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West Virginia and market inefficiencies in modern recruiting

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The Mountaineers don’t recruit at a high level in February but they have a lot of talent on their roster in key positions.

Iowa State v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

After Redmond Longhorn’s post on “where blue-chippers and NFL players come from” one of the stunning takeaways was how underrated the Midwest tends to be by the recruiting services. I noted in my own thoughts on his findings that Ohio State had gone from winning a title with 3-star Ohioans to initiating a national recruiting program that plucked blue-chippers out of Texas and all of the other dark red states on Redmond’s map.

Obviously the ability to recruit the Midwest could be a market inefficiency for some programs out there.

A bigger, more prominent story in college football today is the increasing prevalence of transfers. As college becomes more financially driven and coaches more and more mercenary, the inevitable result was for the players to learn the same lesson and approach college football as the business that it really is. Sometimes you leave your place of business for another opportunity elsewhere, especially when you have a limited window to maximize your value. As a result of that practice, the shoe is on the other foot now for many a coach who takes a higher paying job only to find his roster emptying out as players leave via grad or regular transfer to other schools.

In this new world of business-oriented college ball, West Virginia stands out as a program that has happily latched on to new practices in order to capitalize on the trends.

Profile of the Mountaineers

The state of West Virginia includes just under two million people and they are widely scattered across the state with no single town including even 50k people save for Charleston. It’s very rural and has produced a single blue chip prospect (four or five-star) this entire decade, 4-star DE Dante Stills who’s the younger brother of a current Mountaineer (Darius) and the son of a Mountaineer star (Gary). It’s notable that Gary Stills came from New Jersey, so the only blue-chipper in West Virginia this decade was there because of previous out of state recruiting efforts by the football team. Overall the state tends to produce about two scholarship Mountaineers per year and then a handful of walk-ons besides.

The program fills out its recruiting classes by hitting Florida, Maryland/D.C., and of course the Midwest. Various parts of the state tend to identify more with Pennsylvania or other neighboring regions of prominence where there are often WVU alumni and it’s not terribly difficult for the staff to recruit three and sometimes four-star players from the surrounding regions. The innovative spread offenses they’ve utilized since hiring Rich Rod back in 2001 have also helped them to be a draw for talent.

The move to the Big 12 was theoretically going to open Texas up for them to recruit but that hasn’t materialized at all and the 2018 class didn’t include a single player from the Lone Star State. It did have seven Midwestern kids from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. West Virginia also engages in the practice of recruiting the JUCO ranks for instant help, particularly on defense where everyone is always seeking high and low to find enough athletes to field 11 players at a time that can hold up in the spread era without giving up easy scores.

Here’s how the services have evaluated their efforts hitting up those regions since they joined the Big 12.

West Virginia recruiting in the Big 12

Year Class rank Blue chip prospects
Year Class rank Blue chip prospects
2018 35th nationally, 6th in B12 2
2017 57th nationally, 8th in B12 0
2016 39th nationally, 4th in B12 3
2015 35th nationally, 4th in B12 3
2014 39th nationally, 5th in B12 2
2013 30th nationally, 4th in B12 2
2012 35th nationally, 7th in B12 1

The 2018 West Virginia roster

From the chart above you’d conclude that West Virginia could have no more than 10 former blue chippers on their current roster (their take over the last five years) and probably fewer considering normal attrition and the fact that some of those 10 were JUCOs with exhausted eligibility.

In fact, the starting lineup in 2018 figures to include five former blue chip prospects and will feature them at the tip of the spear on offense at QB, back-up QB, the “Z” receiver position that has been manned by stars like Kevin and Karaun White and by Justin Blackmon when Holgorsen was at Oklahoma State, and at nose tackle on defense.

It was a common suspicion that the 2017 Mountaineers were going to be a bad football team judging from the departure of multi-year starting QB Skyler Howard and half the starting lineup including most of the best defenders. However, they were infusing strong-armed transfer QB Will Grier into an increasingly spread-Iso offense and ended up ranked 26th in offensive S&P+ and going 7-3 until Grier snapped his finger against Texas. The big problem for the 2017 Mountaineers was a defensive line that had lost all three starters from a strong 2016 unit and was struggling to find worthy starters after years of thin recruiting at the position.

It appeared that problem was about to get much worse when DL started retiring or transferring from the team until it became known that in addition to former Penn State DL Brenon Thrift, the DL was also adding grad transfers Kenny Bigelow (former 5-star from USC) and Jabril Robinson (former 3-star from Clemson) over the summer to shore things up. The one area now where they could use a talent infusion is at CB where they badly missed Rasul Douglas (a former JUCO transfer) in 2017. Notre Dame grad transfer CB Nick Watkins visited recently and could be the solution here.

The prospective 2018 offense looked strong enough from a year ago but ended up losing back-up QB Chris Chugonov and replacing him with now eligible former four-star Jack Allison (another tall, strong-armed passer from Florida) who transferred from Miami. They’re also adding former Alabama wideout and four-star recruit T.J. Simmons to play the Z receiver position opposite returning star David Sills.

The positions on the roster where the Mountaineers really need well developed program guys, OL and LB in particular, includes four Ohioans and a list of players that received redshirts and three years or more in this program. The 2018 West Virginia roster is the quintessential product of modern market inefficiencies in college football recruiting. They’re plucking QBs, top skill talents, and DL from schools with easier access to bluechip recruits to supplement what they find from surrounding metro areas or Florida while leaning on the Midwest to find hardy linemen and backers.

The non-blueblood pitch

Here’s the key fact in modern recruiting and college football. Blue chip high school prospects are going to tend to sign with the top teams. They regularly get caught up in the euphoria of recruiting and wanting to play on the best team in the area. Very few 16-18 year olds are going to worry about failing to win a tough competition for their job and the ones that are cognizant of that possibility can always plan ahead and transfer out later on. Meanwhile, not too many blue chippers are going to strongly consider a school like West Virginia.

But then these players head off to the traditional powerhouse schools and figure out that it’s hard to stand out in that environment, or the coach and system they committed to were either promoted or relegated elsewhere, or they lose a tough position battle with another big talent, or they are asked to serve as a role player for another talent.

This happens regularly at QB, where schematic changes and the stockpiling of talent are uber-prevalent at the major programs. The four-star commits to a school with an established starter and two other blue chips competing for his spot, finds himself staring at long odds of getting big time snaps, and then looks out and sees an opportunity like West Virginia. The Mountaineers are running a spread offense that gives the QB a lot of freedom at the line of scrimmage, includes RPOs and play-action to help protect him and loose his receivers, and then offers the chance to engage in high profile shootouts every Saturday. Whether a guy thinks that will help him reach the NFL or not (and it probably will) it’s at least more fun and glorious than waiting around as a back-up or accepting a tough fit.

Since Geno Smith graduated, Dana Holgorsen’s leading passers at West Virginia have been Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, JUCO transfer Skyler Howard, and Florida transfer Will Grier with Miami transfer Jack Allison (Florida trifecta achievement unlocked!) the next in line. If you want to stand out as a talent and play in a system where you can put up big numbers towards or build a pro resume than it actually makes more sense for many top talents to attend schools like West Virginia. The problem for WVU is that these kids don’t necessarily realize that until they are a few years into college, but that is being resolved by the increasing rates of transfers. The mercenary nature of modern college coaching teaches the players that nobly sacrificing ambition to serve as a back-up on behalf of the University of X is a chump move.

There’s really no reason that West Virginia should be overly concerned about sustaining this trend, either. They lost talented nose tackle Lamont McDougle after a promising freshman season when he wasn’t thrilled with their decision to move the older Stills brother to his position and to add a five-star transfer at the same spot but there’s no reason to believe they can’t go find another DT in the JUCO ranks or transfer market in another year or so. Kids are transferring in search of playing time or fresh situations every year now in college ball and it’s happening at every position, not just QB.

That said, there’s always going to be the talented pocket-passer who isn’t a good fit for his new coach’s run game or who lost the job to a more dynamic playmaker. These guys can typically be more of a sure thing in West Virginia’s offense than a HS recruit. Why shouldn’t West Virginia market themselves as transfer QBU?

This is likely to become a bigger and bigger part of the formula in college football, particularly for schools in the Big 12 that can’t recruit top classes year after year but do have the money and resources to hire good staffs and facilities to lure in transfers that want to make the most of their final seasons of eligibility. If West Virginia manages to win the Big 12 this season behind a talent infusion of bluechip transfers from bluechip programs, this trend should become front and center as a storyline in the sport. Odds are good that Nick Saban will have some negative thoughts about it.