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Is the Pac-12 Really Struggling To Keep Prospects Local in Recruiting?

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A look at the conference’s recent history of keeping West Coast kids on the Best Coast

USC v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Many of you may remember that last week Dan Wetzel at Yahoo wrote a column in which he asserted that the Pac-12 was falling behind its competition around the country by letting premium West Coast recruits leave the area. It includes quotes from Rivals’ national recruiting director Mike Farrell such as the following: “You have California kids going to Clemson. You have California kids looking at SEC schools. In all the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen so many five-star players on the West Coast having no interest in staying home.”

Wetzel addresses the biggest flaw with the article. He mentions that the Early Signing Period is not the end of the recruiting cycle and that if the Pac-12 keeps home 5-star prospects Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford as expected then most of the numbers that he bandies about aren’t really that relevant. The tone of the article is infinitely more negative than any of the numbers included actually indicate. It’s much more about perception, and specifically Mike Farrell’s perception than it is about the data.

And I care about the data. Rather than starting with a conclusion and turning over rocks to find evidence to back it up, I’m going to first look over all of the data and then draw my conclusions based on what it says. A novel concept these days.

First, some definitions. I’m considering a player to be in the “Pac-12 footprint” if they graduated from a state that contains a Pac-12 school or one of the following states: Hawaii, Idaho, and Nevada. All of those states produced at least one 4 or 5-star player according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings over the past 6 recruiting cycles. A recruit stayed inside the footprint if they went to a Pac-12 school and went outside the footprint if they went anywhere else. I’m also only including players entering college straight out of high school rather than junior college transfers. Finally, if a player is currently uncommitted for the class of 2019 I’m assuming the current leader in the 247 Crystal Ball ends up with them. It’s not perfect but it’s the best way to do this outside of waiting 6 weeks and who wants to do that?

4/5 Star Recruits Committing Inside/Outside Pac-12 Footprint by Year

Year Total Recruits Inside Footprint Outside Footprint % Inside % Outside
Year Total Recruits Inside Footprint Outside Footprint % Inside % Outside
2014 55 42 13 76.36% 23.64%
2015 67 48 19 71.64% 28.36%
2016 59 41 18 69.49% 30.51%
2017 62 46 16 74.19% 25.81%
2018 74 54 20 72.97% 27.03%
2019 64 41 23 64.06% 35.94%

If the conference can’t make up some serious ground on several prospects currently slated to go to Notre Dame or the SEC then this will be the lowest percentage kept inside the footprint that the Pac-12 has seen over the past 6 seasons. Washington still has a shot for previously committed 4-star S Asa Turner and is at least technically in the running for 4-star LB Henry To’oto’o. Let’s say the Pac-12 ends up with both of them. That would bump the number up to 67% which would still be the worst mark in 6 years but would be pretty close to the current low of 2016.

Another thing to note about the numbers is that there is a general upwards trend in the quantity of 4+ star players coming out of the Pac-12 footprint. The class of 2018 saw a spike with 74 4+ star recruits emerging from Pac-12 footprint high schools. Right now the Pac-12 is one short of their 2014 mark for the number of 4+ star recruits coming in but there were 9 more total out there for the taking. The big difference is that outside schools have been able to come in and take those extra 9 recruits.

But it isn’t necessarily that prospects in the West just continue to get better. The criteria for what makes a 4-star prospect in the 247 Sports Composite hasn’t changed (a rating better than 0.89) but the number of recruits who meet that criteria each year has seen a jump. It went from an average of about 340 from 2015-2017 to 376 last year and up again to 380 this year for the class of 2019. It’s impossible to know whether the recruits are just getting better so more meet the threshold, if the grading system has gotten easier, or if there is some other factor at work in that change. But as a percentage of the total number of 4+ star recruits available, the West Coast class of 2019 had the lowest total since 2014 (down 3% from last year).

The numbers show that 2019 is a down year for getting the above average players from the West Coast to stay home but not an apocalyptic, 5 alarm fire, type of catastrophe. But let’s change the scope a little. Maybe it’s just that the conference is cleaning up on low 4-star players but missing out on the cream of the crop. Since the sample sizes get a little too low to be meaningful with just 5-star players let’s expand slightly and look at players with a composite ranking of better than 0.95.

0.95+ Prospects Committing Inside/Outside of Pac-12 Footprint

Year Total Recruits Inside Footprint Outside Footprint % Inside % Outside
Year Total Recruits Inside Footprint Outside Footprint % Inside % Outside
2014 15 11 4 73.33% 26.67%
2015 25 19 6 76.00% 24.00%
2016 17 10 7 58.82% 41.18%
2017 23 16 7 69.57% 30.43%
2018 22 17 5 77.27% 22.73%
2019 21 12 9 57.14% 42.86%

We find that yet again the 2019 season is the worst of the past 6 years. But it is almost identical percentage-wise to 2016 when there were 4 fewer total 0.95+ prospects in the West and 2 fewer stayed and 2 fewer left. Those two classes stick out pretty strongly from the other four seasons. Yet again, 2019 is a blow for the conference but it isn’t historically unprecedented by any means.

Another thing to note is that the odds are that some of these players will end up transferring back into Pac-12 schools eventually. 2016 saw 7 elite prospects escape the Pac-12 but QB Jacob Eason transferred back to Washington and TE Devin Asiasi transferred back to UCLA. Class of 2015 QB Blake Barnett went to Arizona State (briefly) and class of 2017 DE D.J Johnson returned to the West Coast to Oregon. Signing day isn’t the last chance for the Pac-12 to add some of these players to the fold.

But the ability to keep the 2019 downturn from becoming a trend took a hit this week when 2020 prospects #9 overall Elias Ricks and #70 Gee Scott Jr. committed to LSU and Ohio State respectively. It’s way too soon to say whether that’s a signal of a mass exodus or even if those two will stay committed to the verbal pledges they made this week.

Early rankings are subject to change but it does appear that the 2020 class will be one of the best out West in a long time. There are 9 players for 2020 in the Pac-12 footprint that currently have a 5-star ranking. That would be the most since 2014 and more than there were in the 2018 and 2019 classes combined if it holds. The current mark of 63 4+ star recruits in the 2020 rankings is essentially the same as this year so while the top-end talent is much higher, the overall depth is about the same.

Any talk about Pac-12 recruiting being down is really just a euphemism for “The city of Los Angeles recruiting is down”. From 2014-2018 the two L.A schools averaged a combined 20 4+ star prospects per recruiting class with a low of 14 in 2014. Even if the Trojans manage to bring in Bru McCoy, Kyle Ford, and Enokk Vimahi (2 of 3 is more likely) it would put them at a combined total of 11. More than anything else, the success of the Pac-12 in the 2020 recruiting class will be dictated by whether Chip Kelly can turn things around at UCLA this season and whether Clay Helton can make anyone think he has long-term job security/USC fires Helton and hires Urban Meyer.

The struggles of the L.A schools combined with a pair of new coaches in Arizona meant that the biggest exodus for the conference actually came from Arizona. 5 of the 6 top 4+ star prospects in the state in the class of 2019 either signed elsewhere or are expected to do so. That’s as many 4+ star prospects leaving the Pac-12 as Arizona had in the previous 5 years combined.

The aforementioned 2020 5-star Elias Ricks attends traditional USC feeder school Mater Dei and grew up a Trojan fan. Before the chaos of this past season that type of prospect would generally be a 100% USC lock. Regardless of how Oregon and Washington perform on the recruiting trail the Pac-12 will continue to be viewed as performing below standards as long as elite Southern California talents like Ricks evade Los Angeles.