Chryst's Wisconsin staff bands together, salvages solid recruiting class
MADISON, Wis. -- The future of Wisconsin's football program essentially hinged on a 17-day window last month in which the Badgers' new coaching staff furiously fought for previously committed prospects, lost a boatload more and scrambled to locate any remaining diamonds in the rough to round out the Class of 2015.
In the world of college football recruiting, nothing is set in stone until high school players officially fax their letters of intent on national signing day. And Wisconsin's staff certainly discovered the fickle nature of the recruiting game in a wild race to the finish line, which finally arrived Wednesday.
"It was crazy," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said, "but you kind of knew that."
In the end, Wisconsin signed 20 recruits in the Class of 2015 from across the country that represented a blend of players from the previous coaching regime under Gary Andersen and a handful more from Chryst. They are:
-- Five players from Wisconsin (outside linebacker Zack Baun, offensive lineman Jon Dietzen, inside linebacker Alec Ingold, defensive end David Pfaff and fullback Jake Whalen).
-- Three from California (offensive lineman Kevin Estes, tight end Kyle Penniston and nose guard Olive Sagapolu).
-- Two from Illinois (cornerback Titus Booker and tight end David Edwards).
-- Two from Florida (wide receiver Andrew James and linebacker Nick Thomas).
-- Two from Texas (running back Jordan Stevenson and inside linebacker Chris Orr).
-- One each from Pennsylvania (quarterback Alex Hornibrook), Alabama (running back Bradrick Shaw), Ohio (defensive end Kraig Howe), Utah (quarterback Austin Kafentzis), Michigan (offensive lineman David Moorman) and Georgia (outside linebacker Arrington Farrar).
At its peak, the Badgers had 28 committed players, but what seemed to be a mass exodus took place over the final few weeks before signing day -- some from players that wanted to play for Andersen, some that likely didn't want to play for Chryst, some that wouldn't have met the school's academic standards and some Chryst simply wasn't interested in because they weren't good fits in his system.
A total of 11 players wound up elsewhere once Chryst took over as head coach: cornerbacks Takadrae Williams, Xzavien Ausborne and T.J. Griffin, linebackers Dominic Sheppard and Jordan Griffin, defensive ends Jake Pickard and Nate Howard, defensive tackle Elu Aydon, offensive lineman Sam Madden, running back Davon Crookshank and wide receiver Brandyn Lee.
"We definitely lost some momentum," Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Brown said of the class following Andersen's departure. "There were a couple guys I was on the road recruiting at that time that we lost out on and may have lost out anyway because of it. I thought it definitely added to it. Because when you're in the home and telling a parent that, hey, we're going to take care of your son and trust us and then out of the blue your job is kind of uncertain, that definitely hurts the process."
Andersen left for Oregon State on Dec. 10 and Chryst was officially hired to replace him on Dec. 18. But the NCAA-mandated recruiting dead period had already begun on Dec. 15, and it lasted until Jan. 14. While Chryst rounded up a core group of assistants, the staff strategized in order to maximize its 17-day recruiting window from Jan. 15-31.
Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda noted a big part of the plan was to pursue in-state players that had previously been ignored. As a result, Chryst was able to flip Ingold from his commitment to Northern Illinois and convince Whalen to pick Wisconsin over Iowa. Baun also was upgraded from a grayshirt to a full-scholarship player. The Badgers also signed a total of nine walk-ons, all of whom are in-state players.
"Coach Chryst very much wants to recruit locally and wants to recruit Wisconsin, which I can see why he would, and I see the benefits of it," Aranda said. "I assisted that as much as I could. My role was more of trying to hold onto the guys that we were trying to hold onto. That was a difficult role. I think we were able to hold onto a few guys. We lost more than a few, so I'm glad that whole process is over."
Other commits that came in after Chryst arrived included Shaw, Howe and Hornibrook, who had committed to Pitt while Chryst was still the coach there. Farrar, who flipped from Stanford, committed to Wisconsin on Wednesday afternoon and represented the final commitment in the class.
Badgers defensive backs coach Daronte' Jones, who was hired in January, said the whirlwind nature of the recruiting process actually helped to strengthen the bond of the coaching staff, which spent days together on the recruiting trail.
"We traveled in packs," Jones said. "That gave us an opportunity to get to know one another. The defensive staff traveled together. Coach (Joe) Rudolph traveled with us. Coach Chryst traveled with us. So we were all interchangeable. We'll be two and three at a time. It gave you a chance to while you were on the road traveling get to know one another.
"I think it made the staff stronger by doing that. But also when we got to the homes of some of those recruits, it almost looked as if we had known each other for years, that we had been together for a while because of the bond we established in that short period of time. I think that kind of helped with some of the recruits."
Still, the activity of having to convince recruits to remain with Wisconsin was not easy, particularly because none of the previously committed players had met Chryst in person. Aranda, in fact, compared the introduction process to speed dating.
"The main part of that is coach Chryst getting in the home and meeting more or less the kid and the family for the first time," Aranda said. "So then you try to back that up as much as you can. It's like speed dating is really what it is. So it's difficult when you build something up over more than a year a lot of times, to be in that type of environment.
"We were able to keep a couple kids. But to be honest, the kids that we kept that we were fighting for were local kids. The kids we lost stayed closer to home. That was the end result."
Despite the unusual finish, Wisconsin's recruiting class will go down as one of the more highly ranked groups the Badgers have had in the Internet-ranking era. Scout.com lists Wisconsin with the No. 31 overall class, which trails only last year's No. 29 class. Just two weeks earlier, the class reached as high as No. 21. Ten times in the previous 12 seasons, Wisconsin did not have a class higher than No. 35. And the average recruiting rank from 2002-2013 was 41.3.
Recruiting experts will suggest Wisconsin's Class of 2015 could have been better if the Badgers had kept a couple of their bigger targets -- particularly Pickard, Howard and Jordan Griffin. But the Badgers' coaching staff also recognized that, without hard work and dedication in the final weeks, it also could have been far worse.
"Like all recruiting, I think it's about being open and honest and making sure you have the right fit," Chryst said. "That's why I appreciated going through it with all those guys. In the end, I think we got the group that fits here, and I'm excited about the group."
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