Playing in an elite conference and competing in an elite conference is not the same thing, and for Louisville football, after establishing themselves as the latter on the field in their first year the ACC, they hope to prove they can do the same thing on the recruiting path.
Bobby Petrino and his staff led the Cards to nine wins in their inaugural ACC season, showing they have what it takes to duke it out on the field, but what about off the field? Petrino was able to utilize a talented roster featuring returning talents like DeVante Parker, Michael Dyer, and Lorenzo Mauldin to go toe-to-toe with conference foes, but in order to keep competing and winning 9+ games a year, beating those same teams on the recruiting trail could go a long way in ensuring continued success.
That is not to say Louisville has not already been successful in that area this year, as they currently sit #32 in the 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings. 25 players have committed to Louisville so far in the 2015 class with 7 players already signed. Of those 25 players, they have a top-10 all-purpose back in Traveon Samuel, a top-10 dual-threat QB in Lamar Jackson, a top-10 inside linebacker in Amonte Caban, and six junior college players who are among the best in the country at that level. Seix players in the class are classified as a four-star prospect on at least one recruiting service, but nonetheless, they are ranked just 6th in the ACC, according to 247Sports Composite.
Florida State, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina all are ranked higher. Those first two teams stand in the way of Louisville competing for an ACC title, and both of them beat the Cards this year. Petrino is one of the best coaches in the country, maybe the best in the ACC, and if he can fill a roster with comparable talent to those teams, the Cards could become an ACC powerhouse. To do that, he has to close on his remaining top recruits. He has his team in favorable position with several top prospects, and he will have a golden opportunity to gain further ground next weekend when one of the most impressive group of visitors the program has ever had comes to town.
The weekend of January 17th, Louisville will host 22 prospects. 7 of the visitors are currently committed to Louisville. Those commitments are RBs Matt Colburn and James Allen, DE GG Robinson, S Khane Pass, OG Chandler Jones, DB TJ Jallow, and for the first time since committing in late August 2014, QB Lamar Jackson will be visiting. Of the remaining 15 prospects, eight are classified as four-star recruits. Three are committed to SEC programs, one to a Big 10 program, and one to a Big 12 program.
Of those players, though, perhaps none is more important than Jackson. He has been verbally committed to Louisville since August 30th, but he has yet to visit the campus. He has, however, taken visits to other schools, and after he visits Louisville the weekend of the 17th, he will take visits to Mississippi State and Florida in the two weeks following. He is a verbal commit in the most liberal sense, as despite pledging to the Cards, he has repeatedly stated he was open to other suitors. He is a dynamic playmaker with good size and a big, developing arm, and he also could further the recruiting pipeline in South Florida. He is widely known in the state and is regarded as one of the best players, and other sunshine state recruits will take notice of what he does. If he stays true to his commitment, it could put into place a domino effect for Louisville with other recruits in coming years.
Jackson is not the only highly rated commit who is still being recruited elsewhere. Defensive back commit Sheldrick Redwine committed to Louisville last week, but announced he was still open. In a way, it seems as if he is challenging the bigger name schools saying, “If you don’t want me, I’ll just go to Louisville.” Like a girl wanting the most popular guy to ask her to prom saying, “Fine, if you won’t ask me, I’ll just go with Johnny Generic over here.” Is he just trying to get another team’s attention? Tough to say, but he did land an offer from Auburn after the fact. Louisville will have to prove to him the program is of the same caliber.
Other highly rated prospects like Amonte Caban and Darius Smith have been offered by big-name programs, too, with Caban being actively pursued by South Carolina and Smith recently being offered by Notre Dame. A verbal commitment is nice, but non-binding. Getting a player’s signature makes a much louder statement, especially when teams like Auburn and Notre Dame are involved.
Louisville is also still battling for multiple top uncommitted prospects, and not just against ACC teams. Their top RB target, 4-star Dexter Williams, is being sought after by Florida, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M. The Cards have been going all out for him, along with his good friend DB Jalen Julius, who has stated over and over he would like to play with in college. Florida, who Julius was formerly committed to, is probably not an option in that regard, and there is no indication the Irish or Aggies will offer, either. Petrino and his staff have made both Williams and Julius a priority, longer than any of the three teams listed above. That does not mean he is an automatic get for the Cards, but they have done the work. If they can pull it off, despite the interference of the bigger name schools, it would be quite the coup.
Now, anyone who has paid attention to Bobby Petrino-coached teams over his career knows that he does not need to have annual top-10 classes to compete with the best. The man is a genius when it comes to evaluating athletes, and if they have talent, he will find a place for them and make them a stud. The numbers of stars next to a player’s name do not matter much when it comes to Petrino and his knack for developing players, but stars are something a number of recruits do pay attention to. They pay attention to what schools the best players in their class are headed and it can stick out to an undecided prospect. If Louisville starts not only landing those types, but beats out “name” schools for them, it could pop some eyes.
To be the best, it helps to have the best players (see Alabama for reference), and Petrino and his staff are certainly going after those types. They have missed on a few like OL Josh Wariboko and DT Tim Settle, but have landed a few as well like Jackson, Caban, and an early enrollee in Samuel. Gone are the days when the Cards would be happy with just one 4-star prospect and a slew of 2- and 3-star types. No longer is Louisville in the position where they can only land the top-tier prospects after they become victims of oversignings at other schools or academic casualties. This is big boy college football recruiting now, and it is a whole new level of recruiting for the program. Now, Louisville can show it belongs.
Louisville will not land all of their remaining top prospects. They may lose a few guys currently committed, too, but so will other teams. Three players visiting on the 17th are WR Khalil Lewis, DE Mekhi Brown, and OT Venzell Boulware, all of whom are committed to other programs (WVU, Alabama, and Tennessee). They will give the Cards a look, though. Brown is a teammate of current commit Khane Pass and has been targeted by Louisville for some time, so this could be one to watch.
Chances are high that Louisville will land at least one more highly touted RB, too. Three former Miami commitments, all four-star prospects, in Williams, Jordan Cronkrite, and Mark Walton are Louisville targets. Williams has already visited while the other two have visits scheduled for the 17th and 30th. They are also keeping tabs on former Tennessee RB Rocky Reid, who is just shy of four-star status and is visiting the 17th.
Even if the Cards miss on most of their targets and lose some highly rated guys, it may disheartening for fans, but it is no reason to despair for long. Louisville is also already in great shape recruiting the class of 2016 with a four-star WR committed and two talented three-star players. And should they land 5-star QB Jawon Pass, brother of Khane Pass, it could trump whatever class the team brings in for 2015.
Yet, while Louisville made a splash in the ACC on the field, it could really benefit the program in the long term to land a solid class sooner than later. They are in prime position to make that happen this year, but the question is, can they close?
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee spurned his hometown school and former alma mater Oklahoma, a traditional big-name school, to stay at Louisville, because he said he believed Louisville is going to do big things. Of those big things, it may just include the date of February 4th, where the Cards may just land the best class on paper in school history.
In less than a month, everyone will find out just where Louisville currently stands nationally as well as among its ACC counterparts on the recruiting trail. Are they one of the cool kids, or are they just sitting at the cool kids’ table? The answer will come February 4th.