The misses on Anthony Hill, Colton Vasek, and Hunter Osborne illustrate the challenges defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski and his coaches are facing on the recruiting trail despite the June pledge by Arch Manning.
The aftermath of New Orleans (La.) Isidore Newman quarterback Arch Manning’s commitment on June 23 — termed the Arch Effect — helped the Texas Longhorns surge to a recruiting run unprecedented for the program in the modern era, landing 12 commitments in the following month and vaulting to No. 5 in the 247Sports Composite team recruiting rankings.
But the momentum slowed in recent days as the Longhorns lost out on three high-profile targets. On Saturday, Texas A&M won a massive head-to-head battle against Texas, securing a pledge from Denton Ryan linebacker Anthony Hill, the nation’s top player at his position and the No. 15 player overall. Then, on Monday, Austin Westlake edge Colton Vasek followed his trip to Norman over the weekend with a commitment to Oklahoma, and Justice Finkley’s former high school teammate, top-150 prospect Hunter Osborne, added his name to home-state Alabama’s recruiting class.
Here’s what happened, what those decisions say about the current state of recruiting under Texas defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, and how the Longhorns move forward trying to find difference makers on that side of the ball.
Denton Ryan linebacker Anthony Hill
Despite trailing with Hill throughout much of his recruitment, Texas moved into serious contention after hosting the elite linebacker on an official visit the day after Manning committed. Shortly thereafter, Hill was officially down to the Longhorns and the Aggies with some increased confidence in Austin thanks to Manning’s pledge and the presence of two former teammates — tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders and defensive back Austin Jordan — on the Texas roster.
Ultimately, however, an unofficial visit to College Station for Texas A&M’s pool party was enough to solidify Hill’s decision.
“With a lot of talented defensive linemen it was big for me knowing that they are going to make my job easier,” Hill told On3, a reference largely alluding to the 2022 recruiting class. Ranked as the No. 1 class overall, four of the top five signees were defensive lineman, all consensus five-star prospects, supplemented as well by two other top-60 prospects along the defensive line.
Austin Westlake edge Colton Vasek
A Texas legacy whose father played defensive end at Texas in the 1990s. An area product who attends a pipeline school with several former teammates on the roster. For Vasek, the ties to the Longhorns were always strong, but after bursting onto the recruiting scene with a big junior season, Vasek seemed intent on forging his own path.
Oregon hosted him for an official visit in June and loomed like the potential leader for a time. Clemson also received serious consideration and a June official visit. Texas tried to battle back into contention, with Manning helping the recruiting efforts last week during the pool party event on the Forty Acres, but a subsequent unofficial visit to Oklahoma won Vasek over.
The reputation of Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables as one of the most effective defensive minds in college football played a large role.
How did @CoachVenables reel in On300 EDGE rusher Colton Vasek
— Sam Spiegelman (@samspiegs) August 1, 2022
Trussville (Ala.) Hewitt-Trussville defensive lineman Hunter Osborne
Landing Finkley in the 2022 recruiting class provided some hope that Texas could once again pull a defensive lineman out of Alabama and the Horns were able to get the 6’4, 260-pounder on campus for an official visit in June.
However, after Alabama missed on nine more highly-ranked defensive lineman, Osborne had a spot in the class and the Crimson Tide were able to close the deal. In an unsurprising twist, Bama’s consistent success played a telling role for a recruit who grew up watching head coach Nick Saban’s dynasty from an hour away from Tuscaloosa.
— Andrew Bone (@AndrewJBone) August 1, 2022
What those decisions say about Texas
Rebuilds are difficult. It wasn’t until some late recruiting momentum in the 2022 recruiting class that the Longhorns were able to land a number of impact players overall and they simply haven’t been easy to come by defensively — only one of the four top-100 prospects signed in the cycle was a defender. In the 2023 class, the top three defensive pledges all play in the secondary.
So the trio of defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski, defensive line coach Bo Davis, and linebackers coach Jeff Choate has struggled to land elite defensive recruits since joining head coach Steve Sarkisian’s staff. The poor on-field results in 2021 certainly haven’t helped.
In the way that recruiting success tends to beget more recruiting success, Texas A&M used last year’s incredible class in the defensive trenches to convince Hill his brightest future lies in playing behind consensus five-star prospects who can keep him clean flowing to the football.
After Kwiatkowski spent most of his career coaching in the Northwest at Boise State and Washington, he’s a virtual non-entity in the collective consciousness of high school defenders and didn’t do anything positive last season to convince him of his aptitude. Brent Venables, after helping Clemson to six consecutive College Football Playoff appearances and two national championships, is a known entity — players like Vasek have watched him constantly prowl the sidelines in the College Football Playoffs coaching high-level defenses for their most formative years.
And playing for Nick Saban? Well, Alabama is just Alabama, one of the greatest dynasties in college football history.
Even special assistant to the head coach Gary Patterson is of limited utility to Texas in many of these recruitments. A chance to continue receiving coaching from Patterson wasn’t enough to help Texas land former TCU standout edge Ochaun Mathis. And Patterson is either unlikely to remain on the Forty Acres for multiple seasons or, in a worst-case scenario for Kwiatkowski, could be forced to replace Kwiatkowski if the Longhorns defense struggles again in 2022.
Right now, having Manning in the class wasn’t enough to overcome some of the disadvantages Texas is recruiting against coming off a 5-7 season and more than a decade almost entirely spent in the college football wilderness.
Recruiting misses only increase the pressure on Kwiatkowski to put a significantly improved defense on the field this fall — for an offensive-minded head coach like Sarkisian, the defensive coordinator is the most important hire, and it was one that Sarkisian elected to make after putting the rest of the defensive staff together. Suffice it to say that Kwiatkowski failing, even with the insurance plan of Patterson now on staff, would be the first major setback for Sarkisian and one that would heavily reduce his margin for error moving forward.
On the recruiting trail, Friendswood edge Braylan Shelby is currently trending towards USC ahead of a Saturday decision. If Shelby commits to the Trojans, it could ensure the Longhorns fail to land a highly-ranked edge prospect in the class — other targets, like Florida’s Damon Wilson or Utah’s Tausili Akana, are long shots for Texas.
Several other key decisions could come soon, including from Baton Rouge (La.) cornerback Jordan Matthews and Teague linebacker Derion Gullette. Both recruitments favor the Horns with Gullette looming as all the more important after missing on Hill.
With the state’s top defensive prospect, Katy Paetow defensive lineman DJ Hicks, likely to end up at Oklahoma or Texas A&M, Arlington Martin cornerback Javien Taviano is potentially the only defensive prospect ranked in the state’s top 10 with a chance to join South Oak Cliff cornerback Malik Muhammad in the Texas class.
The bottom line is that the Longhorns are still in a strong position overall to land a top-five recruiting class and could fill in some remaining needs through the NCAA transfer portal, but the last few days of recruiting have put into relief the extent to which the Arch Effect can’t fix some unfortunate recruiting realities on defense.
Now it’s up to Kwiatkowski, Patterson, and a defense that lacks any clear stars to start shifting that reality more favorably in the direction of the Forty Acres. Otherwise, Sarkisian’s rebuild will only become more difficult as the SEC move looms on the horizon.