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Early recruiting returns, or: why I am cautiously optimistic about the Paul Pasqualoni Era

It’s common knowledge by now that Randy Edsall was not exactly the world champion of recruiting during his 12-year career at UConn.

The Huskies regularly have ranked in the lower half of the Big East recruiting rankings since they joined the league in 2003, and while it’s worked out – UConn has won at least eight games in four straight seasons – the Fiesta Bowl made it clear that there is a pretty severe talent gap between UConn and college football’s haves.

I think Edsall’s recruiting trend was obvious – he was going to continue scouring Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New England for ‘diamonds in the rough’ in perpetuity. Then again, we’ll never know if or how Edsall would have capitalized on the program’s first BCS berth.

But for all of Edsall’s recruiting (Donald Brown, Jordan Todman, the other NFL Draft picks) and on-field (two-ish Big East championships) success, I think it's fair to criticize based on larger trends:

Those unheralded recruiting classes never beat a team that finished in the AP Top 25. Since 2004, UConn is 1-8 against above-.500 BCS teams, beating only South Carolina in the bowl game two years ago. They’ve been under .500 in four of the six seasons since Big East expansion.

On a case-by-case basis, recruiting rankings can be hit-or-miss. But the correlation of entire class rankings with winning is seemingly undeniable. If you recruit the players generally considered to be the best in the country, you’ll probably have one of the better teams in the country.

Realistically, UConn has never beaten one of the better teams in the country (or at least, not any of the 25 best teams in the country in any given year); they haven’t had the horses to compete with the Oklahomas of the world.

But what the program does have is opportunity.

Edsall’s gone now, and the hiring of Paul Pasqualoni was not exactly greeted with enthusiasm everywhere. But call me cautiously optimistic. Pasqualoni and his assistants are well-connected on the Northeast recruiting trail, and I think that will prove to be more important than we realized.

Coaches in Connecticut seem to like like Pasqualoni. A couple states away, UConn received its first-ever commitment from Don Bosco Prep (N.J.), the No. 1 high school team in America, and is working hard to land a second Bosco player. CBS recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told the Courant’s Des Conner that he’s hearing UConn’s name come up in Ohio for the first time ever.

Those are just singular data points mixed in with some conjecture, but it’s positive recruiting press I don’t recall hearing about UConn in July before. New offensive coordinator George DeLeone summed it up in an interview with Conner:

 Well what we're trying to do is we really want to be a player in the northeast. Coach [Paul] Pasqualoni wants us to be a player in the northeast. That's our goal. We have to go out there and compete against Big East schools. We have to go out and compete against the ACC schools that recruit in this area. We have to go out and compete against the Big Ten schools that recruit in this area and we're fixing to do that.

This is the ambition, the initiative that Edsall seemed to lack on the recruiting trail. Whereas it seemed Edsall made it a habit to beat out Fordham, Yale, Buffalo and Akron for recruits, Pasqualoni is doing battle with Penn State, Boston College, Rutgers and Syracuse more often.

There’s an aggressiveness about this coaching staff that did not exist seven months ago, and maybe that's not a personality fault of Edsall - maybe it's not something that will hinder Edsall at Maryland, for example. Maybe Edsall was just too close to the situation. For most of his 12 years here, he was the CEO of a UConn program that actually was small-time (two years of I-AA, five years of Memorial Stadium, 11 years of anonymity on TV before the SNY deal); maybe Edsall could never escape this vision of the program.

Pasqualoni, on the other hand, is basically an outsider with a clearer view of where UConn fits (or, perhaps, is capable of fitting) in the big picture. He seems to have no such issues selling the program. Quantitatively, this has translated into a nice haul of early verbal commitments for UConn. Today is July 8; here is the total number of verbal commitments for each year dating back to UConn’s first year in the Big East, according to the database:

2012 class: 11 verbal commitments by July 8 of that recruiting season

2011 class: 4

2010 class: 2

2009 class: 7

2008 class: 5

2007 class: 5

2006 class: 2

2005 class: 3

Note that only one class – 2009 – even reached 11 commitments before November.

Then there’s the matter of the actual talent coming in: recruiting rankings are of course no perfect measure, but I think it is somewhat useful.

Seven months into Pasqualoni’s tenure, UConn has received commitments from four 3-star players in the class of 2012, according to Rivals’ latest rankings. That number bests the totals from the 2006 and 2008 (three each).

In year 12, Edsall had finally seemed to be improving recruiting ever so slightly; as recently as 2009, 17 of UConn’s 21 recruits were rated as 2-star players, but in 2010, nearly half (9 of 20) were 3-star players.

With almost seven months until Signing Day, Pasqualoni is already halfway to equaling Edsall’s best recruiting year ever – and he’s a 61-year-old who hasn’t coached in college since 2004. Those who are closer to the recruiting pipeline can answer better the question of how much credit to assign to either head coach – Edsall’s accomplishments, or Pasqualoni’s credentials and connections.

Now, are these life-changing numbers? Of course not. But the trend is the important thing.

Time will tell if Pasqualoni can get the most out of his players, like Edsall seemed to do each year. But right now, the early data seems to be pointing to a slow, steady rise in the amount of talent coming into UConn’s progra.

More than anything, it is a good sign, a breath of fresh air to see UConn’s new coaches act like they want to build a first-class football program, a program that can consistently compete for Big East titles and maybe even win a BCS game.