College football spent much of January taking a backseat to the NFL, the classic national championship game notwithstanding. As said in my earlier recap of the 2013 season, coaches across the nation couldn’t take much time off, if any, before giving their final sales pitches to recruits across the nation. For some, the road to recruiting gold was paved long ago. But as is typically the case, many of the country’s most highly sought after high school seniors are taking it to the wire when deciding where they will play college football on national signing day, February 5th. Here is a way too early prediction of how this year’s best recruits will pan out, which programs are hitting their mark, or which will be scrambling to fill scholarships before receiving their final fax tomorrow.
Last year’s recruiting darling was Ole Miss, behind Hugh Freeze, who put together a class that could compete with traditional division rivals such as LSU or Alabama. The class included last year’s number one overall player, Robert Nkemdiche, and highly touted WR Laquon Treadwell. Despite Nkemdiche battling injury, there was more than enough for Rebel fans to be ecstatic about in each moving forward. There was one problem… head coach Hugh Freeze’s fast start didn’t necessarily translate into immediate results on the field. Such is often the case for programs looking to rebuild into the future; most of the college game’s best players require time to learn how to properly lift weights, eat healthy and train for maybe the first time in their life. Save for once in a lifetime prospects like Jadeveon Clowney (who’s high school tape is among the most legendary of all time), even the fastest, strongest or most athletic recruit often needs time to adjust to the difference in speed and competition at the college level. Ole Miss took a step back this year, but is still bringing in what’s widely regarded as a top 15 class, along with Kentucky. Like Ole Miss, the verdict is still out on Mark Stoops and the Wildcats, who had a very underwhelming 2013. Coaching is important, even with a hot recruiting class. Just ask Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who brought a handful of top ten classes to Clemson before finally taking the next step last year with an impressive BCS win over Ohio State. Unless you are perennial recruiting kings – Alabama or Ohio State (this year’s #1 and #2 recruiting classes respectively) – there’s a fine science in getting the most out of the tools you’re given. Even in the case of the Tide and Buckeyes, both ended up going home without a trophy in 2013. It’s proof that recruiting isn’t everything, but let’s be honest, it certainly helps.
Alabama, as usual, is bringing in an ungodly amount of talent to Tuscaloosa. Among the Tide’s highest rated freshmen this fall will be perhaps the most dominant high school player in the country, defensive end Da’Shawn Hand (VA). Hand is a fierce DE who’s already 6’4″, 260 lbs. before stepping foot into the Tide’s cafeteria or weight room. Before committing to the Tide, De’Shawn turned down a bevy of offers including LSU, Auburn, Notre Dame, Georgia and Ohio State. Alabama is also bringing in a stellar group of defensive backs – arguably the hardest position to recruit in college – with Tony Brown (TX) and Marlon Humphrey (AL). Both men turned down multiple offers from blue blood programs not just in the SEC, but across the country to join Nick Saban’s squad. Brown turned down in-state offers from Texas, Texas A&M, TCU and Texas Tech in committing to Alabama. The duo provide a promising future for the Tide’s secondary, which is losing star Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to the NFL. Alabama is also significantly beefing up their offensive line with surprising out-of-state coups in Ross Pierschbacher (IA) and Dominick Jackson (CA) who turned down in-state and regional offers to take on SEC defenses. Simply put, Alabama’s class is yet again star-studded, figuratively and literally, according to every legitimate recruiting service across the web. There’s likely a sour taste in many fans’ mouths, but with this crop of incoming freshman, it doesn’t seem that Alabama has lost any of its luster quite yet. The Tide are most certainly reloading and poised to retake the SEC crown moving forward.
Ohio State had a uniquely Ohio State ending to their season, but like Alabama, haven’t missed a beat in recruiting this off-season. The Bucks are bringing in a class full of the nation’s best talent, including Georgia linebacker Raekwon McMillan (and yes, he’s named after the legendary Wu-Tang rapper). McMillan was a December graduate who signed his letter of intent early, dismissing offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama before choosing the Buckeyes. McMillan is already 6’3″ and over 230 pounds with a 4.5 40-yard dash time; he has the makings of an SEC linebacker ready to terrorize the Big 10. In addressing some of the defensive woes that plagued Ohio State’s two losses, Urban Meyer has brought in an impressive group of players to reshape the team’s defensive identity moving forward. Among this year’s standouts are Akron, Ohio linebacker Dante Booker and Cleveland DB Erick Smith. Ohio is one of the more fertile recruiting grounds in the rust belt, so it’s a good sign moving forward that Meyer is taking advantage of high level talent in his backyard. Both Booker and Smith passed on offers from in league rivals like Michigan and Michigan State before choosing the Buckeyes. Still, Meyer dipped his hand into Michigan’s backyard to bring Detroit DB Damon Webb on board to round out a very impressive defensive haul in 2014. As was the case with Alabama, there’s plenty left to sell on playing for Ohio State, despite last season’s flat ending.
Who is this year’s surprise team? Tennessee has regularly brought in Top 25 recruiting classes despite middling in and out of mediocrity for much of the past decade. Under new coach Butch Jones, the Vols have secured a stellar 2014 recruiting class, perhaps trailing only Alabama and Ohio State. Given the Vols’ underwhelming season, this is a great reflection of the new coaching staff’s recruiting ability. Perhaps the most highly touted of Tennessee’s most vaunted newcomers is halfback Jalen Hurd (TN). Hurd turned down offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Ohio State before committing to the home team. He has earned a reputation on the recruiting trail as perhaps the state’s best college prospect; a Top 5 running back nationally and has the athleticism to play at WR, TE or even DB/S on defense. Better yet for UT, Hurd was a December grad who’s already signed his LOI, so there’s no sweaty palms tomorrow on campus. Hurd is a player who can make an immediate impact on either side of the ball or special teams and could turn out to be a very special player for the Vols at either an All-Conference or even All-American level. Besides Hurd, Jones has brought along a spectacular duo of WRs to Knoxville beginning with Tennessee WR Josh Malone. Malone has challenged Hurd as the state’s best high school player and turned down a plethora of offers ranging from Alabama to USC before committing to Rocky Top. Malone is an incredible athlete with good size that could become All-SEC caliber with a year of time in the school’s strength and conditioning program, although he’s likely got the skill set to see playing time immediately. The second WR bringing his talents to Knoxville is junior college commit Lavon Pearson. Pearson, like Malone, is a taller WR who also provides a significant upside with some time in the weight room. Like Jalen Hurd, both are already signed, sealed and delivered to Tennessee, so Jones can already go about placing them in his offense without worry of a last-minute flip. Despite Tennessee’s lackluster performance since parting with coach Phillip Fulmer many moons ago, the Vols have recruited the WR position very well, most notably with recent stars Cordaerrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. There’s no reason to think both Malone and Pearson won’t flourish under promising sophomore QB Joshua Dobbs and continue the tradition of a high-powered passing attack in Knoxville.
There’s a great deal to like about Kentucky’s 2014 class, headlined by QB Drew Barker (KY) who turned down offers from Miami, South Carolina and Tennessee to play for the Cats. Kentucky is also bringing in Georgia RB Stanley Williams, who turned down offers from both Georgia and Georgia Tech in favor of UK. There are also lots to love about this year’s freshman class in Lexington. How far are the Wildcats from really competing in the SEC East? Time will tell, but it is looking like it’s not going to be a lack of talent that holds the program back. Miami sputtered towards the end of their season, tip-toeing in and out of the Top 25, but is bringing yet again another loaded group of freshmen to Coral Gables. DE Chad Thomas (FL) has had “The U” faithful nervous because of a Florida State offer, but Thomas has stayed somewhat, maybe, not totally firm towards Miami throughout the recruiting process. There’s a strong case that Thomas is the best defensive end in the nation outside of Alabama commit Da’Shawn Hand, measuring in at 6’5″ and 230 lbs and is among the top handful of recruits in the bountiful state of Florida. Thomas would be a huge get for the ‘Canes and he is only the start of a strong recruiting class that includes heavyweights such as backyard Miami Central RB Joseph Yearby, an explosive back who turned down offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State and Auburn to stay home with “The U.” Yearby’s tape shows a quick, elusive and dynamic back who can penetrate holes in the defense on offense or special teams. Yearby is quick on his feet and possesses excellent vision. Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile. Is Oklahoma already reaping the rewards of their strong finish? Time will tell, but as it stands, their dethroning of Alabama and spoiling of Oklahoma State’s bid for a conference title has barely affected them in the national recruiting scene. The sticker on the Sooner helmet will attract some of the Midwest’s best talent regardless of record, but perhaps OU’s biggest addition this fall is a little different. At 6’1″ and over 200 pounds, RB Joe Mixon (CA) easily fits the mold a high level program wants in a traditional north-south runner. Mixon turned down several Pac-12 offers to join Oklahoma, perhaps feeling his style could better adapt to the Big-12 than the wide open spaces of USC or Arizona State. The position that could be holding the Sooners back is under center at QB and this year QB Justice Hansen (OK) not only brings a pretty cool name, but a strong arm to Norman. Hansen is a pro-style QB who’s not a liability on his feet, but stands at 6’4″. Given some time eating in the dining hall and hitting the iron, Hansen could be the program’s answer at quarterback moving forward. Justice was targeted by pass happy offenses like Arkansas and Texas A&M before staying in Oklahoma.
One of the more surprising stories this offseason was the departure of Vanderbilt coach James Franklin to Penn State. Franklin was a favorite for what seemed like a dozen jobs nationwide – pro and college – but somehow ended up with the Nittany Lions. It wasn’t unfathomable to think someone of Franklin’s caliber would land at a school as prestigious as PSU, but the real commotion started when coach Franklin started to get in the ear of recruits he had led towards Nashville. The biggest is likely dynamic California recruit Koa Farmer, who turned down offers from Cal, Washington, Wisconsin and… Vanderbilt before committing to the Nittany Lions. Farmer could make a splash in State College as a wideout or on special teams. Some of Franklin’s Penn State commits who held offers to Vanderbilt are TE Mike Gesicki (NJ), QB Michael O’Connor (FL) and WR Chris Godwin (DE). Many of these recruits are in PSU’s splash area, but it does ask the question… why did Vandy offer so many of this year’s Penn State recruiting class? It has been a hotly contested topic among the Commodore faithful, however, few they may be. Is it fair or foul for a departing coach to bring recruits from his last job to the new one? It’s a touchy and subjective topic depending on what side of the deal you’re on. The fact is, in a situation like Franklin’s, there’s probably no way you could have changed schools as quickly and not at least kept in touch with your former recruits (in the realm of NCAA regulations… I’m sure).
After the last letter is faxed, who will be on the outside looking in? The biggest name is likely USC, who by most estimations, is outside of the Top 25 in recruiting halls this February. The Trojans have been in that established realm of teams like Texas or Oklahoma, or perhaps Miami; a brand that sold itself regardless of results. There’s no doubt that the loss of Lane Kiffin shook things up in LA, but given the very solid class that UCLA is bringing into town, the Men of Troy need to respond quickly. Given the abundance of talent in USC’s backyard, landing out of the Top 15, much less 25-30 range, is almost inexcusable. In losing Charlie Strong to Texas, Louisville has slid down the recruiting rankings despite bringing in a proven winner in Bobby Petrino. Of course, while Petrino held an impressive record with the Cardinals, he has left every subsequent job in flames. Can Petrino still sell his program to parents in 2014? The results are yet to be seen as it will take a few years for him to implement his system and players at Louisville. Washington was hitting its stride under Steve Sarkisian, but the program has to reshape its identity with Chris Petersen of Boise State fame. Peterson was one of the more notable offseason hires, but it will require a different kind of athlete to compete for a Pac-12 title. In the conference, Stanford, UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona are all bringing in Top 25 recruiting classes this year. Washington was expected to compete for a Pac-12 title this year and fell short. Will the Huskies be in a rebuild or reload mode come September? Some other notable programs that have potentially missed the mark this February: Nebraska, Arkansas, West Virginia, Pitt, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Maryland. Arkansas had a disastrous year one under Bret Bielema and Nebraska continued their fall into purgatory in the Big 10. West Virginia had an off year after Geno Smith left for the New York Jets and Maryland went from a hot Top 25 pick to a fail of epic proportions. Considering the stout recruiting classes in their respective conferences (including teams like Oklahoma State, bringing another Top 25 class to Stillwater), how ready are the aforementioned programs in competing for a division or conference title?
Of course, the ultimate joy for all of us behind our monitors and smartphones is the lucrative last-minute commitment. I can recall February of 2012, jumping for joy as a grown man at work, when Dorial-Green-Beckham, the nation’s #1 recruit, signed with the good guys. Most of the excitement on February 5th will be the last of the nation’s cream of the crop deciding where they will spend their formative football years. This year’s discussion starts with Adoree Jackson (CA), perhaps the most dominant prospect outside of Da’Shawn Hand in this year’s national recruiting class. Jackson has entered the recruiting game as a WR, but Adoree can play and perhaps dominate on all three sides of the ball. His speed, agility and quickness makes him equally as devastating as a wideout, return man or cornerback. His offer list is as impressive as any singular 18-year-old in the nation. He can rest his head on any campus from his backyard in California to Notre Dame or in Gainesville. Where will Jackson end up? It’s likely Adoree will stay in California for he is graduating from the same high school as USC playmaker Marqise Lee. Given the lackluster class the Trojans are bringing to LA, Jackson would be a monumental get since he’s ready to contribute from day one. It’s likely that Top 20 defensive end Lorenzo Carter (GA) will stay close to home and play for the Dawgs. Carter would be a terrific addition to a Top 15 Georgia class that’s looking to restock on both sides of the ball. Carter is a Top 10 recruit at his position nationally and would be a natural fit in almost any defense in the nation given time to develop.
Recruiting is a gamble, to put it lightly. Coaching staffs from Alabama, Illinois to Western Kentucky and Bowling Green put significant time into identifying and developing a variety of young adults from across the nation, hoping that most will turn out to be solid contributors at the D-1 level. Beyond that, predicting stardom and NFL draft status is a crap-shoot. It’s often lost in translation between star ratings, class rankings and future draft picks that college coaches recruit college players that will play their part in hopefully bringing championships to their universities. There’s a can’t miss Top 100 player this year who will go MIA in a year and someone nobody has ever has heard of that will make an NFL roster in 4 years, that much is certain. That’s the nature of the volatile game that is college football and a key ingredient into what makes it so amazing. National signing day is a fresh start, a new reason for us to pound our chests, shake our heads or do whatever we please. Here’s to a great spring, summer and fall. We’re all starting over (unless you’re Alabama)!