The Times West Virginian

November 7, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - Small recruiting classes hurting West Virginia

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — On Saturday night LSU and Alabama played a classic football game in an electric setting for the top spot in the national rankings and a huge jump toward reaching the national championship game.

Anyone watching the game was struck with the amount of talent there was on the field, the speed and the strength of the players and the depth of that talent on both sides.

This is brought up on Monday morning in part to make note of one of the hidden problems facing West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and his struggling Mountaineer football team, a lack of depth that he has often referred to as the season degenerated into a disappointment.

This particular problem is not of Holgorsen’s making, for it is a carryover from Bill Stewart’s regime, which not only didn’t have the same kind of quality players groomed to replace nose guard Chris Neild, safety Robert Sands, linebacker J.T. Thomas or cornerback Brandon Hogan, NFL players all, but didn’t have as much talent on hand as he was allowed to have.

The NCAA allows a college team to have 85 scholarship players, plus walk-ons. It restricts its recruiting to bringing in just 25 scholarship players a season.

Stewart brought in just 19 players in 2010 for this year, six short of the number he could have had. This year’s recruiting class was 23 strong, leaving them having used just 42 of the 50 available scholarships.

Would there have been a Neild, Thomas, Hogan or Sands in those eight players had they been brought in? Probably not, but could there have been someone who was a borderline recruit, perhaps, who could develop into such a player?

How many players over the years, walk-on in particular, have we seen earn scholarships and become starters and contributors to strong WVU teams? If walk-ons can do that, so, too, can some borderline scholarship players.

Bringing in fewer players than allowed certainly creates a shortcoming, for some teams like those two you watched on television play for the No. 1 spot in the nation can attest. Both of them actually take part in a tactic known as “oversigning.”

An Associated Press story this week reported on what they do.

“Alabama has signed 137 players over the past five years, for an average of 27.4 per year. It signed 32 in 2008 — a class that included nine starters on this year’s team, plus Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. This total places Alabama among the top five nationally in oversigning,” the article read.

“LSU has signed 126 players over the same period, which works out to 25.2 per year. That number is considerably lower than Alabama’s but higher than many other top teams,” it continued.

Holgorsen understands the concept; he realizes that all scholarships don’t work out, that players don’t grow, don’t stay in school, become injured.

Two quarterbacks — Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson — were in the 2010 class but left

school when the coaching change lessened their chances of playing. That left WVU terribly thin at quarterback.

Holgorsen says you have to “make sure you’re making good decisions, making sure you keep them academically eligible and accountable for what’s expected of them on the field and off the field.”

“You can identify 25 people, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get them. Part of it is identifying them, and then recruiting them and then sealing the deal with them,” he said. “It’s a combination of a whole bunch of things. We’re working pretty tirelessly around here to make sure we get 1) the type of kid we want, and 2) we get them to where we need them to go.”

When you only have 18 or 19 signed, your margin for error is slight, and Holgorsen is now trying to make up for that.

“A lot of our efforts right now are making sure that we have enough kids coming in at midterm and not losing scholarships,” he said. “Once you lose them, they’re gone and you can’t use them.”

If you “oversign,” of course, you are presented with a different problem and that is having more scholarships than allowed, so you must cut some out.

According to the AP story, The Wall Street Journal described the way Alabama handled it, asking players to take “medical” scholarships that kept them from ever competing again for the Crimson Tide even though the players said they were healthy enough to play.

The NCAA is currently looking at this situation, last year capping signing classes at 28 while the SEC voted to lower the conference limit to 25 beginning next year.

Last week the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors passed a rule that would allow multi-year scholarships as an alternative to the year-to-year scholarships offered now in an effort to curtail stockpiling of good players.

Coaches are split on this approach.

However it goes, it would appear that to compete you have to fill your classes each year.

Email Bob Hertzel at Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.