For recently hired head coaches such as Texas' Tom Herman, Baylor's Matt Rhule and Oregon's Willie Taggart, the month of January is a time to be aggressive in recruiting but also extremely careful.
Every new coach tries to hit the ground running in recruiting, but the very first class they'll sign in February is a tricky assignment. There are many reasons why coaches call the one they'll sign a year after taking the job their "first full recruiting class." The "transition" recruiting classes -- comprised of prospects the previous staff landed and ones the new staff brought in late -- can be seriously challenging.
Simply put, you're signing kids you barely know. You're inheriting and honoring commitments from prospects your staff might not have taken. You're selling a school you might barely know. You get only three official visit weekends. You're guaranteed to make mistakes and experience future attrition.
A study of nearly 350 recruits who signed with 15 Power 5 transition classes from 2012 to 2014 showed that more than 60 percent of signees did not become regular starters, and 35 percent ended up leaving the program. Six of the 15 classes produced more busts than starters.
Looking at the recent history of transition recruiting classes, there are certainly success stories. Gus Malzahn's 2013 Auburn class produced 12 future starters and quarterback Nick Marshall, who led the Tigers to the BCS title game. The rise of Penn State and Colorado in 2016 are directly tied to how effectively James Franklin and Mike MacIntyre built their transition classes.
But Herman points to his first signing class as offensive coordinator at Ohio State as evidence of the challenge. Ohio State's 2012 group was successful from the simple standard of winning a national title. Half of the class became starters, and eight signees will end up being NFL players. The other half of the class was comprised of busts. That's too much attrition for a group that ESPN ranked No. 6 in the nation.
"The numbers show a coach's first class during the transition has the most attrition, the most misses in terms of guys who can't play, and it has the most off-field issues," Herman said.
Nick Saban once went through the same thing. He signed 24 recruits in his 2007 transition class at Alabama. He brought in future stars such as Rolando McClain, Kareem Jackson and Marquis Maze, who left with national title rings. He also signed 11 recruits who left the program, including seven who committed after Saban was hired. He was coming from the NFL and had only 18 days on the road to recruit that class.
As Saban described it on signing day in 2007, the No. 1 goal in recruiting is always to build strong relationships. With his first class, he felt that he was merely trying to develop "contacts" late in the game.
"When you're developing contacts," Saban said at the time, "you're just trying to change people's minds based on where they are in a process that has occurred over a long period of time. That's what we were faced with this year."
Herman now runs a Texas program that just had a transition class in 2014, which yielded running back D'Onta Foreman but also has had as many departures as starters. His staff is taking a careful approach with this year's group, preferring recruits they developed relationships with while at Houston. For now, he needs the guys he knows will fit.
"We're gonna swing for the fences, there's no doubt, but if there's any testimony to the fact that relationships in recruiting are the most important thing, it's during a coaching transition," Herman said. "As much as we have to sell here -- from the academics to the coaching staff to the style of play to the championships we're going to win to the city of Austin to the rich, storied tradition and history -- what we don't have is relationships with a lot of these guys. That makes it very, very difficult to get in."
At Baylor, Rhule inherited the toughest possible recruiting circumstances. The Bears had one commit. The previous staff had stopped recruiting for six months. So aggression has to be the name of the game. Rhule's staff is trying to find high-upside kids while forging those relationships as fast as possible, and they've been successful so far with 19 commits in just four weeks. Taking that many that quickly is inherently risky. The former Temple coach trusts his staff's track record of developing talent.
"We'll try to get the right people here, then we'll develop them," Rhule told ESPN's Tom VanHaaren earlier this month, "whether they're the No. 1 recruit in the country or a person you've never heard of."
Taggart hired a staff of respected recruiters at Oregon and has said he's trying to see as many guys as possible. The Ducks have managed to land seven new pledges, including QB Braxton Burmeister, who flipped from Arizona. The fact that Taggart didn't complete his staff until Jan. 19 (and now must hire another assistant after David Reaves' arrest) only makes this high-speed process more challenging.
Perhaps the optimal long-term move is a small transition class that saves as many spots as possible for the next year's class. That's what Jim Harbaugh did. He signed 14 players in his 2015 transition class at Michigan. He'd been out of the recruiting game for four years, so using caution was the right strategy. Only one of those 14 players has started a game in two seasons.
A year later, for his first full class, Harbaugh signed the nation's No. 1 recruit, Rashan Gary, and 28 more for a Michigan class that ranked No. 6 nationally.
The next class these first-year coaches sign is guaranteed to be stronger. They get to invest a year in evaluating and winning over those recruits. It's an easier sell a year from now. But first, they'll have to get through this transition class with more good finds than fails.