Graham, Rodriguez play catch-up in recruiting

When the numbers are tallied on Signing Day Wednesday, they

won’t look pretty for the Arizona State and Arizona football programs.

The Sun Devils lost 14 recruits who had committed while Dennis Erickson was

still the coach. Depending on what happens in the next two days, the Wildcats

could lose seven or more who had committed to former coach Mike Stoops.

The final recruiting rankings won’t be out until later this week, but

recruiting sites Scout.com and Rivals.com project ASU’s class to rank ninth in

the Pac-12, while Arizona comes in at No. 11, ahead of only Washington State.

Gone from Tempe are running backs Russell Hansbrough and Damien Williams and talented receivers

Kenny Lawler and quarterback T.J. Millweard.

Gone from Tucson are highly rated tight end Taylor McNamara,

cornerback Devian Shelton, linebacker A.J. Hilliard and quarterback Nathan

Sudfeld.

Is this a lost recruiting year that will come back to bite these programs down

the road? Maybe, but given the circumstances of the coaching changes, those

same recruiting sites believe the Sun Devils and Wildcats have fared better

than average.

“When you look at the number of recruits who decommitted, you always have to

ask yourself, how many did the new staff really want, and how many would have

been a good fit?” said Brandon Huffman, the national football recruiting

analyst and West regional recruiting manager for FOX Sports and Scout. “You’re

always going to lose some key guys when you have a coaching change, but both of

these programs did a pretty good job keeping their core and filling in for

those losses.”

Arizona State’s recent juco commitment Mike Pennel, a 6-foot-5, 340-pound

defensive tackle from Scottsdale Community College, is the classic example of a

fill-in who fits a scheme. New ASU coach Todd Graham wants to run a 3-4 defense

eventually. To do that, you need a beefy, space- and block-eating nose tackle.

 

Sudfeld was the classic example of a guy who didn’t fit the new scheme. He’s a

drop-back passer who would have been a fish out of water in coach Rich

Rodriguez’s spread offense, so he committed to Indiana while Rodriguez has

filled in with players more suited to his style.

“He has done a strong job of finishing in terms of finding guys that fit the

system and allow depth,” said Jason Scheer, who covers Arizona for Scout.

“Arizona needed quarterbacks, safeties and linebackers, and he has done a good

job of going out and getting them.”

Whether those players pan out is an entirely different topic. No matter how

many scouting sites agree on a player’s perceived skills or lack thereof,

scouting is a highly inexact science. Sometimes, four-star prospects go

belly-up while two-star prospects shine. The only definitive proof of

recruiting success comes when these players step on the field and actually

contribute to the cause.

What’s been interesting to observe has been the different approaches taken by

Graham and Rodriguez. Their ability to establish West Coast recruiting ties was

a major question when both arrived. But a look at Rodriguez’s resume and

current crop of recruits has made it clear he can recruit across the country.

Rodriguez’s reputation as a spread offense innovator nearly

landed the nation’s third-ranked, dual-threat quarterback in Devin Fuller of

Old Tappan, NJ — hardly an Arizona hotbed. That Fuller ended up choosing UCLA

instead shouldn’t detract from the message that Rodriguez can open some doors

that were previously locked to the Wildcats.

Rodriguez’s top-ranked commit is four-star linebacker Dakota Conwell of

Pittsburgh. But with the addition of former Scottsdale Chaparral coach Charlie

Ragle to Arizona’s staff, Rodriguez also made some important inroads closer to

home. The Wildcats remain in the hunt for four-star cornerback Davonte Neal of

Scottsdale Chaparral, who is not expected to make his choice on Wednesday.

“Rich has a bigger name draw to help him, and I think that will overcome any

perceived difficulties in recruiting at Arizona,” Huffman said. “He has

experience putting guys in the NFL, and that carries weight. He doesn’t have to

focus on Arizona or California. He’s going to spread it all over.”

While Rodriguez has taken that approach, Graham has made it clear that Arizona

is his first, second and third priority.

“The farther you move away, the less you know about a player so your margin for

error increases,” he said. “If we have a kid down the street, we’ll be able to

ask everyone in the community about him and get a better read.”

The early returns support Graham’s stated focus. He just landed the state

player of the year in dynamic Scottsdale Saguaro running back D.J. Foster, and

last weekend, Graham met with seven of the state’s top-eight rated juniors.

“That’s unprecedented at ASU,” said Chris Karpman, who covers ASU’s revenue

sports for ASUDevils.com. “They’re not just saying they’re going to focus on

Arizona. It’s not lip service. There’s no doubt that’s what they’re going to be

doing and that’s a big change from the past two staffs at ASU.”

Mesa Desert Ridge High School football coach Jeremy Hathcock agreed.

“I liked Dennis Erickson a lot, and I always went to his clinics,” Hathcock

said. “But we had absolutely no relationship whatsoever. They were too busy in

California or whatever.

“Todd Graham believes in local recruiting. He recruited Oklahoma hard when he

was at Tulsa. The real proof will come two years from now, but one of their

assistants, Chip Long, already came to see me and it wasn’t to recruit kids; it

was just to talk and build a relationship. I think that’s important.”

That’s not to say Graham and Rodriguez aren’t building strong West Coast ties.

Huffman estimates that anywhere from 50 to 60 percent of Arizona’s kids will

still come from California. Graham has several assistants on his staff with

ties to the west or the Pac-12.

For proof that Graham is making rapid inroads in the west, Hod Rabino, the publisher

of DevilsDigest.com, a Scout affiliate, points to the Sun Devils’ ability to

keep at least four, possibly all five of Erickson’s highly touted recruits from

Long Beach Polytechnic.

“When you consider the man who recruited them, Steve Broussard, left for UCLA

when Erickson was fired, that’s pretty amazing,” Rabino said. “The fact that

he’s establishing West Coast ties can be seen in the fact that he has preserved

some pretty good California players.”

For those who left, there has been some conjecture that Graham’s nomadic

reputation has hurt him. But Karpman said only one of the ASU’s decommitments,

Hansbrough, cited that as a reason.

“I don’t think anybody should be so naive to think there weren’t Pac-12 teams

that brought up Graham’s nomadic reputation in recruiting battles,” Rabino

added. “Negativity has always been a part of recruiting and it always will be,

but everybody does it, so how much of an effect it has is hard to say.”

In this instance, Huffman said Graham’s timing helps.

“Take a look around the Pac-12,” Huffman said. “There was so much coaching

turnover this year that you really can’t call anybody a stable guy. It’s hard

to call anybody a nomad when the entire conference, and in many ways, the

entire college football world is full of nomads.

“I think we’re a short-term memory society anyway and this will be forgotten,

but if there were ever a year for Todd Graham to come in, this was it.”