Without imminent news on the recruiting front and little film left to breakdown on the anticipated 2022 class, I figured it’d be a good time to zoom out a little to get the 10,000 ft assessment of everything going on with recruiting.
Hopefully Husky Twitter settled down by the time this article comes out. We had quite the roller coaster of emotions this past week on the recruiting front, so I don’t blame fans for all the huffing and puffing. It’s a tough look to focus on a less highly touted local lineman (Nabou) over the media favorite (Iuli), lose his commitment, then also miss on Iuli (to Oregon nonetheless). It’s worse when you miss on your team’s top DB target (Morrison) after supposedly leading for his commitment late. Of course, when it rains, it pours, and the bad news continued with our last likely LB/EDGE target (Tafiti) committing to Stanford after we were again thought to have been in the lead for his commitment. As everyone knows, this all comes on the heels of a disappointing 2021 class that had program changing talent locally, but we failed to fully capitalize on the opportunity.
I had a pretty tough time figuring out what to make of our recruiting situation after all of the negative news. Whether its being patient with the staff, trying to look at the bigger picture of how our program compares historically, or seeing opportunity for talent to develop, I’d like to think that I strike a fairly positive tone on most topics. However, that isn’t to say I don’t think we could be doing a lot better. I’ll give the staff the benefit of the doubt on most things, but I expect there to be a plan and some long-term vision. I don’t really care what that plan is, as long as it produces wins on the field.
In recruiting and roster building, our staff’s MO to-date has been to hunt for talent when able, but we will stock our roster with coachable/development talent that might’ve flown under the radar. Its a bet on our staff’s ability to scout and develop talent, and that approach has largely worked over the past 5 years. The result has been one of the winningest stretches of UW football in decades, and we’ve elevated our standing to be a perennial conference contender. It’s a strategy that has worked for programs like Wisconsin, Iowa, Kentucky, Iowa St., UCF, and Boise St. for years. Wisconsin’s seen consistent B1G championship berths for 25 years with recruiting classes that are rarely in the top 25. However, much like those teams, we never seemed to “get over the hump” and win big on a national stage. A dominant 2016 Alabama team, a peaking 2017 Penn St. team, a resetting 2018 Auburn team, and a loaded 2018 Ohio St. team stood in our way during the peak Petersen years. In what might be the cruelest twist of fate, our shoo-in HOF HC stepped away right as the talent to reload the program was coming of age. That missed opportunity was really what bothers me the most.
There’s nothing we could’ve done about Petersen wanting to step away from the game, and in hindsight the writing was on the wall that a change would’ve been necessary after the 2019 season. All things considered, I think we made the best move possible in the moment by promoting Jimmy Lake. There was a tremendous foundation to build off of, a strong core on the staff, and a number of relationships on the recruiting trail that could be preserved by keeping the staff intact. Lake then made changes at OC and at the TE coach positions that were consistent with what the fanbase wanted, but the replacements in Donovan and Cato (plus Brown taking Lake’s vacated assistant spot) were largely unproven. While you’d expect a perennial top 15 program should be able to attract flashier names, this was a perfect example of where I’d defer to Lake’s vision and wait for the on-field results. Where some get antsy is by comparing our moves to our rival down south who hired the flashy coordinator name in Joe Moorhead.
Our immediate on-field results, while limited, were promising for a team in transition. I genuinely believe that we could’ve won the division and possibly the conference if COVID weren’t a factor last year. However, many lose sight of our own accomplishments, and they again let themselves get caught up in the comparisons to the team down south who ended up taking our berth to the conference championship. That being said, I do also believe in trends and program trajectories.
Our dip in recruiting (overall recruiting, not just in rankings) is something that I’m watching closely. Obviously recruiting matters. I don’t want anyone mistake what I say for an argument that recruiting doesn’t matter. There is mountains of data to show that there is a correlation between successful recruiting and success on the field. How strong that correlation is, and the best method for tracking recruiting success is up for debate. In my opinion, on the macro level the 247 composite ratings are the best proxy we have to evaluate talent analytically, but its still far from perfect, and their class ranking methodology really can’t be used on its own. Specifically looking at UW though, its sometimes better to focus on if we land the guys we target.
This is where I began to get a little frustrated as of late. I don’t care if we prefer the fit of a 3-star over a 4-star, but we better get that 3-star if we choose to devote time and resources to landing him. If you’re going to have a plan, you better execute on the plan. The Nabou situation is the most glaring failure of this, but Coach Huff has overall done more to stock his position with talent where he has room for error. Additionally, the OL has looked pretty good, so there’s still time to course correct on the recruiting trail. The DB coach duo of Harris and Brown on the other hand are starting to concern me. While the overall DB play has remained solid, Molden and McDuffie largely covered up some of the short comings of the group as a whole. The safety rotation has been a question mark for two seasons now despite solid talent, and we’re struggling to reload the type of talent at CB that we’ve grown accustomed to having. This isn’t to say that the lower rated guys won’t turn out to be studs, but the margin for error is that much smaller.
There are additional unanswered questions with Rip Rowan, Derham Cato, Bob Gregory, and Junior Adams when it comes to balancing recruiting and coaching ability, but none that would realistically put them on the hot seat heading into this season. The bigger question is how Jimmy Lake will respond to this recruiting cycle. By all accounts he’s a great recruiter, but that was when he was a position coach. Lake has seemingly taken a back seat approach to recruiting as a HC, and he’s delegated most of the recruiting responsibilities as a CEO-type HC. Could a more active role in recruiting help? Certainly. However, I doubt that we’re where we are because of a lack of effort. Specific adjustments to our strategy, such as expanding satellite camps, shuffling our recruiting region assignments, changing our official visit policy for commits, and extending more early offers could all help moving forward, but it’ll likely come down to winning games.
Everything will be riding on a successful 2021 season.