April 25, 2006
Tucson, AZ (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Despite Arizona football head coach Mike Stoops bringing in more than 60 athletes and two national top-20 recruiting classes since 2004, most of the recruiting attention he's received has revolved around a mere two players.
Last February, the team brought in lauded junior-college wide receiver B.J. Vickers, who impressed through fall camp and was expected to start.
Then, the day before Arizona's season opener, Vickers learned he was academically ineligible after Santa Monica (Calif.) College revoked his degree for receiving fraudulent credit for two classes.
Exit Vickers, enter Louis Holmes.
This February, Holmes, the nation's No. 1 junior-college recruit, was considered the crown jewel of Stoops' second straight top-20 haul.
Then the hulking, 6-foot-6-inch defensive end was declared ineligible shortly before the team announced its 22-member class.
Holmes is set to complete his requisite coursework at Pima, and all indications are that he will be able to enroll at Arizona during one of the two summer sessions.
Still, these controversies raise the question: Is it worthwhile to build a football program around top junior-college talent?
Experience need apply
Juco athletes bring at least one important element to a team that a top prep talent cannot: the ability to help immediately, thanks to two years' experience against bigger, stronger opposition.
"He's probably played 22 more football games," said former Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder of a typical juco player. "He's practiced maybe 150 times more."
Snyder said the additions of seasoned players like quarterback Michael Bishop and wide receiver Quincy Morgan, both eventual NFL draft picks, helped boost KSU's Wildcats to 11 straight bowl-game berths from 1993-2003, including six 11-win seasons over that period.
He added, however, that an athlete's character - his work ethic on and off the field and his ability to take instruction - is a big factor in whether he will contribute, regardless of his ability.
"Virtually all programs not only want to recruit quality talent, but they want quality young people as well," Snyder said. "You want the best character of young people that you can have. If you center your recruiting on the high school level towards that, you'd probably do the same with community-college (players)."
So your team has just secured the next Vickers, the next Holmes, and the next moment - or season - poof! They're gone.
Such is the reality of recruiting junior-college players, whose short life spans at the Division I level are sometimes cut even shorter.
The cause is almost always academic, as an athlete just doesn't graduate from his community college in time to suit up for the next fall.
Arizona welcomed 16 junior-college players over 2004 and 2005, and only seven were listed on this year's spring roster, though an inability to stay on the depth chart likely had as much to do with retention as any other factor.
"Evaluating junior college is a little bit different (from high school)," Stoops said. "The talent, it's still a different level of football when you go up to this level. You just have to make good evaluations on those players."
On the whole, the Wildcats have a storied and successful history with junior-college players, much of which was forged under former head coach Dick Tomey (1987-2000).
While compiling a school-record 95 wins, Tomey, now the head coach at San Jose State, used aggressive recruiting to add a number of jucos, including cornerback Chris McAlister and offensive lineman Glenn Parker, who found success on the D-I level and beyond.
"They come in with a little more maturity," Tomey said. "You just have to choose wisely, because obviously there's a reason they come to junior college. The reason may be academic. It may be in some cases that they are just a late bloomer physically. But I think if you choose wisely, it makes a lot of sense."
The numbers game
While it's clear that good junior-college players can provide instant depth at their positions, it's less certain to what extent rebuilding teams in need of talent, like Arizona, should focus on bringing them in at the expense of adding youth.
Sometimes, circumstances make the decision easy.
With no idea whether the team would be around two years from then - Temple went 0-11 as an independent last season and has since joined the Mid-American Conference - Wallace said he couldn't promise a high school player that he would have a future with the team.
"I would prefer three or four junior college kids a year who fit in wonderfully," said Wallace, who now coaches at West Alabama.
Snyder said such a number should never be fixed and instead should depend on what a team's needs are, whether depth or a new starter.
"Basically, the premise there was that we didn't anticipate that a freshman would come in and be an immediate help in the program," he said. "That doesn't mean that they didn't, because we had a number of freshmen who have, but by and large, that wasn't the case and isn't the case across the United States."
Stoops getting troops
Stoops has seemed to follow Tomey's lead in recruiting jucos. For nearly every Dramayne McElroy, Paul Nichols and Vickers, Arizona has gotten noted returns from players like junior tight end Brad Wood, who led in the team in touchdown receptions last season, and junior safety Michael Johnson, who could be a high NFL draft pick next spring.
A big cause of Stoops' success has been geography. Situated between California and Texas, and with a healthy contingent of in-state athletes to choose from (see graphic), Arizona has had the proverbial pick of the litter.
"Arizona offers a unique ability to play early, play for a very good coaching staff, (and) be coached well, and their coaching staff's track record for recruiting speaks for itself already," said Ryan Stevens, a college football analyst for goazcats.com, part of the Rivals.com recruiting network. "They do get the best players in the country. Louis Holmes decided in his (December) press conference to go to the University of Arizona over Southern California, LSU, Florida State (and) Florida."
Even so, the jury should remain out for a while on this year's group of jucos.
Gabe Long, who also failed to qualify academically, has not indicated which school he'll enroll in this summer, though he is taking a class with Holmes at Pima.
While Stoops said he looks forward to seeing what safety Nate Ness has to offer, offensive lineman James Tretheway is likely to redshirt.
At least the present looks good for Stoops and his junior college contributors.
"If everything goes well, I'll be able to enter the draft and be drafted on the first day," said Johnson, who led Arizona with four interceptions in 2005. "(Stoops) said if I listen to him, I'll be (taken) in the first day of the draft."
(C) 2006 Arizona Daily Wildcat via CSTV U-WIRE