Somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 high school football players put ink to paper on Wednesday to make their college decisions official, culminating an often-grueling, years-long process aimed solely at this single stroke of a pen. A handful of them will become household names far beyond the obsessive enclave of recruitniks who have already elevated the most touted players to niche-celebrity status; the vast majority will toil in relative obscurity for the next four years before joining the real world. If you’re just catching up, here’s what we now know … before we really know anything.
All Hail Our Crimson Overlords
If you thought a second consecutive postseason lapse would somehow loosen Nick Saban’s grip on the nation’s top recruits, ha ha NOPE:
Even to someone like me, who generally vouches for the broad utility of recruiting rankings, the idea of a “recruiting national champion” is absurd, especially since different outlets award the title based on different criteria. (Two of the major recruiting authorities, Rivals.com and Scout.com, nudged USC ahead of Alabama on Wednesday afternoon.) There’s also the matter of the “Bama Bump,” an alleged ratings boost for players the Crimson Tide and other high-profile programs are pursuing, and a potential bias that, to paraphrase Saban, risks putting the cart before the horse. Still, on the macro level it’s hard to dispute that the unstoppable consistency of the Saban recruiting machine remains one of the wonders of modern sports. Two years removed from its last national championship, Alabama hasn’t budged from the top spot in 247’s composite rankings, a crown the Crimson Tide have now worn five years in a row.
On paper, the 2015 crop is as good as any of its predecessors: Six of Bama’s 24 signees are composite five-star recruits, more than for any other team, and 18 are ranked among the nation’s top 200 overall players. The haul includes a rare Saban five-star quarterback, Blake Barnett, out of California; the nation’s no. 1 running back, Damien Harris, from Kentucky; the nation’s top-ranked wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, from Florida; a pair of five-star cornerbacks, Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick, out of Texas and New Jersey, respectively; and the top-rated player in Washington, D.C., guard Richie Petitbon. And then, of course, four of the top six prospects from the state of Alabama, just for good measure.
Fundamentally, though, recruiting isn’t a paper enterprise. It’s a perpetual construction project, and wherever Alabama’s latest crop happened to fall on a given set of rankings on Wednesday, it’s most impressive when taken as the latest expansion of an already formidable skyscraper. With Barnett’s addition to the quarterback rotation,1 the depth chart this fall will feature at least one five-star recruit at every single position group except the interior offensive line. Harris will begin behind the cream of the 2013 running back crop, Derrick Henry. Defensive tackle Daron Payne, the no. 1 player in Alabama, will have to bide his time behind former blue-chipper A’Shawn Robinson. When Sheffield and Fitzpatrick show up this summer, they’ll be competing alongside another pair of five-star cornerbacks from last year’s class, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, just to back up returning starters Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson. There may be an opening for Ridley following the departure of last year’s top three wide receivers, most notably Amari Cooper, but all of the other up-and-comers vying for a role in the passing game (Chris Black, Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims) were touted as top-100 prospects out of high school too.
Yet another sign that perceptions of Alabama’s formerly staid offense are rapidly evolving since Saban entrusted the play-calling to Lane Kiffin.
No other program can come close to that kind of depth at that many positions, and the Class of 2015 proved yet again that the pipeline is nowhere near dry. Even skeptics who think recruiting rankings exist mainly as hype for hype’s sake have to concede that the odds of return on this particular investment are pretty damn good.
L.A. Times: USC and UCLA Roll
If any program has historically been in position to rival Bama’s recruiting dominance, it’s USC, which, as noted, actually surged past the Tide in a couple sets of rankings after a wave of late-Wednesday announcements by five-star defenders Iman Marshall, Rasheem Green, and Porter Gustin. Two years ago, NCAA sanctions limited the Trojans to awarding just 15 scholarship in the 2013 class; with a full allotment of scholarships at his disposal this year, coach Steve Sarkisian picked up signatures from 12 players ranked in the composite top 100 alone.
But USC still has a little ways to go before the roster is back at full strength, much less until it reaches the point at which it can realistically expect to overtake the likes of Alabama or Ohio State on the field. In the meantime, the Trojans’ real competition remains just across town, where UCLA — owner of a three-game winning streak against USC, all by double digits — orchestrated a late-breaking coup of its own, adding running back Soso Jamabo, cornerback DeChaun Holiday, and tight end Chris Clark to a class that already included the nation’s no. 1 incoming quarterback, Josh Rosen, and five-star defensive end Keisean Lucier-South. (Aside from the headliners, the Bruins also landed a signature from four-star receiver Cordell Broadus, son of USC’s no. 1 fan, Snoop Dogg; in solidarity, Snoop wore a UCLA jersey to Cordell’s announcement and vowed his full support: “I’m throwing all my USC drawers away. I’m going UCLA 1,000 percent.”)
The last piece of the puzzle for UCLA is blue-chip linebacker Roquan Smith, a Georgia native who announced his intention to sign with the Bruins on ESPNU on Wednesday morning, but subsequently failed to send in his letter of intent to make it official; as of Wednesday night, he was reportedly still waffling between UCLA and the local favorite, Georgia. If Smith ultimately lands in Jim Mora’s camp, the Bruins will shore up a top-10 class.
“18 Years in L.A. What Now?”
Marshall’s decision was the source of much intrigue in the lead-up to signing day, and he delivered with what may be the most gratuitous, self-aggrandizing announcement on record, which is really saying something.
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Gratuitous? Yes. Narcissistic? Obviously. But when I imagine dozens of lavishly compensated, grown-ass men at LSU, UCLA, Notre Dame, Florida State, and USC hanging on every second of this production with bated breath, it fills me with joy.
The Holy Trinity
Most years, the title of No. 1 Overall Prospect is settled well in advance of signing day, with a clear consensus forming around a can’t-miss, NFL-ready specimen like Jadeveon Clowney (2011), Dorial Green-Beckham (2012), Robert Nkemdiche (2013), or Leonard Fournette (2014) before the ink from the previous class’s signatures has even had time to dry. But that was never the case with the 2015 class, which saw multiple players elevated into the top spot throughout the year. The preseason favorite, Florida State defensive end Josh Sweat, suffered a season-ending knee injury in September,2 and ultimately the distinction was split three ways.
Sweat is enrolled early at FSU after graduating high school in December, but remains doubtful for spring practice.
Two of the outlets of record, ESPN and Rivals, reserved their highest ratings for Byron Cowart, a 6-foot-4, 258-pound defensive end from Seffner, Florida, who spurned the Gators at the 11th hour in favor of Auburn. (Cowart’s signature also marked a victory for Auburn over Florida on a personal level: The Tigers’ new defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, spent two years trying to woo Cowart to Gainesville as Florida’s head coach, and surely relished sticking it to his former employer. As you’ll see a little further down, though, the “Muschamp’s Revenge” narrative went in both directions.) Meanwhile, the no. 1 player on Scout’s board was Concord, California, defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, son of Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, who honored his longstanding commitment to Tennessee, his father’s alma mater. And 247 bestowed its top honor on Albany, Georgia, defensive tackle Trent Thompson, a 6-3, 313-pound behemoth who’s bound for Georgia. Thompson also graded out as the no. 1 overall player in 247’s composite rankings, where Cowart landed at no. 3 and McKenzie at no. 6. If you’re not into splitting hairs, just say a prayer for SEC quarterbacks.
The Young Get Younger
McKenzie is the headliner of another banner class for Tennessee, which will surely accelerate the surge of optimism in Knoxville under third-year coach Butch Jones. The Vols ended this past season on a hugely optimistic note, routing Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl with a lineup that was even greener than it was orange: In all, 23 true freshmen from Tennessee’s 2014 recruiting class saw the field at some point during the season, most in the nation, and against Iowa first- and second-year players outnumbered seniors on the official two-deep by a margin of 25-to-4. Considering the schedule — the non–SEC East portion of the slate included Oklahoma, Ole Miss, and Alabama — the Vols were better than any team that young had any right to be, and after Wednesday the brakes on this bandwagon no longer exist.
Including McKenzie, Tennessee’s incoming class features five players in the composite top 100, two of whom (defensive linemen Kyle Phillips and Shy Tuttle) are already on campus as early enrollees; so is tailback Alvin Kamara, a former Saban signee who found the depth chart too crowded at Alabama, spent the 2014 season in junior college, and arrived in Knoxville last month as arguably the most coveted juco prospect in the nation. I could go on, but honestly I think four-star receiver Preston Williams’s signing day toggery is more than capable of taking it from here.
With apologies to Key & Peele, these 2015 recruits are very real, and their names are spectacular:
• Maryland OL Quarvez Boulware and Tennessee OL Venzell Boulware: Incredibly, there’s no indication that these two are related in any way, which takes their respective parents’ naming performance to another level.
• Texas TE Devonaire Clarington: “We were trying to decide between Devone and Debonair, and then we thought, ‘why settle?’”
• RB Davon Crookshank: The distinguished Mssr. Crookshank was verbally committed to Wisconsin, but now appears bound for junior college to shore up his grades. Either way, we cannot allow this team’s integrity to be compromised by excluding its MVP. Plus, my editor tells me that Hermione wouldn’t allow it.
• UCLA RB Soso Jamabo: Not that it needs them, but “Soso” gets bonus points for being appended to a blue-chip player.
• LSU TE Bry’Kiethon Mouton: Exceptional as it is, I can’t help but feel “Bry’Kiethon” is one syllable shy of true D’Brickashawnian perfection.
• Indiana S Omari Stringer: Come at the king, Big Ten quarterbacks, you best not miss.
• West Virginia TE Stone Wolfley:
Florida and Michigan Finish Strong
On Tuesday, I wrote about the precarious state of affairs at perennial recruiting powers Florida and Michigan, both of which were lagging well behind their usual pace in the wake of coaching changes. Within 24 hours of that piece going up, both sides were on more solid footing, especially Florida: Although they lost Cowart to Auburn, the Gators made up the difference by landing their other two must-have in-state targets, offensive tackle Martez Ivey and defensive end CeCe Jefferson,3 and padded out the class with four-star running backs Jordan Scarlett, Jordan Cronkrite, and D’Anfernee McGriff. The Gators lost the only four-star commitment they had prior to this week, wide receiver Derrick Dillon, to LSU, but still saw their composite class rank leap from the mid-60s into the top 25 virtually overnight — well below Florida’s usual perch in the top 10, but nothing like the disaster that loomed a few days ago.
At least it seems like Florida landed Jefferson. He picked UF in a nationally televised ceremony on ESPNU, but the Gators have yet to receive his faxed letter of intent, and there are murmurs that Jefferson’s father is delaying the process.
Michigan, meanwhile, was limited from the get-go by two factors: one, a limited number of available scholarships in this cycle after losing only a dozen seniors from the 2014 roster, and two, a limited amount of time for Jim Harbaugh and his hastily assembled staff to gain a foothold among recruits. In that context, the final results could have been a lot worse: Six of the Wolverines’ 14 signees carry four-star composite ratings, and the top two players in the class, quarterback Zach Gentry and wide receiver Brian Cole, addressed a glaring, immediate need in the passing game. It’s not the worst class in the Big Ten, which it was two days ago. But it’s also nowhere near the classes assembled by Ohio State or Penn State at the top of the conference, which is where most Michigan fans expected to be when Harbaugh touched down. There won’t be as much patience in 2016.
“You the Biggest Dude I Ever Seen in My Life”
Surprise BYU signee Motekiai Langi may be the largest human being ever to set foot on a football field.
Tonga is a sovereign island nation whose entire land mass comes to just 289 square miles, most of which were submerged until recently, when Langi left for an LDS mission in Phoenix. Suddenly, residents are enjoying parts of the shoreline they haven’t seen for a decade, while BYU coaches are rapping about the finer points of the 3-4 defense:
Langi, a total unknown Stateside who was reportedly recruited on the basis of a pickup basketball game two years ago, won’t be on campus until his mission ends in 2017, which gives the university two years to widen doorways, reinforce staircases, and make other necessary accommodations for his arrival.
Texas Gets Its Quarterback (Kind Of)
Texas missed out on the crown jewel of this year’s in-state crop, five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, who briefly flirted with UT but ultimately made good on his pledge to Texas A&M; in the process, the Longhorns also lost a commitment from Gentry, who defected to Michigan when Texas intensified its pursuit of Murray in January. Desperate, the Horns scored a big victory earlier this week by flipping four-star “athlete” Kai Locksley from Florida State, which UT fans hope will pay immediate dividends.
On Wednesday afternoon, coach Charlie Strong declined to endorse incumbent Tyrone Swoopes as the starter for the season opener at Notre Dame, thereby leaving the door open for Locksley or redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard to make a move on the beleaguered Swoopes in the meantime. “Notre Dame is a long ways away,” Strong said. “Notre Dame is how many months? I don’t like looking that far ahead. Let’s just make sure we get the right guy in there.” In most years, Locksley would be just another face in a very talented crowd, but after Swoopes’s meltdown at the end of last season, all potential options behind center are good options.