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Wild Coaching Carousel Causing Pause for Elite 2023 Football Recruits

Next wave of top football recruits navigating process more carefully in 2022

Under normal circumstances, Arch Manning would already be off the board.

There was talk of the phenom quarterback recruit–yes, the grandson of Archie Manning and nephew of fellow NFL quarterbacking legends Peyton and Eli Manning– wrapping up a who’s who recruitment before the New Year.

The springtime typically provides the setting for the elite quarterback recruits, but this year Manning isn’t the only highly-coveted passer still on the market. In fact, many of the early contenders atop any class of 2023 football prospect ranking are still sorting through college options. Factors for holding off could be attributed to a number of reasons, but many have told Sports Illustrated the rapid and unprecedented movement with the end of the season coaching carousel is part of that equation.

"I think kids are becoming aware of the carousel and not rushing the decision," an SEC assistant told SI last week. "I've always wondered if the December signing period will become something that kids shy away from."

Coaching changes came right up until the December or Early Signing Period on December 15. Mario Cristobal went from Oregon to Miami on December 6, nine days before prospects could begin signing a National Letter of Intent in the class of 2022. His replacement, Dan Lanning, was hired in Eugene on December 11 -- just four days before prospects were to lock in with future programs. Oregon only had one more day to host prospects before a dead period kicked in, too. 

Neither program is in the Manning sweepstakes, though. Among the schools having courted the junior at the highest level before the madness, coaching staffs at LSU, Clemson, Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia and Florida have gone through at least one change on the offensive side of the ball. Head coaching changes were made at LSU and Florida while Clemson and Ole Miss changed offensive coordinators of late. The national champion's major tie in with the Manning family was tied to offensive line coach Matt Luke, who stepped away from coaching February 22.  

A reset of sorts has happened within the Manning household and the spring will serve as the latest visit window to dig into the reassembled staffs and the updated recruiting pitch, in most cases. Other recruits haven’t been courted as long or as much as Manning, so the impact of these coaching changes resonates even more elsewhere. 

The old adage spewed towards recruits is to commit to the school and not a coach or a group of coaches, but it’s of course the people spending time building relationships with recruits who pull them in a direction a logo or nice facility often cannot. As the consensus top defensive back recruit and Lakeland (Fla.) Lake Gibson star Cormani McClain points out via social media, prospects deeply involved with coaches they’ve considered committing to often shift from detailing their football pitch to a relationship where the sport becomes secondary in conversation. 

The phrases "father figure" or even "big brother" are often brought up as social media messages turn into phone calls and eventually face-to-face sit-downs at the football office or even the prospect’s house. From one day to the next, the coach is duplicating the effort with a new Twitter header and different logo on his polo all together.

The movement was so frantic around the 2021 season, beginning with USC moving on from Clay Helton in mid-September to nearly a change at Auburn in mid-February, that some coaches were on the move and re-building relationships before it was announced what new school had hired them away. While it wasn’t just head coaches affected, 28 FBS coaching staffs are new in 2022, 14 in the Power 5 (including Notre Dame), meaning more than 200 assistant coaches changed jobs as a result. The volume of movement was up more than 50% from 2020, where 18 FBS head-coaching changes were made in total.

Naturally, with more movement from the adults, more young men went on the move. The number of high school prospect decommitments saw a major uptick at the end of the 2022 cycle just as the transfer portal became that much more fluid, as droves of college players followed a coach from one program to the next, including Caleb Williams electing to play for Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and eventually again at USC.

The class of 2023, where Manning and the rest of the rising-senior prospects watched their older high school teammates navigate an unusual recruiting cycle, had the best seat in the house for the most dramatic season of college coaching change in the modern era. Reactions varied from a deep breath to shoulder shrugs or even a smile combined with a head shake as the next wave of football recruits tried to articulate their reaction when asked how the coaching carousel affected their own recruiting process.

“When it was happening, a lot of recruits felt like this may never end,” prized quarterback recruit Dante Moore said.

The Detroit (Mich.) Martin Luther King star quarterback still has Notre Dame high on his list, thanks to Marcus Freeman’s promotion and the retention of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Most of the changes elsewhere, though, weren’t alterations with that kind of continuity from one staff to the next.

Dante Moore

2023 National QB Recruit Dante Moore

Even one position coach making a move could alter the contenders and timeline for the most elite of prospects like Phenix City (Ala.) Central defensive back A.J. Harris, who has long held offers from the nation's top programs from the reigning national champions to Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Each blue blood, perhaps at the top of Harris' list, had changes at secondary coach or defensive coordinator roles of late.

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Perhaps one of them would already have Harris publicly on board as a commitment should there have been less motion even under that of the head coach. 

"I know my kid would be committed already if the coaching carousel wasn’t so drastic this year," Daniel Harris, A.J.'s father, told SI. "These young men build relationships with coaches that are selling them on being at X or Z. It made things difficult, because although a kid should fall in love with the school and maybe the town suits the lifestyle...the kids want that particular coach to develop and mentor them."

State champion running back Treyaun Webb, of Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian, admits he thought his recruitment was over when he made a verbal commitment to Riley and Oklahoma when his pledge was made in July of 2021. Then the carousel spun in ways most of the industry could not anticipate, much less a teenager looking for the right fit.

“I thought I was done with recruiting, I thought I was settled so I can enjoy my senior year,” Webb said. “It is what it is.”

Other 2023s jumped on board with OU around the same time in wide receiver Brandon Inniss and quarterback Malachi Nelson. Innis and Webb remain on the market today, with USC interested among many others, while Nelson made the commitment to Riley a second time around as the foundation for the Trojans’ 2023 haul. Allegiances can change that quickly on the recruiting trail and create a domino effect, opening the door for a new program and in some cases even closing a door if the new staff in place doesn’t carry the same high opinion of a recruit who committed to play for the previous staff.

Most undeclared recruits will hit the visit trail hard in the coming months. Visit windows in March and April could reshape recruiting opinion on where the best available talent could eventually land, especially with most coaching staffs now hired in full. The movement causes a pause for most, but it also creates buzz in seeing how a new group occupies the program they packed up and moved their families and often select members of their staffs to. That buzz can lead to strong interest and a quick first impression, like it has at Florida, Miami, USC, LSU, Oregon and other programs under construction.

Seeing coaches at their new digs became the actual January recruiting plan for arguably the top offensive line recruit nationally, IMG Academy’s Francis Mauigoa. He saw USC, Oregon and Miami to kick off 2022 and came away impressed by each location and program structure as much as the new group occupying each post. He had been recruited by each group at their previous school anyway in what is a reflection of how badly the 6’6”, 320-pounder is coveted from coast to coast.

Still, the carousel fluidity altered his recruiting approach, even while visiting the campus of programs under new leadership.

“I don’t look at coaches anymore, going into recruiting,” Mauigoa said in February. “Coaches come and go, that’s just real. You’ve got to look at [the] environment, you’ve got to look at the school.”

By the numbers, a slower start to building the class of 2023 is noticeable from the blue-blood perspective as well. Alabama has two commits, each popping over the last few weeks, while six of Georgia’s seven commitments came before the year began. Stability on those coaching staff helps to get out to larger commitment lists early in the cycle, but it is not happening in the current one. In fact, Texas Tech was the only FBS program with double-digit verbal commitments on board as of March 1. Arkansas joined them with the pledge of pass rusher Carson Dean on March 7.

Beyond the Red Raiders, among new coaching staffs with true overhauls (as opposed to a promotion like at Notre Dame), Oklahoma has the largest committed class at just four prospects to date. USC has three (with two former Riley commits at OU) and Miami just got its third this week while LSU, Oregon and Florida have one. Those numbers will all begin to rise with the return of the quiet period, where programs can host recruits on campus, that opened March 1 and runs through April 14, as programs will host talent around junior days, spring practices and eventually their 2022 spring game.

The spring evaluation period, where coaches can evaluate on high school campuses, will follow. More offers are to be extended and in turn, commitments are to be made. In June and July the schools will again host top recruits, both for summer official visits as well as for prospect camps, where the numbers will again inflate.

"(The coaching changes) Gives them some pause but it will heat up here in March and April because kids want to lock in their spots," Cal Director of Player Personnel Marshall Cherrington said. "Going to be a lot of movement."

Even then, though, there could be some pause for those trying to get their recruitment in the rearview mirror by the time the 2022 football season begins like Jayden Wayne. The Tacoma (Wash.) Lincoln High School two-way star, who plays defensive end and tight end, has more than 40 offers to his name and many of the people who gave him the exciting news have since moved on to another set of colors. 

"Its all about trust and relationships," Donald Wayne Jr., Jayden's father, said. "When the coaches move around it starts all over. My son had coaches trying to convince him one school is the best, then leave and use the same dialogue at the new school."

Other big names on the recruiting trail have already gone public with intentions to take the duration of the recruiting process before making that final call, including McClain, Inniss and Mauigoa, also among the best available at their position. Inniss was once committed as other elites considered moving the process up for a quicker pick, one fellow elite wide receiver Carnell Tate was readying to make last fall. Then Brian Kelly left Notre Dame, one of his top contenders along with Ohio State and others, for LSU. 

"It was very crazy, because a coach can get up and leave any time he wants – so you’ve got to stay in close contact with that coach," Tate said. "BK (Brian Kelly) leaving, Oregon (Mario Cristobal) moving to Miami was big, LSU, it’s a lot.

"I’m trying to see where the coaches go, that’s a big factor in my connections."

Carnell Tate

National WR Recruit Carnell Tate

While the nation's best feel altered from a timeline perspective, imagine recruits further down a given prospect board? As colleges take less high school talent, which is a story for another day altogether, the window to take advantage of a public commitment may not be as wide open as it is for the names casual college football fans already know in the class. 

It means that life-changing phone call of a scholarship offer could be followed by the nudge to take it or leave it, long one of the perils of the business element of the recruiting process. That was before coaching movement began to mirror the frantic nature of the transfer portal itself, where hundreds of scholarship players still sit without a new college destination despite spring football camps opening across the country. 

"Our kids are playing or seeking lower-division opportunities, the offers are coming in slow," said Austin (Texas) Del Valle Head Coach Bobby Acosta, a former college assistant coach. "Our kids are very frustrated and families are becoming very disappointed in the recruiting process. 

"It creates anxiety."

Still, quarterbacks don't typically wait as long as those at other positions. Even Manning has slowed the tempo like his uncles used to quiet a raucous home crowd on critical downs. He will see Texas later this month for a fresh look at Steve Sarkisian's program while contending programs continue to finalize plans for the year, perhaps adding a perceived Manning family ringer in David Cutcliffe in the process. 

“I don’t think there is any sort of timeline right now,” Chris Stewart, Manning's coach at New Orleans (La.) Isidore Newman, told WGNO recently.

Tempo is the most cliché buzzword for offenses in the modern era, and the first family of football has something to do with it, but the fuel to each of those programs remains in talent acquisition, a.k.a. recruiting. 

If Manning is taking his time, the rest of the class is likely to follow, a theme that could eventually carry over to the commitment list for the program he picks -- just don't expect it very soon.