Next-best thing to Texas schools playing is an in-state recruiting battle

Texas Longhorns, Texas A&M Aggies
AP photos

If Texas and Texas A&M can’t come to an agreement to renew their on-field rivalry, maybe the next-best battle involves the second-favorite football-related sport in the Lone Star state – recruiting, aka “crootin.”

Football recruiting tends to ebb and flow like the tides. The ocean receded far off the beach last season with the exodus of top players to schools outside of Texas, creating an embarrassment for the state’s top two programs.

And if time is a flat circle, then recruiting success/momentum tends to be cyclical. The recruiting pendulum has swung back in favor of both UT and A&M. The schools have combined to coral verbal commitments from 15 of the top 30 players in the state of Texas. In the last week, each received a verbal commitment from an in-state 4-star recruit. The Longhorns landed tight end Malcolm Epps while the Aggies got a commitment from linebacker DaShaun White.

Texas A&M assistant and top recruiter Jeff Banks believes that, for this recruiting cycle at least, the Longhorns and the Aggies have managed to fence off the state from intruding recruiters.

“What you’re seeing is a redefining of the borders,” he said. “Now that it’s back to being A&M vs. Texas. I think the kids are saying, ‘Ooh, do I go to Texas or do I go to Texas A&M?’ and that’s pretty cool.”

What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold. (Outkast, “Hey Ya.”) That would be the Longhorns and new coach Tom Herman. His staff has been treating the recruiting trail, especially in Texas, like its own personal talent pool. In the latest recruiting rankings, Texas has the nation’s No. 2 class for 2018.

“The story now is Texas,” said Gabe Brooks, the Midlands Region recruiting expert for CBSi/Scout Media. “In the last week or so, Texas signed the No. 1 defensive tackle and the No. 2 tight end in the state.”

The Aggies are currently in the top 10 or close to that in most recruiting rankings. Between now and the new signing day in December, it will be interesting if Texas A&M loses any commitments. That could happen if the Aggies lose games and Kevin Sumlin’s future becomes more of a question mark.

Sumlin’s job security is benefitting Texas in Lone Star recruiting. Another factor is that Herman, in his two seasons as coach at Houston, established relationships with a number of top high school players who are now in their senior seasons. Plus, in the state of Texas this year, an inordinate number of top recruits are from the Houston area.

“It’s not a surprise that Texas has had such success in Houston,” Brooks said. “Herman and his staff at Houston were recruiting a lot of those guys before they moved to Austin. This is sort of a perfect storm for Texas right now.”

Last month at Big 12 media days, Herman credited his staff’s hard work and the relationships he and his assistants have built with state high school coaches. Since being hired in late November, Herman has torn down and rebuilt the program’s culture. Getting his message through to the current Longhorns also has helped boost recruiting.

“I think our players do an excellent job of recruiting, which is really cool because they’re going to tell the recruits and the parents the truth,” Herman said recently. “They’re not going to sugarcoat things, because they’re not trained that way. They’re trained to tell the truth. I think when you have players selling your program and the way that you do things, it really, really resonates. … We’re doing pretty good.”

Herman’s first signing class last February landed with a thud. In just three months’ time, he and his staff weren’t able to make much progress, and the Longhorns’ 2017 class was ranked as one of the worst in recent memory, finishing in the mid-20s by most recruiting services.

With the Longhorns regarded as the state’s flagship program (sorry, Aggies fans, perception is reality), the February flop contributed to a negative story line. The 2017 recruiting cycle was the first in 18 years where at least one of the top three players failed to sign with an in-state program.

That in-state implosion followed a 2016 season that ended with no Texas team ranked in The Associated Press’ final Top-25 poll. It was the first time that had happened since the poll expanded from 20 to 25 teams in 1968.

Since 2013 – the first recruiting class after the most-recent conference shuffling that landed Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference – five of the last six top-ranked Texas players have gone to out-of-state schools, with four of those signing with SEC schools.

According to Scout.com, here’s the breakdown of top high school players in the Lone Star State signing with out-of-state schools:

  • 2017 Class — 14 of the top 18 went out-of-state
  • 2016 Class — 8 of the top 14 went out-of-state
  • 2015 Class — 6 of the top 12 went out-of-state
  • 2014 Class — 8 of the top 14 went out-of-state
  • 2013 Class — 6 of the top 11 went out-of-state

“Since Texas A&M moved to the SEC, the state has really opened up in terms of that conference recruiting Texas,” Brooks said. “We’re a long way from signing day, and some things can change, recruiting can change. But what we know so far is that Herman and Texas will almost certainly wind up in the top five in terms of 2018 recruiting classes.”

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