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October 24, 2012

Recruiting on top presents own challenges

MORE: Rivals250 | Southwest Mailbag

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
Winning a national title in the BCS era is tough enough. Staying on top through recruiting is something few programs have mastered.

In the Rivals.com era, Texas, USC and Florida have won recruiting national titles as well as BCS Championships, but now Alabama stands perched at the top in both categories.

And many observers believe where other schools have failed, the Tide are set up for success.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that the biggest problem that coaching staffs face is balancing targeting players they want versus players who are only attracted to a school because of its success.

"It is just that going from recruiting the guys you want to be a part of your program to selecting guys who are making themselves available to you can get tricky.

"You start varying from your natural recruiting tendencies and areas and when you get to that point it puts more emphasis on picking correctly than doing your work and putting in the effort on the front end."

Farrell believes that head coach Nick Saban is a big reason why Alabama won't stumble.

"Saban is a culture-changer," Farrell said. "He will ensure that his staff is still doing its homework on players and a lot of that is because they find players that fit what they want to do defensively. ... Often time, those kids are not playing the same position in high school that they will once they arrive on campus."

Andrew Bone has covered recruiting at Alabama for the last decade and is an analyst for TideSports.com. He said Saban's management of the roster is what keeps the Crimson Tide moving toward national titles.

"Obviously the team wants to get the top guys every year, but it is not at the sacrifice of filling its needs," Bone said. "This class needed to have offensive linemen and cornerbacks and with a lot of those spots filled, the staff will keep looking for players to build quality depth.

"The staff puts together its list of what it needs and what it wants. So if the goal is defensive backs they will target the top seven, or whatever number, guys they want. But they will always be going after the top two or three linebackers, running backs, receivers on their board. The staff isn't going to overload a position for the sake of overloading."

It is hard to say that USC, Florida or Texas have fallen far from the lofty places each once held atop the recruiting rankings -- USC is the current No. 1 on the Rivals.com team rankings list, Florida is No. 6 and Texas is No. 12 -- but each has made decisions that could be seen negatively during their recent run.

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that USC got too wrapped up in the hype it was generating and began taking top level players at a far too frequent rate.

"I always take talent over coaching," he said. "But having talent for talent sake can put you in a bind. The one year the Trojans took two-five star running backs and another high level four-star. First, I don't know what the kids are thinking but second I don't know why the staff thought that would be a situation that would end with anything other than the transfers that occurred.

"The loss of players like that can be worse than missing on them altogether."

For Florida the transition from Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp has been fairly smooth but the transition from a spread to a pro-style offense has made roster management tough.

"They are still recruiting high level players," Farrell said. "But the mix of styles created some growing pains. The move to a more pro-style system will likely start to create more battles between Florida, Alabama, and LSU which will be fun to see."

At Texas, however, Farrell believes that the staff began to rest on its laurels taking the best from Texas regardless of fit to the system.

Orangebloods.com publisher Geoff Ketchum agreed.

"It's so hard to pull definitive date from a sample size that is still pretty small and with so many undetermined final results, but there's no question that the Longhorns haven't been able to master the delicate balance that comes with controlling new age of sophomore/junior early recruiting so that it works well for them without the process overtaking them," Ketchum said. "So much of Texas' issues are development related as much as anything else, but some of Mack Brown's decisions have crippled the program in some areas, especially on the offensive line. Taking some low-lying fruit so early in the recruiting process has caused some to wonder if the prospects they take early lose a little of the fire in their belly before they arrive in Austin. I think Mack will tell you that he takes kids that are dying to be Longhorns, but some will say he just likes prospects that are willing to say, "Yes!" very quickly when offered."

If history is destined to repeat itself it will be only a matter of time before someone is ready to jump over Alabama when it stumbles, and according to Farrell that is just what will happen.

"Nothing Alabama is doing right now is unprecedented," he said. "And they won't win forever and they won't win in recruiting forever. Something will slow the train down and someone will step in quickly."
Alabama has commitments from four-star offensive linemen Bradley Bozeman of Roanoke (Ala.) Handley and Grant Hill of Huntsville (Ala.) High as well as three-star linemen Leon Brown from Brooklyn (N.Y.) ASA College and Cole Mazza from Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty.

The program has also landed two cornerbacks in four-star Maurice Smith from Sugar Land (Texas) Dulles and three-star Anthony Averett from Woodbury (N.J.) High. It is the expanded recruiting boundaries that have helped Alabama land the players that it wants.

"Alabama is still going after the elite of the elite and battling with USC, Florida, Ohio State, those types of teams," Bone said. "But it is also going into states like Utah and New Jersey to find guys that fit its system."

The team's offensive and defensive systems, according to Farrell, give Alabama a major advantage in recruiting top players.

"It takes great coaches to run the defense that Alabama runs and it is no surprise so many of those guys end up in the NFL. They are tremendous athletes that have received some of the best coaching in the nation," he said.

"Offensively I don't think people will forsake the spread because at this point it is here to stay, but I think more teams should follow what Alabama is doing. They won't, but they should."

The Tide defense is allowing the fewest points per game, yards per game and cumulative rushing yards in the nation. It is tied for fourth in interceptions and tied for second in passing yards allowed.

Offensively, a scheme that many malign as being conservative has averaged 41 points per game and is second only to Texas A&M in the SEC. It has two running backs in the Top 10 in rushing in the conference with both true freshman T.J. Yeldon and junior Eddie Lacy averaging 81 yards per game; quarterback AJ McCarron leads the nation in quarterback rating at 183.6 while throwing for 211 yards per game and 16 touchdowns on the season. He has yet to be intercepted.

The balance of quality and quantity is a line that Saban walks as well as anyone.

"Alabama wants to play defense first and control the game physically," Bone said. "The team is built from the inside out but that doesn't mean it is sacrificing on skill players. This is the same school that has had Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and just went and got (four-star athlete) Cyrus Jones last year and has commitments from (five-star tight end) O.J. Howard and (four-star athlete) Derrick Henry right now.

"Outsiders think that this is a team that just wants to manage the game and wait on mistakes but it can be explosive and go vertical but there will not be playing time at quarterback for guys who want to be gunslingers and turn the ball over and there will not be playing time for guys that do not have the fundamentals required of them."

It is those baselines that Farrell said will keep this process working in favor of Alabama.

"Saban is not acting when he says things like people underestimate Western Kentucky," Farrell said. "He always has his foot on the accelerator and he expects the most from everyone that is around him. There won't be class that he takes too many of the same type player and has kids transfer out, he is too smart for that and too careful in what he is doing.

"Right now Alabama is the dream offer for most every kid and Tuscaloosa isn't as sexy as Los Angeles so that says a lot. So long as this staff stays the course it could be a long line of success."

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