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Can Utah Fix In-State Recruiting?

The Utes have fully arrived as a member of the PAC 12. They compete in every game and match the conference for facilities, infrastructure, and fan support. So why has recruiting seemed to lag behind? The Utes continue to lose out on big names every year, and often don’t even seem to be in the running. The massive Rivals recruiting database sheds some light on the topic.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Utah has a significant in-state recruiting problem. Of 10 Rivals100 recruits from the state since 2002, the Utes have successfully signed only Jackson Barton. Of the 22 Rivals250, the Utes have landed only three: Barton, Harvey Langi (who has since departed for BYU), and Latu Heimuli. 2016 and ’17 don’t look like they are going to be much better.

Recruiting is a complex landscape, and each recruit is different. Reasons for picking one school over another can range from practical concerns like education, family, and professional prospects all the way to cultural priorities like attractive co-eds, active night life, and killer uniforms. Nonetheless, the intense scrutiny of the recruiting process generates a tremendous amount of data, and that data can be analyzed.

There are a lot of places in the college football landscape like Utah; states with power conference schools that don’t have ‘blue-chip’ recruiting cred which generate significant numbers of top tier high school talent. In all, 45 states have power conference schools and have generated at least 1 Rivals100 prospect. Figuring out which states were like Utah required defining the group of ‘blue-chip’ schools.

Evaluating The Recruiting Landscape

Rivals issues a point score for each school each year based on the number and rating of their recruits. Amongst current Power 5 schools, these ranged from 62 (Syracuse 2009) to 3263 (Alabama 2014). By averaging these scores across all Power 5 schools in each year and comparing each school’s performance against the average, I was able to generate a stat I’m calling Rivals Team Recruiting+. 100 is a perfectly average recruiting class, anything over 100 is better than average, anything under 100 is worse.

Another useful application of this stat is as a way to look at over time recruiting trends. Since there's such a huge variance in recruiting scores and available prospects from year to year, and rankings are highly volatile, RTR+ allows a more reflective look at how the school has done. Utah has had a definite upward trend in recent years, although the biggest uptick came after the Sugar Bowl, not after joining the PAC 12.

Utah RTR+ Over Time

Defining 'Blue-Chip' Schools

I’m defining ‘blue-chip’ as any school whose average RTR+ since 2002 is more than one standard deviation above the mean. The upshot of that analysis is that the school’s average RTR+ has to be 141 or higher to get on to the list of ‘blue-chip’ schools. The membership in this list passes the eyeball test quite well.

Blue Chip Schools

In-State Success

Taking out recruits from states where these 14 schools are located, there are 29 states which produce Rivals100 talent, a total of 455 recruits since 2002. 41.8% of them have gone to blue-chip schools, 38.46% have stayed in state, and the remaining 19.78% have wandered off to less potent recruiting schools. Utah has had 9 elite prospects since 2002, and has retained 22.22% (18th) of them; 33.33% have headed to elite schools and 44.44% have gone to other Power 5 schools.

The data suggests that there’s not much a school can do to keep certain recruits from heading off to blue-chip schools; amongst the states with significant numbers of top prospects, the elite recruiting percentage has a low variance (2%). Statistical analysis shows no relationship between the recruits who head to elite programs and a state’s ability to retain top local talent*. This data suggests that there’s not much a school can do to keep recruits in state if they are ultimately going to decide to head to an elite school. So what can you do?

There is a relationship between the "wander rate" (percentage of prospects going to out of state schools that are not elite) and the "retention rate" (percentage of prospects going to an in-state school). States that excel at retaining talent can't keep kids from heading to elite schools, but they are almost universally able to keep them from going to other schools. Of the top 8 in retention rate, 4 have never lost a recruit to any school that wasn’t elite, and two others have wander rates under 10%.

Utah has struggled to keep top recruits from wandering off, with 44.44% heading to schools like Colorado, Oregon, and UCLA. These are legitimate power schools, but they do not have such a good reputation that they are impossible to compete against. If the Utes want to improve in-state recruiting, these are the battles they must win.

2017 provides a good example. The three top in-state recruits are Sione Heimuli-Lund, Jay Tufele, and Chaz Ah You. It’s still too early in this process to be sure, but it looks like Heimuli-Lund has his sights set on heading to the biggest name he can get an offer from, while Tufele and Ah You have a wider range of options. Heimuli-Lund is, for whatever reason, the type of player that wants to go play at an elite school. The other two top prospects do not seem to have that same drive; they appear as likely to sign with Oregon State or Arizona as with USC. Those are the prospects which Utah must target aggressively.

High school recruits are very young men, and it’s easy for a young man to get caught up in the glamour of accumulating prestige offers, Twitter followers, and the intense partying that is a major part of many elite program’s recruiting pitch. If a recruit has the makeup to value those considerations over more practical ones like playing time, pro prospects, or family support, it’s more or less an impossible task to bring the player to a school like Utah. The coaching staff should extend an offer and make their pitch, but they should use their time on players with a different makeup, whose concerns are more practical.

The schools at the top of the retention rate statistics (and the bottom of the wander rate statistics) have traits in common that make them appealing to top end recruits. In most respects, these schools are a lot like Utah. They’ve been around for a long time and are well-respected academic institutions with close ties to their state and a passionate, committed fan base. Unlike Utah, they’ve either been major players in college football for decades, or have recently turned into frequent national championship contenders.They have a history of national relevance and success that Utah can’t really match.

Top Retention Schools AP Ranking

Two Things the Utes Must Do

There are two kinds of elite recruits: the prestige-driven recruit who is looking to gather as many high-end offers as he can and pick between elite recruiting schools, and the development-driven recruit who doesn’t care as much about branding and recognition but instead focuses on issues like community ties, playing time, and NFL training. Utah would be wise to differentiate these two types early in their assessment process and focus on development-driven recruits, who will be more receptive to Utah’s arguments about what’s the best for them in the long run.

The other thing Utah needs to do to improve elite in-state recruiting is win more every year. To truly achieve this kind of competitiveness, the Utes need down years to be 7-5, not 5-7. They need success to be defined by double digit wins and a crack at the PAC 12 crown. They need to start appearing in New Year’s Day bowl games and College Football Playoff games. This is the first year as PAC 12 members that the Utes have had a legitimate shot to do that.

It doesn’t take much. UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford have dramatically improved recruiting in the last few years. Over the next ten, they will be seeking big seasons to solidify spots in the elite echelon and become destination schools for prestige-driven recruits. To achieve high in-state success, the Utes must have those big seasons instead, elbowing these schools out of the way to take a seat at the table. 2015 is the first real opportunity.

*I used a Kendall Tau-B Correlation Coefficient, which measures the relationship between different rankings. In this case, there was a modest inverse relationship between the ranks in retention rate and wander rate, but no relationship between the ranks in retention rate and elite rate. It's a smallish sample, but I'm confident that this was a good tool to measure correlation.