September 18, 2007

Quarterback dominoes fall quickly

The following is an exclusive excerpt provided to Rivals.com from Bruce Feldman's new book, Meat Market. In the book and in the excerpts to follow on Rivals.com, Feldman gives an inside look at the recruiting process thanks to almost unlimited access to the Ole Miss coaching staff while they were recruiting the class of 2007.

Coming later this week:
Wednesday: Part II
Thursday: Part III
Friday: Chat with the author, 10 a.m.

On April 5, 2006, the first domino in the class of 2007 recruiting season toppled. It wasn't Jimmy Clausen. It was John Brantley, a wiry QB from Ocala with a born-and-bred-to-be-a-Florida Gator pedigree, who announced at a press conference at Ocala's Trinity Catholic High that he was excited to be a … Texas Longhorn?

Part of Texas' winning sales pitch to Brantley had been a promise that he could redshirt his first season in Austin. His family, especially his father, a former Gator QB, liked that since it would give Brantley a chance to develop physically while also getting a better grasp on the Longhorn offense. The kind of thing that might push one guy away—in this case, a relaxed timetable—can be the exact thing that draws another guy in.

As any top salesman will tell you, it's all in the details.

Texas was now out of the quarterback-recruiting hunt, which meant that 6'7", 240-pound Ryan Mallett from Texarkana, Texas, who had reportedly been given a deadline by the Longhorns, would have to take his cannon arm elsewhere. Of course, the really big news would come two weeks later, when Clausen would announce his college choice. But every time a major domino falls, everybody flashes to the others in line for any hint of movement.

Since the recruiting boom collided with the Internet in the late 1990s, press conferences for blue-chip prospects announcing their college choices have taken on a surreal quality. A wide-eyed teenager, clad in his high school football jersey, stands in front of a make-shift podium and, with what passes for a dramatic flourish, reaches into his duffel bag and pulls out a cap emblazoned with the logo of the college he's selected. If the kid is particularly cocky, maybe he extends the moment by trying on caps of the other finalists before finally settling on the lucky one. Or he yanks off his high school jersey to reveal the shirt of his new team.

Clausen's announcement on April 22, however, would take this mini reality-show format to another level, only without any pseudo suspense. Word had gotten out to members of the college football beat that Clausen was picking Notre Dame. The source was a Los Angeles-area PR firm, which sent out a cryptic e-mail saying: "A major college recruiting announcement will be made this coming Saturday ... at the College Football Hall of Fame."

See, the College Football Hall of Fame is in South Bend, Indiana, which happens to be the home of Notre Dame, and the day Clausen was going to announce where he was going to play college football was, not so coincidentally, the day the Fighting Irish were playing their spring football game.

On the big day, Clausen pulled up at the steps of the Hall of Fame in a white stretch Hummer limo accompanied by a 16-member entourage and with an ESPN television crew tracking his every move. About 50 folding chairs had been set up in a second-floor room that soon swelled with five times that many people. Behind the back row was a cadre of TV cameras. All around the room, Hall of Fame staffers were whispering into walkie-talkies. They must have done five sound checks into the microphone at the podium before Clausen, dressed in a charcoal suit, white shirt, and gold tie, entered the room to a half-minute of applause.

Three hundred die-hard Domers hung on (and then cheered) his every word. And Internet recruiting gurus hammered away at their keyboards trying to put the moment into some perspective.

"How big is Jimmy Clausen's commitment to Notre Dame?" Mike Farrell, the lead recruiting writer for Rivals.com, answered his own question: "It's A-Rod to the Yankees, TO to the Cowboys, and Shaq to the Heat. It's the Great One to the LA Kings, Tiger winning the Masters, Hagler-Hearns. In the college football recruiting world, this is as big as it gets."

Maybe even bigger.

The Clausen announcement kicked off a flurry of activity in college football's annual quest for the Holy Grail, i.e., a can't-miss, surefire, quarterback who would guarantee a national title. Two days later, Mallett announced that he was going to Michigan. The same day, Virginia's Peter Lalich chose the home-state Cavaliers. Three days after that, Mike Paulus picked North Carolina, saying that he felt comfortable with the Tar Heels coaching staff and that it'd be great to be close to his brother Greg, a basketball player at Duke, just a few miles down the road.

Paulus's decision stung Ole Miss. The Rebels had been very high on the kid from Syracuse. Just a day before Paulus's announcement, Dan Werner had been up north trying to show interest.

Twenty-four hours later it was "Okay, who's next on the board?"


Paulus's decision stung Ole Miss. The Rebels had been very high on the kid from Syracuse. Just a day before Paulus's announcement, Dan Werner had been up north trying to show interest. Twenty-four hours later it was, "Okay, who's next on the board?"

Within two weeks of Clausen's announcement, three more top quarterbacks declared their intentions: Aaron Corp and Samson Szakacsy, a pair of lanky Californians whom Ole Miss had also targeted, to USC; and Pat Bostick, the top high school quarterback in Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh.

Just like that, the pool of elite QB targets had drained considerably. The only names still at the top of the Ole Miss quarterback board by the end of April were long-haired Tampa gunslinger Stephen Garcia and Nick Foles, from Austin.

The responsibility to land one or the other fell squarely on Werner. Alone among coaches on the Rebels staff, he had no other positions to monitor. Just quarterbacks. That's a little like saying a surgeon's responsible for "just brains," but at least Werner didn't have to worry about DBs or OTs. Just quarterbacks.

Werner had been text-messaging Garcia and Foles and their fathers weekly touting Ole Miss. At the very least, Werner and Orgeron would like to get them to come to Oxford for the Ole Miss summer camp so each side could get better acquainted with one another.

The Rebels liked Foles, but they loved Garcia. Those feelings had crystallized between February and April to the point that Orgeron conceded it might be Garcia or bust. He said he probably wouldn't sign a quarterback just to sign a quarterback. Most programs sign a QB in every class. Ole Miss however, had too many other needs, and because the Rebels' scholarship numbers were still far below the 85-man NCAA limit, Orgeron wasn't sure he wanted to spend one on a player he doubted would play before 2010—if at all.

Orgeron was still trying to build his scholarship numbers back after the attrition that, as with most coaching changes, came in the wake of his arrival in Oxford. While having that extra scholarship room sounds like a good thing, it's not. The NCAA caps the number of scholarship players each program can add at 25 per year, making it impossible to build back a program right away.

In Orgeron's first year at Ole Miss, his offensive coordinator/QB coach at the time sold him on a 6'5", 215-pound "sleeper" from St. Petersburg named Billy Tapp. Unfortunately, Tapp arrived on campus flinging wobbly ducks in summer workouts and was now a long shot ever to compete for the QB job. Meanwhile, the offense floundered, and Orgeron canned the offensive coordinator before the 2005 season even ended.

"I don't wanna just settle, Dan," Orgeron said to Werner in April as he flashed a red laser pointer at the bottom of the Rebels quarterback depth chart. "What we absolutely don't need is to get another guy who fits into this mode."

But what about the rule of thumb that you always take a quarterback in every recruiting class?

"Let's see how Herrick and Davis do before we take a guy who's only 'above average,' " Orgeron continued. He was referring to Michael Herrick, an undersized incoming freshman from California, and Cliff Davis, a former Alabama recruit set to arrive on campus in the summer after having spent the past three years playing minor league baseball for the Houston Astros.

Orgeron's command decision: "Let's go get Garcia!"

Werner, sitting three seats away, nodded his head, but the expression on his face was anything but assured.

From what the Rebels staff had seen on film, Garcia was more athletic than Foles and had a stronger arm. He was raw, but he had more "upside." Foles's stock had dropped in the winter, even though the kid hadn't played a game since November. It was just that other quarterbacks had emerged to overshadow him, and Garcia especially had surged—in their eyes.

And the word circulating that Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks apparently had also made Garcia a top priority after losing out on Clausen? All the better—that just made Orgeron's recruiting juices flow even faster.

"We have got to beat the Spurrier mystique," Orgeron said after Werner left the war room. "It's gonna be tough, especially in Tampa. That's Gator country." And still Spurrier country, but he didn't need to add that.

Foles played for Westlake, a ritzy Austin high school with facilities better than at some Division I colleges. As a junior, the 6'5", 240-pound Foles had thrown for over 2,353 yards and had 23 touchdowns with just six interceptions. Foles hadn't taken the ACT yet, but he sported a 4.0 GPA, a huge plus in Werner's mind.

He believed top QBs were usually excellent students; it showed that they were hard workers and that they processed information well. Two of his former star quarterbacks at Miami, Steve Walsh and Ken Dorsey, were examples that Werner mentioned every time the subject came up.

The Rebels were the first school to offer Foles a scholarship and they felt like he was close to committing—although now, the way things had unfolded, that wasn't such a good thing for Ole Miss.

The Rebels had offered Foles in early January as part of Orgeron's "get in the boat" theory. He believed that to get on the radar of a top out-of-state prospect you needed to make some kind of early commitment to him. The strength of that commitment could (and often did) vary as the recruiting season unfolded. In this case, once the quarterback dominoes began to fall, the Rebels determined that Garcia was a viable option, and so they began to "slow play" Foles. This meant not texting him so often or writing him so many letters.

Ideally, the Rebels would have waited until the summer to accept any commitments from recruits. That way, they would have been able to bring Garcia and Foles to their summer camp, the better to evaluate them side by side. But quarterbacks were committing much earlier these days—witness Clausen—and the ensuing domino effect was making the "up close and personal" look all but a thing of the past. The ideal wasn't an option.

That's why Orgeron was driving his staff so hard to get earlier evaluations of prospects. At USC, it was important to be on the front end of the curve. At a rebuilding program like Ole Miss, it was vital to be the one establishing the curve. By April 1, 2004—the last year Orgeron was the Trojans recruiting coordinator—USC had offered 12 players. By April 1, 2006, Orgeron's Rebels had offered more than 10 times that number.

Coming Wednesday: Part II: Foles or Garcia a better fit for Ole Miss?

Excerpted from Meat Market by Bruce Feldman (ESPN Books). Feldman is also the author of Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment.

His articles have been cited in several editions of The Best American Sports Writing, and he has won first-place awards in contests sponsored by the Football Writers Association of America. Meat Market can be purchased by clicking here.





 

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