National Signing Day 2018: Top Early Storylines to Follow
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It’s no surprise Alabama and Georgia met in this week’s national championship game considering all the 4- and 5-star studs sprinkled up and down their loaded rosters.
For anybody who thinks Kirby Smart’s and Nick Saban‘s teams are going anywhere any time soon, all they need to do is look at the top of the recruiting rankings. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide again are among the best in the nation, and as long as they pull top talent, they’ll win games.
This year’s new early signing period removed a bit of the drama from the February finale, but that doesn’t take away from the intrigue. Sure, there already are incredible stories like Smart having six 5-star players already signed and Ohio State building yet another monster haul.
But there are still headlines to be made across the country.
The Bulldogs and Buckeyes are trying to dethrone Alabama’s (mythical) recruiting championship. New coaches like Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Florida’s Dan Mullen are scouring the nation to find players to help them quickly rebuild those programs.
Several top-shelf star high schoolers remain uncommitted, too. Battles will heat up and hearts will change when official visit season heats up over the next month. It’ll be interesting to see who stays hot and who winds up the biggest losers in the 2018 cycle.
Let’s take a look at some of the intriguing storylines as we hit the recruiting homestretch.
Alabama's (Recruiting) Reign Coming to an End
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Everybody knows Alabama is king of the college football universe after a national championship victory over Georgia on Monday night for the Crimson Tide’s fifth title in nine years. But all that success by Nick Saban started on the recruiting trail.
That’s where Bama has piled up seven consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
That streak likely is coming to an end this season.
“This recruiting cycle hasn’t been your typical run that Alabama fans have grown accustomed to under Nick Saban,” BamaOnline’s Hank South wrote. “The Tide went months between commitments, spent the majority of the spring and summer outside the top 50 in the recruiting rankings, and never seemed to gain serious steam as we’ve seen in years past.”
Georgia is loading up on blue-chip prospects, as are Ohio State, Texas, Penn State and others. Still, in a “down” year, the Tide are currently ranked fifth with several marquee players still on the board, such as Florida receiver Jacob Copeland and top remaining quarterback Tanner McKee.
With Kirby Smart at Georgia and Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee, Alabama’s recruiting isn’t going to get any easier. But Saban is still the master, and his dynasty doesn’t look like it’s crumbling any time soon. But the streak of top-ranked classes looks like it’s on its way out.
Look for them to still finish in the top five.
How Strong Will Georgia's Class Be?
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The Georgia Bulldogs are still licking their wounds from the heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the national championship game, but with the way Kirby Smart is recruiting, the Dawgs likely will be back.
Yes, UGA loses 31 seniors, but Smart took Mark Richt‘s recruits and nearly got them to the peak. He’s recruiting at a higher level than his predecessor and has a class in 2018 that rivals any Saban has produced on paper.
As of now, Georgia has six 5-star prospects in top-ranked quarterback Justin Fields, No. 2-rated offensive tackle Cade Mays, top running back Zamir White, top guard Jamaree Salyer, top outside linebacker Adam Anderson and No. 2 strong-side defensive end Brenton Cox.
If that’s not an amazing haul, there’s never been one.
UGA isn’t done, either. Another pair of 5-star cornerbacks, Tyson Campbell and Isaac Taylor-Stuart, are giving Smart’s bunch a hard look. Others like 4-star outside linebacker Quay Walker and stud receiver Tommy Bush could make this arguably the best class.
Smart has immediate playing time to sell with all those players leaving Athens, and he also can show a clear successful resume—especially after what took place in 2017. It seems almost a lock that Georgia will wind up with the top class, but it’s just a matter of how high they’ll surge.
At this point, it looks like they may have to turn some stars away. It’s an impressive haul for Smart.
Will Stanford, BYU or Someone Else Grab Top Remaining QB Tanner McKee?
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It’s rare for a quarterback like Corona, California, signal-caller Tanner McKee to be left on the board at this point of the recruiting cycle. But he’s still sitting there, and a number of the nation’s top programs would love nothing more than to sway the 6’6″, 200-pound quarterback to their school.
One of the reasons why McKee is a bit of a wild card in this year’s class is he may not arrive at his destination until 2020. He’s a Mormon, and his plan has been to take a two-year mission prior to going to college.
As a result, schools who don’t have an immediate need at the position are recruiting him. That’s why teams such as Alabama and Texas are near the top of his list. But they may not necessarily have an advantage.
Right now, Stanford holds 100 percent of his 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions. Though BYU was once expected to be one of his top choices, McKee told the Deseret News‘ Ryan McDonald that the ouster of offensive coordinator Ty Detmer “absolutely affects” the Cougars’ standing.
It remains to be seen where he’ll wind up, or even when he’ll get there, but there are a lot of reasons to love a big, strong quarterback like McKee: his frame, ability to see over defenses and the arm to make any throw. That’s why he was a U.S. Army All-American.
His faith hasn’t been a major deterrent in his recruitment, and now, it’s just a matter of which school is going to win the McKee lottery. Whoever does will be getting a signal-caller with a ton of potential, no matter when he arrives.
Which New Head Coach Will Make the Biggest Recruiting Splash?
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There are a lot of new coaches around college football, and a few have begun making a major impact on the recruiting trail.
At Florida, noted quarterback developer Dan Mullen looks like he may have his next project after flipping uber-talented signal-caller Emory Jones from Ohio State. With him signed, the Gators are looking for playmakers with which to surround him.
Scott Frost brought his full staff with him from Central Florida, where the Knights finished undefeated with a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Auburn. He already is convincing recruits to join him in Lincoln as he tries to rebuild the once-proud Cornhuskers.
Oregon’s Mario Cristobal was promoted to head coach from offensive coordinator, and he has kept the core of that strong Ducks class together.
But the coach who has made the biggest impact so far is Tennessee’s new front man Jeremy Pruitt. After a complicated search, UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer pegged the Alabama defensive coordinator for this job.
Pruitt has been dual-hatted the past few weeks, balancing time between scheming for the College Football Playoff and recruiting for the Vols.
All he did during that time was get 4-star receiver Alontae Taylor back in the fold, as well as secure pledges from 4-star JUCO tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, 3-star running back Jeremy Banks, 3-star JUCO offensive tackle Jahmir Johnson and others. He also flipped 3-star quarterback JT Shrout from California.
Just this past weekend, he received a commitment from the nation’s No. 2 outside linebackers in JJ Peterson, who was thought to be a longtime Alabama lean.
Tennessee is taking some big swings the rest of the way until national signing day, such as with Jacob Copeland, Quay Walker, cornerback Olaijah Griffin and others. It looks like a battle between the Vols, Gators and Ducks to see which new coach winds up with the top class.
Texas and Tom Herman Need to Close with Offensive Playmakers
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It’s no surprise that Texas head coach Tom Herman would be able to build a stable of capable playmakers with the Longhorns—especially after all the success he had as an offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State and running his own program at Houston.
But he’s amassed a top-five class this year in Austin, and there are plenty of reasons for fans to believe he has the program on an upward trajectory.
This year included some understandable rocky roads for the ‘Horns as they transitioned into the Herman era, but winning a bowl game is a quality step forward. This 2018 class that he’s compiling is another major movement.
Now, all it needs is more offensive playmakers.
Texas’ top four commitments are defensive backs BJ Foster, Anthony Cook, Caden Sterns and Jalen Green. Sure, Herman has two stud receivers committed in Brennan Eagles and Al’vonte Woodard, but they need more.
Star running back pledge Keaontay Ingram has the ability to be one of the centerpieces of the class. While he didn’t sign in the early period, there doesn’t seem to be any concern that he will follow through with his commitment, according to Burnt Orange Nation’s Wescott Eberts.
Lawrence Keys III, Joshua Moore or another high-profile target could pledge to Texas and help Herman rebuild his offense. With all those defenders on board, the ‘Horns need a couple of marquee kids who make plays to pull the trigger. It’ll be interesting to see if any other targets materialize over this last month.
Nobody knows if it’s going to be Shane Buechele or Sam Ehlinger long-term at quarterback, but whoever it is needs to be surrounded by more big-time talent.
Will LSU Lock Up Top Uncommitted Recruit Patrick Surtain Jr.?
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Since last summer, NFL legacy and the nation’s top uncommitted recruit, Patrick Surtain Jr., was expected to be leaning toward LSU over offers from virtually everybody in the country.
It didn’t matter if Miami, Alabama or Georgia came after the Florida defender; he consistently referred to Ed Orgeron’s Tigers as his leader for months. But he recently told SEC Country’s Sam Spiegelman that another team has gained on the Tigers: the Crimson Tide.
“It’s very close,” Surtain Jr. said.
Perhaps that’s why we are less than a month from national signing day, and Surtain remains uncommitted.
There’s still optimism on the Bayou, especially after the Tigers locked up defensive coordinator Dave Aranda with a historic contract. But Surtain seems to like the attention, and he has yet to pull the trigger and end his recruitment.
If you’re LSU, that has to make you sweat a little, right?
The Surtain family may live in Florida, but they hail from Louisiana, and the son of the former NFL All-Pro defensive back has repeatedly referred to LSU as “home” in interviews with recruiting analysts.
But Alabama is expected to get a visit, and with the way Saban develops defensive backs, it should make LSU uneasy. This one seemed over long ago, but it has dragged on for a long time. If Surtain leaves the door cracked, it’s possible somebody could swoop in and take him from Orgeron’s grasp.
He’s the top remaining player on the board, so everybody wants to know what he’s going to do. They’ll have to wait until national signing day to find out the answer.
How High Can USC Rise?
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Everybody may be sleeping on USC’s recruiting class, because the Trojans haven’t enjoyed a wave of commitments yet. But they’ve certainly done more with less than anybody else.
Though coach Clay Helton’s team is currently 10th in the team rankings, it has just 14 pledges with plenty of room to grow. After the U.S. Army All-American Bowl commitment of star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, the Pac-12 champions look like they are poised for a big finish.
Will the surge into signing day be enough to move them into the top five?
Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Olaijah Griffin are two geographic fits who’d bolster the class rankings and, more importantly, the defensive backfield. They could get a major boost if linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu pulls the trigger for the Trojans, and that’s just defenders.
Receiver Jalen Hall seems to be destined for USC or Oregon, and athlete Talanoa Hufanga would be another class-booster for Helton.
There are a ton of targets, and plenty of interested players visiting over the next few weeks who’d love to wind up as part of the class. You have to figure the Trojans land a few of those, and they’ll surge up the rankings when they do.
With studs like 5-star quarterback JT Daniels and Hufanga already in the fold, this could be one of those quiet classes that winds up high in the rankings, producing a lot of elite talent to get the Trojans competing at the highest level again.
Yes, it’ll hurt that Sam Darnold is going pro, but Daniels is arguably the best quarterback in this class, and there is a lot of young talent in Troy. They’re adding to it, too.
Will Florida State and Texas A&M Rally?
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It’s never easy to hold together a recruiting class when you lose a coach, and even quality programs experience the sting when that happens. Two of those programs seeing that firsthand right now are Florida State and Texas A&M.
The Aggies parted ways with Kevin Sumlin after he failed to live up to expectations he built for himself during the Johnny Manziel era.
A&M’s late-season collapses the past few years didn’t do him any favors, and the program with some of the deepest pockets in the country wasn’t going to sit and watch Texas reload without doing anything. That’s why they broke the bank and went out to steal Jimbo Fisher from the Seminoles.
Despite an awful season that started with the loss of quarterback Deondre Francois and snowballed from there, Fisher was still a coveted commodity by the Aggies.
Unfortunately for A&M, the recruits haven’t followed in droves, as hoped. They’re currently ranked 31st and don’t have much traction with studs.
As for the Seminoles, they’re reeling, too. The bad season coupled with the uncertainty surrounding Fisher and his ultimate departure has led to suffering in living rooms. FSU is 34rd in recruiting rankings, while Miami, Georgia and Alabama poach Sunshine State recruits.
The Gators won’t make it easier with Mullen, so it’s paramount that new FSU coach Willie Taggart swiftly gets things moving in the right direction.
Taggart left Oregon after one year for his “dream job” but he hasn’t started off with the same type of class he left behind in Eugene.
Both of these coaches are too good at recruirring for this to last. With the way the ‘Noles and Aggies are used to recruiting, they’ll likely get back on track next year. But can the 2018 class be salvaged? Fisher and Taggart need to turn it around fast in order for it to happen.
Potential Flippers Causing Drama
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Kids are not opposed to drama and attention, and that’s why recruiting can become a circus. It’s gotten a little better with the early signing period and a lot of prospects trending toward committing sooner than they did in years past, but there will still be some fireworks leading up to national signing day.
There always is.
Georgia linebacker Quay Walker is committed to Alabama, but with Pruitt going to Tennessee, the Vols are suddenly a factor. Walker has to be intrigued by Georgia and what Smart is putting together, and Florida is a possible destination, too, so it’s shaping up to be a classic SEC battle.
As if A&M’s recruiting situation weren’t struggling already, receiver Jalen Preston is looking around. AL.com’s Josh Bean writes that Auburn defensive tackle Coynis Miller will visit Oregon, Tennessee and Florida. The Vols are in danger of losing running back Anthony Grant to Virginia Tech.
Oregon has a couple of coveted commitments who didn’t sign in Eli’jah Winston and Spencer Webb who could look elsewhere. The list goes on and on; essentially every team has a player or two they’re having to watch or continue to recruit if they didn’t sign in December.
“If they haven’t signed yet, then there’s probably good reason for it,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal told Duck Country’s Erik Skopil. “When they do sign, hopefully that’s for the right reasons as well. All we can do is continue working and ensure that anyone we feel will be a great addition to our family that we can continue to work hard and make a great impression.”
Michigan pledge Otis Reese is a prospect the Wolverines must continue to recruit, and he actually may wind up at Georgia or elsewhere.
There will be plenty of movement between now and February, so buckle up.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.