WKU Football: Matt’s Stats — Why Recruiting has Left the Chrome Domes on Thin Ice

Life is all about perspective.

In 2009, the WKU football program was at its lowest point ever. Finishing 0–12 overall, the program was in its first season as a full FBS member, and without question, second thoughts were rampant. “Should the Tops have moved up? What a disaster. We should just go back to the OVC!”

However, Hilltopper legend Willie Taggart took over the reigns at the end of the 2009 season and immediately started bringing in talent. Looking at the names in his first recruiting class, the NFL/pro level talent is astounding. Each of his three classes were remarkable.

So how did recruiting affect the trajectory of Hilltopper football? Starting in 2010, where did each class rank and, ultimately, how good did each of those recruits end up being? Consequently, how good of a position did each class put the program in moving forward?

For clarity, “C-USA Rank” is according to current C-USA schools. Remember, C-USA was realigned beginning in 2013. (Frankly, I’m not putting forth a mammoth effort to figure out how WKU ranked among the contemporary Sun Belt schools during Taggart and Petrino’s time.)

I’ll mark if a player was an impact player, a starter, a legend, all-conference, went pro, transferred, etc. Note: Anybody listed as a “transfer” left the program for any reason: Released from program, quitting football, or actually transferring.

Willie Taggart

Willie T’s Class of 2010 was littered with future stars and immediate impact players. Although the rank wasn’t earth shattering, look at the legends from this class:

  • National Rank: 107
  • C-USA (then Sun Belt) Rank: 8
  • Nine 3-star players
  • Six 2-star players
  • Legends: Antonio Andrews, Brandon Doughty, Andrew Jackson
  • All-Conference: Antonio Andrews, Cam Clemmons, Brandon Doughty, Xavius Boyd, Cam Thomas, Andrew Jackson
  • Other pros: Tyree Robinson (AFL), Kadeem Jones (NFL minicamp), Arius Wright (AFL)
  • Other Starters: Rico Brown, Bar’ee Boyd, Joel German
  • Role Players: Ty Scott and William Berner
  • Transfer: Matt Pelesasa, Jerome Speights

The Class of 2011 was even better by the initial numbers:

  • Nationall Rank: 85
  • C-USA Rank: 2
  • Two 3-star players
  • 24 2-star players
  • NFL Players: Prince Charles Iworah, Tyler Higbee, Darrell Williams, Jonathan Dowling, Mitch Henry (RIP)
  • Freshman All-American: John Evans
  • Starters: Boe Brand, Terran “Chill” Williams, Daerius Washington, Bryan Shorter, Gavin Rocker, T.J. Smith, James Mauro, Cliff Burns
  • Role Players: Eric Robinson-Berry, Marquis Sumler, Cam Brown, Tim Gorski, Devin Scott
  • Transfers: Damarcus Smith, Champ Lewis, Boe Brand, Lawrence Campbell, Quarterrio Morgan, Dyron Speight, Curtis Williams, John Evans, Dwayne Montgomery, Jamichael Payne, Dimitri Johnson, James Mauro, Delryn Wilson, TJ Green

The 2011 class was littered with future transfers, mostly because many left after Taggart left in 2012. However, the talent influx was evident, and many of these guys made immediate impacts. Damarcus Smith, for example, ended up starting for North Texas after leaving The Hill.

The Class of 2012 yielded some more legends that played through the Brohm era:

  • National Rank: 97
  • C-USA Rank: 6th
  • Six 3-star players
  • Seven 2-star players
  • Legends: Leon Allen, Anthony “Ace” Wales, Forrest Lamp
  • Starters: Brett Harrington, Austin Aikens, Calvin Washington, Devante Terrell
  • Role Players: Daqual Randall, Julian Leslie, Marquez Pride, Tyler English (RIP)
  • Transfers: Tyrone Pearson, Austin Aikens, Travis Elliot

All told, Willie Taggart’s recruiting classes produced six NFL Draft picks, several more made camps and rosters, and produced six bona fide all-time great Hilltoppers. Without question, Willie T left his mark on the Tops well after he was gone. One or more of his players were eligible to play up through Mike Sanford’s first year in 2017 (Leon Allen).

Bobby Petrino

Petrino’s lone WKU class produced some of the most prolific offensive and defensive players we’ve seen. Petrino’s national numbers may not have been gaudy, but he brought in serious talent that contributed pretty much exclusively during the Brohm era. Take a look at the Class of 2013:

  • National Rank: 95
  • C-USA (Final Year of Sun Belt) Rank: 6th
  • Seven 3-star players
  • 26 2-star players
  • Legends: Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris
  • Other NFL Players: Deon Yelder
  • All-American: Brandon Ray (Freshman) and Kylen Towner (Special Teams)
  • All-Conference: Marcus Ward
  • Other Starters: “Crazy old” Mauric Bennett, Devante Duclos, Raphael Cox, Lonnie Turner, Tanner Reeves, Joe Occhipinti, Juwan Gardner, Leverick Johnson, Drew Davis, Jimmy Sims, De’Andre Simmons, Matt Nord
  • Role Players: Connor Popeck, Kyle Jones, John Delaney, Dalton Patterson, D’Von Isaac, Justin Martinez, Donald Rocker, Demarcus Glover, Shaq Johnson, Kalvin Robinson
  • Transfers: Todd Porter, Joe Fennell, Isaac Tanner, Tanner Reeves, Rashad Greene, Joe Occhipinti, Darrell Young, Cam Lewis, Aaron Jackson, Charles Antwine

When you think of the impact players during the Brohm era, here are most of them. Petrino’s class brought in over 30 players, many of which saw the field often, and a few were the reasons WKU was so dominant in 2015 and 2016. This class provided a little bit of everything, but 24 of these men listed contributed significantly to the Tops.

Jeff Brohm

Coach Brohm was already within the Petrino system, and we could certainly debate about whether he played a large role in Petrino’s first class. However, we’re going to look at each coach’s recruiting classes as their own. Jeff Brohm’s Class of 2014 brought some really great talent:

  • National Rank: 88
  • C-USA Rank (First year in C-USA): 5th
  • Nine 3-star players
  • 17 2-star players
  • NFL Players: Wonderful Terry, Joel Iyiegbuniwe
  • Other Pros: Jared Dangerfield, Antwane Grant
  • All-Conference: Nacarius Fant, Nick Holt, Joe Brown,
  • Graduated Starters: Dejon Brown, Derik Overstreet, Dennis Edwards, Jake Collins
  • Graduated Role Player: Forrest Coleman, Ge’Monee Brown
  • Current Starters (At least one career start): D’andre Ferby, DeAndre Farris, Masai Whyte, Julien Lewis, Evan Sayner
  • Current Role Player: R.J. Scaife
  • Transfers: Dennis Edwards, Troy Jones, Travis Lock, Martavius Mims, Nick True, Ryan Duvall, Will Bush, Antonio Allen, Chaka Diarrassouba, Jake Collins

The first class of Jeff Brohm’s tenure was incredibly impressive, but note how many of the impact players are not currently with the program. The majority of the true impact players from this class were JuCo transfers and are long gone, or they were transfers. Sadly, only six are left on the current roster.

Brohm’s Class of 2015 was pitiful, according to the ratings. Were there good players in that class? Sure, but a class to this level requires world class coaching to salvage a class so sparse:

  • National Rank: 111
  • C-USA Rank: 11
  • Five 3-star players
  • 16 2-star players
  • Legend: Mike White
  • Other NFL Player: Omar Bryant
  • All-Conference: T.J. McCollum
  • Current Starters: Quiz Jernigan, Parker Howell, Miles Pate, Heath Wiggins, Marquez Trigg (1 start), Lucky Jackson
  • Current Role Players: Nick Coffey, Devin Nixon, Jordon Gonzalez, Devon Wharton, Devon Quincy
  • Transfer: T.J. McCollum, Aldwin Jackson, Cullen Reynolds, Sidney Hammond, Jason Johnson, Hunter Holland, Tyron Horton, Tyler Camp, Andre Thomas-Cobb, Reese Ryan

Here’s the issue: This class was already rated low to start with, but how many players (from a class that should be redshirt juniors and seniors) have transferred from it to make it even worse? 11 of 23. On top of that, what players have already shown promise from this class? Of the 12 left, actually eight have shown some kind of promise. See what I’m getting at? This is an issue, but Mike White, Omar Bryant and T.J. McCollum sure make it nicer than it would be.

Jeff Brohm’s final class, the Class of 2016, was ten spots higher in the nation than his 2015 class. These players are still mostly underclassmen, but these guys should start making a significant impact in 2018:

  • National Rank: 101
  • C-USA Rank: 7
  • Eight 3-star players
  • 10 3-star players
  • NFL Players: Stevie Donatell, Tyler Ferguson
  • All-Conference: Chris Johnson, Devon Key
  • Current Starters: Dee Cain, Xavier Lane, Tyler Witt,
  • Current Role Players: Jeremy Darvin, Jahcour Pearson, Jalen Madden, Seth Joest, Kyle Fourtenbary, Steven Duncan, Gaej Walker
  • Transfers: Quinton Baker, Drew O’Bryan, Chris Cotto, Anthony Robinson, Adam Raschilla, John Hines

Most of the recruits in this class have seen the field, and many of them have serious potential to make an impact on the field. Unfortunately, one-third of the class is already gone. It’s very natural to lose a chunk of recruits after a coaching change. The great sign for this class is that it already shows more potential than the 2015 class. More starters and possibilities come from this class without question.

Overall, Jeff Brohm did a very average to substandard job not only recruiting good talent, but also recruiting guys that could develop on The Hill for an extended period of time. His 2015 class was quite paltry, and should have been the core of the team in 2017 and 2018. Instead, the core of the team suffers because of poor recruiting and transfers.

Mike Sanford

After two years of sub-100 recruiting classes, new head coach Mike Sanford has come in and produces the best recruiting class in WKU history. The Class of 2017 shows significant promise:

  • National Rank: 82
  • C-USA Rank: 4
  • 11 3-star players
  • 15 2-star players
  • NFL Players: Cam Echols-Luper
  • Current Starters: Mik’Quan Deane (2018 Preseason Mackey Award), Roger Cray, Cole Spencer, Deangelo Malone, Carson Jordan, Ben Reeder
  • Current Role Players: C.J. Marria, Juwuan Jones, Kyle Bailey, Latheron Rogers-Anderson, Preston Mixon, Davis Shanley, Antwon Kincade, Steven Witchoskey, Jakairi Moses, Jaylon George, Jordan Meredith, Jacquez Sloan, Kris Leach, Michael Cone, Dionte Ruffin
  • Transfers: Tariq Young, Caleb Etheridge, B.J. Sharpe, Paul Taylor

It is amazing the number of people that immediately played from this class. Obviously the team wasn’t very good, but an incoming class should have very little expectation to make an impact in its first year. So many fresh faces came in and stole jobs, though. On top of the fact that there wasn’t a real mass exodus after Brohm left, this is just an indication that there wasn’t enough talent left to replace the superstars before them.

Finally, Sanford’s Class of 2018 is obviously of caliber undetermined, but the numbers sure are something to behold:

  • National Rank: 81
  • C-USA Rank: 5
  • 4-star players: Kevaris Thomas
  • 3-star players: Arthur Brathwaite, Avonta Crim, Garland LaFrance, Lichon Turrell, Spencer Gaddis, Russell Brown, Mario Wright, Anthony Spurlock, Gino Appleberry, Tre Leslie, Nazir Sy, Malik Occiur, Cardavion Myers, Deporess Schletty, Devin Bell, Trey Urquhart, Jay Gibson, Terez Traynor, Troy Ingle, Roderick Forts
  • 2-star players: Shannon Bishop, Kawan Williams, Gunner Britton, Jayden Patterson, Mason Brooks

Frankly, what comments can be made about this class, except pure speculation? Plenty of these guys could be immediate impact players. Any 3-star athlete at a Group of Five school should have a chance to play early on, if they’re as good as they’re rated. Kevaris Thomas will be a fascinating storyline.

So Who Can We Blame?!?

Mike Sanford has been judged harshly by a large contingent of the WKU fan base. Frankly, it’s entirely unfair to blame him for everything. It’s all subjective, but for me, the talent he brings in, the management of the program, practice and games is my barometer. Feel free to disagree with that idea.

First, game management was poor in 2017; The rushing game was non-existent, the overall offensive production felt anemic, special teams took a massive step backwards. Coaches admitting as much only gave them more flack. That’s a given.

But other than that and some factors we can’t calculate (internal management and practice habits), the players already in the program are not of Sanford’s doing. If the talent level is not satisfactory, when we look and see Jeff Brohm’s recruiting classes ranked at or below average in the conference and (so far) no major earth shattering names coming from the Brohm recruiting cycles besides Mike White and Iggy, perhaps we should look beyond Sanford.

Unquestionably, Jeff Brohm is a mastermind and is definitely a better X’s and O’s coach than Mike Sanford. Brohm is regarded as one of the current top offensive gurus, so saying that is not a shot at Sanford. Sanford probably agrees.

But let’s get blunt: Brohm is yet to coach his own roster completely made up of his own players. He won with portions of Taggart and Petrino talent at WKU, and won with Hazell talent at Purdue. Very few of his players saw the field and made a difference yet.

Sanford is now in his second year. He’s brought in two recruiting classes rated higher than the WKU norm (the two highest in history), but the base of his roster is Jeff Brohm’s prospects. We should start seeing a healthy portion of Sanford players taking the field in 2018, but in all likelihood, more than half of the playing time will still be gobbled up by players originally recruited by Brohm.

In my opinion based on facts, Willie Taggart (in a lesser conference), Bobby Petrino (in a lesser conference) and Mike Sanford (so far) did their jobs on the recruiting trail. Their recruiting classes were either ranked high (Taggart and Sanford) or performed extremely well over time (Petrino).

Look at the numbers for yourself. Jeff Brohm produced three of the four worst rated classes of the nine total since 2010 while producing the three best years in a row ever in the program. On top of mostly unproductive classes, he recruited an extensive amount of JuCo players which made quick impacts and were gone before Sanford could use them.

Think of the impact players in the past few years. Where did they come from? Generally, they’ve been Petrino and Taggart players. There have been some Brohm guys make a splash, but few were left for Sanford to continue with. As a coach of a program for three years, shouldn’t he have left more of an imprint on the talent than he did?

This is not an article attempting to bash Jeff Brohm. Frankly, I felt Sanford is getting a bad rep for just “ruining what Brohm did,” and wanted to see where the numbers lie. I think the idea Sanford has “wrecked the program,” is ludicrous. First, he’s a brand new head coach and had some bad luck in his first season. Without question, a portion was just luck of the draw. Undeniably, a large portion of in-game strategy was completely on him. Go ahead and dislike that part of 2017 if you want.

But other than that, where is he at fault? He’s keeping it clean, bringing in good talent, and many of the players he brought in contributed immediately. He’s had to deal with some transfers and lost a huge one to the NFL draft. These kinds of untimely departures are to be expected early in a coach’s tenure.

This year should be the year we see a transition from Petrino and Brohm talent to Brohm and Sanford talent. More of Sanford’s players will see the field, and we will start seeing an identity for this program moving forward, one way or another.

But if we’re sitting here wondering how the Tops went 6–6 last year, what about the slow bleeding of talent over the past few years?