Jeff Scott’s first season hasn’t been good, and Charlie Strong’s recruiting is getting a lot of the blame.
With that in mind, let’s do another deep review of USF’s past recruiting classes, and see what went wrong and what went right with each. Longtime readers will remember that we have done these deep dives in the past, covering USF’s recruiting classes all the way back to 2002!
For this article, I’ll briefly summarize each USF recruiting class from 2002 to 2014, and then do full reviews of the 2015 and later classes. If you want to read fuller reviews of past classes, read the the 2013 version of this story for the 2002-2008 classes, and the 2017 version of this story for the 2009 through 2014 classes. The 2013 and 2014 classes weren’t done playing yet, but the preliminary grades I gave at the time held up. (Both classes were amazingly successful.)
2002: Stephen Nicholas and little else. Definitely Leavitt’s worst class. I originally gave this class an F, but that was a little harsh. Nicholas was a star who would become an NFL starter, and this class also delivered a few contributors to USF’s first bowl team, including its QB Pat Julmiste. Grade: D-.
2003: USF signing Mike Jenkins away from Nebraska raised the bar of what was possible at USF. He became a program great and a first-round NFL draft pick. This class also had Ben Moffitt, Patrick St. Louis, Trae Williams, S.J. Green, Allen Cray, and offensive lineman Walter Walker. But like many classes under Jim Leavitt, its most-touted recruits washed out. Grade: B.
2004: Junior college transfer Andre Hall was an all-time USF great. This solid class found a lot of starters for USF’s early Big East teams, like Danny Verpaele, Louis Gachette, Marc Dile, Marcus Edwards, Jarrette Buie, and Richard Clebert. But again, a lot of failures at the top. Hall was a superhero who needed a sidekick. Grade: B.
2005: Carlton Hill was supposed to be the answer to USF’s quarterback problems, but fortunately USF also signed 2-star QB Matt Grothe. And 2-star offensive lineman George Selvie, whom Leavitt thought might be better on defense. He was. Also: Amarri Jackson, Moise Plancher, Jessie Hester Jr., Taurus Johnson, Tyller Roberts, and Thed Watson came in this class. Most had middling recruiting grades. Probably Leavitt’s best class. I gave it an A+ originally, but now I think it falls a little short due to a lack of depth compared to Taggart’s two great classes. Grade: A.
2006: Leavitt continued to find stars among two-star recruits, this time Nate Allen and Jerrell Young. Delbert Alvarado helped define the personality of USF’s best teams. Receiver/return man Carlton Mitchell had three solid years before turning pro. But this class had a lot of attrition, which will become a huge problem in the Holtz era. Grade: C.
2007: USF signed its only 5-star recruit in Mike Ford. He played running back like a man among boys, but was in and out of Leavitt’s doghouse, and ultimately dismissed from the program. Leavitt kept finding hidden gems and solid starters: Dontavia Bogan, Sampson Genus, Jeremiah Warren, Patrick Hampton and:
Oh Kevin McCaskill, you will live forever in USF fans’ hearts because of that moment. The rest of this class, not as much, because once again its highest-rated recruits failed to pan out. Grade: C-
2008: This class found B.J. Daniels, an all-time great who led USF to a win at Florida State in his first college game. If that’s not awesome enough for you, it also found Michael Lanaris, Evan Landi, Mark Popek, Danous Estenor, and several other contributors. A deep, productive class with a superstar QB we really should have appreciated more. Grade: A.
2009: Jim Leavitt’s second seminal recruit was Ryne Giddins: a local four-star talent whom the big in-state schools legitimately wanted. He also continued finding stars in junior college, with Jason Pierre-Paul and Jacquian Williams. This class also included Kayvon Webster, DeDe Latimore, Lindsey Lamar, and Sam Barrington. So why is this not a great class? It was a very large class, and 18 or so other names accomplished little.
This was the first class that created serious problems for USF down the line, because Skip Holtz’s classes and junior college replacements failed to restock the roster. This is a hard class to grade because it had so much right and so much wrong. Grade: B-minus.
2010: Skip Holtz’s first recruiting class. And he won national praise for keeping almost all of Leavitt’s recruits committed to USF after the coaching change. This class worked out like most of Leavitt’s classes: several solid players but a little too much attrition. Elite recruit Todd Chandler was a good defensive tackle, and Terrence Mitchell had one good year before injuries and suspensions derailed his career.
But the problem with this class is who it didn’t include.
Skip Holtz’s original sin at USF was his mishandling of QB Brion Carnes. Leavitt had spent three years building USF’s relationship with Carnes, but Holtz abruptly yanked Carnes’ offer to sign his preferred quarterback, Jamius Gunsby. Gunsby left after one year and never saw the field anywhere. Carnes was forced to go to Nebraska, and when B.J. Daniels got hurt, the quarterback position fell into dire straits. (Side note: Willie Taggart tried to recruit Carnes to Western Kentucky, so he would have been delighted to inherit him at USF.) Holtz also turned away four-star running back Adaris Bellamy, a 2009 signing who missed grades and wanted to rejoin USF out of prep school. Four-year transfers Darrell Scott (Colorado) and Dontae Aycock (Auburn) didn’t help.
This class isn’t the worst ever, but Holtz whiffed hard on the skill positions. There was still too much attrition (6 of 19 signees never played a game), and local high school coaches were starting to grumble. I gave it a D-minus before, but I now think that’s too low for a class that had some pretty talented players including Austin Reiter, Reshard Cliett, and Quinterrius Eatmon. Grade: D+.
2011: For the second straight year, the elite recruits panned out. USF surprisingly landed the late Elkino Watson away from UM. Wide receiver Andre Davis also became a program great. This line-heavy class also included Brynjar Gudmundsson, Darrell Williams, and Thor Jozwiak. Other than that, practically nothing. For the third year in a row, far too many players left early, or hung around forever and never developed. Grade: D.
2012: USF was coming off a 5-7 Big East season that could be passed off as a down year, and the conference hadn’t imploded yet. Holtz still had time to turn things around. He needed a strong class... and got one of the worst in school history. For the fourth straight year, a large number of players left early, and relatively few became solid starters (Sean Price, Kofi Amichia). Holtz’s attempt to plug past holes via the junior college route also failed. This class sealed the program’s doom. Grade: F.
2013: Hello, Willie Taggart. And boy, was he the right guy for the job. His first class included Deadrin Senat, Dominique Threatt, Bruce Hector, Mike Love, Nigel Harris, Auggie Sanchez, Jeremi Hall, Cameron Ruff, Emilio Nadelman, and several other starters and contributors. Elite signings Derrick Calloway and Lamar Robbins didn’t yield fruit, but this is exactly the class USF needed: a large number of talented new players across the roster who came and stayed. This class, and the next two, fully restocked the roster with talent. And for the cherry on top: USF started finding useful junior college players again. Grade: A+.
2014: Marlon Mack, Quinton Flowers, D’Ernest Johnson, Deatrick Nichols, Devin Abraham, Jamie Byrd, Kevin Bronson, Mazzi Wilkins, Kano Dillon, and about ten other starters and contributors. We all know the mid-late 2010s teams didn’t quite reach the heights they wanted to, but it sure wasn’t a recruiting problem. Like his first class, Taggart’s second class found 15-20 useful players and had very little attrition. But this class brought a cache of superstars like USF had never seen. By far USF’s best recruiting class. Grade: A+.
At this point in the story I will switch to the long form breakdowns I used previously. This is my first review of these classes after their careers ended. How good were they?
2015: (0 ****, 12 ***, 58th nationally)
BLUE CHIPPERS: After USF let the Big East for the AAC, 4-star signings became a lot less frequent. USF’s BCS status (remember that?) elevated the school’s recruiting clout, and Leavitt was always willing to take chances on head cases. So this class had no signings that were really head-and-shoulders above the crowd. TE Mitchell Wilcox, LB Nico Sawtelle, LB Danny Thomas, and DB Khalid McGee were the highest rated.
HIDDEN GEMS: S Jaymon Thomas, and and DE Kirk Livingstone were all 2-star signees.
OTHER CONTRIBUTORS: DB Ronnie Hoggins, OL Billy Atterbury, OL Marcus Norman.
BUSTS: Very few. DeAngelo Antoine was part of Charlie Strong’s post-Gasparilla Bowl purge, and played for FAU in 2019.
ANALYSIS: Taggart’s last class at USF was perfectly fine. It was small (only 20 signees), but produced more than its share of quality players. Almost everyone stayed around, and at least became a part-time player. A few too many players got lost in the depth chart, like WRs Chris Barr and Jordan Reed, but that’s a good problem to have. Grade: A-.
2016: (2 ****, 9 ***, 70th nationally)
BLUE CHIPPERS: WR Darnell Salomon and DB Craig Watts were the four-star signings. DB Armunz Matthews was also considered a “get.” DB Mike Hampton would become a three-year starter at cornerback.
HIDDEN GEMS: OL Michael Wiggs was a 2-star signing. As of this writing, he has played in 23 games for USF, starting 12.
OTHER CONTRIBUTORS: WR DeVontres Odoms-Dukes was named in Charlie Strong’s purge, and considered leaving anyway, but earned his way back into a key role as a senior.
STILL ON THE ROSTER: Hampton, Wiggs, Odoms-Dukes.
BUSTS: Everyone except those three.
ANALYSIS: And here’s where USF’s current problems began. My colleague Nathan Bond wrote this class up a year ago. Even then, 12 of 16 players were already gone or never arrived. The 13th player, Christion Gainer, appeared in only one game, and didn’t return after Hurricane Michael damaged his home in 2018. This class is almost a complete zero. Grade: F.
2017 (0 ****, 10 ***, 69th nationally)
BLUE CHIPPERS: Like 2015, there was no big name. DB Nick Roberts, DB Naytron Culpepper and WR Kevaughn Dingle had the highest ratings on Rivals.
HIDDEN GEMS: DT Kevin Kegler, DT Kelvin Pinkney, and DB Mekhi Lapointe were all 2-star recruits.
OTHER CONTRIBUTORS: OL Demetrius Harris, DB Nick Roberts
STILL ON THE ROSTER: Lapointe, Harris, Kegler, Pinkney, WR Randall St. Felix, WR Jernard Phillips, TE Frederick Lloyd, OL Jean Marcellus, DE Darrien Grant, DB Bentlee Sanders. Roberts and DE Jabreel Stephens entered the transfer portal during the 2020 season.
BUSTS: Duran Bell, Donnell Thomas, Naytron Culpepper and Jeremiah Stafford were all named in Charlie Strong’s “good washing” of the roster after the Gasparilla Bowl. Dingle left after an arrest, though all charges were later dropped. Chauncy Smart chose to focus on track, went to Miami, transferred to Idaho for football, and is no longer with that team.
ANALYSIS: Ten players are still on the roster in their fourth year, but few have developed. Demetris Harris is a three-year starter at offensive line, but that area is not a team strength right now. Roberts an was inconsistent starter before leaving the program mid-2020. Kegler and Pinkney are true seniors and rotation players. Lloyd and Marcellus have barely seen the field. Phillips opted out of the 2020 season and has already graduated, so he may not be back. That leaves Harris, DBs Lapointe and Sanders, DE Grant, and WR St. Felix to provide any additional value beyond 2020. Midterm Grade: F
2018 (0****, 17 ***, 58th nationally)
BLUE CHIPPERS: DE Stacy Kirby was rated a notch ahead of several other players.
HIDDEN GEMS: Terrence Horne, who almost single-handedly won the Georgia Tech game in 2018, was a 2-star signing. Johnny Ford was generously listed at 5-foot-7.
OTHER CONTRIBUTORS: OL Brad Cecil (24 career starts, including 5 in 2020), OL Donovan Jennings (16/4), QB Jordan McCloud (14/5), DE Rashawn Yates (14/6), LB Dwayne Boyles (14/3), LB Antonio Grier (11/5), DB Vincent Davis (9/6), Ford (8/4), Horne (1 start at WR in 2019), P Trent Schneider.
STILL ON THE ROSTER: The 11 players already mentioned, plus: LB Brian Norris, LB Keyon Helton, LB Randal Copeland, DT Tyrone Barber, TE Chris Carter, OL Sebastian Sainterling. Two more players, DB Eugene Bowman and DT John Waller, opted out of the 2020 season.
BUSTS: DT Devin Leacock, OL Ethan Watson (medical retirement), DB Jujuan Cherry, LB Trey Laing, QB Octavious Battle (now at Tennessee State) and DL Armon Williams (dismissed by Charlie Strong) all left the program after 2018. WR Zion Roland hit the transfer portal in 2020.
ANALYSIS: This class is... not bad? It’s a much better class than anything Willie Taggart inherited from Skip Holtz. 19 players are still around, 8 have started at least eight games already, and a couple have earned pre-season all-conference mention. Ford and Horne have been explosive at times, and McCloud leads the quarterback derby (for now). You wouldn’t call any of these players stars, but most have two more years to grow. Six of the seven departed players left under Charlie Strong, so this may be a low-attrition class for Scott. And boy, does he need one after 2016 and 2017 were massive fails. This could be a stronger version of the 2011-12 classes, where players started early on bad teams, got better with age and experience, and became a bridge to better days. Midterm Grade: C
2019 (0****, 14 ***, 65th nationally)
ALREADY A STARTER: RB Kelley Joiner (6 starts, including 2 in 2019), LB DeMaurez Bellamy (5 starts, including 1 in 2019), OL Joshua Blanchard (4 starts), OL Dustyn Hall (3), WR Xavier Weaver (1)
STILL ON THE ROSTER: DB Daquan Evans, DB Jayden Curry, DB Leonard Parker, WR Jah’Quez Evans, WR Logan Berryhill, OL Matthew McDuffie, DE Jason Vaughn, RB Josh Berry, DB McArthur Burnett (JC, hasn’t played in 2020). TE Thomas Nance opted out of of the 2020 season.
NO LONGER ON THE ROSTER: DE Tyrik Jones (JC, left summer 2020), LB Darius Williams, OL Raymond Collins, LB Tae’Aviion Gray. DT Johnny Hudson never made it to USF.
ANALYSIS: A small class that’s already lost 5 out of 20 players, plus Burnett. It’s too early for even a midterm grade, but Jeff Scott needs to find some stars from this group.
2020 (0****, 8***)
PLAYING AS A TRUE FRESHMAN (more than 2 games): WR Omarion Dollison, RB Brian Battie, DB Ben Knox, S Mac Harris, DE Tramel Logan, QB Katravis Marsh.
NO LONGER ON ROSTER: Junior college DT Sione Tuituopo didn’t stay long.
ANALYSIS: Another small class, with only 16 players, 15 of which are still around. Obviously, it’s far too early to rate any of their careers. Dollison gave us a memorable touchdown against The Citadel:
Jeff Scott inherited a very similar situation from Charlie Strong as what Willie Taggart inherited from Skip Holtz. Holtz had three consecutive bad classes; Strong had two consecutive terrible ones. But there are a few key differences, and most of them work out better for Scott:
- Liberalized transfer rules. As we all know, USF is a heavy user of the modern NCAA transfer portal. It is easier and faster to patch a roster than it was even in the Taggart era. K.J. Sails, Kris Mangum, Blake Green, Mitchell Brinkman, Noah Johnson, and Jared Sackett are all four-year transfers who made this year’s team better than it would have been otherwise. Other four-year transfers are reserves, and younger players who may still develop.
- The 2018 class. Scott has a large and serviceable junior class for 2021, especially if Jordan McCloud ever puts a stranglehold on the QB position. Taggart inherited no such collection of talent.
- The COVID situation is a great equalizer. Recruiting is difficult for all schools right now, because of social distancing requirements. The sparse Raymond James home crowd is less of a turnoff to recruits, because everyone’s stadium is just as empty. USF doesn’t need to travel to recruit the players it needs, and local players can stay at home. When you’re at the bottom like USF is right now, anything that handicaps everyone equally is a boon.
- A better plan to start. For all the good things I’ve said about Willie Taggart’s rebuild, it still wasted two and a half years on an ill-fitting power run scheme, and recruited players that no longer fit when he threw it out. Where would USF be now if Willie Taggart hadn’t finally decided to Let Quinton Flowers Cook against Syracuse? People forget how close Taggart was to getting fired by USF in the middle of year three. We would have had a new coach for 2015, and skipped the Charlie Strong experience, but wouldn’t have been as good as we were in 2015-17. And with more buyout costs USF can ill afford.
- Player development will come to the forefront. Scott inherited more upperclassmen than Taggart did. But we haven’t seen any breakouts among the holdovers. This is especially concerning when everyone’s roster is decimated by COVID.
If USF is going to get better quickly, it needs its upperclassmen to step into bigger roles in 2021 and 2022. Rashawn Yates and Vincent Davis start getting all-conference mention. Mekhi Lapointe and Brian Norris become full-time starters as upperclassmen. Stacy Kirby and Sebastian Sainterling get more playing time. Combine that with continued growth from younger players, and a few good finds in the transfer portal, USF can start winning games again.