Pick a rumor, any rumor, and it’s been used to explain Arizona State’s blowout losses to California and Oregon. Quarterback Rudy Carpenter has a broken left hand. Or a broken right hand. There’s dissension in the locker room. The team has quit on Dirk Koetter. The players are partying too much.
So much speculation, and yet a simple fact is being ignored: The Sun Devils aren’t talented enough to beat those teams.
Fans don’t want to hear that because it sounds like a death sentence. An injury can be healed and a locker room can be cleansed, but a college football program can’t arrange an overnight shipment of talent.
But the reality is that in his six years as coach, Koetter has recruited kids who can beat up the Pac-10's lightweights but aren’t good enough when they go up in class.
The Devils’ 2-18 record against ranked opponents often is used to hammer away at Koetter’s coaching acumen, but he’s not a dull tool compared to California’s Jeff Tedford, USC’s Pete Carroll or Oregon’s Mike Bellotti.
ASU’s players just aren’t as good as their players.
That’s not a reflection, by the way, of the recruiting rankings that come out every February. Those lists are about as reliable as a politician’s word.
But a judgment can be made based on the number of kids a program places on the All-Pac-10 team, and in that regard, Koetter’s recruiting has not been as productive as his predecessor, Bruce Snyder.
In 1999, 2000 and 2001 — a three-year span that encompasses Snyder’s final two years and Koetter’s first year, in which he was coaching Snyder’s players — ASU had 11 different players make first team All-Pac-10.
From 2003 to 2005 — a three-year span in which Koetter’s recruiting can be fairly judged — the Sun Devils had five players make the squad.
To be fair, USC’s dominance under Carroll has skewered the numbers a bit. The Trojans have had 25 players named All-Pac-10 first team the last three years compared to four from 1999 to 2001.
But what’s revealing is how ASU’s supposed peer group — Oregon, UCLA and California — has managed to keep its representation up while dealing with USC.
UCLA had six players on the squad from 1999-2001 and six the past three years. Oregon has gone from eight to five. California, meanwhile, had five players earn the honor from ‘99-’01 and 13 from 2003 to 2005.
Only Stanford, Washington and Arizona have suffered as precipitous of a drop-off as ASU.
Koetter has had some misfortune along the way. Defensive end Kyle Caldwell was supposed to be a can’t-miss prospect, but injuries have stalled his career. Terry Richardson was ranked as the No. 3 skill athlete in the nation coming out of high school, but he still can’t run pass routes correctly.
And who can blame Koetter for signing quarterback Derek Shaw, rated as the No. 10 player in the nation by Prep-Star Magazine. Miami and USC wanted Shaw, ASU got him only to discover that he couldn’t learn the offense. Shaw left the program and is now at Texas Tech.
ASU’s recruiting also has been hurt, in part, by the dearth of elite talent in the Arizona high school ranks. Over the past five years only a handful of players — Lyle and Austin Sendlein of Scottsdale Chaparral, Mike Bell of Tolleson, Loren Howard of Scottsdale Saguaro, perhaps a few others — have made names for themselves at BCS schools.
That said, Koetter’s recruiting still bears examination. He has yet to sign a cornerback who’s made All-Pac-10 honorable mention. That’s suicide in a conference featuring so many skilled quarterbacks and wide receivers.
He’s yet to sign a defensive lineman who’s been first- or second-team all-conference. Instead, ASU has had to use a converted fullback (Mike Talbot) at defensive end, a former linebacker (Jordan Hill) at defensive tackle and, this year, hope that transfers Howard, Tranell Morant and Michael Marquardt would make up for the recruiting deficiencies.
Anytime a sixth-year coach has to rely on transfers and junior college products — ASU signed eight JC players in its last recruiting class —there’s a shortage of talent in the program.
It’s not going to get any easier for Koetter. USC has a stranglehold on southern California talent, and Tedford will get the players he wants from northern California.
Somehow, Koetter has to break their monopolies and surround himself with better athletes.
Until that happens, it won’t be his sideline strategy that holds ASU back.
It will be his recruiting.