Out side of the beat writers, I've not been interested in quoting what the local media says about USF because normally it isn't worth the time. Bulls football is pretty far down the Tampa Bay sports hierarchy -- behind the Bucs and Rays, and probably below Florida and maybe below FSU. So when columnists write about USF, they tend to make broad (and often inaccurate) generalizations, or maybe they don't have enough space to fully explain their position.
I think that happened to Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg Times when he filed a column from Charlotte after the bowl game. Shelton managed to wind Skip Holtz up by asking what's going on with the 2011 recruiting class, as if it should be a lot better than it is.
Ah, but here's the burning question: Can Holtz take the Bulls from here to the next level?
There were shortcomings to this Bulls team. It wasn't particularly fast, and it wasn't particularly nasty, and NFL scouts don't seem overly impressed with the talent. In other words, there is a lot of recruiting to do, and so far, those who tend to grade recruiting in December seem underwhelmed.
"I'm not trying to win February," Holtz said, an edge rising in his voice. "I want to win in the fall. Too many people are trying to win in February, and they're chasing stars. I feel great about the players who have made the decision to commit here. How someone else grades them is irrelevant to me."
I kind of disagree with both of them, although I mostly want to contest Shelton's opinion. There is at least some value in winning February because of the buzz it can generate among fans and future recruits. But when I check the numbers, I don't see how this class is any different than the last few that Jim Leavitt brought in.
Let's look at the progression from 2006 to the present. To level out Leavitt's tendency to oversign, I'm not going to bother with overall rankings or scores, just the average stars. And as I'm sure you know, stars are not a reliable indicator of how good a player is going to be, but it's a decent enough measurement for what I'm trying to prove.
2011 verbals - Rivals average 2.93*, Scout average 2.53
2010 commits - Rivals average 2.84**, Scout average 2.74**
2009 commits - Rivals average 2.96, Scout average 2.87
2008 commits - Rivals average 2.54, Scout average 2.64
2007 commits - Rivals average 2.46***, Scout average 2.52***
2006 commits - Rivals average 2.36, Scout average 2.26****
* - Ty Turner and Brynjar Gudmundsson have not been rated by Rivals.
** - T.J. Knowles had no star rating.
*** - Does not include Carlton Hill, who committed but did not sign.
**** - Kevin Williams had no star rating.
There's an abnormal amount of disagreement because Rivals and Scout this year, but even if you split the difference in half, the numbers are right near the level of the 2009 and 2010 classes. There are also a lot of mitigating factors here, too... some really obvious, and some a little more subtle.
1. Recruiting isn't over yet. Like I said, some of these are really obvious. There are still several upper-tier recruits on USF's list that we may not know their destination before signing day (like Andre Davis and Anthony Chickillo, to name a couple).
2. Several of USF's big-star recruits have come from junior college, like David Bedford, Jason Pierre-Paul, Claude Davis, Jacquian Williams, and Craig Marshall. Skip Holtz hasn't shown an inclination yet to plumb the ranks of the junior and community colleges to find players, and I'm not sure he suddenly will. Only one of the current USF commits for 2011 is coming from a JC or CC, and nearly all of the players that we know are still on their recruiting board are high schoolers as well.
3. Darrell Scott, Dontae Aycock, and Spencer Boyd are essentially part of this recruiting class. Scott was a 5* in both Rivals and Scout as part of Colorado's 2008 class. Aycock was a 4* in Rivals and 3* in Scout when Auburn signed him in 2009, and Boyd was a 3* in both Rivals and Scout at Notre Dame in 2010. If USF were signing a high school player like Darrell Scott this year (he was the #1 running back recruit in the country when he signed with Colorado), it would make for banner headlines.
4. The two 4* recruits from last year (Terrence Mitchell and Todd Chandler, who mysteriously dropped to a 3* from Scout a week or so before signing day) didn't make their final commitment to USF until after Skip Holtz had taken over as coach. Both of them flipped over to the Bulls at the last minute. In a few weeks, we'll see what kind of closing ability Holtz and his staff have when they've been working on these recruits for an entire year, instead of trying to get commitments when you haven't even had enough time to unpack your office.
5. You still have to coach these recruits when they get to campus. Would you rather have Holtz's staff do that, or the impending chaos in Morgantown this year, or whatever emerges from the dumpster fire in Pittsburgh?
6. The math that a site like Rivals uses to calcuate their rankings is complicated, but it seems to favor teams that sign more players (I'm looking at you, SEC). If all their current commits end up signing, USF will already be over the 85-scholarship limit. They only have 16 open scholarships for next year and already 17 commits. I don't think they'll take too many more players than they already have.
Here's the thing: the Rivals calcuation only includes the top 20 recruits. Let's say you're a school that rhymes with Hole Swiss. You aren't at all concerned about oversigning and you sign, I don't know, 37 recruits. Then odds are your top 20 will be rated a little bit higher than the entire class of a school that only signs 20. Only a little bit, not like an entire star difference, but it can artificially move you up quite a few places in a ranking.
7. "Lackluster" compared to who? Florida and FSU? That's completely unfair and unrealistic. FSU might end up with the #1 class in the country, and Florida can still get pretty much anyone it wants even after Urban Meyer stepped down. And I can't imagine a scenario in which Shelton would just ask that question without being interested in it himself. Which leads me to believe that Shelton is one of "those who tend to grade recruiting in December", because otherwise he wouldn't have any reason to pose that question and get that answer out of Holtz.
8. This is just the kind of program USF is right now. It's one where you get mainly three-star recruits, a couple of fours, a five if you get lucky, and a few twos. It's also around the level where every other program is in the Big East right now, and has been for several years. (With the obvious exception of Pittsburgh, but that's clearly about to change.) Even when Bobby Petrino and Rich Rodriguez were building potential juggernauts at Louisville and West Virginia, they weren't recruiting at too much higher a level than USF is right now.
The point is that USF is still making slow, steady, program-building progress. This goes back to what I said about patience. The football team's trend line can't just go straight up forever -- we're at the stage where progress slows down. Unless you have a crazy 13-0 season or you start cheating heavily, you don't just suddenly jump way up in recruiting prestige at this level.
My opinion is that Holtz is recruiting at about the level you would expect a program in USF's position to recruit. Over time, as the team hopefully improves and Holtz and the staff continue to build their own relationships (remember, they didn't start canvassing the state's high schools until May), they can mix those with some of their own accomplishments on the recruiting trail to raise their profile. For now, though, I'm not calling anything lackluster.