ATHENS – Every coach’s first-year recruiting situation is different. Some had a couple months before signing day. Some had a couple weeks. Some inherited dumpster fires. Some were handed strong classes they just had to maintain and perhaps build on.
What they all (usually) have in common is that they’re never that coach’s best recruiting class. They’re often the worst. But a few have managed to still unearth some nuggets, especially those handed a pretty good class.
As Kirby Smart tries to finish in the top 10 with his first signing class, here’s a look at how the returning SEC head coaches fared in their abbreviated cycles (ranked from most recently hired):
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
When hired: Mid-January, 2014
2014 class rank: 46th nationally, 14 in SEC, per 247Sports Composite.
How it actually turned out: Way too early to tell, but the Commodores have gone 7-17 the past two seasons. In Mason’s defense, he not only took over very late in the process but predecessor James Franklin took a few recruits with him to Penn State.
Jim McElwain, Florida
When hired: Mid-December, 2014
2015 class rank: 22nd nationally, 10th in SEC, per 247Sports Composite.
How it actually turned out: Too soon to tell, obviously, but some very good early signs. Offensive tackle Martez Ivey and defensive end CeCe Jefferson, the two highest-ranked prospects in the class, were both named freshman All-SEC. Antonio Callaway, a four-star receiver, led the team in receiving yards. And all three of those players were signing-day commitments to the Gators, and McElwain also got Jordan Scarlett, who had four touchdowns last season. Considering everything – predecessor Will Muschamp was fired in November, but only after the hot-seat talk had cooled recruiting – it was a great finish by McElwain.
Butch Jones, Tennessee
When hired: Early December, 2012
2013 class rank: 24th nationally, 10th in SEC, per 247SportsComposite.
How it actually turned out: Some very good players (QB Josh Dobbs, OLB Jalen Rreeves-Maybin, CB Cam Sutton, OL Dylan Wiseman), but a few busts as well, notable receiver Marquez North, the highest-rated member of the class. Jones didn’t inherit a good roster at all – the Volunteers were coming off three straight losing seasons – so in the short time Jones had he decided to take some chances. The group included no five stars and just four stars. Despite that, plenty of contributors are around who helped get Tennessee to nine wins this season.
Bret Bielema, Arkansas
When hired: Early December, 2012
2013 class rank: 23rd nationally, ninth in SEC, per 247Sports Composite.
How it actually turned out: Solid so far. The two highest-ranked recruits (tailback Alex Collins and tight end Hunter Henry) have been about as good as advertised. And a two-star recruit – yes, two-star – turned out to be second-team All-SEC this past season (receiver Drew Morgan). So did OT Dan Skipper, a three-star recruit in this class. Of course Bielema signed 36 players, so the chances were a few would pan out.
Mark Stoops, Kentucky
When hired: Late November, 2012
2013 class rank: 41st nationally, 13th in SEC, per 247Sports Composite.
How it actually turned out: It hasn’t born much fruit yet. Nobody from the class made first or second team All-SEC this past season, and the Wildcats have gone 2-10, 5-7 and 5-7 over the group’s time in Lexington. Jojo Kemp, a three-star recruit, was the team’s second-leading rusher this year, with 555 rushing yards and six touchdowns. The highest-rated recruit, defensive end Jason Hatcher, hasn’t put it together yet, recording four sacks and 11 starts over three years. But junior college transfer Za’Darius Smith was productive in his two years at Kentucky, and was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft.
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
When hired: Early December, 2011
2012 class rank: 40th nationally, 13th in SEC, per Rivals.
How it actually turned out: Pretty good, considering the rank. During the group’s time on campus the Rebels have won seven games, then eight, then nine, then 10 last year. Trae Elston, a three-star recruit, became a four-year starter and was named AP second-team All-American this past season. Mike Hilton, another three-star recruit, was a second-team All-SEC pick last season. Tailback Jaylen Walton was the Rebels’ leading rusher in 2015. Quarterback Bo Wallace, a three-star recruit in 2012, was a three-year starter. Channing Ward, the highest-rated member of the class, didn’t quite live up to the hype, but did have three sacks this past season. For all the hype that Freeze’s next few classes received, his first one supplemented the team’s impressive run.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
When hired: Early December, 2011
2012 class rank: 16th nationally, sixth in SEC, per 247Sports Composite.
How it actually turned out: Not that great. There are some starter but no members of the class have gone on to make the AP first or second all-SEC teams. The Aggies’ win total, over Sumlin’s tenure, has gone from 11 to 9 to 8 the past couple years.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
When hired: Early December, 2008
2009 class rank: 25th nationally, 11th in SEC, per Rivals.
How it actually turned out: Excellent. The class was actually fairly well-ranked for Mississippi State, Mulllen benefitting from a relatively early hire, and groundwork done by predecessor Sylvester Croom. Four-star DT Fletcher Cox became a star, Jonathan Banks became one of the best defensive backs in the country, and several others (WR Chad Bumphis, DE Pernell McPhee, ILB Chris White) were key members of a team that went 36-28 over the next five years.
Nick Saban, Alabama
When hired: Early January, 2007.
2007 class rank: 10th nationally, seventh in SEC, per Rivals.
How it actually turned out: By far Saban’s worst class at Alabama, due to a few washouts. But it still contained some who went on to contribute for the 2009 and 2011 national title teams: Linebacker Rolando McClain, cornerback Kareem Jackson and center William Vlachos chief among them. An analysis by the site Tidefans.com found that 13 of the 24 signees became either starters or second-teamers with key roles. That’s pretty good for a staff that came together basically a month before signing day. But it was Saban’s second class that produced the stars: Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Terrence Cody, Don’t’a Hightower, Mark Barron, Barrett Jones, Marcell Dareus … to name a few.
Les Miles, LSU
When hired: Early January, 2005
2005 class rank: 22nd nationally, 6th in SEC, per Rivals.
How it actually turned out: This goes down as perhaps the worst class in recent LSU history – and the smallest, with just 13 signed. After finishing second nationally in Nick Saban’s final recruiting year at LSU, and were back up to seventh in Miles’ second year, but in between the transition was rough. Quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, the highest-rated signee, left after a few unproductive years. And yet the class still produced a star receiver (Brandon LaFell), standout kick returner (Trindon Holliday) a four year starter (OL Ciron Black) and the defensive MVP off the 2007 BCS national championship (DE Ricky Jean-Francois).