Recruiting in Texas has never been tougher for Longhorns
ALLEN, Texas (AP) — Gregory Little is exactly the type of player coach Charlie Strong needs to make Texas football great again.
The 17-year-old offensive lineman with legs like tree trunks is considered the top high school player in the Lone Star state and one of the best prospects in the nation. He was born in Dallas, attends Metroplex football giant Allen High School, and grew up rooting for the Longhorns.
He has no interest in attending the University of Texas.
"My dad always says the best conference is the SEC, so I want to play in the SEC," Little said.
The state’s flagship university has a problem. It’s lost a little luster against its neighbors. Recruiting is selling and right now Texas A&M, Baylor and TCU are selling cool, new and different. Spread offenses. Flashy uniforms. Top-five rankings for the Bears and Horned Frogs. In the Aggies’ case, the Southeastern Conference.
After beating Oklahoma to salvage a season that was slipping away, Strong recently packed up the positive energy and hit the recruiting trail.
"It’s always good when you come off of a win that you’re going to be productive in recruiting and everyone’s going to be receptive," the second-year Texas coach said.
Recruiting in-state has never been more challenging for Texas, and Strong and the Longhorns have ground to make up.
The Longhorns have only nine commitments for 2016, a class that currently ranks 52nd in the nation, according to composite rankings of recruiting websites compiled by 247Sports. That class includes none of the players rated among the top 15 in the state of Texas by 247Sports.
Texas A&M has 16 players committed and is ranked 17th in the nation. TCU is 18th with 16 commitments and Baylor is 22nd with 15 players committed.
Never before has Texas had this much competition for the best players in the state.
Texas A&M’s move to the Southeastern Conference swung the gates of the state open to Alabama, Mississippi and the rest of the SEC. TCU’s entrance to the Big 12 raised the Horned Frogs’ profile in North Texas.
Former Texas high school coach Art Briles has transformed Baylor into a national championship contender. Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have veteran coaches who have been recruiting in Texas for years. Even recent head coaches hired at SMU, Houston and Tulsa have extensive experience in Texas.
Strong, meanwhile, has roots in the Southeast and is still learning his way around Texas.
"His recruiting procedures are totally different from what the majority of coaches in Texas are," said Tim Buchanan, the athletic director and former coach at Aledo High School, west of Fort Worth. "He doesn’t have that relationship with the high school coaches in Texas. He doesn’t have that relationship with the high school kids in Texas like Mack Brown did or Kevin Sumlin or Art Briles (do). They understand how Texas football works."
Brown won a national championship and reached another BCS title game in 16 seasons as Texas coach. He racked up top-ranked recruiting classes by cleaning up in Texas and made every high school coach in the state feel like part of the program.
Bruce Chambers, who coached at Dallas Carter High School before working for Brown, used to visit all 129 coaches in his recruiting area every spring. Even if they didn’t have top players.
"Because you took the time to go by and see (that coach) when he didn’t have anybody his mindset is: I’m going to do everything in my ability to help the University of Texas," Chambers said.
Chambers was one of the few staffers retained by Strong, but he was let go after one season. Strong hired his own version of Chambers: Jeff Traylor, who coached 15 years at Gilmer High School in East Texas and won three state titles.
Allen coach Tom Westerberg said he thought Strong would hire a coach with Texas ties such as Traylor as soon as he got the Longhorns job.
"They are trying to now," said Westerberg, who added that Traylor had recently dropped by for a visit.
Coach Reggie Samples is in his first season at Duncanville High School after a long stint at Dallas Skyline. He said he hasn’t seen or heard much from Texas, but that’s because his rebuilding program doesn’t have Longhorns-caliber players. When Samples was at Skyline, he got a visit from Strong.
"We’re going to have a relationship with the high school coaches, we know how important that is," Strong said.
Successful high school coaches such as Westerberg, Samples, Traylor and Cedar Hill’s Joey McGuire, who Strong approached about the job he hired Traylor to do, are stars in Texas and powerful figures in their communities.
"You don’t run in, `Hi, how are you? It’s good to see you. Love your player,’ and leave," recently fired North Texas coach Dan McCarney said. "You’ve got to put some time in and everybody understands that."
High school coaches in Texas often hire the coaches of the middle school and junior high programs that feed their teams.
"They are part of (the player’s) lives from sixth, seventh grade to graduation," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "At the end of the day I’ve heard a lot of coaches tell me, `Look Kevin, I’m not going to tell him where he’s going to go, but … if he asks me I’m going to give him my opinion’ — which is the same thing, by the way."
In Texas, high school coaches control the recruiting process, Buchanan said. When he was coaching current Texas running back Johnathan Gray, recruiters first had to speak with him, then Gray’s parents.
Buchanan, now the school’s AD, said he never talked to Strong as Texas recruited receiver Ryan Newsome. Texas coaches directly communicated with Newsome through social media, which led to a scheduling mix-up.
In the end, though, Texas got its man, flipping Newsome from a UCLA verbal commitment.
"Once Charlie does get his staff in front of a kid, he does a great job when he does get them in his office," Buchanan said.
Steve Buechele, the father of quarterback Shane Buechele of Lamar High School in Arlington, Texas, the top-rated 2016 commitment for the Longhorns, said Strong does not sell flash. The coach won him and his son over by being "brutally honest."
"The thing about coach Strong for me, he’s a big family person," Shane Buechele said. "Also, his belief in how he should run a program. How his kids should be in his program. I know he got some looks (when) he came in for kicking off guys. That kind of, in my eyes, was a good thing."
Texas could also benefit from Strong’s connections throughout the south. While the SEC seeps into Texas and steals away potential Longhorns, he can go into SEC country and find replacements. Especially if he has a few more games like the one against Oklahoma.
"This is the University of Texas," Strong said. "The players are going to want to come here."
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