You’ve heard it all year long: David Shaw is not Jim Harbaugh. David Shaw will never be Jim Harbaugh. David Shaw can’t do what Jim Harbaugh did. But that’s apparently a good thing.
How can this be so? As of today, Shaw’s first-ever recruiting class is ranked higher than any class that Harbaugh brought in during his four years on the Farm.
That’s right: with the addition of running back Barry Sanders, Jr., the Cardinal’s incoming recruiting class is currently ranked as the No. 15 class in the entire nation. Harbaugh’s recruiting classes during his four years were ranked 50th, 20th, 26th and 22nd.
Now, national signing day isn’t until Feb. 1, so that ranking could still slide up or down, but the fact remains the same: Instead of letting Stanford slide back into mediocrity with a subpar recruiting class, Shaw has gone out and gotten the Cardinal its highest-ranked recruiting class… ever. (At least since Rivals.com began to rank recruiting classes in 2002.)
Anybody worth their salt knows that recruiting rankings are, at best, a flawed metric — mediocre Notre Dame somehow always brings in a top-20 recruiting class — but everyone also knows that there is no way to win in college football unless you can recruit well. Just look at national champion Alabama — the Tide hasn’t had a recruiting class outside the top 10 since 2006, and even then, it had the No. 11 class in the country. It’s no wonder that it has been to three BCS bowls in the last four years.
So even though the Cardinal’s 2012 recruiting saga isn’t complete yet, what Shaw has done on the recruiting trail has been particularly impressive. Not only has he continued what Harbaugh started, but he’s also already put his own stamp on the program by pulling together a truly impressive recruiting class in his first season as a head coach.
Sanders, son of NFL legend Barry Sanders, spurned Florida State, Alabama and Oklahoma State (his father’s alma mater) to come to Stanford. The Oklahoma City native is ranked as the No. 1 running back in the nation.
Similarly, Davis, the number two linebacker in the country, turned down offers from Florida, Notre Dame, Alabama, USC and 22 other schools to take his talents to Palo Alto.
To put it in terms any big-game hunter would understand, these two players represent big trophies on the wall of Shaw and the Cardinal coaching staff, and Sanders’ and Davis’ commitments will probably induce other top prospects who are still uncommitted to take a second look at coming to the Farm.
Second, Shaw has put together a recruiting class that is much deeper than just two studs — the Cardinal’s 2012 recruiting class contains nine four-star recruits. A class that is both that talented and deep means that the Cardinal can count on one class to fill in for departing starters (or significant contributors) right away. Considering that Stanford will lose half of its starters to graduation or the NFL this year, it’s nice to know that a big group of talented players can come in and fill those gaps.
Third, Shaw’s expert touch on the recruiting trail is particularly impressive considering the competition that he has to recruit against — conference rivals Oregon, USC and Cal are all expected to bring in top-15 classes this year. It goes without saying that recruiting is so high-stakes and so hotly contested because of its zero-sum nature: if you can bring in top-tier talent, you are also preventing good players from falling into the hands of your rivals.
Lastly, the 2012 recruiting class could get even better over the next two weeks. Offensive lineman Kyle Murphy, the number 22 recruit in the country, has narrowed his choices down to USC, Florida, Oregon and Stanford, and defensive end Aziz Shittu, the nation’s 27th best player, will pick between USC, Cal, UCLA and Stanford in the coming weeks. If Shaw is able to get these two guys to put a Stanford hat on their heads on Feb. 1, the Cardinal could conceivably finish with a top-10 class (and prevent their conference rivals from adding to their already stocked cupboards).
So while David Shaw will never be able to match Harbaugh’s testosterone-fueled quotes, blue-collar attitude and general disregard for typical gestures of “sportsmanship,” that might be not be such a bad thing — after all, Shaw is the guy who is about to bring in the highest-ranked recruiting class in Stanford history.
Jack Blanchat was one of Harbaugh’s early recruits, but passed up a career in football to pursue his passion as an amateur apiarist. For beekeeping tips, or more analysis of Shaw’s recruiting exploits, email him at blanchat “at” stanford.edu or follow him @jmblanchat.