It took Jay Hill about a week into his first fall camp as Weber State’s head coach to realize his 2014 recruiting class had a chance to be special.
The Wildcats had struggled as a program before Hill took over with the last winning season coming in 2010 at 6-5. Hill’s first year in 2014 saw a 2-10 record, but it’s been steady progress ever since.
A record of 6-5 was hit in 2015, then 7-5 and an FCS playoff appearance the next year. Last season, Weber State finished 11-3, earned a share of the Big Sky Conference title and made the national quarterfinals. Now in 2018, the Wildcats are currently 10-2, won another share of the conference championship and host Maine on Friday in the quarterfinals as the No. 2 seed.
Hill’s first recruiting class of 2014 played a big part in last season’s success as fourth-year seniors. A handful of that class remains, either because of injuries or getting redshirted.
“When these guys started taking the jobs of the veteran players that were recruited by the previous staffs, I knew these guys were going to be special,” Hill told HERO Sports. “A lot of these guys played as freshmen and just got better and better. We have all kinds of four-year starters on this team right now that were some of the best players after that first year.”
It’s been one of the more impressive turnarounds for a program in the subdivision. It all starts with recruiting. And to recruit to a program that hadn’t had much success required Hill to hire the right staff.
“The first thing I had to do was hire the right assistant coaches that could sell what we're going to be building,” Hill said. “First and foremost, that’s what I did. I had really good assistant coaches that had great relationships across the West. Those guys were tough, hard-nosed guys that worked their butts off and brought in some great talent.”
When Hill was an assistant at the University of Utah, there was an assessment that came out using a model of rated recruits turning into NFL players. Utah was known as one of the best schools in the country every year of developing talent.
Hill used that to his advantage when recruiting to Weber State.
“A key to that was knowing what we were looking for,” Hill said. “I spent so many years in the Mountain West and the Pac-12 at the University of Utah, I knew what good players looked like. We just needed to identify them, find some diamonds in the rough and then go out and do a better job than the other schools to believe in us and our future.”
[divider]MORE WEBER STATE: Wildcats Playing At Their Best [divider]
The Wildcats are in a talent hotbed out West, with states like California, Arizona, Colorado, Washington and Oregon some of the main areas they hit along with Utah and the Las Vegas area.
But there’s also a lot of schools, FCS and FBS, to compete with. After hitting a home-run with the 2014 class, Weber State’s continued success over the years has made it somewhat easier, but also tougher to recruit to the program.
“People knew about Weber State before,” Hill said. “It’s a well-known school out in the West. But our success gets us in on other guys. Now we're battling some Mountain West schools on recruits. We still need to find those diamonds in the rough, but now we’re getting in on a couple other guys. In a way, it makes it harder.”
The 2018 senior class is a loaded one for the Wildcats. Some arrived as 2015 recruits and a few others transferred in. But key players, including offensive leader Iosua Opeta on the o-line and defensive leader LeGrand Toia at linebacker, bought into the recruiting pitch, redshirted and stuck it out during a 2-10 2014 season before helping Weber State build into a national contender.
“I owe them everything,” Hill said. “Coaches are important, but they aren't nearly as important as the players. And I understand that. These guys bought into a vision that I was selling five years ago. I owe these guys everything because they’re the ones that make plays on game day. These guys are tough. They’re good leaders. They’ve been through some low times. That first year was hard. But after that, it’s been four straight winning seasons.”
Now, the Wildcats are looking for that next step with a trip to the semifinals on the line Friday in front of a national ESPN2 audience.