Closing The Book On Kevin Wilson’s Recruiting

It’s the one day a year when we talk about recruiting! With Signing Day now behind us, this seems like the time to take one last comprehensive look at recruiting in the Wilson Era.

Remember as we move through this, I’m just talking about talent acquisition – not development or deployment. So whatever Wilson did or didn’t do with players after they arrived on campus isn’t relevant to this analysis, with one exception: I will note attrition in recruiting classes, meaning players that left the program before their eligibility was up either due to injury, playing time concerns or disciplinary issues.

If we count the 2017 class as a “Wilson” class, which I think we should, since Tom Allen was only responsible for it for the last two months, we have seven total classes from which to form an opinion.[ref] By the way, I understand the inconsistency of counting the 2011 class as a Wilson class when he only had two months, but Wilson made enough changes to that class that I’m comfortable with giving him credit.[/ref] But really, our opinion of Wilson’s recruiting should be based on classes that spent more time under his tutelage. Ideally, we would only consider those classes that have completed their eligibility, but only two classes have done that (2011 and 2012) so we have to look at some incomplete results.

K Dub’s Recruiting by Location

We’ll start by looking at Wilson’s classes geographically. Despite what the good ol’ boys in Rushville[ref] You can pick your favorite Indiana small town to plug in there. Rushville is mine.[/ref] will tell you, this category doesn’t really tell us anything about the quality of Wilson’s recruiting. Still, there’s some interesting trends here:

The first is that the percentage of recruits from Indiana decreased in each class from 2011 to 2016, before bumping back up in 2017. Part of the reason for the decrease in 2014-2016 was the departure of ace Indiana recruiter Mark Hagan, just as part of the reason for the 2017 increase was Hagan’s return. The chart also shows the steady reliance on Florida and Georgia, which ticked up even higher when Tom Allen took over.

As I mentioned earlier, this doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of players Wilson is bringing in, but it does tell us a little about his priorities. The numbers suggest that Wilson did not view in-state recruiting as vital to building his program. He wanted to hold his own in the state and bring in a handful of guys every year, but with the exception of 2013, he didn’t reel in many big fish from Indianapolis, nor did he take players who probably weren’t good enough to play in the B1G just because they were from Indiana. I suspect Wilson recognized that convincing Indiana high school coaches and players that IU doesn’t suck anymore was going to time some time, and he was content to scoop up talent in places like Cincinnati, Florida, Georgia and Texas, where IU’s message wasn’t met with quite the same pre-conceived notions. I also suspect (and have heard) that Wilson may have rubbed some Indiana high school coaches the wrong way. Regardless, Kevin Wilson leaves a program that will be easier for Coach Allen to sell, and Allen seems to have the relationships within Indiana high school football to make sure that message is heard.

Class-By-Class Analysis

  • 2011 – Surprisingly, the numbers for Wilson’s first class stack up pretty well.  At the moment, this class has the highest percentage of players to make an NFL roster, at 22%. It also has the highest percentage of players to start and to complete their eligibility. Some of that has to do with the attrition in previous classes caused by the coaching change, but still, the 2011 class, headlined by Cody Latimer, Shane Wynn, Stephen Houston, Bobby Richardson and Zack Shaw, should be remembered fondly by IU football fans, even if most of them never played in a bowl game. And hey, how about a little love for Bill Lynch for laying the foundation with some of those guys??
  • 2012 – Probably Wilson’s best overall class, with Tevin Coleman, Jason Spriggs, Dan Feeney, Ralph Green, Ricky Jones, Dimitric Camiel, Nick Mangieri and Nate Sudfeld. When it’s all said and done, I expect this class to have the highest number of NFL players.  On the other hand, 8 guys in the class transferred, were forced into retirement due to injury or were kicked out, tying for the most in a class in Wilson’s tenure. This class was also the peak of Wilson’s reliance on the JuCo ranks, apparently fueled by assistant DC Mike Ekeler. Of the 7 JuCo players that IU signed in 2012, 4 started (Cam Coffman, Tim Bennett, David Cooper and Antonio Marshall) and of those, only 2 completed their eligibility at IU.
  • 2013 – The top of the 2013 class was a major disappointment, as the highly-touted Indy trio of Antonio Allen, Darius Latham and David Kenney struggled to live up to the hype. Allen was kicked off the team after two seasons (one of which was cut short by injury), Latham had his moments, but struggled with consistency and David Kenney rarely saw the field in his freshman season before transferring. This class also gave the offense next to nothing – Danny Friend is the only meaningful offensive contributor from the class. On the positive side, this group provided several key members of IU’s 2016 defensive renaissance, including Rashard Fant, Marcus Oliver, Nate Hoff, Patrick Dougherty and Chase Dutra.
  • 2014 – This group has some highlights, in Tegray Scales, Devine Redding and Simmie Cobbs, but like 2012, 8 members of the class transferred, were forced into retirement by injury or were kicked out.  With this class entering its true senior/redshirt junior season, it has the lowest percentage of starters in Wilson’s first 5 classes, at 31%.
  • 2015 – Two seasons in, this class is off to a good start, with more than 80% having already seen the field and only one member of the class lost to injury/transfer/discipline.[ref] But this offseason is about the time that playing time transfers tend to pop up.[/ref] Aside from Jonathan Crawford and Nick Westbrook, that class may be a little lacking in top end talent, but there’s still time for it to show itself – see Camion Patrick, Jacob Robinson, Donovan Hale, Brandon Knight, etc.
  • 2016  – This class came out of the gates fast, with almost half of the 19 members playing as true freshmen. Solid depth at offensive line and wide receiver kept some talented members of this group off the field in 2016 so we should see many more contributors emerge (like Jonah Morris, Taysir Mack and Mackenzie Nworah, to name a few).
  • 2017 – Hard to say what this class ends up looking like if Wilson isn’t let go. Kurt Rafdal possibly stays in the fold, strengthening an already strong in-state class. It’s also possible that some of the late additions from Florida, including QB Nick Tronti, wouldn’t have happened. As it is, many key pieces of this class were in the fold long before Wilson was let go, including Juan Harris, Bryant Fitzgerald, Leshun Minor and Peyton Hendershot. I’m not sure Wilson’s last class will be known for star power, like his 2012 group, but I doubt it will end up as his worst (as the 24-7 composite rankings suggest).

Measuring Quality

In terms of quality, it almost goes without saying that measuring recruiting classes is an inexact science. Ranking high school kids who are at different (and constantly changing) levels of development and maturity and who face vastly different levels of competition is a necessarily flawed endeavor. Aggregating those rankings into class-wide rankings potentially compounds the problem. That being said, there appears to be a correlation between star ranking and player performance, and there is definitely a correlation between having a certain number of highly ranked players and contending for a national championship. And star rankings are really all we’ve got, so we’ll use them here.

First, in terms of individual star ratings, over the course of his tenure, Wilson’s classes became a little more 3-star heavy. Around a quarter of his first few classes were 2-stars, and he brought in 6 4-stars total in the 2013 and 2014 classes. By his last 3 classes, he was bringing in very few 2-stars and no 4-stars. The 2-star/3-star development might have more to do with star inflation by the rating services than anything[ref] And, full disclosure, I started using 24-7’s composite rankings for 2017, which tend to be slightly higher than Rivals, which I used previously.[/ref], but the 4-star dip is worth noting.

Using the 24-7 team rankings, Wilson’s recruiting peaked in 2013 at 42nd in FBS, but fell each season after that. While I would argue that the 2013 class, at least in terms of the ratings of the talent coming out of Indianapolis[ref] I had to add “the ratings of the talent,” because aside from maybe Darius Latham, that class disappointed at the collegiate level.[/ref], was an outlier that set Wilson up for a drop-off, there was still some momentum lost on the recruiting front.

More specifically, my primary criticism of Kevin Wilson, the recruiter, is his inability to translate strong offensive results on the field into higher-level offensive recruits, especially at the skill positions.  Full disclosure – this criticism is partially based on my experiences running a Dynasty in EA Sports’ NCAA football games back in the 2000s, when I would put up gaudy numbers on offense in my first couple seasons at Western Michigan and then watch the high-level talent come rolling in.[ref] I was PJ Fleck years before PJ Fleck even thought about Rowing The Boat.[/ref] But this happens in real life too. Most recently, Oregon and Baylor enhanced their recruiting after showcasing exciting, uptempo offenses.[ref] Both have fallen on hard times – for vastly different reasons – as of late, but the point stands.[/ref] To a lesser extent, Joe Tiller did the same thing at Purdue back in the 90s. Wilson, despite creating an offensive juggernaut, never attracted a high-level QB.  His two best quarterbacks were a hold-over Lynch commit in Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld, who de-committed from Arizona after RichRod was hired and followed offensive coordinator Seth Littrell to Bloomington. When Roberson transferred before the 2014 season, Wilson was left with no answer when Sudfeld went down. Then, when Sudfeld graduated, Wilson had to scramble to find a starter, and while he found a serviceable starter in Richard Lagow, you would like to think that a strong offensive coach like K Dub would have a better option in-house heading into his 6th season.  In addition to QB issues, with the exception of Ricky Jones – who didn’t meaningfully contribute until his redshirt junior season – Wilson entirely whiffed on receivers in 2012 and 2013, which didn’t help the issues the offense faced in 2014 when Sudfeld went down.

Final Grade

One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet: IT’S HARD TO RECRUIT TO IU. While the talent level in Indiana has improved, it’s still not (and will never be) a truly talent-rich state in the mold of Ohio, Texas, California or Florida. What talent is there is poached by the major college football powers within an easy drive of Indianapolis, like Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and many others with more tradition and more consistent success than IU. What’s more, outside of Indiana, prior to Coach Wilson’s arrival, there was no national brand to speak of. At the very least, Wilson created something of a national brand, albeit one that was more often associated with almost beating ranked teams on ESPN and ABC than actually pulling the upset. IU became competitive via an exciting offensive attack. Sure, Wilson might have done more to capitalize on that brand, but he wasn’t exactly the type of charismatic salesman that the best recruiting head coaches tend to be. That being said, Wilson knew the type of players that he needed to compete in the Big Ten East, and he did just well enough on the recruiting front to accomplish that goal. Often that meant getting creative and bringing in guys like Jason Spriggs, who only played tight end in high school, and building him into a tackle. Or taking a kid from Chicago who didn’t touch the ball that much in his high school offense and seeing his potential as a college running back.[ref] You may have heard of him. He plays for the Falcons now.[/ref]

In sum, given the inherent difficulties recruiting at a place like Indiana, Wilson was an above-average recruiter. He had a good eye for talent, and his effort to recruit across the country raised the level of talent coming in the door. That being said, he never built on early recruiting successes, and he struggled to consistently bring in high-level offensive skill talent. He also struggled with attrition in his classes, an issue to which his prickly attitude (to put it mildly) towards injured players likely contributed.

Next week, we’ll examine what we can expect from Tom Allen in terms of recruiting.