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Lone Star State of Things: Charlie Strong, Kyler Murray, and Texas’s Quest for Recruiting Dominance

Texas’s return to elite status could begin next week, on national signing day. But for that to happen, the Longhorns need to flip dual-threat wunderkind Kyler Murray from archrival Texas A&M.

If you asked the 50,000-some students at the University of Texas to pick the next great Longhorns quarterback from the crowd, not many would settle on Kyler Murray — or necessarily notice him at all. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds, Murray looks nothing like the broad-shouldered, square-jawed archetypes Texas tends to pursue, and very much like the legions of baby-faced high school seniors who can usually be spotted in packs, sticking close to their tour guides as they schlep across the grounds for the first time. To the laymen, the Next Big Thing probably looks like just another Average Man on Campus.

In certain corners of the Internet, though, news that the most celebrated 17-year-old in Texas was on the Austin campus earlier this month set off sirens that reverberated across Twitter feeds and message boards. In the insular but obsessive world of college football recruiting, the dual-threat, dual-sport Murray is a kind of rock star, and his brief stopover on the Forty Acres marked a dramatic turn of events: For months, Murray has been considered a lock to sign with UT’s bitter rival, Texas A&M, where he remains verbally committed and where his father, Kevin, was a record-breaking passer in the mid-’80s. But what kind of dyed-in-the-wool Aggie would tweet out a picture of a Longhorns jersey bearing his number, with national signing day looming on February 4,1 and with an uproar sure to follow?

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So much for the status quo. For longtime rivals Texas and Texas A&M, who no longer get to settle their many long-standing differences on the field, this means war.

“I’ve covered this for 15 years and have been around Texas and Texas A&M recruiting, and I don’t remember a more on-edge situation than what we’re seeing right now between two fan bases,” said Jeremy Crabtree, a senior writer for ESPN’s Recruiting Nation. “He is kind of the face of high school football in Texas right now. If [Texas were] able to land a Kyler Murray, then it would be a seismic shift in recruiting. I really think that landing him would be maybe the biggest recruiting win in the state of Texas in 20 years. Even bigger than Adrian Peterson going to Oklahoma, even bigger than Vince Young going to Texas.”

That’s only a slight exaggeration on the standard-issue hyperbole that follows every five-star prospect in every class. But if there’s any coach who could use a big win this winter, it’s Charlie Strong, whose first year at Texas failed to produce nearly enough of them: The 2014 Longhorns finished 6-7, losing blowouts to the three best teams in the Big 12 (Baylor, Kansas State, and TCU) and suffering a humiliating 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. After the bowl defeat, Strong could only fume: “At some point we’ve got to develop and get the pride back in this program.” Whatever optimism existed during the season left town along with the leading rusher (Malcolm Brown), leading receivers (John Harris and Jaxon Shipley), and five of the top seven tacklers. All four Longhorns voted first or second-team All–Big 12 by league coaches2 are on their way out.


2.

Only defensive tackle Malcom Brown was voted first team.

“I don’t think that Charlie Strong is a great believer in the talent that he has on the team right now,” said Ryan Autullo, who covers the Longhorns for the Austin American-Statesman. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to have a [2015] season that most Texas fans, historically, would consider a success, because they’ve lost a lot of really good players. [2014] was the year, quite frankly, for them to win, and then because of injuries and dismissals, they couldn’t get there. Now, I think they really start over. The rebuild really starts in earnest.”

More specifically, it begins on offense, where Texas ranked next-to-last in the Big 12 in 2014 in both yards and points per game, ahead of only Kansas. Even more specifically, it begins at quarterback, where the incumbent, rising junior Tyrone Swoopes, was widely dismissed as a lost cause long before his meltdown in the bowl game. The fan base is desperate for a viable alternative that doesn’t seem to exist on the roster — as are the coaches, although they can’t publicly admit it. And as of last weekend, there’s one fewer option in the mix after four-star prospect Zach Gentry, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound specimen from Albuquerque, New Mexico, backed out of his pledge to the Longhorns in favor of Michigan.

Behind center and elsewhere, the projected depth chart entering spring practice is astonishingly bereft of proven difference-makers or tantalizing up-and-comers. It’s crying out for an infusion of fresh blood. And if that’s going to happen at this late stage in the game, it’s Murray or bust.

“There’s just so much weirdly riding on one guy in this recruiting class,” said Crabtree, who added that a Murray defection would likely create a “Pied Piper–type effect” in its wake, leading a handful of other top-rated players to Austin in a sudden, spectacular windfall. “So many people rally around Kyler that if he ends up in Austin it would be a seismic move. But if he doesn’t, then [it’s], ‘What the heck just happened here? Because we don’t have a great quarterback.’”

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At this point, of course, it’s fair to characterize Texas’s “rebuilding” as a semipermanent state of affairs, an ongoing era unto itself that Strong inherited from his ousted predecessor, Mack Brown. UT hasn’t claimed a conference championship or a major bowl bid since 2009 or had a great quarterback since Colt McCoy was knocked out of the BCS title game on January 7, 2010, with a cruelly timed shoulder injury. That void under center has proven central to the team’s ongoing malaise, but it certainly hasn’t been for a lack of willing and seemingly able candidates. Under Brown, the Longhorns often had the luxury of skipping the signing day drama (manufactured or otherwise) because “Coach February” tended to have the bulk of his recruiting classes wrapped up and neatly filed away with several months to spare, and often without venturing beyond state lines.

Out of 260 Texas signees from 2002 — the first year in Rivals.com’s recruiting database  to 2013, only 22 came from outside Texas, a ratio that would be virtually impossible for an aspiring national contender to replicate in any other state. Among the in-state signees, nearly two-thirds carried a four- or five-star rating from Rivals.com. Including walk-ons, the roster Strong inherited last winter featured just 10 out-of-state players. For a solid decade, Brown had the most coveted prospects in the most talent-rich state in the nation on lockdown.

Even before Brown was sent packing, though, it was obvious how unsustainable that run of in-state recruiting dominance had become without the sterling record to back it up. Increasingly, the overhyped hauls in Austin yielded diminishing returns, while Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel — less heralded high school talents that Brown and the recruiting sites had infamously overlooked — were in the process of turning Baylor and Texas A&M into real options for the kind of players who would have been sucked directly into the Longhorn pipeline just a year or two before. In College Station, the combination of Manziel, the Aggies’ defiant defection to the SEC, and a gonzo offense installed by head coach Kevin Sumlin turned the tables seemingly overnight. Beginning with the last full class to sign up under Brown, in 2013, the air of inevitability that used to accompany him into the locker rooms and living rooms of the state’s top prospects was long gone, and Strong has yet to make up any of the ground the Longhorns lost in the transition:

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Strong hasn’t enjoyed the luxury of taking anything for granted within state lines, and compared to Brown his efforts have been downright cosmopolitan. Strong’s first class, hastily cobbled together in the wake of Brown’s departure in December 2013, included five out-of-state signees and a Canadian (tight end Blake Whiteley) by way of an Arizona junior college. Before Murray’s unexpected visit hijacked the thread, the most notable trend in Texas’s 2015 class was the sudden spike in interest from prospects in Florida, where longtime Gators assistant Strong has much deeper ties than he’s managed to forge yet in Texas, and where he’s putting those ties to good use.

The Longhorns currently have commitments from four of the targets that make up the “Florida Five,” a quintet of touted Florida prospects who visited the UT campus on the same weekend last November, marking a radical development in a state the previous UT administration ignored. In his last job, Strong revived Louisville’s lagging fortunes by tapping a pipeline of talent from south Florida, including his face-of-the-program quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. Texas didn’t sign a single Floridian in Brown’s 16-year tenure. Thanks to Strong’s push with the Florida Five, however, that’s changing: Wide receiver John Burt, cornerback Davante Davis, linebacker Cecil Cherry, and exceptionally named tight end Devonaire Clarington remain in the fold, although Burt has waffled on his pledge over the past few weeks. The fifth member of the group, safety Tim Irvin — Michael Irvin’s nephew — recently defected to Auburn.

On one level, the notion of finally expanding the program’s reach into one of only two other states (along with California) that can come close to matching Texas blue chip for blue chip is encouraging. “If Strong’s ties were in Minnesota, and he was going to Minnesota to get players, I’d be concerned,” Autullo said. “But when your ties are in Florida, you have to tap those pipelines.” On the other hand, the previous administration never had any incentive to cultivate the Sunshine State or any other ostensible hotbed because Brown could always count on getting the same caliber of players closer to home. So while Strong’s foray into Florida signals a healthy willingness to expand, there’s also a darker interpretation: The further Strong and his staff venture outside of state lines, the more apparent it is they’re struggling to regain their grip within them. Aside from the no. 1 overall prospect in Texas, linebacker Malik Jefferson of Mesquite, the Longhorns don’t have a commitment from any of the state’s other top 10 players in the class of 2015.

“Some of these kids they’ve got coming in from Florida are tremendously talented, but in the end I think [Strong] is going to be judged on how he does against Texas A&M in his own backyard,” Crabtree said. “I think A&M has kind of dominated the landscape for the last three recruiting classes, which is why Kyler Murray and these last few guys are so important to the future of Texas and Texas A&M recruiting. Because if Texas gets these guys, then it changes things; it gives them the momentum and lets them get that swagger back in-state that has been missing. A&M fans love to use the hashtag ‘We run this state,’ and to be very honest they kind of have in the recruiting wars. Just ask any high school football coach in the state of Texas.”

kyler-murray-2-triLM Otero/AP

Because recruiting is a kind of educated gambling on the future, all forecasts are marred by caveats and fine print. To the uninitiated, the fever pitch surrounding the latest crop of precocious teenagers can seem like a bizarre sideshow, an exercise in hype for hype’s sake that culminates every year on the first Wednesday of February in the overblown roll call that is signing day. But no one who’s been sucked into the vagaries of recruiting is in it strictly for the end result. For the obsessive subculture that sustains the recruiting-industrial complex, the signature that marks the beginning of a college career is really the last step in a long, often awkward dance, and in many ways the most anticlimactic. The pursuit of an intensely sought-after player like Murray isn’t interesting solely because of what he can bring to the table, but also because of what landing him says about the general well-being and attractiveness of a given team.

Murray, who won’t turn 18 until August, received his first scholarship offer at the age of 15 and has been verbally committed to Texas A&M since last spring. In December, he led Allen High, located just north of Dallas, to its third consecutive state championship in Texas’s largest classification, finishing off an undefeated (43-0) career as the Eagles starting quarterback. In his senior year alone, he accounted for nearly 6,200 total yards and 79 touchdowns and was named the national player of the year by Gatorade and USA Today. He boasts nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter. Many of those followers have exhorted Murray to choose their school.

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At recruiting’s most absurd, even the most trivial whims of would-be teenage messiahs can carry enough weight to generate headlines, and occasionally to drive grown men into humiliatingly public slap fights on social media. When Murray showed up to an awards banquet last week wearing an orange tie, he was obliged to reassure A&M fans that his sartorial sense on a random Thursday afternoon wasn’t a sign of shifting allegiances about his future: “It goes with brown,” he said.

In Murray’s case, though, there may be much more riding on his decision than his eventual, individual impact on the field. Unlike Peterson and Young, who both arrived on campus as the undisputed, no. 1 overall player in their respective recruiting classes, Murray ranks behind 32 other prospects nationally and four others in the state of Texas in 247Sports’s composite rankings, which incorporate the opinions of multiple outlets. And just as UT has muscled its way into the running for Murray’s signature, so has Oregon. There are natural concerns about his size, and especially about the possibility — remote, but real — that he’ll choose to abandon football altogether in the fall to pursue pro baseball: As if the gridiron accolades weren’t proof enough of his over-the-top athleticism, Murray is also being touted as a first-round talent in this summer’s MLB draft, a status that could be worth millions of dollars.

Beyond his obvious potential, though, Murray is also a blank slate onto which years of collective anxiety can be projected. Is A&M’s resurgence on the recruiting trail as stable as it appears? Is Texas still capable of winning over the in-state players it covets most? Are the Longhorns resigned to sharing the spoils for the foreseeable future, or will they finally have something to feel really good about after years of losing ground?

And most importantly in the short term: If Murray does choose Texas, is his talent really magnetic enough to attract a small battery of fellow blue-chippers in his wake, as everyone in the recruiting business seems to believe?

“I think the Murray decision is going to have a domino effect, to some degree,” Autello said. “Daylon Mack, who’s a five-star defensive tackle, was not interested in Texas before Murray made his surprise visit. Murray made that surprise visit with Damarkus Lodge, who’s the top receiver in the state. And then the top running back in the state, Soso Jamabo of Plano West, also seems tied to that Murray decision. So to recap, Murray, the top quarterback, could also bring the top defensive tackle, the top wide receiver, [and] the top running back in the state.”

It’s a testament to just how far behind the curve Texas had fallen with the cream of the crop that everyone I talked to who follows UT recruiting commended Strong and his staff for clawing their way back into the discussion in the homestretch, for the dogged work they’ve put in just to have a chance at a banner class. If those efforts fall short a week from now, Texas may still be able to claim the best incoming class in the Big 12, but it will suit up for its season opener at Notre Dame under the specter of “rebuilding,” and it will be hoping against hope to stumble across a solution at quarterback while time is on Strong’s side. Because without a tangible step forward on the field, it won’t be for very long.

If, however, Murray does cross the Rubicon from A&M to UT on signing day and brings some combination of Jamabo, Mack, and Lodge with him, that narrative will shift overnight. Finally, Strong’s reclamation project will have a foundation on which to build. Even if an influx of young talent fails to deliver immediate results, another mediocre campaign will be easier to swallow if it can be chalked up to growing pains. At least Texas fans, impatient as they may be, will see a future worth looking forward to, and one that involves competing for Big 12 and national championships. In the long run, a little sizzle doesn’t necessarily promise a steak, and high expectations come with their own set of problems if things don’t unfold according to plan. But it certainly beats the alternative.