

After 15 seasons at Georgia, Richt doesn’t seem to mind his new job at Miami. “It’s like living in paradise down here,” Richt told SI.com on Signing Day. Perhaps that’s been his sales pitch to recruits since arriving as the Hurricanes’ replacement for Al Golden. Richt landed the 37th-ranked class in the country on Signing Day and snagged six four-star players, twice as many as Golden’s class a year ago. That group includes quarterback Jack Allison, who could become Brad Kaaya’s successor once Kaaya moves on to the NFL. Richt’s first class won’t return the ‘Canes’ to immediate contention, but it’s a step in the right direction in a short period of time.

Tracy Claeys, Minnesota
Scout.com rank: No. 42

Minnesota tabbed Claeys as its full-time head coach in November, just a couple weeks after longtime coach Jerry Kill announced his retirement. That’s when Claeys began putting his own stamp on his first signing class. Claeys allowed some commits to end up elsewhere, like four-star offensive lineman Sean Foster, who ultimately signed with Iowa State. But the Gophers still inked a class ranked 42nd nationally, a jump from Kill’s final class (No. 56) in 2015. The group includes four-star Carter Coughlin, the fourth-ranked outside linebacker in the country, as well as four-star quarterback Seth Green from Allen, Texas.

Matt Campbell, Iowa State
Scout.com rank: No. 46

Iowa State called Campbell’s first signing class “one of the best recruiting classes in Cyclone history.” At the very least, this group is a major step forward. The Cyclones’ final class under Paul Rhoads ranked 71st nationally; Campbell improved on that by 25 spots in less than two months of recruiting. Iowa State snagged two four-star signees in receiver Deshaunte Jones and offensive lineman Sean Foster, and one of its two new quarterbacks is three-star prospect Jacob Park. Park originally signed with Georgia in 2014 before transferring to Northeast Oklahoma A&M last summer.

Kalani Sitake, BYU
Scout.com rank: No. 50

Sitake lured a couple of four-star players to BYU in his first signing class, including safety Troy Warner and highly touted junior college defensive tackle Handsome Tanielu. The former Oregon State defensive coordinator also won some recruiting battles for lower-rated prospects. Sitake flipped three-star linebacker Alema Pilimai from his Utah commitment, and the Cougars beat out South Carolina for tight end Hank Tuipulotu. The result was a 25-player class that Sitake sees at the foundation for a new era at BYU. “We got better across the board, adding speed, size and length,” the coach said on Signing Day.

D.J. Durkin, Maryland
Scout.com rank: No. 53

Alabama handed Durkin his first big loss as the Terrapins coach by officially plucking four-star athlete Trevon Diggs out of Maryland on Signing Day. Diggs’s brother, Stefon, was an All-Big Ten receiver in College Park, but Durkin wasn’t able to extend the dynasty at home. The former Michigan defensive coordinator did manage to bring in two four-star, in-state players in Terrance Davis, the fifth-ranked offensive guard in the class, and receiver Tino Ellis. But the Terps still have a long way to go under Durkin: Only Rutgers’s class ranked lower than Maryland’s among Big Ten East squads.

Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
Scout.com rank: No. 56

It’s not easy to replace a legend, the task asked of Fuente as he takes over for the retiring Frank Beamer. Now Fuente’s first signing class in Blacksburg shows just how far the Hokies have to go. The group ranked 56th nationally with just one four-star signee in junior college quarterback Jerod Evans. But Virginia Tech still addressed areas of need in bringing in four freshman receivers, three of whom—Divine Deablo, Samuel Denmark and Eric Kumah—have enrolled early. Fuente worked wonders in rebuilding Memphis, so Hokies fans should trust in the coach’s process.

Dino Babers, Syracuse
Scout.com rank: No. 57

The first signing class of the Babers era at Syracuse barely resembles the crop of recruits he inherited from former coach Scott Shafer. Eleven of the 15 commits from Shafer’s original class decommitted under Babers, but the new coach still inked a group of 20 signees that finished ahead of ACC foes Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Wake Forest in the rankings. Seven of Babers’s new signees are defensive linemen or linebackers, an attempt to address the Orange’s depth in their front seven after ranking last in the conference in yards allowed per play (6.3).

Other notable classes: Barry Odom, Missouri (No. 59); Bill Cubit, Illinois (No. 60); Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia (No. 62); Mike Norvell, Memphis (No. 69), Chris Ash, Rutgers (No. 71)

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