TEMPE, Ariz. -- Never mind what the recruiting services say, perhaps the best barometer of whether a school has a really strong signing class is if its rivals whisper that there must've been some shady dealings going on behind the scenes or that the fortunate program was signing kids no one else could get into college.
The latter applies to Arizona coach Mike Stoops' comments about rival Arizona State at his signing day press conference on Wednesday .
"Each school has to recruit to that school and what type of academic requirements there are," Stoops said then. "Obviously, Arizona State has turned into a JC and we are a four-year college. According to all the players, they say it is easier to go to school there, easier to get in. I thought we had the same requirements. It is news to me." (On Thursday, Stoops issued a statement apologizing.)
For the record, the recruiting services also seem to be impressed by the talent Dennis Erickson's staff landed. Of course, the Sun Devils' 10-win season certainly helped catch recruits' eyes. ASU's three-game win streak over archrival Arizona didn't hurt. Those factors help to explain why Arizona State snagged three prospects who had at one time been committed to Zona, including highly regarded tailback Ryan Bass from Corona, Calif. ASU also appeared to clean up in state, signing nine Arizona players as compared to the Wildcats inking just two in-state players.
"Winning opens a lot of doors," said Erickson. "It opens a lot of doors. We won some games on TV, and we got to what we consider a pretty good bowl. Guys were watching us. So when you win 10 football games, it really opens some doors. When you're on TV, and you show the stadium, the atmosphere, all the great things that we have here in Tempe, and they show the city, the campus, the students and all those different things on TV, those kids [say], 'hey man, I want to take a look at that thing.' It makes a difference. The more they see it, the better it is. There's no question about it."
Erickson hailed this class as having the best group of offensive and defensive linemen he's ever brought in. Initially, the Sun Devils planned on signing three offensive linemen in the class, according to ASU recruiting coordinator Matt Lubick, but they ended up taking five. That shift in thinking is part of Erickson's fluid recruiting philosophy. "He doesn't care who we don't get," says Lubick. "He's always on to 'OK. who's the next best available player we can go get?'" That often means regardless of position.
Erickson, who won two national championships with Miami, doesn't prescribe to the notion that his program has to be the first one to offer a prospect. Instead, he'd rather hold off and keep evaluating. This year, ASU signed a bunch of late bloomers, waiting until they had evaluated more film from their senior seasons. The Sun Devils waited to offer Shelly Lyons, an instinctive 225-pound linebacker from California, until earlier in his senior year. They did the same with Toa Tuitea, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound DE/TE prospect. Jack Elway, the son of NFL legend John Elway, didn't get his offer from ASU until after the Sun Devils looked at the film from his first two games of the 2007 season.
The younger Elway, an athletic 205-pounder from Colorado, had been a very raw QB prospect who had spent much of his time at linebacker. But in the last year, Elway became much more polished. He reminds some of rugged former Colorado State star Bradlee Van Pelt but with a stronger arm.
The Sun Devils did sign five JC transfers, including the well-traveled Eugene Germany, a swift 6-4, 285-pound DE who has had stops at USC and Michigan before moving on Mt. San Antonio JC. Germany, along with CB Terrell Carr and OL Tom Njunge are expected to battle for starting jobs in the fall. The staff hopes Bass, a fast tailback with great vision and balance, will challenge for a starting job as well. However, he is no sure thing to make it into the program academically.
Keep an eye on Clint Floyd, a 5-10, 180-pound athlete from Los Angeles, who is just a tough guy with quick feet. He wasn't highly touted, but the Sun Devils staff gained a reputation for unearthing some gems back when Erickson was at Oregon State. Two of his best were unheralded linebacker prospects Nick Barnett (OSU beat San Jose State) and Richard Seigler (OSU beat Weber State).
Last year, ASU beat Florida International for a 6-1, 185-pound linebacker from Gainesville, Fla. named Oliver Aaron. Since arriving in Tempe, Aaron has maintained his 4.4 speed and bulked up to 210 pounds. After redshirting the 2007 season, he's projected to be ASU's starting weakside linebacker.
"He dominated our scout team last fall," says Lubick.
ASU is hopeful they have found a few more just like him this time around.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.