College football recruiting 2013: Feeling confident? Beware the class of 2009

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 19, 2009: Bryce Brown #11 of the Tennessee Volunteers is tackled by Ryan Stamper #41 of the Florida Gators during the game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 19, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida. - Sam Greenwood / Getty Images

It is nearly impossible to win at the highest level in college football without elite recruiting. But elite recruiting does not automatically lead to winning at the highest level. Head here for national 2013 college football recruiting coverage.

For some schools, it works out the way it is supposed to. Alabama's class included five-stars like Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, D.J. Fluker and Nico Johnson, high four-stars like A.J. McCarron, Eddie Lacy and Kevin Norwood, low four-stars like Quinton Dial, Kenny Bell and Ed Stinson and even a three-star lineman named Chance Warmack. A few hours to the southwest, LSU signed Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Michael Brockers, Bennie Logan (only a three-star), Morris Claiborne (ditto), Rueben Randle, Craig Loston. Sure, there were busts in these classes -- there always are -- but Alabama has gone 25-2 and LSU 23-4 in the last two years, and their respective 2009 recruiting hauls, ranked first and second in the country by Rivals.com, respectively, were part of the reason why.

As fans, this is what we envision. That four-star quarterback is going to become a two-time national champion. That five-star running back will carry a title team and end up a top-five pick in the NFL Draft. Those four-star ends are going to become one of the most fearsome duos in the country. That raw, five-star athlete is going to become one of the best in the nation at a given position and lead a national title run by his junior year.

To be sure, most teams that contend for a national title do so because a) they signed top-notch recruiting classes and b) members of those classes led the charge. But simply signing a great class, or even a few of them, only takes you part of the way. Sometimes a highly rated recruiting class doesn't really pan out. Sometimes it downright stinks. And when it does, it almost feels like it causes more damage to a school than if the class had just not been rated highly at all.

Texas had just come oh, so close to a bid in the BCS title game, edged out by mere decimal points by conference rival Oklahoma. They were heading into 2009 with an experienced core of players -- quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver Jordan Shipley, linebacker Sergio Kindle -- who would lead one more title charge, then head off into the sunset. It was time to build the core of the next title team.

And what a doozy this 2009 recruiting class appeared to be. Mack Brown landed six of the state's top 12 recruits: five-star end Alex Okafor (the No. 14 overall player in the Class of 2009 according to Rivals), five-star quarterback Garrett Gilbert (No. 18), five-star offensive lineman Mason Walters (No. 29), four-star defensive tackle Calvin Howell (No. 55), four-star offensive lineman Garrett Porter (No. 69) and four-star athlete Chris Whaley (No. 91). With only 20 signees, Texas' class still ranked fifth in the country thanks to these six and nine other four-star signees. Four-star receiver Greg Timmons would be ready to replace the likes of Shipley and Malcolm Williams (who was ready to become a breakout star), four-star defensive backs Marcus Davis, Kenny Vaccaro and Eryon Barnett could form a ferocious back wall against the pass-happy Big 12, and players like end Tevin Mims and tackle Derek Johnson would be ready to join Okafor and Howell in reinforcing what was already an outstanding front four. This class had an answer at every position but running back.

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Lane Kiffin's first recruiting haul as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers was a game-changer. Hired on December 1, 2008, to replace Phil Fulmer, Kiffin had pretty quickly worked to secure the commitment of high four-star receiver James Green and lured players like receiver Nu'Keese Richardson (the No. 68 player in the country according to Rivals) and Marsalis Teague away from Florida on Signing Day. He also landed five-star stud Janzen Jackson, a sure star in the defensive backfield.

A month after signing day, however, Kiffin's class went from good to great. He locked down the signatures of both four-star running back David Oku (No. 97 in the country) and five-star running back Bryce Brown, the top high school senior in the land according to Rivals. Despite a relatively small load (21 signees), the Vols ended up creeping up to 10th in Rivals' class rankings. It was an awesome start to the Kiffin era, one that could potentially rejuvenate a proud program that had lost its way a bit in the final years of Phil Fulmer's tenure.

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What Florida's class lacked in quantity, it made up for in absurd quality. The Gators signed just 16 players in 2009, but three were five-star recruits and another nine were four-stars. On a per-recruit basis, no school could match Urban Meyer's 3.94 star average. The defending national champions were already the overwhelming favorite to win a second straight title in 2009, and this class would help ease the Gators in a new direction when Tim Tebow and company left the following autumn.

For such a small class, this one was perfectly balanced. Meyer brought in four-star quarterback Jordan Reed, four-star running back Mike Gillislee, stunning five-star receiver Andre Debose (already being called the next Percy Harvin), five offensive linemen (including three four-star recruits), five-star defensive tackle Gary Brown, four-star junior college tackle Edwin Herbert, five-star linebacker Jelani Jenkins (the No. 10 player in the class) and 'mere' four-star Jon Bostic, and safety Dee Finley, one of the top prep school athletes in the country. With nearly as many five-star recruits as three-stars and nothing but four-stars in between, this class was terrifying.

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This is why you hire Butch Davis: He knows how to turn around a program. With a staff loaded with recruiting prowess, Davis lit the recruiting world aflame with his second full recruiting class. Following an eight-win season and their first bowl trip since 2004, the Tar Heels inked a huge class of 28 signees, 14 of which were given at least a four-star designation.

The state of North Carolina produced nine four-star (or better) kids, and North Carolina landed seven of them, from linebackers Justin Dixon and Hawatha Bell (offers from Miami, Michigan, South Carolina and West Virginia), to defensive tackle Jared McAdoo (offers from most of the ACC and South Carolina), to defensive backs Terry Shankle (offers from Florida, Tennessee and Clemson) and Josh Hunter (offers from most of the ACC and South Carolina) to receiver Jheranie Boyd (offers from Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon and Missouri), to the cornerstone, five-star defensive end Donte Paige-Moss, the No. 16 player in the country. Throw in highly-ranked out-of-staters like athlete Donavan Tate (from Georgia), offensive lineman Brennan Williams (Massachusetts) and quarterback Bryn Renner (Virginia), and you've got as deep a class as any in the country outside of Tuscaloosa.

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Aside from the presence of North Carolina, these stories are not exactly unusual. Of the teams with the Top 10 recruiting classes in 2009, six were in the Top 10 in 2008, and six would be in the Top 10 in 2010. There are about 12 schools capable of producing elite classes year after year, and a good number of them were represented in 2009. But with elite recruiting comes elite expectation, not just for one season but for many. If a class doesn't pan out, or even if it's only good, it will be seen as a black mark for the program.

Just ask Mack Brown, who's still trying to dig his program out from a hole the 2009 class helped to create:

Of the 21 players in the class, only five of them have become starters, if one chooses to include Whaley in that group (he started nine games as a junior). It is likely at this point that only two will become NFL players. More amazing is the fact that only seven will complete their eligibility with Texas, assuming that [Garrett] Porter is with the team in the fall.

Here's how the 14 others break down -- four transferred (Allen, Gilbert, Timmons, and Johnson), two had legal problems (Davis and Howell), two left the team because of grades (Mims and Jones), two had multiple major injuries (Graham and Barnett), and four just gave up football, either because they weren't good at it (Kriegel, Nkwopara, Ashcraft) or because they didn't like it (Kelley).

In some ways, the class was probably a perfect storm of players who had character issues and should not have been at Texas, players who should have not have been recruited by Texas, and perhaps even, in terms of the three failed offensive linemen, guys who never developed under Mac McWhorter (or Stacy Searels). More significantly, though, the class was a sign of the institutional malaise that had crept over the program.

Just ask Tennessee fans, who watched Lane Kiffin leave after just one season in Knoxville, then watched his sterling (and lone) recruiting class fall apart:

[E]leven of these twenty-two kids are no longer with the program, including seven of the eight highest rated players by Rivals.

Tennessee got two good years from Janzen Jackson. Bryce Brown was a solid backup as a freshman. Other than that, even the players who have stayed have struggled to produce. I think Marsalis Teague has earned more "bless his heart"s than any Vol this season. Schofield, King, and Mitchell-Thornton all used to see the field much more often than they do now. Who on this list has given or will give Tennessee any kind of solid long-term production? Who on this list could we build a program around?

(Tennessee only got two years out of Jackson, who was then kicked out of school before the 2011 season and ended up at McNeese State. Brown, meanwhile, left for Kansas State and never came anywhere close to approaching his five-star hype.)

Just ask Urban Meyer, who watched a small class get smaller, watched big-time recruits struggle to become big-time players, and, perhaps not coincidentally, started to burn out when the class (and the one before it) began to cause a depth drain of sorts:

At Florida, eight of the 21 from the 2008 class and four of the 17 from the 2009 class left the team in some way or another before the 2011 season (another from '08, OL David Young, left the team recently after missing the whole season with injury).

The 2008 class produced just four significant contributors in Jeff Demps, Will Hill, Janoris Jenkins, and Caleb Sturgis, and it produced two more solid rotation guys in William Green and Omar Hunter. Also, OL Matt Patchan has been good when healthy, which is not often. Hill and Jenkins, of course, were off the team by the '11 season. The 2009 class produced most of the 2011 offensive line rotation plus defensive starters Jon Bostic, Josh Evans, and Jelani Jenkins, but it was so small post-attrition (just 13 players) that it can't make more of an impact on the team.

Just ask Butch Davis, who watched a great class become a good one, then found NCAA investigators sniffing around due to allegations of improper recruitment.

Davis' tenure was cut short by NCAA sanctions, of course, but it had been turning into a bit of a disappointment regardless. That the Heels had won eight games in 2008 was impressive -- it was more than they had won in 2006-07 combined, it was their first eight-win season since 2001, and it was only their second eight-win season since Mack Brown had left following the great 1997 campaign. That they won eight again in 2009 was fine. That they won eight again in 2010 was a bit frustrating. And that they won only seven in 2011 was disheartening, even considering Davis had been fired for his role in NCAA allegations in late-July.

Donte Paige-Moss exploded in his sophomore season (2010), regressed a bit in 2011, tore his ACL in the 2011 Independence Bowl and declared for the NFL Draft anyway. Jheranie Boyd averaged nearly 20 yards per catch and scored 13 touchdowns in his four seasons in Chapel Hill, but he averaged just 11 catches per year and never became a reliable contributor. Donavan Tate chose baseball over football after getting selected third in the 2009 MLB Draft. Justin Tate never enrolled at UNC, surfacing at East Carolina a few months later. Johnnie Farms never enrolled at UNC, enrolling instead at prep school and ending up at Memphis. Hawatha Bell was kicked off the team in 2010. Jared McAdoo was kicked off the team in 2011.

There were certainly some success stories, of course. Bryn Renner has been a steady, efficient starting quarterback for two years. Kevin Reddick was at times spectacular in 2012, logging 18.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Erik Highsmith, a two-star afterthought (from a recruiting perspective) in the signing class, caught 167 passes and scored 15 touchdowns in four seasons. But a Top 10 signing class is supposed to portend Top 10 results; North Carolina still has not crossed the eight-win barrier since Mack Brown left.

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If you are one of the schools that brings in elite recruiting hauls every year, then you can potentially overcome a disappointing class or two.

Florida, for instance, battled inconsistency with an extremely young squad in 2011 (thanks in part to the fact that the Gators had very few upperclassmen from the 2008-09 classes on whom they could rely), then broke through in 2012 with an 11-2 campaign.

But both Texas and Tennessee have fought through years of inconsistency and disappointment; not all of this is the 2009 class, but that class seemed to form the narrative that the proud programs have struggled to shake. In Austin, Texas fans have begun to lose faith in Mack Brown fate the 'Horns managed just a 22-16 record in the three seasons since Colt McCoy and company left. Brown underwent a dramatic overhaul on his staff following a 2010 campaign in 2010, and the results have certainly improved -- to 8-5 in 2011, to 9-4 in 2012 -- but again: When you sign elite recruiting classes, excited fans don't sign up for a slow rebuilding job.

As for Tennessee, Derek Dooley, who inherited from Lane Kiffin a faulty roster loaded with both issues and potential, was let go after three seasons of faulty play laden with both issues and potential.

Elite recruiting is the fastest, most proven way to rebuild a program. It is also the surest way to raise fan expectations beyond a rational, realistic point. If you cannot turn five-star athletes into stars and turn fantastic recruiting classes into results, you are judged more harshly than you would have been if you hadn't landed these recruits at all.

In other words, let the buyer beware. When the ink dries for 2013's National Signing Day this Wednesday (and beyond), we will endlessly talk up the newest elite classes for some schools (Florida, Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, LSU, Michigan, USC) and have a lot of fun hyping the new rising stars in the recruiting world (for 2013, that would be Ole Miss, Texas A&M, UCLA and perhaps even Washington or Vanderbilt).

But even though Florida and LSU must replace a lot of its 2012 production, any step backwards will be seen as permanent weakness. And now that Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze is putting together one of the school's greatest (the greatest?) signing classes, the rebuilding clock will get moved forward about two years. Improving from 2-10 to 7-6 in 2012 was fun; anything less than about 10-2 by 2014, however, will backfire.

For the most part, the clock on the 2013 recruiting class will stop sometime Wednesday afternoon. A different clock begins Thursday morning.

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