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Which BYU football recruiting class was the best last decade? Which was the worst? Our expert panel makes the call

As yet another football signing day approaches Wednesday, we looked back at the Cougars’ 10 signing classes from the years 2010-19 and chose not only the best and the worst, but the most impactful recruit from each year.

Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Fred Warner (4) runs back an interception against Fresno in Provo Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.
Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Fred Warner (4) runs back an interception against Fresno in Provo Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — On Sept. 7, 2013, a skinny, athletic Texas farmboy from a tiny town between Austin and Houston stood on BYU’s sidelines and watched Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill run for 259 yards and three touchdowns in a shocking 40-21 win over his hometown Longhorns.

Courtland Sutton, then a 6-foot-1, 190-pound safety and receiver from Brenham, just south of College Station, was getting very little recruiting love from nearby Texas A&M or Texas despite being a three-star prospect, so he ventured to the Rocky Mountains to check out BYU and, later, Colorado.

When national signing day rolled around five months later, then-BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall believed he was going to land the underrecruited high schooler to put a bow on an already outstanding signing class. The Buffs told Sutton in late January of 2014 that they were out of scholarships, and BYU’s only other competition for Sutton’s services was Southern Methodist University. BYU’s sports information department had even prepared a profile on Sutton with all his accomplishments.

SMU wide receiver Courtland Sutton (16) runs for yardage after a reception against Houston during an NCAA college football game in Houston Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
AP

But then-SMU coach June Jones swooped in at the last minute and snared Sutton, and the rest is history. Sutton had a standout career with the Mustangs, was selected in the second round (40th overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos and had an outstanding second season with 1,112 receiving yards and six touchdowns. He caught four passes for 37 yards in the Pro Bowl last Sunday.

Back in Provo, the recruiting whiff on Sutton — his mother, Phelicia Marshall, later told NFL.com that “BYU was going to be a bit much on momma, losing her baby that far away” — was soon forgotten because Mendenhall landed BYU’s best signing class of the decade that day, including current star tight end Matt Bushman, junior college transfer receivers Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz and UTEP graduate transfer Jordan Leslie.

Mendenhall also struck out on another coveted recruit that day as Damien Mama, an offensive lineman from Bellflower, California, and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, signed with USC. Mama was the No. 1-rated offensive guard in the country, had BYU, Alabama and USC in his final three and would later become an all-Pac-12 performer for the Trojans.

Still, despite the last-minute misses on Sutton and Mama, a panel of BYU football recruiting experts convened by the Deseret News last week unanimously picked the 2014 signing class as the best recruiting class of the recently completed decade for BYU.

The worst? Read on.

BYU’s best football signing class of the decade

Our panel consisted of the author (who covered BYU football for The Salt Lake Tribune for 12 years before moving to the Deseret News and taking on the same beat assignment last summer); fellow veteran Deseret News sportswriter Brandon Gurney, who has followed BYU recruiting for two decades; Jeff Hansen of Cougarsportsinsider.com, part of the 247Sports network; and Jake Hatch, Utah County bureau chief for the Zone Sports Network and director of the Locked on Cougars podcast.

Why was 2014 the best class? After all, when all was said and done it was just 64th in the 247sports.com national team rankings, well short of the No. 33 ranking the Jake Heaps-led class of 2010 received and also short of the No. 49 mark the 2016 class, Kalani Sitake’s first signing class, earned a few months after Mendenhall left for Virginia.

Along with the aforementioned standout pass-catchers, the class also included San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, four-year starting center Tejan Koroma, Cleveland Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki, versatile defensive back Michael Shelton, returner/running back Trey Dye and several players who are still contributing after serving two-year church missions: offensive lineman Chandon Herring, receiver Neil Pau’u, defensive linemen Zac Dawe, Earl Tuioti-Mariner, Austin Chambers and Uriah Leiataua and linebackers Isaiah Kaufusi and Kavika Fonua.

“Do the math,” says Hatch, referring to USU coach Gary Andersen’s axiom that hitting on two-thirds of a signing class constitutes an outstanding class. “BYU hit on 15 of (its) 22 members of the 2014 class and their contributions aren’t done yet.”

The most impactful player from that class?

Our panel was split between Warner and Bushman, who recently announced he will return for his senior season and obviously can boost his profile with a fourth straight season of 500-plus receiving yards before an anticipated NFL career. Koroma, who has made an XFL roster (Houston Roughnecks) and Takitaki also deserve consideration, and Kaufusi has another year to shine as well.

“That class had major recruiting wins,” Hansen recalls. “Leiataua flipped from Stanford on signing day. Nick Kurtz picked BYU over LSU and Oregon; Devon Blackmon brought a new level of speed to BYU’s roster. The 2014 class was small, but the staff hit on almost every player.”

BYU tight end Matt Bushman runs after making a catch during the Cougars’ game against Hawaii at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.
BYU tight end Matt Bushman runs after making a catch during the Cougars’ game against Hawaii at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.
BYU Photo

Gurney concurs, while wondering what might have been if the staff had landed Sutton — recruited by BYU as a safety — and Mama, who also had Alabama in his final three.

“Might be the strongest class in my 10-year tenure in terms of ability and impact,” Mendenhall said in 2014. “Please write that I said ‘might.’ As we know, time will tell. But I think we have done a really good job of knowing exactly what we are getting, especially on the athleticism and football particulars.”

The 2010 class is disparaged a lot for failing to meet expectations, especially after being ranked No. 22 nationally by Scout.com and No. 24 by ESPN.com. Disappointment reached a crescendo after four-star quarterback Heaps transferred to Kansas.

But that group also included some impactful contributors such as defenders Sae Tautu, Travis Tuiloma, Jordan Johnson, Graham Rowley, Bronson Kaufusi, Zac Stout, Alani Fua and NFL star Kyle Van Noy, who signed in 2009 but delayed his enrollment until 2010. It fell short on offense, however, with the early departures of Heaps, running backs Josh Quezada and Drew Phillips and offensive linemen Tayo Fabuluje and Blair Tushaus.

It could be the considered the second-best class of the decade, along with 2012, which featured two all-timers — running back Jamaal Williams and quarterback Taysom Hill.

Sure, our little exercise here could be considered unfair, because the jury is still largely out on the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 classes, especially at a place such as BYU where so many signees go on missions before even enrolling at the school owned and operated by the aforementioned faith.

It is worth noting that only one player — receiver Aleva Hifo — from Sitake’s first signing class in 2016 played four straight years and has exhausted his eligibility.

Since that 2016 class, ranked 49th, the succeeding classes have gradually ranked worse: 66th in 2017, 78th in 2018 and 80th in 2019. Right now, none of those groups appear capable of outdoing the 2014 class.

BYU’s weakest football signing class of the decade

Our panel also agreed wholeheartedly on the worst signing class — 2013.

“The 2013 class was the probably the weakest of the last decade,” Hansen says, “Overall, that class was disappointing. There were multiple players who transferred out early, multiple players who never enrolled, and multiple players who never made much of an impact at BYU.“

Gurney’s take: “The 2013 class wasn’t all that impressive on paper and it turned out even worse. The class had a bevy of players who never panned out.”

Says Hatch: “Having these back-to-back recruiting classes (2013 and 2014) as my picks shows the fickle and inexact science that recruiting can be.”

Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard (13) runs in an interception for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Utah Utes linebacker Francis Bernard (13) runs in an interception for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Those takes sound a bit harsh, until one considers that only nine of the whopping 31 signees made any sort of impact, several never even qualified academically, and almost a dozen transferred to other programs, including linebacker Francis Bernard (Utah), safety Dallin Leavitt (Utah State), quarterback Billy Green (Weber State), cornerback Jordan Preator (Weber State), offensive lineman Brayden Kearsley (Oregon State) and defensive tackle JonRyheem Peoples (Idaho State).

As all four panelists note, there were also some gems in the class ranked 66th nationally.

Junior college transfers Robertson Daniel and De’Ondre Wesley had two strong seasons and moved on to the NFL, while safety Kai Nacua also got some time in the pros with the Cleveland Browns and cornerback Michael Davis is an NFL starter for the Los Angeles Chargers. Both made the Deseret News’ all-decade team for BYU.

Receiver Talon Shumway emerged late as one of the school’s best all-time 50-50 ball receivers.

Up next for BYU football recruiting

BYU’s 2020 signing class, which will be mostly completed this week, is currently ranked 80th nationally as industry leader 247Sports.com combines the 13 recruits who signed in December with the dozen or so who have committed to BYU but have not signed and/or been announced.

Top prospects in that group include Mater Dei (California) receiver Kody Epps, St. John’s (Washington, D.C.) quarterback Sol-Jay Maiava and Corner Canyon linebacker Josh Wilson.

Corner Canyon High School athlete Josh Wilson smiles after signing his National Letter of Intent in Draper, Utah, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Wilson signed with BYU.
Corner Canyon High School athlete Josh Wilson smiles after signing his National Letter of Intent in Draper, Utah, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Wilson signed with BYU.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As was reported by the Deseret News Sunday, BYU recently received commitments from offensive lineman Jake Griffin of Mesa, Arizona, and linebacker Kyle Vassau (preferred walk-on) of Carlsbad, California. As the second signing day approaches, BYU is still pursuing American Fork defensive end Bodie Schoonover, Arizona linebacker Tate Romney, Olympus athlete Scotty Edwards and Alex Lines, a tight end from Gilbert, Arizona.

Best and worst of BYU football recruiting — 2010-2019

Best class: 2014

Why: Coach Bronco Mendenhall signed graduated stars Fred Warner, Tejan Koroma, Sione Takitaki, Devon Blackmon, Nick Kurtz and Jordan Leslie and current stars Kavika Fonua, Matt Bushman, Uriah Leiataua and Isaiah Kaufusi

Weakest class: 2013

Why: Only nine of Mendenhall’s 31 signees made an impact, several never enrolled and almost a dozen transferred to other programs, including Francis Bernard, Dallin Leavitt, Brayden Kearsley and JonRyheem Peoples