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COGS IN THE MACHINE
the charismatic Kevin Sumlin has kept Aggies rolling on recruiting trail
by Homer Jacobs
12th Man Magazine
As the Texas A&M football offices moved temporarily to the suite level above the Zone Club because of construction spiking around a redeveloping Kyle Field, everything was makeshift this month of May.
Food counters became desks, and drink rails acted as filing cabinets.
But while inconvenience may have invaded A&M football, the spring evaluation period on the recruiting trail was unfolding like usual.
The Aggies’ recruiting machine was humming along, like it has since Kevin Sumlin first took over as head coach.
Benefitting from conference affiliation, geographic location, a charismatic head coach, a dynamic Heisman Trophy winner and the most extensive redevelopment of a collegiate stadium ever, A&M has signed top-10 classes the last two Februarys and is making a beeline for a third monster class in 2015.
It’s obvious Texas A&M has moved into a new recruiting neighborhood, with the cool kids from College Station playing ball with the big boys from Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge.
“Right now, I’d say it’s a combination of the SEC and Coach Sumlin,” said A&M associate athletic director for football Justin Moore. “I didn’t understand how much (the SEC) would help. I didn’t understand how strong that brand was.
“And if we had not had a lot of success our first year, it would not be like this. The success in the SEC and Coach Sumlin, that was important regionally. Johnny (Manziel) took our brand national and made us the cool place to be.”
A&M is as hot as it is cool, recently landing the state’s top players in receiver Ricky Seals-Jones in 2013 and defensive end Myles Garrett in 2014, while even nabbing top out-of-state prospects like quarterback Kyle Allen (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and receiver Speedy Noil (New Orleans) in this year’s impressive February haul.
Behind the scenes, Sumlin and his entire staff—from the coordinators down to the graduate assistants—push recruiting every day, poring over their personnel “big boards” that rank players by position.
“We are two classes ahead on boards,” says A&M director of recruiting Scott Johnston, now in his second year on staff after stints at Nebraska and Kansas. “As soon as we signed the ’14 class, the ’15 board was already up and we added the ’16 board.
“Every morning that there is a staff meeting, recruiting is brought up. It might be for two minutes or an hour and a half, but it’s talked about.”
The recruiting cycle never stops, but it is kick-started as soon as the previous Signing Day is over. Junior days pop up in late February and early March, and the video watching begins in earnest as coaches scour the country for talent using a national video service (Hudl) that allows recruiters to watch scores of videos and highlights on their laptops, iPads and smart phones.
The days of VHS and DVD libraries have gone the way of Billy Pickard polyester.
“DVDs are obsolete,” Moore added. “Occasionally, we’ll get one, and I’ll laugh and say, for sure, this kid isn’t going to play for us.
“It’s just made it so much easier for our coaches to watch video. Our coach can be at a high school in the spring, video a kid on his iPad and send it to Coach (Terry) Price across the country and he can watch it instantly.”
Once the coaches have watched enough video and ideally seen the prospect in person, the scholarship offer process begins. First, the coach assigned to a recruiting area sees a possible “take” and then sends the scouting analysis and video up the chain of command, from the position coach to the coordinator and finally to the head coach, who has the final say on whether or not a prospect will be offered the coveted scholarship.
All the while, support personnel back at the Bright Football Complex have been checking academic transcripts and visiting with guidance counselors and registrars to verify a student’s academic standing.
Fortunately at a place like A&M, with its home state overflowing with high-end football talent, the canvassing is much more condensed than for schools in less populated regions of the country.
“At schools like that, you have to throw a much wider net,” Johnston said. “For every one guy you could sign, you’d probably have to throw 12 offers out at Kansas and eight to 10 at Nebraska.
“If we’re going to sign 25 guys, we’re fortunate enough with the facilities, the conference, the coaching staff…for every one player we want to sign, we probably offer five. If we’re going to sign 25, we probably offer 125 in a recruiting period.”
While A&M certainly leans on Texas talent, Sumlin’s philosophy is to not shy away from recruiting nationally, as well. Allen, who had no ties to Texas A&M, was the Aggies’ top prospect at the position last year, and Noil was a national recruit plucked out of LSU’s backyard from nearby New Orleans.
“I still think that when I pass him in the hallway: Is Speedy really here?” Moore said with a laugh. “His situation was so unique. He was in New Orleans, and he was one of LSU’s No. 1 targets. That just doesn’t happen. It takes a special kid to stand up to that kind of pressure.”
Indeed, the drawbacks of major college football recruiting have changed over the years. Decades ago, it was the outlaw days of the Southwest Conference, followed by the over-the-top gimmicks of 400-page “media” guides and flashy printed materials.
Even though the A&M staff still sends out handwritten letters every day to recruits, the preferred method of communication is through the Twitterverse, the hip and quick way to opine on all things. But with an 18-year-old controlling a school’s fan base with his tweets, the amount of maintenance and babysitting by a coaching staff can reach untenable levels.
“The two biggest challenges when you have early commitments is, No. 1, you put a target on yourself for every other school to negatively recruit one school,” Moore said. “When they’re not committed, the schools don’t know who to bash. Once you get committed to A&M, now everyone is killing A&M over and over.
“And secondly, once the top players commit, all that (attention) goes away. Then they want to say something on Twitter, and they control the mob.”
As important as the scouting evaluations are and how creative a recruiting staff can be with its communications, the key to elite-level recruiting comes down to relationships.
Sumlin is a natural in the living room, wowing prospects and their parents as one of the top closers in the game.
But his staff embraces recruiting on an ongoing basis, looking forward to the spring travel grind or jet-setting on private planes around the state on Friday nights in the fall.
“A lot of staffs in the past, they have hired some older guys who were just X’s and O’s guys or then they’d hire a couple of ‘go-get’em’ guys who were strictly recruiters and not X’s and O’s guys,” Moore added. “When we first got the job, Coach Sumlin’s deal was, ‘I want nine guys who can do both.’ That sounds simple, but the pool of those guys is actually pretty small. He did a great job of attracting those guys. At this level, and the amount of work that it takes, you cannot fake it. You’ll be exposed quickly, especially on a staff where there are a lot of good coaches. If you don’t hold your end of the bargain up, it’s very obvious.
“Every day, they’re communicating with someone. We’ve got nine guys who really, really work at it. All of that other stuff is important, but nothing is more important than the relationship the coach builds with the kid. The kid is not going to go somewhere if he does not feel comfortable with the coach.”
As Moore peers out of his north end zone suite/office, the redevelopment of Kyle Field is in full bore. Cranes and steel fill the field, and change is everywhere.
All the pieces for a juggernaut football program are coming together, from a comprehensive, all-inclusive football complex that is undergoing a $16.8 million renovation to the $450 million redevelopment of Kyle Field.
Membership in the nation’s premier football conference has transformed the recruiting landscape in the state of Texas, and Sumlin’s stamp on the program is quickly becoming indelible.
It’s all allowing the Aggies to exact the most out of the inexact science.
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