The bowl practices, All-America lists and other post-regular season ephemera currently occupying headlines mask something currently happening at Washington State that will have a much more lasting impact for the Cougars.
December is recruiting season for college football coaches and WSU’s assistants are spending their weekdays fanning out across the country in order to get face time with next year’s freshmen. They also spend their weekends playing host to recruits.
The Cougars began recruiting the 2016 class in earnest last spring, with a watch list of about 1,000 high school players. Over the summer that list gets whittled to about 350 who receive mail from the Cougars almost daily throughout the season. A group of about 200 get further attention from the coaches and, eventually, scholarship offers.
And then 56 kids are brought in for official visits — all-expense-paid trips to Pullman to get a glimpse of what life would be like as a Cougar. Because the Cougars are limited to 25 players in a given recruiting class, it is imperative that they have a high success rate with the recruits they bring in for official visits.
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In the past, Washington State, like many schools, brought in players for official visits throughout the season, typically having big recruiting weekends when prominent opponents are in town, to show off Martin Stadium’s game-day atmosphere.
This year, however, Mike Leach has changed his philosophy and is instead bringing in players now for official visits on quieter weekends with the regular season over.
“I like it better,” Leach said. “The biggest thing is games are great and games are exciting, and they’re also on TV. The biggest thing is I think it allows us the opportunity to show them the campus, and meet our team without being preoccupied by a game.
“They get to see the excitement of the game, but they don’t really get to meet many people, and then get them introduced to professors, academics, all those things we can do a lot more effectively when we can really devote the whole weekend to them.”
Conventional wisdom holds that recruits are most influenced by a team’s success their junior year of high school, since by their senior season relationships have already been established and the incoming freshman’s choice of schools is mostly set.
This year’s freshman class for WSU, therefore, is particularly strong because the Cougars had their resurgent 6-7 season in 2013, which saw WSU make its first bowl game since 2003. The Cougars’ 3-9 record last season may have put them at a disadvantage for this year’s recruiting class, although recent commitments by highly sought-after players may indicate that WSU’s success on the field this season is starting to resonate with recruits.
In that case, the Cougars may have gained another advantage by holding off on official visits: Recruits are now seeing the Cougars (8-4) after watching them have their best season since the prospects were in kindergarten.
Mata’afa a freshman All-American
Washington State defensive end Hercules Mata’afa was named to USA Today’s Freshman All-America team on Wednesday. The WSU redshirt freshman tied for the team lead with six sacks — his first and second came at California in the Cougars’ fourth game of the season — and he finished the year with 10 tackles for loss. The young player has steadily improved throughout the year — he has a tackle for loss in four of the past five games — and ended the regular season as one of the team’s most impactful defensive players.