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Column: On successful recruiting

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Over the years I've thought a lot about what makes a successful recruiting class. Certainly there are specific ways to evaluate a class, from stars to team rankings to offer sheets and more. And the ultimate judgment of a class is rendered three or four or five years down the road, when you see what those players have actually done.

That's why we do this article each year - Re-visionist history: Re-ranking the class of 2013 - it re-ranks the class with the benefit of seeing what the players actually do, and that gives the most honest assessment of whether or not a recruiting class was successful.

But in broad terms, if we were going to define a "successful recruiting class" before we've seen the players actually get on the team, what would be the terms of that definition? Like I said, I've thought about that a fair amount over the years, and here's what I've come up with.

A successful recruiting class:

1. Fills the needs at each position
2. Fills those needs with priority targets.

Every staff sets out with target numbers in mind for a class, whether it's one quarterback or two, one running back or two, three defensive ends or four, etc. If the staff is able to fill all of its target numbers with priority recruits - that is to say, without having to fall back to Plan B or Plan C prospects after missing out on top targets - then I would call it a successful recruiting class.

I think that's a fair definition. If you agree, then let's apply it to the 2019 class, which has obviously caused a lot of consternation lately.

Back up. The 2019 class hasn't caused a lot of consternation; rather, the last four commitments have. At the end of June, fans seemed to be feeling pretty good about Pitt's recruiting, what with an impressive run on Father's Day and some nice subsequent pickups. But the last four commitments - to wit, AJ Woods, Matt Goncalves, Jared Wayne and, most recently, Nick Malone - have caused some concern because, among the four of them, there is just one Power Five offer (other than Pitt, of course).

I understand why that is a concern. Setting aside Woods' sub-4.4 speed and Wayne's size and playmaking ability and the fact that Goncalves and Malone are both big, athletic tackle prospects (elements that could use a boost in Pitt's OL room), I understand that offer sheets rank pretty high among the factors that fans can use to evaluate recruits. Stars are imperfect, measureables can be unreliable and high school stats draw as much from the level of competition as they do from ability. But offer sheets are a unique kind of metric, a way to say, “How many successful college football coaches believe this recruit is capable of contributing to further success in college football?”

If you want to be at Alabama’s level, the thinking goes, then you should try to get the players that Alabama thinks are talented enough to keep Alabama at the Alabama level. And I think that’s plausible; I would not fault anyone for considering the offer sheet when evaluating a recruit, and I certainly look at it myself when I visit a recruit’s profile page.

But let’s go back to our definition of successful recruiting and consider: despite the offer sheets, is the Pitt staff filling its needs with priority targets?

As long as we’re accepting that definition, then the answer is yes.

Because for whatever you want to say about Woods and Goncalves and Wayne and Malone, the Pitt coaches took their commitments with other top targets still on the board. At offensive tackle, guys like Kaleb Boateng and Ja’quay Hubbard and Brayden Bapst and Brank Banks and Christian Mahogany are still out there. At cornerback, four-star targets like Tiawan Mullen and Joey Porter Jr. and Jordan Clark are on the board. And there are several targets who could fill the second receiver spot in the class, as well.

Those are all legitimate top targets on Pitt’s recruiting board and they have legitimate interest in the Panthers, but despite that fact, Pat Narduzzi and company were willing to take the commitments of Woods, Goncalves, Wayne and Woods. There are even a few recruits (not necessarily listed above) who wanted to commit to Pitt at some of the positions we’re discussing; they were told the staff didn’t have room for them.

What does that tell you?

It tells me that the staff has Woods, Goncalves, Wayne and Malone pretty high on the priority list. Right or wrong and regardless of what the offer sheets might imply, they didn’t “settle” for those guys or take them out of desperation.

So if we’re going to stick with that broad definition of successful recruiting, then the staff is pretty much doing exactly that: filling the target numbers at each position with recruits they have prioritized. Whether or not you agree with the staff’s prioritization is up to you - I think there’s a case to be made each way, but it’s largely subjective - but I think it’s reasonable for a fan to say, “I hope the coaches of my favorite team are successful in their approach to running the program.”

Would it calm a few nerves - not to mention look better - if there were some extra stars and some extra Power Five offers in the class? Of course it would. And I think there’s a good chance that the final recruits to join the class bring some extra stars and Power Five offers with them, in addition to any extra stars or offers the current commits might garner.

But right now, the staff is getting guys they are targeting. And I think there’s a lot to like in the class. Those Father’s Day commits still look pretty good, and of the last four, Woods and Wayne seem to jump out on their film. The offensive line recruits look like developmental guys, but they have some baseline tools - size and big-man athleticism - that seem to be a good place to start.

Ultimately, the coaches are choosing their groceries, to paraphrase Bill Parcells. If they picked the right tomatoes (and who can tell how a tomato will be when you get it home?) then they’ll make some good salsa. If not, then the salsa won’t taste so good. Either way, their fates, their careers, are hinging on the recruits they land. And in their view, these recruits are the ingredients they need.