Sitting nervously in the green room, finding out you’ve been drafted, walking across the stage, hugging Roger Goodell, crying tears of joy … it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“It’s a real emotion,” Arizona Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin said, “and it’s a big deal.”
Sumlin’s players have experienced it several times over.
Seven of the players Sumlin coached at Texas A&M were selected in the first round of the NFL draft — including last year’s No. 1 overall pick, defensive end Myles Garrett. Another, receiver Christian Kirk, could sneak into the bottom of Round 1 Thursday night.
In all, 18 Aggies were drafted from 2013 to ’17. Over that same span, only five Wildcats were picked. Put another way, Arizona had fewer overall draft picks over that five-year period than A&M had first-rounders.
Can Arizona be what Texas A&M has been as far as recruiting and developing NFL talent? Probably not.
Can Arizona close the gap? Most definitely.
It’s one of the reasons Sumlin, the UA’s first-year coach, is here.
“We’re going to recruit to be a part of that,” he said. “That does nothing but help your program.”
Most experts expect Sumlin to be a better recruiter than predecessor Rich Rodriguez. They cite the way Sumlin goes about it — “He’s getting his elbows dirty,” cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin said. “He’s constantly talking to recruits and their parents” – and the strategy he has implemented.
Sumlin and his staff will continue to recruit Southern California hard. They will strive to keep the best in-state prospects in-state. They will strengthen the Polynesian pipeline.
They also will canvas the state of Texas, and that might be the key.
“Texas is maybe 200-deep in terms of legit, high-level Division I prospects,” said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma can’t take every top kid. Sumlin, with those Texas ties, should be able to land two or three of those guys (every year), if not four or five.”
Rodriguez made a tactical error by largely ignoring Texas until the latter stages of his tenure. Arizona has four Texans in its 2018 recruiting class. The previous five classes included only one, 2016 safety Tristan Cooper from El Paso.
Of the 18 A&M players drafted from 2013-17, 15 were from Texas. Over the past 10 years, 28 of 31 A&M draftees attended Texas high schools.
It makes sense that a vast majority of A&M’s players would come from Texas. But as Biggins mentioned, the state’s talent pool runs deep.
Rodriguez’s predecessor, Mike Stoops, prioritized Texas and produced more draft picks. From 2008-12, 14 UA players were picked. Six of them came from … yep, Texas.
“Texas has been good to the University of Arizona,” said running backs coach Clarence McKinney, who coached one of those UA draftees, Earl Mitchell, at Houston’s North Shore Senior High School.
“Hopefully we can get back and get some of those guys.”
McKinney coached high school ball in Houston for 11 years before working for Sumlin at the University of Houston and Texas A&M. Is there something different about Texas prep players that makes them stand out?
“I’m not sure about the rest of the country,” McKinney said. “I just know that when you grow up in Texas, football is what you do. The structure of the high school programs, as far as what they do in the offseason and the organization of it, is second to none.”
Four of Sumlin’s 10 assistants have recruiting responsibilities in Texas: McKinney, Martin, special-teams coordinator Jeremy Springer and inside receivers coach Theron Aych. Their territories are specifically demarcated; Martin, for instance, has greater Dallas “north of I-30.”
Arizona has one commitment so far for the class of 2019: cornerback Logan Wilson from Dallas.
It’s important to note that Sumlin didn’t recruit all the players who were drafted during his time at Texas A&M. But he and his staff did help develop them, and that’s another critical component.
Based on star ratings, they had more to work with. The 18 A&M players drafted over the past five years had an average rating of 3.6, according to 247Sports’ composite tabulation. Three were five-star prospects, while six were four-stars.
The average rating of the five UA draftees over the past five years was 3.0. They included one four-star recruit (Marquis Flowers) and one two-star player (Scooby Wright).
“You have to recruit at a certain profile,” Sumlin said. “That doesn’t mean it’s a five-star guy. You’ll see us recruit and sign guys that have no stars, and you’ll see us recruit and sign guys that have five stars. That doesn’t matter to us. It’s what fits our offense, defense and special-teams plan. That’s what we’re looking for. The next step is the developmental piece.”
Third-year UA defensive coordinator Marcel Yates worked with Sumlin for two seasons at A&M. Yates believes that with Sumlin’s connections in Texas, Oklahoma and elsewhere “our recruiting will go up to another level.”
Sumlin also has proved he can land top players from the Phoenix area. That’s where Kirk is from.
Most projections have two players from Texas A&M being drafted this year: Kirk (a five-star recruit) and safety Armani Watts (a four-star player). Only one Arizona player is a sure thing, or close to it: defensive back Dane Cruikshank, a former three-star recruit.
The state of Arizona annually produces a handful of elite players. It cannot compete with the fertile ground of Texas. Win some recruiting battles in both, Biggins said, and “now all of a sudden you’re cooking.”
“Sumlin will recruit better than RichRod did,” Biggins said. “He’s a better recruiter. Period. He’ll get better players. And better players translates to more players being drafted.”