Bears’ No. 10 recruiting class in flux after coach’s departure

For the past half-decade, Cal football fans have been desperate for something to get excited about. While it looked like the 2012 could’ve been that something, Old Blues might have to wait a little bit longer.

If the status quo holds, the slew of commits set to don the blue and gold this fall may be the most hyped and talented group in school history. As it stands, Rivals.com ranks Cal’s class as the 10th strongest in the nation — the highest mark in the Pac-12 — whereas Scout.com ranks them at No. 12.

However, Cal’s defensive line coach and top recruiter Tosh Lupoi will no longer be on the Bears’ sideline, having accepted an offer on Monday to join Steve Sarkisian’s staff in Washington. Lupoi, whom Rivals.com named Recruiter of the Year in 2010, was the main connection between Cal and many of its top recruits. Five star defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy has already switched over to UCLA, and it remains to be seen how many others will honor their commitments to the Bears.

Recruits like Shaq Thompson — whose combination of speed and size will likely land him the starting safety spot come fall — and Zach Kline— one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country — currently headline a deep and balanced class, which could ultimately prove to be one of the strongest in school history.

This all raises one big question: How does a school coming off five mediocre seasons generate all this hype? And how does a school like Cal, one without any serious winning traditions in football, transform itself into a national recruiting powerhouse?

Lupoi played a significant part, but so did the newly opened High Performance Center and renovated Memorial Stadium — set to open for the 2012 season opener against Nevada. It’s no coincidence that Cal started to break onto the national recruiting scene in 2010, as the coaches weren’t shy about advertising the 142,000 square-foot facility they were about to open. This is essentially what happened after Phil Knight led the charge in revamping Oregon’s facilities, which was followed by the Ducks bursting onto the national football scene by going to the Rose Bowl in 1995.

In just two years, Cal’s facilities have transformed from some of the worst in the conference to one of the best in the nation — and high school recruits have taken notice and want to come to Berkeley to check it out.

USC’s current scholarship reductions are likely helping as well. Without this, players like wide receiver Jordan Payton would’ve likely stuck with their original commitment and gone to the Trojans, but USC’s inability to guarantee them a scholarship convinced them to explore other options. Given this logic, it’s possible that USC could regain its place atop the Pac-12 in terms of recruiting after its three years of probation are up.

Cal and USC have gone after many of the same players — namely Thompson, McCarthy — and Lupoi had no problem and winning out. Then again, Lupoi will be recruiting for the Huskies now, and current verbals like Payton may end up elsewhere by signing day.

But maybe the most important question is, does this all really matter? Does successful recruiting translate to success on the field? It’s definitely true that many of the greatest players in college football history weren’t that well regarded coming out of high school, such as two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon.

However, looking at how many highly recruited players eventually do find success on the football field on Saturdays, Cal could be poised for big things.

In 2009, 178 of over 13,000 college football players had been named as five-star recruits by Rivals.com; 12 were named All-Americans — roughly one in 15. Compare that to players who were given a three-star rating; only one of 147 became an All-American.

It’s no surprise that the teams that sit atop the recruiting rankings year in and year out are ones who tend to finish atop the polls. Alabama, winner of two of the last three BCS Championships, has pulled in four straight top-five classes — including three No. 1s.

Given all of that, what’s left of this latest batch of Bears may still be worth getting excited for.