Restrictions from COVID-19 and the recruiting dead period made this past year more challenging for college football coaches trying to rebuild their programs. On-campus visits were prohibited and relationship-building was hindered, setting back coaches who tried to add the right pieces to their rosters.
It was especially disruptive for newer coaches who haven’t had a chance to get the foundation of their program in place.
Mike Norvell and his staff at Florida State fell into that category, where they were trying to build new relationships in the state and to reset the program’s culture. Not only was it difficult trying to recruit the right type of player, but the coaches also were limited in assessing the roster they already had on campus.
Not being able to completely evaluate the team’s needs made it that much more difficult for coaches in Norvell’s situation to recruit players in high school and the transfer portal.
“It’s been a unique first year, but I really think we’ve been able to capitalize on the opportunity, and we made a choice as a staff when I first got here that [with] this first class we had to make sure we hit on getting the best football players we could,” Norvell said. “Any time you have three head coaches in four years, there are going to be question marks the kids have when they’re talking about a program. We’re trying to sell a vision of where we’re going and what we’re all about, but we went after guys that we knew would be able to come in here and help this team on the field and help develop the culture of who we are off the field as well.”
Missing on high school prospects can set the rebuild process back a few years depending on how often it happens. Florida State didn’t sign a high school quarterback in the 2018 or 2019 classes, before Norvell arrived in Tallahassee. Norvell & Co. stabilized the quarterback room by adding Chubba Purdy and Tate Rodemaker in 2020 and bringing in transfer McKenzie Milton this past offseason.
The roster still isn’t where they want it to be, but it’s progressing toward what their ultimate vision looks like.
“This year, our guys understand the system a lot better. There’s going to be some growing pains, but we understand why we do things,” Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said. “Especially when you have that quarterback that can get you in a good place. The fact that they’ve been in the system, they understand the timing of throws and what plays we run, I feel significantly more at ease going into the season than I did last year.”
Not every school is in the same place as Florida State in the rebuilding process, though. Some are further along and close to competing at a high level, some are just starting from the ground up, and there are a few that are nearing the end of the line where a rebuild seems like too big of an uphill battle.
Here is a look at a few schools in the rebuilding process, how far along they are and how they stack up to other schools in similar situations.
Mel Tucker had the unenviable position of getting the head-coaching job in February 2020, only a few weeks before everything shut down. He had no real opportunity to evaluate the team he had and figure out how to address the Spartans’ needs in recruiting.
To say that it was a daunting challenge is putting it mildly. Predictably, the Spartans went 2-5 last season while the coaches were still trying to get to know their own players.
Recruiting in that situation — without any face-to-face contact with recruits or parents and without much actual film to show prospects what the team might look like — gives a coach very little to sell to his targets.
Tucker has been active this offseason, with transfers coming in and going out. He and his staff have brought in running back Harold Joiner from Auburn, linebacker Quavaris Crouch from Tennessee, quarterback Anthony Russo from Temple, cornerback Chester Kimbrough from Florida, cornerback Ronald Williams Jr. from Alabama and wide receiver Christian Fitzpatrick from Louisville, along with a handful of others.
It’s clear Tucker’s approach has been to try to turn over the roster as fast as possible and to do it through transfers. On paper, it looks as if he has brought in some players who should be able to compete right away and instantly improve the roster.
The staff also brought in 19 high school prospects, including ESPN 300 linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote, so the combination of transfers and high school prospects in this class should help Tucker get his foundation started and the program going in the direction he wants.
Similar to Tucker, Josh Heupel is not inheriting an ideal situation at Tennessee. The previous staff was fired and the 2021 recruiting class fell apart, no fault of Heupel’s or his staff’s.
The Vols lost commitments from five-star linebacker Terrence Lewis, defensive linemen Dylan Brooks, Katron Evans and Darrell Jackson, running back Roc Taylor, cornerback Damarius McGhee, tight end Hudson Wolfe and wide receiver Jordan Mosley, among others.
Add in that the program lost linebackers Henry To’o To’o, J.J. Peterson and Quavaris Crouch, offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson, defensive back Key Lawrence, running back Eric Gray and quite a few other players and it’s easy to see what a steep challenge Heupel and his staff have.
The 2021 class, ranked No. 19 overall, finished with four ESPN 300 commitments and one ESPN JC 50 prospect in running back Tiyon Evans. The staff is also using transfers to fill needs, notably with linebacker Juwan Mitchell from Texas, quarterback Hendon Hooker from Virginia Tech, defensive lineman Caleb Tremblay from USC, quarterback Joe Milton from Michigan and wide receiver JaVonta Payton from Mississippi State.
Heupel is off to a good start, but there is still a ton of work to do, especially under center. Brian Maurer, Harrison Bailey, Kaidon Salter, Hooker and Milton will all compete for the job, but who wins out is still a question mark.
Since his hiring in late January, Heupel has tried to plug holes in the limited time. So far, he and the Vols have five commitments in the 2022 class, with quarterback Tayven Jackson leading the way. How the 2022 and 2023 classes shape up will provide a better picture of where they stand in their rebuild.
Moving in the right direction
As mentioned above, the Seminoles addressed the quarterback position in a big way. Bringing in Purdy, Rodemaker and McKenzie Milton were all important additions. Milton can serve a dual purpose, competing for the job but also providing a veteran presence from someone who has a ton of experience winning at the college level.
Building depth at quarterback was one of the bigger pieces of the puzzle, and as Dillingham said, he feels a lot more comfortable going into this season than he did last year, when FSU went 3-6.
“Any time you have three head coaches in four years, there are going to be question marks the kids have when they’re talking about a program.”
FSU coach Mike Norvell
The coaches have brought in more transfers than just Milton, with defensive back Jammie Robinson and defensive lineman Keir Thomas from South Carolina and defensive end Jermaine Johnson from Georgia. In addition to the transfers, a key area in evaluating whether a program is moving forward is what’s happening with high school prospects.
Florida State currently has four ESPN 300 commitments in the 2022 class, with the No. 1-ranked corner in five-star Travis Hunter, the No. 1-ranked athlete in Sam McCall and the No. 2 pocket passing quarterback in A.J. Duffy.
Convincing five-stars and top-ranked recruits to commit without having any visits and without a lot of proof of product on the field says the staff is moving in the right direction.
Rutgers has been doing a lot of things right under Greg Schiano. Believe it or not, Rutgers has the No. 9-ranked recruiting class in the country right now, ahead of Michigan and Wisconsin in the Big Ten and just behind Penn State.
Three of Rutgers’ 13 commitments are ranked in the ESPN 300. Schiano has moved quickly to rebuild this roster and get the program to an even better place than it was during his first stint as head coach.
The coaches relied on the transfer portal last year to quickly fill holes, and they have added more transfers this year. Corner Patrice Rene came from North Carolina, and defensive lineman Ifeanyi Maijeh and offensive lineman David Nwaogwugwu are both from Temple.
Rutgers went 3-6 last season, an improvement after going 3-21 over the previous two seasons, and three of the 2020 losses were by seven points or fewer. It’s not as if Rutgers will be competing for a conference title this season, but the way Schiano is recruiting and using the portal, the Scarlet Knights are absolutely moving in the right direction.
Lane Kiffin is always going to bring excitement to a program, and he certainly did that in 2020. The team finished 5-5, but it went 4-8 and 5-7 the previous two seasons. It was going to take some time to get the team to adjust to his style, and the Rebels seemed to hit a good stride later in 2020.
Kiffin found his quarterback in Matt Corral, who threw for 3,337 yards, 29 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. Having a quarterback who can win is half the battle, and Corral showed signs that he can improve on those numbers in Year 2 of Kiffin’s system.
On top of already having some key pieces on the roster, the 2021 recruiting class was a jump forward as well. The staff, which finished with the No. 39 class in 2020 and improved to No. 17 this cycle, added seven ESPN 300 commitments, including defensive tackle Tywone Malone, quarterback Luke Altmyer and receivers Bralon Brown and J.J. Henry, among others.
With some of the additions from 2021 and the fact that teams will make up for lost time, the Rebels have the potential to keep moving forward and take their rebuild to the next level.
Manny Diaz was hired in early 2019 and has been trying to get Miami back on track ever since.
Quarterback play has been one of the biggest challenges in Diaz’s tenure, but bringing in offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and landing quarterback transfer D’Eriq King were two big moves in fixing the offense.
King threw for 2,686 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions and had 538 rushing yards in an 8-3 season. King tore his ACL in the Cheez-It-Bowl but is returning this season for the Hurricanes. If he’s healthy, having a stabilizer at quarterback is going to go a long way for this team.
The rest of the Hurricanes’ roster is also coming together. This offseason, the coaches brought in cornerback Tyrique Stevenson from Georgia, receiver Charleston Rambo from Oklahoma and linebacker Deandre Johnson from Tennessee.
The staff has continued to push recruiting forward as well, signing eight ESPN 300 commitments in the 2020 class, then signing nine in 2021. That class was led by five-star defensive tackle Leonard Taylor, quarterback Jake Garcia and linebacker James Williams.
One of the most important recruiting moves for Mack Brown was flipping quarterback Sam Howell from Florida State in the 2019 class. Howell was an ESPN 300 commitment and has given Brown a competitor from day one.
In two seasons, Howell has thrown for 7,227 yards, 68 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. With him and most of the offensive line returning in 2021, the Tar Heels have an opportunity to push even further ahead.
The coaches have consistently added talent to the roster as well, signing five-star corner Tony Grimes, who reclassified from the 2021 class, enrolled last August and played for the Tar Heels in 2020. ESPN 300 defensive ends Desmond Evans, a five-star, Myles Murphy and Kedrick Bingley-Jones were also in the 2020 class.
Brown and his staff followed that up by signing 11 ESPN 300 commitments in 2021, including five-star defensive end Keeshawn Silver, and flipping ESPN 300 quarterback Drake Maye from Alabama. Those 11 ESPN 300 commitments were the most North Carolina has ever signed in one class, and the staff already has three ESPN 300 commits in the 2022 class as well.
Howell and Brown have accelerated the Tar Heels’ rebuild, and they are turning heads while they’re doing it.
The staff has done a good job building a foundation for a young defense through recruiting. It starts with the 2019 class, which was headlined by the No. 1-ranked recruit overall, defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, corner Mykael Wright and linebacker Mase Funa.
The staff needed to balance that out on the offensive side, and it did just that in the 2021 class, signing wide receivers Isaiah Brevard, Troy Franklin and Dont’e Thornton, running backs Seven McGee and Byron Cardwell, tight end Moliki Matavao and quarterback Ty Thompson.
The strong recruiting has spilled into the 2022 class, as the Ducks currently have five ESPN 300 commitments, including quarterback Tanner Bailey, safeties Landon Hullaby and Trejon Williams, defensive end Gracen Halton and linebacker Emar’rion Winston.
The roster is close to being where the staff wants it, and as long as the coaches keep recruiting at this level, it should eventually get to where Oregon is competing at a high level consistently.
The Aggies weren’t as far behind in terms of rebuilding as some of the other programs were, but Jimbo Fisher took over and has molded this team into something that it wasn’t.
The team went 9-1 last season, with the loss coming to Alabama and wins over Florida and North Carolina, both ranked opponents. A&M is really close to being where it wants to be from a roster perspective and has added some big pieces in recruiting to get there so quickly.
In the four years before Fisher arrived in College Station, the Aggies didn’t have one class ranked in the top 10. In the three years since Fisher was hired, the class rankings have been Nos. 3, 6 and 7. In those three recruiting classes, Fisher has signed 36 ESPN 300 prospects, two five-stars and 14 recruits ranked in the top 100 in their respective classes. What’s more, many of their big contributors haven’t transferred out, a sign that the Aggies are close to being in the national conversation.
While it’s possible the Aggies take a small step back this year because they’ll be developing a new quarterback and other new offensive players, the staff has recruited to address those holes quickly. Haynes King was the No. 3-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 class and the No. 46 prospect overall.
Now or never
Jim Harbaugh is going into his seventh season at Michigan and still hasn’t gotten over the hump to meet the expectations. Coming off a 2-4 season in which the Wolverines lost to Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin and Penn State, needed triple overtime to beat Rutgers and didn’t play Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa, the urgency for different results and to prove they are Big Ten contenders has to pick up or else Michigan could need to start over.
Recruiting started out great under Harbaugh, with the No. 6-ranked class in 2016 and 2017. Since then, Michigan has had only one top-10 class — No. 8 in 2019. The staff finished at No. 11 in 2020 and then dropped to No. 14 in 2021.
There has been plenty of staff turnover and transfers leaving the program. Michigan hasn’t been very active in the portal to replace those outgoing scholarships, however the staff brought in quarterback Alan Bowman to add competition and defensive tackle Jordan Whittley.
Michigan is having success recruiting in the 2022 class, with ESPN 300 commitments from corner William Johnson and receivers Tyler Morris and Tay’shawn Trent. But the Wolverines are at the point where they need to start showing progress on the field to recruits. If they regress again this season, it will be a massively uphill battle for Harbaugh and his staff to get the prospects they need to turn things around.
Scott Frost took UCF to an undefeated season, so there was a lot of excitement at Nebraska about what he could bring to the program — how his offense would bring the Huskers back to the forefront in a smooth rebuild.
Three seasons in, it hasn’t been like that.
Nebraska’s recruiting class rankings fell from No. 18 in 2019 to No. 24 in 2020 and No. 29 in 2021. The Cornhuskers were sixth in the Big Ten and have fallen each year under Frost. The team hasn’t won more than five games in a season under him, and there haven’t been many signs that things are going to turn around quickly.
This offseason, the program saw quite a few players transfer, including wide receivers Wan’Dale Robinson and Marcus Fleming, quarterback Luke McCaffrey, cornerback Ronald Delancy III and linebacker Keyshawn Greene. The staff has brought in some players through the portal, but the number of players on the way out and the recruits coming in aren’t balancing out.
Nebraska is a little behind Michigan in terms of urgency in how quickly the program needs to turn around, but the longer the transition takes, the more pressure there will be to start fresh.