Reading between the signs: Taking a look at the numbers behind Cal football’s latest recruiting class

Ariel Hayat/Staff

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Recruiting means nothing. It also means everything.

It means nothing because it is impossible to predict which players will be good and which will be bad based on nothing more than a star rating and a YouTube highlight video set to a pseudo-inspirational soundtrack. (Sorry, Jared!) Old lists of recruiting rankings are split between memorable stars and flameouts who never amounted to anything, and players who were hardly recruited at all have gone on to become stars. It’s a crapshoot.

But recruiting also means everything. Go back and look at any old list of team recruiting rankings, and the top programs there are the same ones that are perennially competing for national championships. That’s because while recruiting rankings mean next to nothing for individual players, highly touted prospects will play better than less-desired talent on average. And on average, the best schools at recruiting are also the best at football.

That’s why I’m not going to analyze any individual guys that Cal just signed in this column. I don’t believe in YouTube scouting, especially not for a sport where individual and team performance are as interwoven as they are in football. Even if a guy looks good on tape, there’s too much history to suggest that the tape doesn’t matter and he might be a bust anyway.

But judging a recruiting class as a whole has its merits, and Cal appears to have taken a step up from last year, although there is still a long way for this program to go.

The Bears pulled in 24 recruits this year. And according to 247’s composite rankings, which aggregate ratings from multiple recruiting websites, 19 of those players were rated as three-star prospects, and three were ranked as four-star guys. Cal hasn’t had a five-star recruit since Keenan Allen came to UC Berkeley in 2010, so it’s not a shock that the Bears failed to lure one this season.

Compared to last season, these numbers are an improvement. Cal’s national ranking shot up from No. 53 to No. 35, and its ranking within the Pac-12 moved from No. 8 to No. 7, per 247Sports. The Bears also lured four more three-star recruits and two more four-star guys than last year.

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But historically, these numbers are mediocre at best.

Dykes’ years don’t compare favorably to Tedford’s here. 2013 was the worst year in more than a decade, and 2014 was even worse than that. There are reasons for that — the coaching change had an impact on the recruiting effort in 2013, as is common (just look at the black hole in Ann Arbor right now), and in 2014, the coaches had to recruit with a 1-11 season casting a shadow over their efforts.

There is finally a jump in the numbers this season. 2015 marks the highest ranking and the highest number of four-star recruits since 2012 — Tedford’s last full year as head coach. But it’s still below even the worst Tedford years. Tedford never ranked worse than 34th nationally, and he averaged a little more than five four-star recruits per year during his tenure. Dykes has just four in two full years of recruiting.

There may be an academic component to this, as Dykes and his staff have made a clear effort to improve the team’s performance in the classroom after Tedford failed in that regard toward the end of his time at Cal. Recruiting athletes who are also good academic fits obviously shrinks the size of the pond that the Bears’ staff can fish in.

“Academically, we’re light years ahead of where we’ve been in the past,” Dykes said in Wednesday’s press conference. “For us, there’s a pretty distinct shift that’s going on with the direction of our program when it comes to recruiting.”

But as it relates to the football field, this still marks the third consecutive mediocre class, and that kind of talent dip can hurt a program. Dykes and Co. are running out of time — Cal could be in danger of soon falling, at least talentwise, behind much of the rest of the Pac-12.

Star ratings and national rankings are obviously not everything. It’s better to recruit a three-star player in a position of need than a four-star player who would never see the field.

Cal has done well in that regard. Where the Bears really need help is on defense — especially in the secondary. Only three of the players are listed by 247Sports as being defensive back, but there are at least three more listed as “athletes,” who could end up seeing time in the secondary. That makes potentially six defensive back recruits, which is a win for a Cal program desperately in need of talent in that area of the field.

You might also notice that the Bears brought in six players listed as wide receivers. While that doesn’t seem like an area of need for Cal right now, Dykes’ system uses so many receivers — and so many receivers on the roster look set to leave the program after next season — that the team might as well stock up every year. Cal literally can never have enough wideouts.

The team could have brought in more offensive linemen, as just three are listed right now, and could also have done well with more linebacker talent. But for now, it appears that the Bears targeted the right positions for this class.

For what it’s worth, Cal had a weak recruiting presence in the Bay Area this year. But the Bears did well attracting players from south of the Mason-Dixon line, as Dykes’ background in Texas and Louisiana is clearly being felt.

“It doesn’t matter where they come from,” Dykes said in Wednesday’s press conference. “The important thing is finding guys that are good students, good people.”

Recruiting is so important in college football that it sometimes overshadows actual coaching. When Cal promoted Jacob Peeler to inside receivers coach in January, Dykes mentioned recruiting and coaching in the same breath.

“Jacob Peeler will be a terrific football coach and an excellent recruiter,” Dykes said.

Connecting with 16-year-olds is important, and Cal has no fewer than four coaches who have “recruiting” explicitly listed in their job titles. That doesn’t even include Peeler, although he and countless others will no doubt hit the trail to convince kids who are still wondering who to take to prom that yes, this team that made offers to more than 200 athletes this year cares about you.

But that’s how you win in college football. The best coaches in the business aren’t just the best on-field minds, they are also the best recruiters. It’s part of the job.

Cal has done much better at that job this year. This class appears to be, on average, one that will help contribute to the team when Cal expects to lose a large chunk of players after next season. The program hasn’t acquired the talent to compete for a national championship or a Rose Bowl yet — and if history is any indication, don’t hold your breath — but this year still counts as a meaningful step up, even if it isn’t quite at the level that Tedford maintained for so many years.

Riley McAtee is a senior sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee