The chaos of roster-building for Brian Kelly, Billy Napier and first-year coaches in 2022

FORT WORTH, Texas — It’s mid-March, roughly four months since Sonny Dykes made the decision to move across town, stepping up from the Group of 5 at SMU to TCU and the Power 5. He already knew his way around campus, having served as an analyst for the Horned Frogs in 2017, but upon returning, it’s the college football landscape that has changed dramatically.

Dykes has switched jobs a few times now, first becoming a head coach at Louisiana Tech and then Cal, before spending the last four seasons at SMU. Taking over a new program is always challenging, he says, but never more so than now.

“What happens when you get hired is you’re basically on the clock,” he said.

Two weeks after he was introduced, the early signing period began and the vast majority of high school prospects inked their letters of intent. All the while, there was the transfer portal with which to contend. And infiltrating all of that was the money being promised to prospective players in name, image and likeness deals.

But before Dykes could recruit any high school or college player in the portal, he had to attend to his own roster. No one used the term “re-recruitment” a few years ago. Now it’s a necessity for new coaches because every player a coach inherits from the previous staff not only expects to see their new head coach in meetings, Dykes said, they also expect to have a private conversation. Put them off and risk a chunk of the roster exiting via the portal.

“The list of people that you need to talk to gets long,” Dykes said. “It used to be, you talk to the player. Now, you talk to the player and talk to the parents and talk to maybe the high school coach, maybe talk to the 7-on-7 coach. And then you multiply that times 135 players, multiply that times 30 guys that you’re recruiting while you’re trying to hire a coaching staff and ….”

Whew. Forget the math for a second. There’s no calculator for this. Dykes later mentions boosters, who want some of the coach’s time as well. Who do you think is putting up the NIL money and making recruiting possible?

“You just look up and you just go, ‘Holy cow, man. This is a lot,'” Dykes continued. “It’s like one of those things where there’s almost so much that needs to be done it’s just overwhelming. You gotta sit down and start chipping away.”

Such is the life of a coach in the new era of college football. There’s never been less patience among fans for lengthy rebuilding projects, and all the while rebuilding a roster has never been more complicated.

Four months have passed, and Dykes is still at it.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “I’m still trying to return phone calls.”

Now that spring practice has ended and the bulk of the transfer portal activity has slowed, we hear from Dykes, Brian Kelly, Billy Napier and Joey McGuire about the mad dash from December to May at their new homes.

KELLY GAVE OFF a cool confidence as he sat down to talk about the state of LSU football.

Maybe it’s because he knows how good this place can be given the resources of the SEC and the fact that Louisiana produces more NFL players per capita than anywhere in the country. Maybe it’s because he’s recently cleared the hurdle of his first spring practice, holding a successful game in Tiger Stadium two days earlier. Maybe, he said, it’s because he knows what he’s doing.

“I feel comfortable,” he said. “Look, this is my 32nd year, so you would expect that I have a pretty good idea of what the plan should be and how it should look at this point. It’s not that I’ve been just throwing balls up in the air for a long time and I’m the luckiest Irish Catholic in the history of college football.”

He took a deep breath.

“It’s coming together,” he continued. “It’s a process.”

And it’s a process he’s not interested in rushing. The 10-year, $95 million deal he signed, which helped lure him away from a long and successful run at Notre Dame, gives him some job security. But more important than that are the realities he’s facing.

When LSU fired Kelly’s predecessor, Ed Orgeron, in October, it prompted a flood of transfers. More than a dozen players left, including starting quarterback Max Johnson and starting cornerback Eli Ricks. The number of scholarship players available was so low in December that they could have reasonably skipped out on the Texas Bowl. Instead, they played a receiver at quarterback and were trounced by Kansas State 42-20.

The message was clear: Kelly and his staff clearly had their work cut out when it came to high school recruiting and the portal.

“I could not focus on all those things at one time,” he said. “I had to take much more of a longer view. If I looked at it and its immediacy, it would’ve been paralysis by analysis.”

He focused instead on building the right infrastructure, which meant assembling a solid coaching staff. Getting former longtime LSU assistant Frank Wilson back gave Kelly immediate credibility within the state. Simultaneously, he had to assemble a personnel department that could properly evaluate and communicate with prospects. And that department had to include staff dedicated to the transfer portal — one that would pay close attention to players from in-state. Of the 15 transfers LSU has signed thus far, five are from Louisiana, including two key members of the Arkansas secondary a season ago.

But perhaps the most important player they pulled from the portal during the early transition period wasn’t from another school. It was LSU quarterback Myles Brennan. After back-to-back season-ending injuries and the firing of Orgeron, the former starter from Mississippi entered the portal in November.

When Kelly got the job weeks later, he didn’t expect to be able to convince Brennan to return, but he picked up the phone anyway. Kelly said he didn’t push hard. Instead, he kept emotions out of it: Come back, train with us and put yourself in a position to compete for the starting job here or, at the very least, go back into the portal in better shape.

The message resonated with Brennan, and he withdrew from the portal, setting up a two-man competition at quarterback with second-year player Garrett Nussmeier.

But two months later, the new era of college football showed how unpredictable it can be when Arizona State’s talented dual-threat quarterback, Jayden Daniels, unexpectedly entered the portal.

Kelly was interested but hesitant. Asked if there was trepidation about pursuing another QB, he said, “One hundred percent. That was probably one of the more difficult decisions that I made in the offseason.”

LSU had only 32 spots available in the current signing class and so many other holes to fill. Was it wise to use one on yet another QB? Kelly said they went back and forth, asking themselves whether they believed Daniels could be a starter.

“But it was about competition,” he said. “It was about upgrading the competition on this roster across the board.”

They wound up recruiting Daniels, who committed and signed in time to get on campus for spring practice.

The first call Kelly made after Daniels committed was to the other quarterbacks.

“They all outwardly received it well,” he said.

But Kelly is nothing if not pragmatic, recognizing that what they told him and how they feel might not be the same thing.

“I’ve been in it long enough,” he said.

As long as the transfer portal is open 365 days a year, anything can change.

NAPIER SAW FIRST-HAND at Alabama, where he was on staff for five seasons under coach Nick Saban, how valuable it is to commit time and resources to evaluations and recruiting. All those five-star prospects didn’t wander into Tuscaloosa by accident, and rarely was there a position devoid of talent from one season to the next, even if players left early for the NFL draft.

Now on his second go-round as a head coach, moving up from the Group of 5 at Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns to the Power 5 at Florida this past winter, Napier said he enjoys the “roster management piece.”

“There’s strategy, there’s systems, there’s processes relative to evaluation, player development, accountability,” he said.

He could go on for hours talking about things an NFL fan might associate with a general manager’s responsibilities. In college, coaches like Napier act as their own GMs with final say on what players are recruited and ultimately signed to scholarships. And when they take over a new program and get a peek under the hood, they can be struck by what they see.

Take Florida’s walk-on program.

“It’s alarming,” Napier said. “We only had 13 walk-ons.”

That’s less than half of what similar programs aim for. Never mind that most walk-ons won’t ever play a meaningful snap at an SEC program. That’s not the point. This is: With so few walk-ons, plus injuries and attrition via the portal, Florida didn’t have the number of players it needed to field multiple teams in practice. Without a full third- and fourth-string, first- and second-string players missed out on valuable reps.

“It’s significant for the development of the team because this is a repetition game and you learn by doing,” Napier said.

Some coaches have made it clear how much they dislike the transfer portal. It’s an ever-present threat in terms of roster retention. But Napier isn’t among the doomsayers. He acknowledges the good and bad, of course, but he’s a realist. He looks at a roster where he said there are very few positions where “you sleep really good about the depth,” and is thankful that there’s another resource from which to mine talent.

“I can’t imagine not having that opportunity,” he said.

Last year’s starting quarterback, Emory Jones, surprised everyone when he entered the portal following the first day of spring practice, eventually committing to Arizona State. If Napier hadn’t already signed former Ohio State quarterback Jack Miller, he’d have a problem on his hands with no depth behind the presumptive starter, Anthony Richardson, who comes with injury concerns after missing a handful of games last season.

When offensive lineman Gerald Mincey left for Tennessee, Napier was able to sign two of his former linemen at Louisiana, Kamryn Waites and O’Cyrus Torrence. He also signed another of his former players in running back Montrell Johnson, who was Sun Belt freshman of the year.

There’s still a ton to do to rebuild the roster and get Florida back in shape to compete with Georgia in the SEC East. But Napier is willing to work the portal to get there. He even hired a former NFL scout, director of college personnel Bird Sherrill, to focus on the portal and junior college recruiting.

During a news conference in April, Napier delivered a message to anyone considering transferring: “We have spots available.”

“We anticipate doing a lot of business and we look forward to it,” he said.

WHEN MCGUIRE LANDED his first college head-coaching job at Texas Tech, he might as well have been in the middle of one of west Texas’ famous dust storms. His transition, more than most, symbolizes the way the calendar has changed for coaches.

He replaced Matt Wells, who was fired Oct. 23 despite a 5-3 record as Texas Tech looked to get ahead of the coaching carousel and to prepare for the early signing period. McGuire immediately left his job as assistant head coach and outside linebackers coach at Baylor to begin preparing for the transition.

While Tech was being coached by offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie, who was serving as interim head coach, McGuire was busy laying down his foundation for when he assumed the job after the season ended, and was also trying to hold his roster together and learn the ropes of the new world of NIL.

“As soon as I got the job we set up a meet and greet with the parents that were coming to the Iowa State game [on Nov. 13] so they could get to know me,” McGuire said. “I was up there on Sundays usually working and we’d have an NFL game on so I’d tell some guys, ‘Hey, I’m up in the office, you want to swing by?’ You know, just trying to develop that relationship of, as fast as possible, them getting to know me. I told them I wouldn’t ask him for a chance, I was just asking them to be open-minded, letting them see who we are and what we’re about and just giving us that look.”

Still, McGuire said it was clear people from other programs were circling his roster amid the coaching change.

“Man, these are my guys, you know?” he said. “Leave my guys alone, let me coach my guys and develop the relationships and if they’re not happy, I get it. But don’t be coming in and calling the roster. That’s what’s scary right now.”

McGuire’s early arrival meant he was on the job for 32 days before early signing day. It was a mad dash, but the former Texas high school coach leaned on his relationships and held on to the seven players who had committed to Wells and added nine new signees. The Red Raiders have been active in the transfer portal, including pickups like Baylor Cupp, a Texas A&M transfer that had originally been one of the top tight end recruits in the country out of high school in Texas, and several offensive line prospects like All-Conference USA tackle Cole Spencer of Western Kentucky and Monroe Mills from Oklahoma State.

McGuire has seen a rebuilding job up close. In his first year as a college assistant, Baylor went 1-11 under Matt Rhule. Two years later, the Bears went 11-3 with two losses to Oklahoma in the regular season and the Big 12 title game by a combined 10 points. Witnessing that turnaround, he thinks it’s possible to keep players in a program even if they’re not starting, as long as they’re being challenged and developed.

“I tell our coaches if we have the right culture, these guys are going to be here and we’re going to be able to develop them,” McGuire said. “We’re going to be playing with grown men that have gone through our strength training, that have gone through our fourth-quarter drills, that have gone through everything that these guys are going through and we’re going to have a real healthy team and a healthy roster.”

WHILE THERE IS undoubtedly a lot of angst over NIL among coaches, the ability to kick-start a rebuild is one of the biggest advantages for coaches at new stops.

Rhett Lashlee, who was an offensive coordinator under Dykes at SMU, returned to the Hilltop to replace his old boss for his first head-coaching job. He’s seen the progress the program has made in being a home for bounce-back prospects, often Dallas-area players who went to larger programs but decided to transfer back home.

Lashlee has taken full advantage of that philosophy, landing Alabama running back Camar Wheaton, from the suburb of Garland. The Mustangs also plucked three former Texas players, wide receiver Kelvontay Dixon, safety Chris Adimora and defensive end David Abiara.

At USC, Lincoln Riley has drawn talent from across the country, with seven high school prospects in the early signing period before signing 13 transfers and one high school player on February’s signing day, with quarterback Caleb Williams, a true freshman breakout star for Riley at Oklahoma, being the biggest prize of the offseason.

And he might not be done. Former Pitt receiver Jordan Addison, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, entered the portal late in May, starting a whole new frenzy, with social media watching his every visit and move. ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported that Panthers’ coach Pat Narduzzi called Riley multiple times to express his displeasure over Addison’s potential transfer.

Just last week, Saban denied Louisville coach Scott Satterfield’s insinuation that Alabama tampered to get former Cardinals receiver Tyler Harrell.

Welcome to 2022, where no one’s roster is safe.

Dykes said NIL has created many issues, both good and bad, but for the most part, he believes discussions of finances in the sport are finally going on above ground.

“There’s plenty of money going around,” he said. “I think that the people that step in between the lines on Saturday and put their bodies on the line, those are the guys that need to be taken care of and compensated. I’m disappointed it’s taken as long as it has to figure that out.”

For Dykes, who lost stars of his own in running back Zach Evans — who joined a big class of transfers for “Portal King” Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss — and Ochaun Mathis, who recently transferred to Nebraska, it’s all a matter of adapting to the new reality.

“I don’t like losing players, especially high-profile guys when other schools basically come and pick them and pay them a bunch of money, but that’s kind of free enterprise,” Dykes said. “I don’t get to make the money that I make and go, ‘You know, it’s fair for me to do that and it’s not fair for the players.’ College football is a big business.”

For coaches, that business is now open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And everything’s on sale.

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