— In the past five years, only one program among all the 119 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision has produced two undefeated seasons: Utah. And yet in the past half-decade, the Utes have not signed a single player from the annual Rivals.com 100 list.
That grouping represents five hundred blue-chip players. Five hundred prep studs who signed with 53 different FBS schools, but none to Utah. Still, the Utes went 49-14 over that span, including a 12-0 season in 2004 and a recently completed 13-0 season.
By contrast Notre Dame has 13 recruits from the Rivals.com top 100. And look how the Irish have done.
“I’m going to be real honest with you,” says Dave Schramm, Utah’s offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator. “I don’t pay much attention to those lists. They have absolutely no bearing on what we do.”
It isn’t that the scouts at Rivals or Scout or any of the major recruiting services are charlatans. Of the top 10 players on the 2004 Rivals 100 list, six are currently in the NFL, including Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
Then again, it isn’t as if recruiting analysis is as sure a bet as, say, gravity. The other four players from Rivals’ top 10 in 2004 all transferred or were asked to leave their original schools (Rhett Bomar, QB, Oklahoma; Willie Williams, LB, Miami; Jeff Schweiger, OL, USC; and Xavier Lee, QB, Florida State). None from this foursome have yet played a down in the NFL — Lee played wide receiver last summer and fall for the semi-pro Southern New Hampshire Beavers; Bomar, who finished at Sam Houston State, has been invited to the NFL combine later this month.
“Here’s why I don’t put much stock in those lists: Those guys have no accountability whatsoever,” says Schramm, 45. “If we take a guy and he’s not very good, we get fired.”
Still, how does a program put together two undefeated seasons, BCS bowls included, in the past five years absent any five-star talent?
“Honestly, we don’t want to bring in the best high school football players,” says Schramm, who as a lightly recruited quarterback led all of Division III in touchdown passes at Cornell College in Iowa (and that was as a freshman). “We’re not looking for the guy who can play for us right now. What we want is the guy who’s going to be the best player three or four years down the line.”
Granted, it doesn’t pay for a school such as Utah to fish in the same holes where Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel have dropped a line heading into Signing Day on Wednesday. The Utes probably would have been eager to sign Terrelle Pryor if there were a realistic chance of his relocating to Salt Lake City.
“We recruit in-state primarily,” says Schramm, which in itself is a challenge since Utah is 34th nationally in terms of population. Compounding that is the Utes’ rivalry with Brigham Young, an institution with a richer gridiron history (pre-2004) and an unrivaled Mormon connection.
“After that, our outside areas are the state of California and Texas, the major metropolitan areas in those states,” Schramm says. “Arizona is another satellite.”
The lesson of Utah is two-fold: First, you can never do enough homework as a recruiter. And, second, Urban Meyer has the Midas touch.
Let’s tackle the second point first. In the past five seasons Meyer, currently the head coach at Florida, has either coached or recruited four different squads that either went undefeated or won a national championship. In 2004 he led the Utes to a 12-0 record. Granted, Meyer only spent two seasons at the base of the Wasatch Range; most of the Utes’ key players had been recruited by Meyer’s predecessor, Ron McBride, who spent 13 seasons at Utah.
Credit Meyer, however, with leading them to a 24-2 record in two seasons. In 2006 Meyer, as a beneficiary of Ron Zook’s recruiting prowess and his own coaching acumen, led a one-loss Florida team to the national championship.
But this past season, Meyer’s mastery was on full display. The Gators, starting almost exclusively underclassmen recruited by Meyer, won the national championship with a 12-1 record. The Utes, led mostly by players recruited by Meyer, finished 13-0 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Utah placed 10 different players on the All-Mountain West Conference first- and second-teams in 2008. Eight of them, including MWC Offensive Player of the Year Brian Johnson, were recruited by Meyer’s staff. All seven MWC first-teamers were Meyer recruits even if, in the cases of those who signed in 2005, they were eventually signed by his successor, Kyle Whittingham.
Meyer deserves much praise for Utah’s success this past autumn. Standout players such as Johnson, offensive tackle Zane Beadles and defensive lineman Paul Kruger all were freshmen in Meyer’s final season.
“You have to have some ability to project guys,” says Schramm, who says that he usually watches four game films of any player he is recruiting — and that he almost never watches highlight reels. “Just because that guy’s a tall, skinny safety, well, I’m wondering if he can be a linebacker for us in a few years.
“You do your homework on players,” he says. “Is he a weight room guy? Does he play another sport? ‘Oh, he’s wrestling? Well, that explains why he’s lighter than we’d like him to be.’ Is he a character guy?”
Until being promoted in mid-January, Schramm was the running backs coach at Utah. When evaluating running backs, he says, “I like to look at what they do on a play when they don’t carry the ball. That actually tells me just as much about them. Do they make the extra block? Carry out their fake?”
And a good football player is just a good football player — wherever you put him. Kruger, who is declaring early for the NFL draft as a 6-5, 265-pound defensive end, was an all-conference quarterback in high school in Orem, Utah.
“We recruited Sean Smith as a running back coming out of high school,” says Schramm. The Ute coaches converted Smith to wide receiver, then later to one of the nation’s taller (6-3) and more talented cornerbacks. Smith, too, declared early for the NFL draft after leading the Utes in interceptions the past two seasons.
Where were Johnson, Kruger and Smith on the Rivals 100 lists? Where was punter/placekicker Louie Sakoda, alias “King Louie”, who has been named a first team All-American at both positions by various outlets? Maybe none of those four deserved to be among the nation’s 100 best high school seniors at the time. Together, however, they forged the only undefeated FBS team in the land this past season. Remember that on Signing Day.
“My proudest moment was when we went out for the coin toss at the Sugar Bowl,” Schramm said. “I’m looking out on the field and we got four guys that are team captains (Johnson, right guard Robert Conley, cornerback Brice McCain and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester) that nobody recruited.”
The Sugar Bowl final score: Utah 31, Alabama 17.