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Is FSU struggling with high school recruiting under Mike Norvell? Part 4: The answer

Answering the question at the heart of this series.

Florida State v LSU Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Welcome to the fourth, and final, piece in my article series examining high school recruiting results under Mike Norvell. Part 1 covered the numbers behind FSU’s high school and transfer portal recruiting during Mike Norvell’s tenure as head coach.

In Part 2, I took a deeper dive into the names behind the numbers to analyze the attrition and additions yielded by each high school recruiting class.

In Part 3, we examined how FSU’s prep recruiting numbers compare to its three biggest rivals in the Miami Hurricanes, Florida Gators, and Clemson Tigers.

Now we’ve finally arrived at Part 4. Let’s analyze recruiting strategy over the past 4 cycles, take an in-depth look at biggest hits and misses on the trail, analyze how it impacts the 2024 class thus far, and ultimately put it all together and answer the question once and for all: does Mike Norvell’s FSU coaching staff struggle to recruit high school prospects?

I’ve enjoyed reading the comments in each part of this series and sincerely appreciate the interaction. That said, I’ve seen something come up recently that I feel compelled to address. I want to state this without equivocation:

High school recruiting will ALWAYS matter.

Yes, the transfer portal has changed recruiting in college football, and FSU is at the forefront of successful portal recruiting. Coaches must now simultaneously scour current rosters across the nation for talent while re-recruiting their own players to stay. Roster management has taken a major step toward professional sports and suddenly, “affordability” of transfer portal players is a larger part of the evaluation process than ever before.

That said, recruitment of high school talent will always be the lifeblood of the programs in college athletics with sustained levels of success. I believe the most successful programs in the future will be those whose coaching staffs are able to annually sign classes that are blended between prep and transfer prospects, working towards a full roster that is ideally 60-70% prep players and 30-40% transfers, depending on what needs to be replaced each year.

Developing your own prospects is a crucial piece of roster management and recruiting pitches, and keeping them from portaling has become more important than ever. If you try to build a roster that has more transfers than prep players, it undercuts your ability to land blue-chip prospects. Opposing coaches would have an easy time negatively recruiting that scenario: “Why sign with them when they’ll just keep bringing in transfers from the portal to take your spot? They can’t develop their own players so they poach from programs who can.”

Something we can all agree on is that recruiting strategy in the upper-mid tiers of college football has changed. Let’s take a look at how that strategy has unfolded at FSU under Mike Norvell.

Mike Norvell’s recruiting blueprint at FSU

Mike Norvell knew he was walking into a rebuild when he took over a struggling Florida State program, but I would argue things were worse than he, or anyone on his hiring committee, initially thought. We have too much to discuss for me to dive into the rotting remains of the Jimbo Fisher reign and the doldrums of the Willie Taggart experiment, but things were BAD. The kind of BAD when you keep pulling back layers, each time thinking things couldn’t possibly get any worse, while the next hidden layer is laughing, saying “hold my beer”.

Norvell’s arrival in Tallahassee came roughly 14 months after the introduction of the transfer portal. Willie Taggart’s staff was hyper-focused on high school recruiting (along with the rest of the nation) but still brought in a handful of transfers during the inaugural year of the portal, including QB Jordan Travis, DL Jarrett Jackson, OL Ryan Roberts, TE Wyatt Rector, and QB Alex Hornibrook.

As Norvell and his staff dug deeper into the roster and culture of their new surroundings, it became clearer that FSU needed a significant, multi-year overhaul if it wanted to ascend back to its traditional heights of annual success.

Thus began the Climb, but the head coach had a major decision to make. Would his staff rebuild the roster through traditional prep recruiting, gambling on player development and no proof of concept on the field? Would they prioritize finding more college-ready prospects via the new transfer portal and the JUCO ranks, but risk losing the opportunity to build crucial relationships with high school coaches? Or would they aim for a balanced combination of both, far easier said than done, and risk alienating both prep and portal prospects if things were mishandled?

Norvell correctly realized that he needed to utilize the transfer portal to be around long enough to reach the summit. However, it’s important to remember that there wasn’t a blueprint for successfully melding prep and portal recruiting back in 2020. Norvell and his staff would have to figure out how to completely rebuild a once-proud program using all means necessary for talent acquisition.

As discussed previously in this series, Norvell’s high school signing classes at FSU have averaged a rank just outside the top 20, lower than its three primary rivals. This is a primary point used by those who believe Norvell struggles with prep recruiting, and I believe it is valid. However, context always matters in recruiting and this argument conveniently overlooks a few key contextual factors.

In addition to the inherited program’s horrendous internal state of affairs and outward public perception, Mike Norvell found himself in a talent-laden state full of high school coaches who mistrusted Florida State after the past two regimes. He knew it would take a couple of recruiting cycles to earn that trust back. In addition to a marathon of pilgrimages to high schools throughout the region, he invited high school coaches to FSU to witness the changes underway and to spend time with them personally.

If he wanted any chance to compete, Norvell knew he also needed to infuse his program with players who were game-tested and ready to contribute. He decided that under his watch, Florida State would chart a new path. It would be among the most active players in the new transfer portal. But how would this play with the high school coaches with whom he was trying to build trust? How do you recruit prep players while simultaneously bringing in transfers favored to win starting roles?

Brutal honesty.

I’ve been following recruiting for nearly two decades now, and I can’t think of many head coaches at power programs who take such a blunt and forthright approach to recruiting. Do the Seminoles engage in negative recruiting at times? Yes. Have they had to mutually (or sometimes not-so-mutually) part ways with commitments after selling them on the family atmosphere? Yes, every cycle. However, a Mike Norvell-led staff doesn’t play traditional recruiting games. The staff shows recruits how much they’re wanted without unnecessarily catering to the egos of prep stars.

Norvell and his staff are brutally honest with recruits, sometimes to a fault. All one has to do is look back through post-visit comments from hundreds of recruits over the past four cycles to see a litany of statements regarding how the staff is “real”, “straight up”, “keep it 100”, and so on. This type of strategy can backfire. Some recruits, especially elite recruits, don’t want to be told their flaws and what to work on. They don’t want to be told how hard they’ll have to work the moment they set foot on campus. FSU’s recruiting approach has cost them big names in the past, and I know they have also turned away some very talented prospects due to what the staff felt was questionable work ethic. That said, they are united and extremely consistent in their approach.

Recapping biggest misses

The staff has certainly had its share of big misses on the trail under Mike Norvell. Again, we talked about these in depth in Part 2, but it’s important to remember that this staff has also pulled in some significant wins on the trail. When it comes to elite prep recruiting, decommitments will nearly always garner more attention than commitments (just check the number of comments for decommit vs. commit articles historically). I want to highlight a few in particular that I believe to be the biggest misses that were attributable to Mike Norvell’s staff.

2021: QB Luke Altmyer

2022: CB/WR Travis Hunter

2022: DE Nyjalik Kelly

2022: DL Trevion Williams

2023: DL Keldric Faulk

2023: OL Rod Kearney

These six names offer a couple of patterns aside from each being among the top prospects positionally and/or nationally in their respective cycles.

Theme #1: Putting all your eggs in the toughest out-of-state baskets

Applicable to: Altmyer, Williams, Faulk

I’ve said it a million times: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are the three hardest states to pull out elite prospects. The pressure and allure to stay at home is immense and often overwhelming. Norvell’s staff put it all out there for Altmyer, eschewing other QB prospects to keep him happy. They got burned, plain and simple. Was a lesson learned? It’s hard to say, but I think so. FSU continues to target elite talent from the Gulf Coast states, but Altmyer’s case proved the importance of always having backup plans at the prep level when the top targets come from those three states.

FSU lost Williams but knew it had a very talented swing commit in Antavious Woody who could also play DT and was able to add Ayobami Tifase late in the cycle. FSU didn’t have a backup plan at the prep level for Faulk but was able to add a transfer with multiple seasons of eligibility in Gilber Edmond. I think FSU also has solid backup plans in the current cycle for its top out-of-state prospects.

Theme #2: Trying to overcome the hometown/dream school

Applicable to: Altmyer, Kelly, Faulk, Kearney

Every cycle at every major program, coaching staffs work to overcome the hometown or ““dream school” advantage. When you’re a powerhouse on the trail like Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia, or if you’ve developed a relationship with the prospect and his inner circle, it’s easier to do when a prospect is focused on making a business decision and can separate emotion from opportunity.

Nyjalik Kelly and Rod Kearney both had heavy ties to Miami and Florida, respectively. The coaching staff knew this but still pursued each player and were initially successful. However, landing a player’s commitment and keeping a player’s commitment are very different. Nyjalik Kelly stayed committed to FSU longer than I thought he would, but ultimately the hometown ‘Canes (and John Ruiz’s money) won out. Kearney surprised many of us when he committed to FSU on his way home from a UF visit, as we knew how much his family loved the Gators. FSU seemingly learned from Kelly and cut bait on Kearney sooner.

Altmyer and Faulk were out-of-state prospects and while we’ve already discussed Altmyer’s circumstances, Faulk straight up played Norvell’s coaching staff (and many of us who followed). Faulk gave Auburn every chance to sway him while continually telling the FSU media and coaches what they wanted to hear. Turns out he was dishonest about his intentions and stayed home. This makes it questionable whether FSU truly learned from past missteps.

Theme #3: NIL resources

Applicable to: Hunter, Kelly

Resources were involved for all of the mentioned recruits of course, but they mattered most in these two recruitments. The situation with Hunter doesn’t need rehashing again, but this recruitment showed just how badly far behind FSU was in the NIL Arms Race. Both Jackson State and Georgia made offers that blew FSU’s (not insignificant) investment away.

I believe Kelly was the most recent recruitment lost mainly due to resources. FSU did everything right in his recruitment but simply couldn’t match what Miami offered in the end. I also believe Kelly’s recruitment provided the exclamation point for the Hunter disaster that led FSU’s boosters to changing their investment level for prep recruiting, in addition to signs of success on the field.

I believe a lesson was learned here because in the most recent recruiting cycle, FSU was able to fend off major competition (and resources) for Hykeem Williams, Conrad Hussey, and Edwin Joseph. 2023 was the first cycle in which FSU comparably invested in both prep prospects and transfer portal targets.

Recapping biggest victories

Norvell’s detractors love to focus on misses while tending to overlook victories, which is one of my biggest complaints with their argument of Norvell struggling with prep recruiting. Let’s focus on the following eight recruitments to find some more themes:

OL Robert Scott

QB Chubba Purdy

LB Patrick Payton

DB Azareyeh Thomas

OL Julian Armella

OL Jaylen Early

WR Hykeem Williams

DB Conrad Hussey

Theme #1: Persistence

Applicable to: Thomas, Armella, Williams, Hussey

This staff has shown persistence in each of its iterations under Norvell. Persistence paid off in huge ways with these four prospects in particular. While FSU’s long pursuits of Armella and Williams were highly public, their persistence with Thomas and Hussey were kept under the radar. These four prospects were national recruits with no shortage of options and offers, yet FSU’s dogged determination played large roles in each recruitment.

Theme #2: Closing quickly

Applicable to: Scott, Purdy, Payton

Norvell has shown that when necessary, his staff can ramp up its efforts and close quickly. This has happened multiple times each cycle but these three names are most impressive in my opinion.

FSU managed to lure Scott away from his hometown team, which is a feat in itself. Considering the head coach of that team is also one of the best offensive line coaches and recruiters in the modern era, this was a hugely significant victory that overcame serious obstacles.

FSU was able to land Purdy in just a few weeks, while also pulling in another QB commitment in Tate Rodemaker. It had to overcome the nasty stigma of failing to sign prep QBs under Taggart’s regime, but still managed to secure the blue chip QB.

Payton was another major victory for the staff that came together in just under a month. FSU was able to convince Payton to spurn Nebraska as well as his hometown school, the Miami Hurricanes. This despite not having any real success on the field to show Payton.

Theme #3: Holding off pushes from major programs

Applicable to: Armella, Early, Williams, Hussey

If you’ve followed the recruiting threads, you know that one of my mantras is that landing a commitment from a blue chip prospect and keeping that commitment are two very different things, and the latter is often harder than the former. I believe it’s one of the primary aspects that separates good recruiters from great recruiters.

Make no mistake: these four names had significant offers (scholarship and otherwi$e) to play for major programs. FSU weathered major pushes from said programs for each of these four players, two while it held commitments (Early and Williams) and two while it fought for commitments (Armella and Hussey). FSU’s mix of family atmosphere, coach/prospect relationships, and adequate-to-strong NIL offers were enough to fend off the wolves.

How does this impact Tribe 24?

The 2024 recruiting cycle is the first that Mike Norvell and his staff can finally add proof of concept on the field to all of its successful strategies off the field. Prior to the 2022 season, the staff was relying heavily on the family atmosphere at FSU to hook prospects, then on showing on-field progress to reinforce the direction of the program. They were still having to sell the prospects on all of these aspects translating into victories, though. Last season changed all of that in a big way, with the Seminoles capping a 10-win season with a thrilling bowl victory over the Oklahoma Sooners.

Tribe ‘24 has an extremely strong foundation already and ranks 6th nationally by 247 Composite at the time of this writing. The average star ranking for the class is 90.17, just a hair over blue chip status. Five commits are 4-stars, three are 3-stars, and one is unranked (though Weinberg is considered one of, if not the best kicking prospect in the nation).

RB Kam Davis is a strong commitment despite major pushes from Georgia, Alabama, and literally everyone else. QB Luke Kromenhoek is finally getting the bump in rankings he deserves and is also extremely solid despite increasing national attention. These two players are the bell cows for Tribe ‘24. DB Jordan Pride, WR Tawaski Abrams, WR Camdon Frier, DB CJ Heard, LB Jayden Parrish, DL Jamorie Flagg, and K Jake Weinberg make up the rest of the nine-member class.

Pride shouldn’t really be considered a commitment in the opinions of the TN Three Stars, as we feel it is just a matter of time until he decommits and likely joins the Florida Gators (unless they screw it up). Abrams and Frier should retain their 4-star rankings and with a strong senior season, I’m confident that CJ Heard would also finish as a 4-star. Flagg and Parrish will likely finish as 3-stars barring huge senior seasons. Add in one of the best kickers in the nation and it’s a great start to the class.

Building on last season’s success, I believe that this cycle will reflect a greater ratio of prep-vs-portal prospects than prior years. If I had to put percentages out there, I think the staff will try to ease into a strategy of somewhere around 70% prep and 30% portal signees. That can fluctuate based on needs of any given cycle of course but I believe the staff is looking to shift towards bringing in more prep prospects and leaning on the outstanding portal reputation it has created to cherry-pick top portal talent or key depth additions.

Consider the prep prospects for who FSU either currently leads for or is solidly in the top group of contenders:

5-star CB Charles Lester III

5-star WR Jojo Trader

4-star RB Micahi Danzy

4-star WR Cameron Coleman

4-star WR James Madison II

4-star TE Kylan Fox

4-star OL Jonathan Daniels

4-star OL Jason Zandamela

4-star DE Dylan Stephenson

4-star DL LJ McCray

4-star DB Jamari Howard (Michigan State commit)

4-star S Ricardo Jones

Florida State certainly won’t land every name on that list, but right now I’m confident that they’ll land at least half. The Seminoles are also hanging around for 5-star TE (and former commit) Landen Thomas, 5-star DL Kamarion Franklin, and 5-star KJ Bolden. Norvell and his staff are in on plenty of current 3-star prospects who could finish above the blue chip line. They’re getting priority targets on campus multiple times for unofficial visits before hosting official visits, which is actually a lot harder to do than one might think.

Most encouraging to me? The staff is no longer putting all its eggs into one basket at any position (aside from maybe kicker). Pride is shaky at best, but FSU has numerous blue chip options to replace him. The Seminoles are still doing their due diligence on other QBs and looking to bring in another RB to pair with Davis. The WR and DB boards are stacked. Numerous options along both lines exist. Perhaps the only perplexing position group strategy is linebacker, which I plan to cover more in-depth soon.

Does Mike Norvell’s FSU staff struggle with high school recruiting?

Congratulations! Over 3,300 words later, you finally made it to this point! Thanks for hanging in there.

Let’s get right to it. Is Florida State struggling with prep recruiting under Mike Norvell?

While certain staff members (past and present) have struggled and I completely understand where the detractors are coming from, I do not believe that to be the case for the staff as a whole. I believe the recruiting strategy we addressed above as well as the horrific state of the program upon arrival explain results better.

Again, there is no sugarcoating some of the misses. Regardless of circumstance, losing prospects like Travis Hunter and Keldric Faulk are major black eyes. That said, it’s clear that FSU applied lessons learned from losing one five-star into keeping another, as the Hykeem Williams recruitment was handled excellently by FSU. I’d even call it a master class in five-star recruiting. The current class thus far is made up entirely of Florida and Georgia prospects, which should always be the bulk of any Seminole prep class. These are all very encouraging signs.

The 2024 cycle is Mike Norvell’s first chance at showing his true recruiting prowess with recent on-field success at his back. FSU has won some significant battles on the trail these last two cycles, but 2024 is the year that this needs to become the rule rather than the exception. The Seminoles cannot afford to finish outside the top 20 in prep rankings again this year- I would even argue that they cannot finish lower than top 12, depending on the number of portal signees. Their combined class finish (both prep and portal) should be top 10, no excuses. Otherwise, the detractors will have a much stronger argument moving forward.