The Importance of Recruiting Under Dana Holgorsen

five worst losses of the holgorsen era
File photo. West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mountaineer fans often disclaim the importance of recruiting rankings and star designations. For the Mountaineers, however, the importance of recruiting under Dana Holgorsen is clear. Holgorsen has employed a multi-faceted focus on Power 5 transfers, graduate transfers, Junior College transfers, and traditional high school recruits to build a talent-rich roster. As a result, the Mountaineers’ football team currently develops more raw talent than at any point in its history.

Mountaineers’ Recruiting History

To be blunt, the Mountaineers have not had significant sustained recruiting success at any point since 2000, the first year for which reliable team recruiting rankings are available. The following chart shows the Mountaineers’ team recruiting ranking each year since 2000.

Year 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Rank 44 51 50 54 38 37 60 24 49


2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
30* 32 52 35 30 39 35 39 57 35


*247Sports included Geno Smith twice in the 2009 rankings. Eliminating the second inclusion of Smith yields a ranking of 30.

Since 2000, the Mountaineers’ average recruiting ranking was 41. Don Nehlen averaged a ranking of 48. Rich Rodriguez averaged a ranking of 45. Bill Stewart averaged a ranking of 38. Finally, Holgorsen averages a ranking of 39.

Digging Deeper into Retention

Retention under Coach Stewart

However, a deeper dig into the numbers tells a different tale. Stewart started with two solid classes. Isolating his top recruits to include players rated in the 247Sports composite rankings to .870 or greater (high 3-star and above) shows Stewart’s rankings were inflated.

Year 4-star+ recruits Number retained High 3-star recruits Number retained
2009 5 2 4 1
2010 5 3 1 0
2011 0 0 2 1


In total, Stewart only retained half of his 4-star recruits. Similarly, he retained less than 30% of his high 3-star recruits. Thus, Stewart retained only 41% of his top-rated recruits.

Retention under Coach Holgorsen

On the other hand, the same data for Dana Holgorsen’s first five classes evidences a much higher retention rate.

Year 4-star+ recruits Number retained High 3-star recruits Number retained
2012 1 0 4 3
2013 2 2 3 3
2014 2 3 0 1
2015 2 4 2 2
2016* 2 3 2 2


*The 2017 and 2018 classes are omitted because long-term retention cannot yet be measured.

Between his 2012 and 2016 recruiting classes, Holgorsen retained 62% of his 4-star recruits and 83% of his high 3-star recruits. In total, Holgorsen retained 72% of his top-rated recruits. Nationally, programs average a retention rate just under 60%.

Based on these figures, Stewart underperformed in terms of retention against his peers by nearly 20%.  On the other hand, Holgorsen outperformed his peers by over 10%. Thus, if we recalculate classes to factor in attrition rates versus average, Holgorsen’s average ranking increases while Stewart’s drops dramatically.

Digging Deeper into Power 5 Transfers

Based on available information, West Virginia did not have any highly-rated incoming Power 5 transfers to the program under Coach Stewart. Under Holgorsen, however, the Mountaineers have added a number of memorable Power 5 transfers. Rushel Shell was a 2012 5-star recruit. Kenny Bigelow and Kyle Bosch were 2013 blue chip recruits. Will Grier was a 4-star 2014 recruit. Jabril Robinson was a 3-star 2014 recruit. Jack Allison, Jovani Haskins, and T.J. Simmons were 4-star 2015 recruits. And VanDarius Cowan is a 4-star 2017 recruit.

By adding each of the above players to the respective classes under Holgorsen, the current annual class rankings improve as follows.

Year 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
Rank 29 20 32 29 39 44 35


Departing from his predecessors, Holgorsen added a niche to his recruiting profile by playing heavily in the Power 5 transfer market. When factoring in the gains from this market, the average class at West Virginia under Holgorsen ranks 32nd. Add that to the bump he receives from having a higher-than-average retention rate of star players, and Holgorsen easily falls within the top 25 nationally.

Why It Matters

The Rankings Don’t Always Predict Success

Again, the average Mountaineer fan ignores recruiting rankings and predictions. After all, most programs overlooked mid-3-star recruits Pat White and Steve Slaton. In fact, Slaton was projected to sit behind 5-star recruit Jason Gwaltney. Not to mention, the Mountaineers achieved a number two ranking despite having only a couple top 25 recruiting classes.

These fans are not completely wrong. Recruiting rankings do not guarantee success. For example, Notre Dame finished with a top ten recruiting class in 11 of the last 19 seasons. However, they have only finished ranked in the top 25 seven times, finishing in the top ten only twice.

But a Team Cannot Sustain Success without the Recruits

On the other hand, looking at college football’s National Champions since 2004 and playoff participants since 2014 tells a distinct story. Only four of the past 14 National Champions featured less than 35 blue chip players on the roster. Those teams were Texas in 2005, Auburn in 2010, Florida State in 2013 with 34, and Clemson in 2016. And none of these schools carried less than 30 blue chip players.

Yet a total of five of the 16 college football playoff participants had between 16 and 28 blue chip recruits on the active roster. Oregon had 22 in 2014; Oklahoma had 28 and Michigan State had 17 in 2015; and Washington only had 16 in 2016. The threshold to reach the playoff presents a much lower barrier to entry, but it is still fairly well established. If a team cannot count more than 20% of its roster among blue chip recruits (4 stars or better on at least one major recruiting service), it falls short of the playoff. On a less-than-full roster of 80 players, this means a team needs at least sixteen (16) blue chip recruits to reach the playoff.

Where Do the Mountaineers Sit Now?

While West Virginia has flirted with success a few times in its recent history, it has done so without the benefit of concentrated blue chip talent. Indeed, West Virginia possesses a gritty mentality. As a result, many of its 3-star players far outperform their recruiting ranking. Steve Slaton, Pat White, Daryl Worley, Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon, and Kevin White are chief among them. Yet something has been missing in all but a trio of West Virginia’s best seasons. Outside of 1988, 1993, and 2007, West Virginia has never truly been in the hunt for a national title. Coincidentally, before Holgorsen, West Virginia has never featured more than twelve (12) blue chip players on its roster at any one time.

Enter the 2018 West Virginia Mountaineers. The Mountaineers currently feature twenty (20) blue-chip recruits on scholarship, safely above the minimum playoff threshold. Perhaps more importantly, the Mountaineers have at least one blue-chip player active at each position on the roster. Per usual, that talent is surrounded by the gritty, blue-collar players that define the Mountaineers. Yodny Cajuste, for example, is considered a possible second- or third-round draft selection. He was only a three-star recruit. Additionally, David Long is Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated returning linebacker in all of college football, and he was also only a three-star recruit.

The Importance of Recruiting Under Dana Holgorsen

To reiterate, just because a team crosses this threshold does not mean the team will have success. But, again, no team failing to cross this threshold has ever made the playoff or played in the national championship under the old BCS system. Finally, the Mountaineers have crossed the line for the first time. And that is where Holgorsen has taken this team. Ultimately, he has brought in an abundance of talent that marks the first in what could prove a series of steps to bring the Mountaineers closer to its team goals, such as the Big 12 championship appearance predicted here. That is the importance of recruiting under Dana Holgorsen.

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  1. Coach STEWART was not the head coach long enough to have any type of meaningful retention rate and in his last year had AD Luck tell him he was not good enough only to mentor Holgorsen, which had to effect his very small retention data sample so a very bad example for comparison.

  2. This dovetails nicely into a discussion I had with my 11-year-old son Saturday after the Tennessee game. He’s polluted by Buckeye brains occasionally and sensibly agrees that “we’ll always be WV and won’t get the great players like Alabama, Ohio State, etc.”

    I said there’s a little metric out there about WVU that makes this season even better than ’07, ’88, and ’93. It’s “If the draft was today, how many Mountaineers go?”

    That number has always been between 2 and 5. Every year. An o-lineman, maybe a defensive back and occasionally a skill guy.

    This year that number has ballooned.

    Kenny Robinson. David Long. Two, maybe even 4 defensive linemen. Both corners are on the cusp. Will Grier, Sills, Jennings, both offensive tackles. A stable of running backs with none emerging, but all adept ay their duties.

    When NFL talent on a college team jumps from 3 or 4 to over a dozen, it’s something to watch. We’ve never been this talent-rich, and it’s not a stretch to say that Dana has advanced this program as much or more than anyone else at the helm.

    What’s also indicative of the talent level are the guys who AREN’T bound for NFL drafts… Dravon Henry, Kennedy Mckoy, Marcus Simms, Zeke Rose… when this is the caliber of players bringing up the rear in terms of talent, you know you’ve got something working.

  3. D. Ackermann, that’s a fair point. It’s one I considered when writing. But ultimately the point was to show that Dana is recruiting better than anyone we’ve ever had. Some point to Stewart’s rankings to refute that notion, but, if we look just a bit more closely, Stewart’s rankings were inflated.

    While I hear you on the sample size, I would also note that Stewart’s retention issues we’re really a product of his tenure. His classes were filled with guys like Logan Heastie, Tevita Finau, Barry Brunetti, and Jeremy Johnson, who, for various reasons, simply never made it to campus or left very quickly after enrolling.

    Michael, also a good point, and, in terms of long term projections, this is perhaps the biggest positive impact Dana and his recruiting prowess can bring to the school. A couple Mountaineers being drafted used to be cause for celebration. Now a couple is a bad year. This year, we could get more than a couple in the first two days (Grier, Sills, Long and Cajuste are definitely Rounds 1-3 candidates, with 2 of them being near shoe-ins for First Round selections barring something unexpected).

  4. Well all your stats are great but the one stat you left out was wins. This guy can’t win the games that mean anything. I think you could give him 30 4 star recruits and he still wouldn’t win. He is not a head coach. He is a good OC at best. You have to get the 4 and 5 star recruits to come to your school. If you look at the teams that are in the top 10 each year they have the top recruits. Once you get them you have to know how to coach them and develop them. Dana Holgorsen has no clue how to coach or manage a game .

  5. What are we basis the conclusion that “you could give him 30 4 star recruits and he still wouldn’t win” on exactly? If we look at the talent composite tool that 247 sports offers (this averages the talent actually playing for a team), WVU should have won 6 games this season. It won 8. In all but one season, Dana is at least +1, and often +2, for wins above anticipated based on talent. Talent is getting deeper and better, by a good margin. And it will continue to do so. And Dana is winning more than he should as he starts climbing that high hill. He also develops a lot of his talent into higher-than-anticipated NFL draft picks, an aspect of Dana’s evolution I have covered in my other articles here. I understand there are many out there who disagree with me pretty vehemently. And that’s perfectly fine. Haha


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