If there’s one thing that the College Football Playoff has proven, it’s that there is an elite cadre of programs in the country that simply are far and away better than the rest of the country. Whether it be coaching, financial and concrete resources or players, these programs are pacing the field.
Clemson and Alabama have tied for most appearances (five) and playoff wins (six) since the CFP’s inception in 2014. Both of these programs are football juggernauts, in large part due to their success on the recruiting trail. From 2012 to 2019, here’s how Alabama has ranked in the 247Sports Composite rating.
- 2012: 1st
- 2013: 1st
- 2014: 1st
- 2015: 1st
- 2016: 1st
- 2017: 1st
- 2018: 5th
- 2019: 1st
Even Clemson, who hasn’t hit their stride on the recruiting trail until recently, has long established themselves in the top tier when it comes to signing talent.
- 2012: 20th
- 2013: 15th
- 2014: 16th
- 2015: 9th
- 2016: 11th
- 2017: 16th
- 2018: 7th
- 2019: 10th
We could do this experiment all day and yield the same results. Those programs who win on the field tend to do so in large part because they have more talent. There are some exceptions to this, say Wisconsin, but success on the field usually comes from success in recruiting.
This leads us to Virginia Tech, who whiffed on another elite in-state prospect on Friday when five-star running back TreVeyon Henderson announced his commitment to Ohio State. Henderson is a widely considered to be one of the top prospects in the country and resides in Hopewell, Va., roughly three hours from Blacksburg.
Virginia Tech poured a lot of time and effort into Henderson’s recruitment, as they should have. Yet it yielded the same result as it has in the recent past — nothing.
The Hokies’ in-state recruiting efforts are trending down. After Tech’s triumph in the Devon Hunter recruitment, Tech has failed to sign an elite-level prospect from Virginia. In 2018, Tech failed to sign running back Ricky Slade, linebacker Teradja Mitchell and offensive lineman Nana Asiedu. In 2019, Tech signed Jaden Payoute but whiffed on linebacker Brandon Smith, Devyn Ford, Sheridan Jones and Cam’Ron Kelly.
The 2020 cycle was a bit of a trainwreck, as Tech signed just one in-state prospect — No. 21 Lakeem Rudolph.
It’s not all on Fuente
It’s important to put things in context. Virginia Tech began to fall off as a program in the 2011 season, after the departure of in-state star and Hokies legend Tyrod Taylor. The Hokies finished 2011 at 11-3, but signs of decay were present.
Things began to go off the rails in 2012, when Tech finished 7-6. The Hokies finished the next four seasons with a combined record of 29-23, far from the program’s peak.
Perhaps the biggest reason the program declined was Tech’s inability to recruit at a high level, particularly in the Commonwealth. From 2011 to 2015, Virginia Tech signed just two top-five prospects from the state — Joel Caleb and Tim Settle. For those prospects that Tech did sign, many of them were flushed out of the program or failed to make a substantial impact in Blacksburg.
Justin Fuente certainly holds some of the blame for Tech’s recruiting issues in Virginia. His staff has failed to make serious in-roads and as of now, their performance is getting worse. But to pretend that Fuente somehow ruined a good thing is at best foolish and at worst dishonest.
Recruiting at running back
Since Fuente’s hiring after the 2015 season, the one position that has evaded him on the recruiting trail is running back. The Hokies have missed on their top target at the position in every cycle since Fuente took over.
- 2017: Khalan Laborn, Virginia Beach — Laborn’s recruiting was frustrating for the Hokies’ staff and at one point, Tech felt very good about their chances. Laborn quickly reversed course, however, and committed to Florida State while driving a Lamborghini.
- 2018: Ricky Slade, Woodbridge — Slade was long considered a Tech-lean, but eventually settled on Penn State. Slade is currently in the transfer portal.
- 2019: Devyn Ford, Stafford — Virginia Tech put everything into Ford’s recruitment from the get-go. Ford took a visit to Penn State the summer before his senior year and nothing was the same.
- 2020: Chris Tyree, Chester — The Hokies were never considered the favorite in Tyree’s recruitment, but he was atop their list. Tyree signed with Notre Dame.
Missing on all of these prospects forced Fuente to over-sign at running back. Tech has signed eight running backs since 2017, not including two Division I transfers this past offseason. At the moment, Tech has seven scholarship running backs on the roster, which seems like a bit much. But when you’re struggling to find a difference maker at a position, your chances go up when you add more bodies.
There has already been attrition at the position this offseason, as Caleb Steward entered the transfer portal in January. Depending on when programs return to normal business, more attrition could be in the works.
A prescription for the future
Let’s be honest with ourselves — the current version of Virginia Tech is not going to sign an outsized number of elite prospects. It was nice that Henderson gave Virginia Tech the time of day, but anyone who follows this stuff closely knew Henderson was heading out of state. It’s frustrating for the fan, but nowhere near as disappointing as the Ford decision.
Virginia Tech has one path leading to the next tier of college football — coaching and player development. The Hokies simply do not have the resources, the star power, the prestige or the “sexiness” to recruit at a high level. The Hokies might pull in one or two certified studs every so often, but it won’t be a trend for the foreseeable future.
The Hokies can, however, focus on improving their on-field coaching and player development, which is how Virginia Tech grew into a regional powerhouse in the first place. Jim Cavanaugh was one hell of a recruiter, but the Hokies became one of the best programs in the country because they held a distinct coaching advantage over most of the country. Frank Beamer and Bud Foster were elite coaches who gave the Hokies a decisive difference on the practice field and on gamedays.
Fuente revamped most of the coaching staff this offseason, presumably adding coaches that he felt would better serve Virginia Tech moving forward. For Virginia Tech’s sake, let us hope these coaches give the Hokies a distinct advantage once again.