In the geopolitics of American football recruiting, the Houston metro area might produce a telltale announcement might come Wednesday afternoon. That’s when Marvin Wilson, a defensive tackle given the full five stars by all those who know how to give out stars, will choose from among five universities on National Signing Day.
Per classic American razzmatazz, Wilson, widely deemed the best player left uncommitted, will play the lead in a drama in his Episcopal High School gym even if, in his head, the decision is bygone. In late December, while at an all-star game, he narrowed the list to five: LSU, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and South Florida. On the late afternoon of Jan. 18, he wreaked a multi-regional ripple by tweeting a photo of himself in an Ohio State jersey with the message, “Thinking about joining my boys. I’m trying to be great.”
Plenty came packed in that and in Wilson’s list of finalists. For one thing, it did not include Texas, where Tom Herman has taken over for Charlie Strong, but did include Strong’s new post, South Florida, a resounding statement about Wilson’s respect and affinity for Strong. For another, it did include Ohio State, further shoring up the considerable metal in this winter’s Texas-to-Columbus pipeline.
“Urban Meyer is a real problem,” said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com – and Farrell meant a problem for opposing recruiters in talent-flush Texas. “He’s landed two five-star kids from Texas this year. Obviously he got J.T. Barrett out of there,” a reference to Ohio State’s current quarterback.
The reshuffling of the entire college football landscape in this decade finds some root in that Ohio State-and-Texas nugget. Supremacy in the country has tilted from the Southeastern Conference, which owned the land voraciously from 2006 to 2014, to a more balanced equation with the Atlantic Coast Conference boasting the national champion (Clemson) and the Big Ten widely presumed tops. The Big Ten, until recent years an archaic land of slowness, decay and dinosaurs roaming the Earth, got the biggest lifting of all its boats from a single human, Meyer, who joined in 2012, even before it got another three years later from Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
“Meyer is the best recruiter in college football,” Farrell said. Alabama Coach “Nick Saban wins all the national titles and recruiting titles and he’s a terrific recruiter, but he’s very straightforward. He’s very deadpan. He’s not creative. Urban Meyer always knows who is the right person to talk to, which angle to take, how to take the angle . . . There’s something about him, his mannerisms. People say this about a lot of people with charisma: He makes people feel like they’re the most important person.”
Farrell still marvels at the winter of 2009-10, when Meyer resigned at Florida after a health episode, then rescinded his resignation days later, yet despite the uncertainty – one of recruiting’s great enemies – retained four recruits ranked in the national top 25.
“I mean, it was ridiculous,” Farrell said.
From Texas alone this recruiting season, Meyer and his staff have either welcomed, signed or gotten verbal commitments from five-star linebacker Baron Browning from Kennedale and five-star defensive back Jeffrey Okudah of Grand Prairie, as well as four-star running back J.K. Dobbins of LaGrange and four-star defensive back Kendall Sheffield of Brenham. That alone has wreaked tweets pertaining to Wilson such as Okudah’s, who typed on Jan. 25: “I think we get one more Buckeye out of the Lone Star State #Shhh.”
On the other hand, on the team lists at Rivals.com and 247Sports.com, among other places, Alabama remains at No. 1, a position so customary that it seems to have built a mansion there, with picket fences, stately trees and recruits on the front porch warbling, “Roll Tide.” Its national reach finds an epitome in Rivals’ No. 1 overall player, running back Najee Harris from Antioch, Calif., just northeast of San Francisco. Ohio State stands at No. 2, with a national reach that stretches from California to Las Vegas to Texas to its usual cull in Florida and up to defensive end Chase Young of Maryland’s DeMatha High, Rivals.com’s No. 8-ranked player. As of the weekend, Farrell reckoned Ohio State stood a very-very close third for Wilson, behind LSU and Florida State.
As Wilson decides near Houston, Herman gets going up the road in Austin, while Strong has left Austin after three lukewarm seasons and one firing for Tampa, so that Wilson’s scenario happens to feature Meyer and two of his former assistants, Herman and Strong. “If Charlie had stayed at Texas,” said Leisz, Wilson “would have been at Texas. He has a deep connection with Charlie. He’s actually put Charlie in his top five” with South Florida.
The choices of one player aside, Herman and his rampaging energy last seen at Houston are underway at Texas, a prime factor in however the landscape might shift again up ahead. On the team recruiting lists, Texas spent Monday morning ranked No. 36 (Rivals.com), No. 30 (247Sports.com), No. 33 (Scout.com). “I think it’s going to get back to Texas being the top choice for kids, like it was in the Mack Brown glory years” of last decade, Farrell said.
Thus far, Farrell said, “I expected a bit more of an in-state reaction to [Herman’s] hire.” And: “I expected a ton of kids from Texas to just start looking, at least looking, but recruiting is a four-year game. You start recruiting kids when they’re freshmen. It’s a lot to overcome.” None of that makes Herman’s start a disappointment, Farrell said, but, “I think 2018’s a big year for Tom Herman.”
In that mix, at this phase in the game’s history, Wilson, whom Leisz calls “a gentle giant” and “a ball of fun” who will “carry that conversation” even with 100 people in a room, will make his televised choice from among regions and relationships already entrenched. Then things will calm a bit at Episcopal, which already held another of these college-commitment ceremonies in December, when another player chockablock with the maximum five stars, left tackle Walker Little, chose Stanford. Of late, Leisz said, some coaches just show up without calling to arrange a meeting, and Harbaugh, who did arrange a meeting but got there early with Leisz’s gym class in progress, picked up a hockey stick and began exchanging pucks with startled students.
Next will come a chase for Episcopal receiver Jaylen Waddle, a junior already bestowed four stars. Leisz said of Waddle, “We went to University of Houston practices” under Herman, with their blasting music and kinetic coaches. “He’s like, ‘Wow,’ ” Leisz said.