One of the biggest stories in college football over the past five years is the emergence of Stanford as a national power. Considering that there were legitimate discussions about whether Stanford should drop football altogether following its disastrous 2006 season, the program’s rise to its No. 5 national ranking is impressive.
What makes Stanford’s rise to a perennial top 10 contender even more remarkable is the program’s commitment to higher academic standards. Although admittedly the academic standards for prospective football players aren’t as high as the rest of the student body, Stanford still boasts the most stringent academic requirements of any FBS program. Not only must prospective football players meet elevated GPA and test score standards, Stanford admissions also requires prospective athletes to take additional core classes, including two AP courses to gain admittance.
So how does Stanford continually attract some of the top talent in America despite its elevated academic standards? According to Andy Drukarev, publisher of CardinalSportsReport.com, Stanford follows two steadfast rules on the recruiting trail: recruit nationally and recruit for the system.
“If Stanford decided it would only recruit in one state, they’d find about five guys a year. There’s not enough top-level football players that also meet the academic requirements in one place to fill a roster,” Drukarev said.
Stanford’s roster reflects that fact with players hailing from more than 25 states as well as Mexico and Canada. According to Drukarev, the national recruiting strategy is a natural fit for the school’s unique recruiting pool.
“There are only 20-30 of the Rivals 250 that have the academics for Stanford, which means only 10 percent of the super elite players in the nation are even in the discussion,” he explained. “The reason that they can compete for a lot of these kids is because of Stanford’s name and what they’ve done on the football field over the past few years. The fact of the matter remains that in order to field a complete team, they have to go around the country.”
The Cardinal have seen their share of success in the state of Utah with Pleasant Grove quarterback Dallas Lloyd on the roster and signees Brandon Fanaika (Pleasant Grove) and Sean Barton (Woods Cross) currently serving LDS missions.
Another major factor in Stanford’s success on the recruiting trail is its ability to recruit to a specific system both on offense and defense. “A lot of the things in terms of recruiting success have to do with recruiting to the system,” said Drukarev. “The pro-style offense and having an identity is important. At Stanford, there’s no question about what they’re going to run. It’s a pro-style offense with a quarterback that can move.”
According to Drukarev, the same holds true for defense. “You could argue this is the best sustained run of defensive success in the program’s history. They’ve been able to get players in for four and five years and develop them,” he said.
So is it possible for Utah to follow Stanford’s blueprint and build the program to be among the elite in the Pac-12? In many ways, yes. As they continue to build the program into one with BCS-caliber depth at every position, the Utes can take three cues from Stanford’s rebuild on the recruiting trail.
Play to your strengths
Stanford’s obvious strength is the school’s academic reputation, and it trumpets it every chance it gets to attract those elite athletes that are a fit. Although Utah doesn’t wield the same academic clout, the school has a number of positive things to offer prospective recruits, including a strong tradition of sending players to the NFL, a tradition of success for Polynesian athletes, and the ability to play for one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse programs in America. The strong family atmosphere within the program and stability of the coaching staff are also big selling points to potential recruits.
There are a number of elite players looking to play in the type of program that Kyle Whittingham has built, and with commitments from high-profile recruits such as Jackson Barton, Donovan Isom, Allan Havili and Kenyon Frison — all of whom have offers from major power programs — in the class of 2014, the Utes have a core of players that they can build the class on, and that should attract even more talent to Salt Lake City.
Recruit to the system
The second key to success will be for Utah to recruit the kind of athletes that fit the system. The Utes have already been doing this under Whittingham, especially on the defensive side of the ball. There’s a reason that Utah sends so many defensive linemen to the NFL. The coaches do a tremendous job identifying and recruiting linemen that fit Kalani Sitake’s defensive schemes. The Utes have had similar success recruiting cornerbacks to a defense that prepares players for the NFL.
Although Utah has had less success recruiting to a system on the offensive side of the ball in recent years, the stability provided by Dennis Erickson on offense will help the Utes attract elite talent to that end as well. As the Utes continue to build depth, especially at quarterback, running back and the offensive line, the future looks bright for the Utah offense.
Find their own Luck
A lot of Stanford’s success can be traced to its signing of a four-star quarterback out of Texas by the name of Andrew Luck. Luck began playing as a true freshman, and his leadership sustained the program through its transition to a Pac-12 power. Utah has its own promising young quarterback in Travis Wilson. Although he still has a lot to accomplish in order to reach Luck’s level of success, if Wilson can continue to progress as a passer, the Utes will be a winner.
Dan Sorensen is the editor in chief of UteZone.com, part of the Rivals.com network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and Basketball Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.