New SEC coaches play catch-up in recruiting

Friday, January 1, 1904

photo SEC Southeastern Conference

The Southeastern Conference football programs with new head coaches have been easy to spot in the league recruiting rankings this winter. They're toward the bottom.

Before Tennessee's Butch Jones, Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Kentucky's Mark Stoops can turn around the autumn fortunes at their respective schools, they must assemble their inaugural signing classes. Recent history has shown that coaches do what they can in their first few weeks and then make the most of their second batch of signees.

"I think for Bielema and Butch Jones and Stoops, this class is going to be the hardest," said longtime recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg, who is now with "It's a short recruiting window, and recruiting is about relationships. Let's face it, Stoops has never been a head coach before, and Butch and Bielema have been at Midwestern teams but are now coaching in the SEC.

"It's going to be difficult, but those athletic directors had to make the best hires for the long term. It's not about recruiting as much as it is picking a coach who can turn things around. When all things are equal and they have a full year to recruit, like they will with the 2014 class, all three of those programs should do well." had nine SEC teams in its top 25 entering the weekend, headed by Texas A&M at No. 3, LSU at No. 5, Georgia at No. 6, Florida at No. 7 and Alabama at No. 8. None of the teams with new coaches were in the top 25, with Auburn 27th, Tennessee 42nd, Arkansas 55th and Kentucky 58th.

"I think Auburn is in a little better situation considering Malzahn knows the program and has put together a killer staff with more SEC ties than the others," Newberg said. "I think it will be easier for them in that regard, but it's harder at the same time because of big brother in the state and because no one knows what's going to happen with the NCAA."

Compiling a top-10 national class has been next to impossible for SEC first-year coaches, as it's been done once in the past decade according to both and Tennessee's 2009 class under Lane Kiffin was headlined by running back Bryce Brown, safety Janzen Jackson and receiver Nu'Keese Richardson, and it was ranked No. 8 by before imploding.

In 2010, Derek Dooley signed a class for the Volunteers that ranked No. 9 nationally. That class had quarterback Tyler Bray, receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, tailback Rajion Neal, offensive linemen Ja'Wuan James and James Stone and defensive end Jacques Smith.

Tennessee's 2010 class mostly stuck together but went just 16-21 in three seasons.

"You've got to become very familiar with the high school programs and the talent in your state first, and then probably work out from there," said Alabama receivers coach Mike Groh, who was the recruiting coordinator last winter when the Crimson Tide landed tailback T.J. Yeldon, receiver Amari Cooper and defensive backs Landon Collins and Geno Smith. "That's usually the starting point. You identify the position needs your team has and then who those players are that you think you have a great chance to get and who has an interest in your program.

"It's a challenge for any program going through a transition."

Alabama, which will be seeking its third consecutive national championship this year, plays all four SEC teams with new coaches. The Tide have won three of the past four BCS titles, and they have finished No. 1 four of the last five years in's team rankings.

Such a streak would seemingly result in prospects feeling there were not as many opportunities at Alabama compared to other programs, yet the Crimson Tide are compiling another elite class.

"I would just simply look at how many freshmen we do play each and every year," Groh said. "I think if you look at that number statistically, it would say that we are not afraid to play young players, and I think it speaks to our ability to develop a young player to where he can be very effective."

The schools with new coaches have a long path to get to where Alabama is right now. Auburn and Tennessee each has a national championship in the BCS era, but a disappointing first-year class could put both programs even further behind the rival Tide.

And good first-year classes are getting tougher to assemble because most prospects have made their decisions.

"There are less official visits in January than there were a decade ago, because the process has accelerated so much," Newberg said. "I remember when schools would host two dozen kids in a weekend and we would spend Sunday calling 100-plus kids to figure out how the visit with. Times have changed."