If you’re the type of fan who keeps close tabs on college football recruiting, you don’t need to be reminded that Wednesday is national signing day, the appointed hour at which thousands of high school seniors confirm their college decisions by inking an official letter of intent. Even if you’re not, you can probably predict most of the prevailing narratives, since they tend to repeat from one winter to the next. This year — surprise! — Alabama will claim the no. 1 overall class, Florida State and USC will come in hot on the Crimson Tide’s heels, and most of the usual SEC heavies (Auburn, Georgia, LSU, et al.) will lap the rest of the field when it comes to accumulating blue-chip headliners.1 You know the drill: The players change, but the rich keep getting richer.
According to 247Sports’s composite rating, which averages the ratings of several major recruiting sites, at least 24 of the top 60 players in the Class of 2015 are expected to sign with SEC schools — and that’s not including a dozen players in that tier who have yet to commit to any school. SEC schools currently claim five of the top 10 classes overall.
This year, however, that status quo comes with two very notable exceptions. For perennial recruiting powers Florida and Michigan, the Class of 2015 is shaping up to be a historic low. After seasons in flux, the Gators and Wolverines are starting over under new head coaches Jim McElwain and Jim Harbaugh, who arrived in December to find recruiting crops that had been left to wither on the vine. Now, they’re facing the frantic final hours in which to salvage something respectable from the void before this signing-day cycle gives way to the Class of 2016.
To a certain extent, their struggles aren’t a surprise. Because the vast majority of coaching changes occur within a couple months of signing day, classes assembled in the gap between administrations are often written off as lost causes, casualties of the limbo separating the end of the one regime from the start of the next. Recruits who had committed to the outgoing coach are rarely the cream of the crop, since few elite prospects are willing to cast their lot with a coach facing the guillotine, and they’re also more likely to back out following a change in leadership. With the exception of a blockbuster effort on the order of, say, Urban Meyer’s 2012 class at Ohio State, which supplied the core of this year’s national championship team thanks to Meyer poaching a handful of high-profile prospects from other schools in his first few months at OSU, late additions under a new staff aren’t very likely to turn heads or tides. Still, on the eve of the signatures starting to roll in,2 the circumstances at Michigan and Florida look grim even by that no-man’s-land standard.
Via fax machine, as always.
When Harbaugh landed in Ann Arbor on December 30, he inherited a grand total of six verbal commitments from his beleaguered predecessor, Brady Hoke, the fewest of any Power 5 program at the time; as of Monday night, Harbaugh had worked that number up to nine, but Michigan still ranked 73rd nationally, according to 247’s composite ratings, worst in the Big Ten and three spots behind Western Michigan. Meanwhile, Florida has just 16 players in the fold, only two of whom carry a four-star rating — and if LSU has its way, one of them, Louisiana wide receiver Derrick Dillon, may be a Tiger by Wednesday night. Somehow, of the 50 prospects in the state of Florida who carry a four- or five-star rating, just one, four-star running back Jordan Scarlett, is currently committed to the Gators.3 Such local indifference has left UF’s class ranked 42nd nationally, behind every school in the SEC except Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and the outlook was considerably bleaker before Scarlett’s commitment boosted the average on Monday night.
Even on the Internet there’s not enough room for the number of exclamation points that should follow that sentence.
Recruiting rankings aren’t gospel, but they can’t be written off entirely, just as the current malaise can’t be written off as an inevitable consequence of transition. When Rich Rodriguez took over at Michigan after the 2007 season, his first class (which consisted mainly of Lloyd Carr recruits) ranked 11th nationally, and the hybrid Rodriguez-Hoke class in 2011 ranked 26th — a major slump by Michigan’s usual standards, but still vastly better than the meager crop Hoke bequeathed to Harbaugh four years later. At Florida, the first class Meyer assembled on the heels of the Ron Zook era and the first class Will Muschamp locked up after Meyer stepped down both checked in at no. 12 overall, in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Every other Florida recruiting class since 2002 has ranked in the top 10.
So what the hell happened? How did two blue-blood programs find themselves in such unprecedented depths on the brink of signing day? And are they too far into their respective holes for a last-minute surge to return them to their accustomed perches?
Michigan fans, of course, were beside themselves over the mere prospect of landing Harbaugh, a quintessential Michigan Man with a Schembechlerian pedigree and a track record of success at every level, and greeted his actual arrival in Ann Arbor as a triumph on par with V-J Day. On January 15, the first day he was allowed to meet with prospects in person,4 Harbaugh fanned those flames by pledging via his maniacal Twitter account to attack the recruiting trail the same way he attacks everything in his professional life: with “Enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” In practice, that’s meant burning both ends of the candle — along with Lord knows how many gallons of jet fuel consumed by the private plane stipulated in Harbaugh’s contract — on a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour, trying to reopen the doors that closed on Michigan months ago, if they were ever open at all.
Like most coaches, Harbaugh was hired in the middle of a winter “dead period,” during which face-to-face contact between coaches and recruits is prohibited by the NCAA; he was limited to phone calls during his first two weeks on the job.
“[Harbaugh] is really starting from scratch,” said Tom Van Haaren, who covers Big Ten recruiting for ESPN. “[Coaches] are trying to establish a lot of relationships from the ground up. It’s kind of a double hit for them. They were limited in time, but they were also really starting from scratch in trying to build relationships with a lot of these kids. It’s not just a name that’s going to land these kids. It’s a bigger decision than that.”
In his first week, Harbaugh picked up verbal commitments on trips to Florida and New Mexico. Last week, he made headlines in all four time zones in as many days. On Monday, Harbaugh stopped over in Omaha, Nebraska, for a house call with defensive end Daishon Neal5 before continuing on to Long Beach, California, where he met with a pair of touted cornerbacks, Iman Marshall and Colin Samuel, who happen to be high school teammates. Later, Harbaugh caught up with another pair of SoCal targets who won’t graduate until next year, then on Tuesday went to Washington to touch base with the top-ranked quarterback in the 2016 class, Jacob Eason.6 On Wednesday, Harbaugh was on the opposite coast, wooing Connecticut tight end Chris Clark, then back in Detroit to attempt to sway running back Michael Weber, a onetime Michigan commit who switched his pledge to Ohio State in December. On Thursday, it was down to Georgia in pursuit of linebacker Roquan Smith (Harbaugh dropped in on Smith’s mother at her job) and cornerback Chris Williamson. On Friday, Harbaugh was back in Ann Arbor to welcome a handful of visiting recruits for the weekend. (And, presumably, to work on his half-court shot …)
Neal made headlines of his own the next day, when he publicly spurned the Wolverines in favor of Nebraska, telling an Omaha radio show that he felt insulted by assistant Greg Mattison’s suggestion that Neal couldn’t get into Michigan without football. “Basically, they tried to call me stupid,” Neal said. “[Coaches tried to] explain academically and this and that what’s came out of Michigan, the connections and all of that. I’m like, here in Omaha, Nebraska, we’ve got Warren Buffett, so that’s all we need, pretty much.”
Eason is verbally committed to Georgia, but who’s keeping track?
Including the latest batch, Michigan has hosted 22 prospects over the past three weekends from 11 states, and almost all of those players were already committed to other schools. For fans who anticipated a game-changing wave of defections like the one Meyer orchestrated at Ohio State, though, the initial enthusiasm has yielded to a more sobering reality: So far, only two players — three-star defensive end Reuben Jones (previously committed to Nebraska) and four-star quarterback Zach Gentry (Texas) — have actually flipped for Michigan since Harbaugh’s arrival, leaving at least a half-dozen scholarships unclaimed as the deadline approaches.7 The most prized targets (Marshall, Clark, Weber, Smith, and Tennessee wide receiver Van Jefferson) have all been on Michigan’s campus in the past month, and all will remain plausibly on the radar on Wednesday. Still, Marshall (USC), Weber (Ohio State), Smith (Georgia), and Jefferson (Ole Miss) are all widely expected to land elsewhere; only Clark, who has no standing commitment but has referred to Harbaugh as “a legend” and “the LeBron James of coaching,” is considered a solid bet to sign with the Wolverines.
A handful of local reports on Sunday indicated that Michigan had also flipped California wide receiver Deontay Burnett, who had committed to Washington State before his official visit to Ann Arbor, but Burnett quickly refuted those reports in no uncertain terms.
“When he finally was hired, all the Michigan fans were like, ‘OK, Jim Harbaugh is our coach and every recruit knows who he is and he’s going to go out and just blaze this trail,’” Van Haaren said. “These recruits know his name, but that only gets them in the door. That doesn’t seal the deal, and that doesn’t land the commitment … Iman Marshall is a guy who I spoke with — he’s the no. 4–ranked prospect in the country — and he said, ‘Jim Harbaugh’s hire definitely makes me more interested, but I still need to go see campus. I still need to go see what the program has to offer. It’s a bigger decision than just the head coach, and a name, and I need to make sure I actually fit there.’”
If name recognition alone isn’t enough for Harbaugh, who elevated lowly Stanford into a BCS force and took the 49ers to a Super Bowl, it’s certainly not going to be enough for McElwain, who came to Florida from a relatively obscure post at Colorado State, and whose name isn’t going to unlock many doors that were closed to his predecessor. And like Harbaugh, McElwain hasn’t had time to build the kinds of relationships with elite targets that other coaches have cultivated for years. What he does have is a home-turf advantage in arguably the most talent-rich hotbed in the nation, and that geographic footprint could serve him well in his eleventh-hour pursuit of a trio of massively hyped, five-star recruits who have the potential to send the Gators’ stock soaring from zero to 60 in a matter of hours.
Martez Ivey, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound offensive tackle from Apopka, spent most of his senior season as the no. 1 overall prospect in the 2015 class, and currently ranks no. 2 according to 247Sports’s composite ratings. Ironically, Florida’s chief competition for Ivey’s signature will come from the guy McElwain replaced, Muschamp, who landed on his feet as Auburn’s defensive coordinator and clearly has no intention of letting his successor in Gainesville reap the fruits of two years’ worth of work by Muschamp’s staff.
Byron Cowart, a 6-4, 250-pound defensive end from Seffner, is the no. 1 overall prospect in the nation according to both Rivals.com and ESPN and checks in at no. 3 according to 247’s composite. (For fun, Cowart carries around a Chucky doll, as he recently explained to AL.com, because “Me and Chucky have a great connection. He’s violent, I’m violent. He’s a killer, I’m trying to kill whoever has the ball.”) Cowart is also reportedly choosing between Florida and Auburn, although Florida State remains a dark horse after hiring former UF defensive line coach Brad Lawing, who was Cowart’s primary recruiter in Gainesville, and who at a previous stop was the primary recruiter and position coach for one Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, which seems like a relevant precedent when it comes to luring top-shelf pass-rushers.
And CeCe Jefferson, a 6-2, 275-pound defensive end from Glen Saint Mary who’s the no. 7 overall prospect according to 247’s composite, has narrowed his list of finalists to Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss, and … yep, Auburn.
There are other names on Florida’s wish list, of course — the most prominent is dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, a Louisville commit who spent the weekend in Gainesville and who’s responsible for this Vine — but no others capable of moving the needle like the state’s remaining big three. Sometimes, trying to get a grip on recruiting feels like trying to nail down Jell-O: All standing assumptions can shift in the time it takes for a handful of teenagers to change their minds. A pledge from Ivey, Cowart, or Jefferson would go a long way toward rebutting the sky-is-falling narrative that has gained traction over the past few weeks; signatures from all three would turn the tables on that talk overnight.
Yet the alternative is just as likely, and far more foreboding, especially if Florida gets shown up on signing day by the coach it just fired. The Gators have struggled to compete with a steady influx of blue-chip talent, so it’s tough to imagine them keeping pace if the pipeline begins to run dry, even for a year or two. In a conference full of teams that reload on an annual basis, the window for “rebuilding” is too small to allow for a mulligan.