Despite the popularity of the transfer portal, recruiting is still how college football coaches build the foundation of their teams and add talent year after year. Coaches can fill voids through the portal, which has impacted high school prospects, but recruiting is still the lifeblood of a program.
With some new coaches looking to build rosters, some coaches nearing the hot seat and others trying to get their programs on track, we look at which teams need to have strong performances in the 2023 recruiting cycle.
USC was struggling on the recruiting trail prior to Lincoln Riley taking over as head coach. The previous staff had a good run in 2021 with 10 ESPN 300 commitments, but that was after landing only one — wide receiver Gary Bryant — in the 2020 class.
Riley got five-star defensive back Domani Jackson to recommit and landed ESPN 300 running back Raleek Brown, safety Zion Branch and receiver C.J. Williams, but didn’t have enough time to completely turn the program around. The program finished the 2022 cycle ranked No. 52 in the class rankings, landing eight high school commitments. The remainder of the class was filled with transfers, including Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams and receiver Mario Williams.
Those are huge additions, but Riley and his staff need to build a good foundation in California and try to keep more of the top in-state recruits home than the previous staff.
He’s off to a fast start in 2023 with ESPN 300 quarterback Malachi Nelson, the No. 2 recruit overall; wide receiver Zachariah Branch, the No. 1 receiver; and Makai Lemon, the No. 3 receiver in the class. If the start for the program is any indication of how it will finish, Riley should have no problem cracking the top 10 in the class rankings.
Clemson isn’t on the list because it has had poor recruiting results. After all, the program finished 14th in the class rankings this past cycle, which is not in the elite category, but it’s also not bad considering who the staff added. ESPN 300 quarterback Cade Klubnik was one of the main features and could push for early playing time.
The reason Clemson finds itself on the list is because coach Dabo Swinney has not used the transfer portal as frequently as other coaches and seems as though he is not using it to fill needs. The only transfer Clemson has coming in this offseason is quarterback Hunter Johnson, who transferred from Clemson to Northwestern, only to transfer back to Clemson again.
“My transfer portal is right there in that locker room because if I’m constantly going out every year and adding guys from the transfer portal, I’m telling all those guys in that locker room that I don’t believe in them, that I don’t think they can play,” Swinney told ESPN. “We’re also not doing our job as coaches and recruiters if we’re bringing in a bunch of transfers.”
If he isn’t going to use it in the future, then he needs to make sure he’s getting the right high school prospects to fill those holes. He thought he had the quarterback heir after Trevor Lawrence left, but D.J. Uiagalelei has had a less-than-stellar performance so far.
With the importance of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness deals, Clemson can choose to take the more conventional route, but it has to make sure it’s recruiting at a high level to continue to compete for championships.
Head coach Scott Frost made some significant changes to the offensive coaching staff this offseason and is running out of time to get the program on track. He and his staff finished No. 61 in the class rankings in the 2022 cycle with only three recruits ranked as four-stars.
Frost managed to bring in some important transfers, especially at quarterback after starter Adrian Martinez transferred to Kansas State. Casey Thompson transferred in from Texas, as did Chubba Purdy from Florida State, which should help shore up the quarterback spot. Frost added some receivers to give the quarterbacks help, but the high school side of recruiting has not taken off.
Only once over the past six recruiting cycles have the Huskers finished inside the top 20 of the recruiting class rankings: The team had the No. 18 class in 2018.
The new-look staff has gotten off to a good start in 2023 with five commitments already, but it needs to start elevating the profile of prospects it gets. Nebraska signed only seven recruits ranked as four-stars in the 2022 and 2021 class, which combined is the same amount the coaches had in the 2020 class. The staff needs playmakers who can help early if they want to continue to revamp the roster.
Florida is another team that went through a coaching change, firing Dan Mullen and hiring Billy Napier to replace him. Mullen’s recruiting at Florida was up and down, and a criticism from media and fans was often on the developmental side with the high-level prospects not panning out.
Napier took over and recruited five ESPN 300 commits in the 2022 class, finishing No. 31 in the class rankings. Like Riley, Napier didn’t have enough time to turn the program completely around, but he will need to improve it this cycle. While Napier proved he was able to win at Louisiana, he is probably going to have to show recruits he and his staff can win in Gainesville to gain their trust.
Florida has ESPN 300 athlete Aaron Gates committed in the 2023 cycle, which is a good start, but this class will be highly important for Napier going forward.
Auburn has had a tumultuous offseason that included a university-directed inquiry into the program about coach Bryan Harsin’s treatment of players and assistant coaches.
The program had 21 scholarship players enter the transfer portal since November, a significant amount of players to lose in one offseason and making it difficult to rebuild a roster.
Auburn signed only five ESPN 300 recruits in the 2021 class and then five in the 2022 class, so there is not enough talent coming into the program compared to the talent leaving.
The team finished 6-7 last season, and while the staff brought in quarterbacks Zach Calzada and Robby Ashford as transfers, there aren’t many new faces who could bring significant change. The coaching staff needs a big haul in the 2023 class, whether that’s through high school recruiting or the transfer portal.