LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — As Bobby Petrino described the obstacles to putting together a University of Louisville football recruiting class after taking over as coach on January 10, it struck me that despite all the people he considered and talked to, athletic director Tom Jurich's options actually were quite limited if he wanted to maintain any kind of recruiting presence before his program's first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He could retain defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who perhaps would've been able to hold onto a few high-profile commitments but was unproven as a head coach, or he could get Petrino, who knows the terrain, has been through the experience of putting together a recruiting class on the fly, knows his system and the kind of personnel he wants, and is a proven winner on the football field.
Everyone else, it could be argued, would've been a step back, if not in recruiting, then in the comfort level of head-coaching ability.
Petrino introduced the first class of his second term as U of L coach on Wednesday, while conceding that there were difficulties.
The class rank averages in the mid forties. Charlie Strong had a class set to be in the twenties. He also had a small class last season that was in the fifties. Louisville is entering new terrain, but its recruiting is in old terrain for a bit longer, for better or worse.
The better part is that Petrino continued to hit the states that are most important to U of L's success: Florida, Georgia and Alabama. He also took four players from Ohio.
The worse? It's going to take better than that to compete with the elite teams in the ACC, starting with the defending national champions.
Petrino did not shy away from the question of what it was like to try to cobble a class together. Usually, a coach comes in after a regime that had been losing, takes over in early December and gets a head start on late recruiting. Petrino was well into January.
"It was different. It was really different," he said. "Just because of the extended dead period, we weren't able to get all our visits in — which I'd never done before. They say if you're recruiting the right guys, you're going to get one out of three, and we weren't able to use up all our visits. So we weren't able to get enough guys on campus."
Every four-star player who had committed to U of L wound up backing out, though Petrino picked up a signing-day surprise commitment from four-star linebacker Sharieff Rhaheed-Muahmmad out of Fort Pierce, Fla.
"You have to trust your own evaluation and go through the process," Petrino said. "It's easier said than done to trust yourself and not worry about the stars, but when you do that you end up with guys like Breno Giacomini, who just won a Super Bowl. We were the only ones recruiting that guy."
Petrino passed on a four-star running back, Daniel Gresham out of Forth Worth. Another four-star prospect, safety Nilijah Ballew, went elsewhere when the new staff didn't pursue him.
Had Petrino wanted to keep up appearances, he'd have taken those two. But he saw other needs.
Even before his staff was complete Petrino was watching film of last year's U of L team, and of the recruits in hand.
"We evaluated one at a time, watched film, filled out paperwork on all of them," he said. ". . . We had some guys who decommitted and we weren't able to get them back. We had some guys we held on and fought for and got them. And then we had some guys who weren't able to come here for one reason or another and we put off our list."
Petrino went through his 21-player class on Wednesday, patiently explaining stories of the recruitment or philosophy behind each player taken.
He said Trinity High School quarterback Reggie Bonnafon was courted hard by others after Charlie Strong left, but stayed committed to U of L throughout. He said he liked the size and athletic ability of the cornerbacks he added. He says he'd like to take one or two more players if they become available.
They rolled the dice on a mammoth offensive lineman out of Mississippi — 350-pound Jimmie Terry, when coaches looked at film and decided he was worth taking.
"I think we did a good job on hitting the needs we have — quarterback, offensive line, tight end, specialty players and the secondary," Petrino said. "The big need we still need is an interior player. We need a big guy who can keep our linebackers free. We don't have enough numbers at the interior spot."
This class will not raise many ACC eyebrows. But Petrino hasn't had time to stop to gauge anything for effect. He said he'll immediately set about the task of more closely evaluating his returning players, as well as hiring a safeties coach who also will serve as recruiting coordinator. And then, there's next year's recruiting.
"We started working on next year's class today," Petrino said. "I already feel like we're behind because we haven't been here for that full cycle."
"We're behind," he added, before saying, "But we will catch up."
"When we got here, we went immediately on the road. So we actually know these recruits better than we know our own players right now," he said. "And that's the fun part for us now, from here on out we get to start going in the weight room watching them work out, we'll have our matt drills and we'll actually start to get to know our team and our players. . . . We have a lot to learn about our football team, and that's going to be fun and exciting."
There's not much margin for error. The schedule next season is like nothing U of L has seen for a long time. Petrino called it, " very exciting, but it's also cause to be nervous."
Petrino has been scrambling. But he plans, as always, to stay on the offensive.