NCF Nation: Football Recruiting

The NCAA has gone back to the drawing board over the rules that govern mid-year enrolling football prospects eligible for financial aid agreements on and after Aug. 1 of their senior years.

The Division I Legislative Council this week rescinded a December ruling that allowed only the first school to sign a prospect to an agreement to operate under relaxed recruiting restrictions.

The initial interpretation, issued last October by the NCAA’s academic and membership affairs staff, permitted schools that signed prospects to agreements to comment publicly about the recruits and ignore restrictions that limit contact outside of a dead period.

As an unintended consequence, several prospects in the Class of 2014 signed agreements with multiple programs, leading to the December action after an appeal of the original interpretation by the Southeastern Conference.

Many schools, according to the NCAA, then voiced concerns that they were not aware when prospects sign agreements with multiple schools and in what order, potentially leading to inadvertent violations.

As a result, the decision this week states if a school signs a prospect to an agreement and takes advantage of the relaxed restrictions, it will be in violation, retroactively, of NCAA rules if the prospect does not enroll at the school.

Penalties would be determined by the NCAA enforcement staff, based on the circumstances and significance.

Mid-year enrolling prospects remain eligible to sign agreements – which are binding for the school but not the recruit -- with multiple programs.

The Legislative Council also ruled this week that college programs must ensure that prospects are enrolled in the high school coursework necessary to graduate at midyear before offering the financial aid agreements.

The new ruling could discourage programs from commenting publicly on a signed mid-year prospect out of concern that if the recruit changes his mind, the school will have unwittingly committed an NCAA violation.

Updated 2015 ESPN 300 released

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
On Wednesday, the new 2015 ESPN 300 player rankings were released, with defensive tackle and Georgia native Trenton Thompson taking the top spot. But the actual rankings are just the start. To dig even deeper, check out RecruitingNation's complete analysis of the updated ESPN 300:
LUBBOCK, Texas -- From the outside, it seemed as if the House That Leach Built was crumbling all around Kliff Kingsbury.

There was a five-game losing streak that included getting whipped at Texas on Thanksgiving night. His starting QB left for another Big 12 program. His right-hand assistant bolted days later for a different Big 12 foe.

Yet through such trying weeks, the 34-year-old first-year head coach never changed his demeanor. Not publicly. Not even privately with his team. He still arrived at Texas Tech’s football training facility during the 4 o’clock hour each morning. He still worked out twice a day, once around sunrise, and again after lunch.

[+] EnlargeKliff Kingsbury
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsKliff Kingsbury stayed cool when there was chaos all around. The Red Raiders followed his lead and it's been paying off ever since.
Kingsbury refused to dwell on the past. Instead, he focused his players on the opportunities ahead.

“Really, a team gets its personality from its head coach,” said senior running back/outside linebacker Kenny Williams. “Coach Kingsbury is a very strong person. I think the way he conducted himself during that time made us a stronger team.”

Because their coach never wavered in the weeks leading up the National University Holiday Bowl, the team didn’t, either. And like a captain guiding his crew through choppy waters, Kingsbury righted the (pirate) ship at Texas Tech.

The two-touchdown-underdog Red Raiders completely dismantled No. 14 Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl -- and they’ve been riding a wave of momentum no one outside the program saw coming ever since.

“For what they did and the way they performed in the bowl game, I couldn’t have been more proud of those guys,” Kingsbury said. “I think the biggest part was the resiliency this team showed. That’s how you build for the future. Because it’s not always going to be going well. It’s not always going to fall in your favor. But you gotta keep fighting.”

After they rallied past West Virginia to move to 7-0 and into the top 10 of the polls, nothing seemed to fall in the Red Raiders’ favor. Texas Tech played Oklahoma tough in a tight loss on the road, but then lost to Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas by an average margin of almost 24 points.

“I don’t think anyone on the team felt sorry for themselves or felt like, ‘Hey, this wasn’t a good team,’” Kingsbury said. “We just weren’t playing as good as we needed to be to beat good teams.”

But just like the five straight losses themselves, the losses of quarterback Baker Mayfield and assistant Sonny Cumbie stung, too.

Mayfield became a national story after winning the starting job during the preseason as a walk-on true freshman. He was named the Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year the same day he informed Kingsbury he was leaving to enroll at Oklahoma.

Cumbie’s departure was almost as shocking. He played quarterback at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, had been teammates and longtime friends with Kingsbury and was the only assistant retained by both former Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville and Kingsbury. Cumbie had recruited several of the players on Texas Tech’s current roster, including quarterback Davis Webb. And he had been instrumental in helping Kingsbury acclimate during his first few days as head coach, even bringing recruiting tape for Kingsbury to review in his empty office.

“It was really rough having coach Cumbie leave, because that was the guy that had been recruiting me since my sophomore year,” Webb said. “He’s a guy I got really close to. He knows my parents really well. He came to my house multiple times. That was really rough on me I guess because I look up to him a lot. Baker leaving threw everyone off guard, too. Coach Cumbie leaving to TCU was very surprising. So there was a lot of shock. But we never became distraught.”

Instead, Kingsbury kept his players on campus throughout December to prepare them for the bowl game. And by the time the Holiday Bowl rolled around, the Red Raiders had the look of a team that had successfully weathered a storm.

“Everything just boiled up in a pot,” Webb said. “And we just exploded.”

Really, a team gets its personality from its head coach. Coach Kingsbury is a very strong person. I think the way he conducted himself during that time made us a stronger team.

-- Texas Tech senior RB/OLB Kenny Williams
Taking over for Mayfield, Webb came out on fire. Also a true freshman last year, Webb threw touchdown passes on Texas Tech’s first four possessions and finished with 403 passing yards on his way to earning Holiday Bowl offensive MVP honors. The defense, finally at full strength again after several injuries, held up too.

“More than anything, that showed our players that you gotta handle adversity, you gotta be mentally tough,” Kingsbury said. “And if you do, that good things can happen.”

Good things have been happening for Texas Tech ever since.

Last month, Kingsbury scored a commitment from Jarrett Stidham, the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2015. Stidham had offers from Alabama, Oregon, Texas and Baylor, which was thought to be the favorite because of Art Briles’ connection to Stidham’s Stephenville High School (Briles won four state titles there).

“Coach Kingsbury done everything to make sure that program is going in the right direction,” said Stidham, who revealed he’s been in touch with several other high-profile recruits about joining him at Texas Tech. “I believe what he’s doing is going to pay off.”

The momentum from the bowl game has carried over into the spring.

More than 10,000 fans attended an open scrimmage in Midland, Texas, and another big turnout is expected Saturday for the spring game in Lubbock. Plus, Texas Tech broke a record with more than 34,000 season tickets sold, and is sure to sell more with five months to go before the Aug. 30 opener against Central Arkansas.

On the field, Webb has used the bowl performance as a springboard and has been even sharper this spring. During the Midland scrimmage, he tossed four touchdowns to four different receivers without an interception. Even with All-American Jace Amaro and Eric Ward moving on, the Red Raiders appear to be loaded at receiver again as well, with Jakeem Grant, Reginald Davis and Bradley Marquez, all of whom had touchdowns in the bowl game.

The defense should be improved, with the players having a year of experience now in coordinator Matt Wallerstedt’s 3-4 scheme.

And the schedule lines up nicely, with Oklahoma and Texas both coming to Lubbock, and defending Big 12 champ Baylor still on a neutral field in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re really ready to build off the Holiday Bowl,” Webb said. “We don’t want that to be the highlight, though.

“We want that to be the jump-start.”


Welcome to quarterback hunting season. If your team is looking to land an elite QB, this is the prime time to secure a commitment. Historically, quarterbacks are the first position group off the board.

Looking at the timing of the commitments of the top 20 quarterbacks from 2010 to 2014, the busiest months were April to July, when 59 percent of those quarterbacks made their commitment. Of the top 20 quarterbacks in the class of 2015, nine are already committed.

QB commitments
Teams looking to get a quarterback need to strike during the spring evaluation period.
"The time between April and July is a big evaluation period for college coaches," Auburn signee Sean White said. "Here in Florida we have spring football, so the coaches come watch you and that's when a lot of visits take place. That's a big recruiting period during that time for quarterbacks."

In the past five recruiting cycles, only three quarterbacks -- Asiantii Woulard, Treon Harris and Joshua Dobbs -- among the top 20 at the position committed in February after their senior season. That number is astonishing considering  that most top-level prospects wait to make a commitment.

The quarterback position is different, though, as 78 percent of the top 20 during this time period committed prior to their senior season -- and the spring evaluation period, which runs from April 15 to May 31, generally serves as the start of the busy four months.

The primary reason for the trend, according to several FBS assistant coaches, is that a program typically takes only one quarterback in each class. Prospects know that their scholarship could be snatched up by someone else if they don't act quickly.

"I might take four offensive linemen in one class, and if we get one lineman, there are still a few spots left," one assistant coach said. "A quarterback knows there is only one spot, so he knows his spot is in jeopardy."

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These days, college football recruiting is more about building a big lead and protecting it than mounting a late rally before the clock strikes zero on the first Wednesday in February.

Scholarship offers and commitments are occurring earlier than ever, well before either the question or the answer becomes official. Michigan's 2014 recruiting class, ranked 18th nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, included only one player who verbally committed after the 2013 season kicked off. Tennessee's massive class, ranked fifth nationally, had 14 mid-year enrollees.

NC State and Boston College each recorded 20 commits for the 2014 class before the end of last June. Penn State and West Virginia reached double digits in commits for the 2015 class before the end of March.

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsall
Tony Quinn/Icon SMIRandy Edsall has proposed an end to offers before a prospect's senior year.
Any coach focusing solely on the 2015 class right now is in trouble. If you're not working ahead -- to 2016, 2017 and perhaps beyond -- you're probably falling behind.

"Everything's sped up," NC State coach Dave Doeren said. "Kids make decisions faster and as coaches, all of us across the country are under the same gun, recruiting these players you want in your program. We can't really pick. They decide when they're going to commit."

There are pros and cons to early recruiting. By making their choices, prospects can alleviate stress and enjoy their final months of high school. Coaches can work ahead on future classes with a better idea of how their rosters will shape up.

But there are risks, too. The earlier scholarships are offered, the less information programs often have, not only about a prospect's physical development but his academics and maturity level. Some teams load up early and pay for it later.

Last week, Maryland coach Randy Edsall outlined a proposal to delay both written and verbal offers to recruits until Sept. 1 of their senior year in high school. Edsall's plan aims to broaden the evaluation process and reduce the number of decommitments and transfers.

"I've offered some freshmen," Edsall said. "I hate doing it, it's not right, but this is what we have to do. Coaches say all the time, 'I wish we had a chance to know these kids a little bit better.' You could do that if you followed something like this. It's not about getting on [prospects] earlier. That's where you make the mistakes. It's about slowing the process down, let the process play out the way we're supposed to."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones didn't enter the 2014 recruiting cycle determined to land a load of early commitments. But when several decorated in-state prospects pledged early -- ESPN 300 players Todd Kelly Jr. and Jalen Hurd both committed last March -- it set the course for the class.

Many of Tennessee's recruits took three or four unofficial visits to campus as high school underclassmen. Their official visits as seniors became mere formalities.

"A lot of times, the unofficial visit becomes more important than the official visit," Jones said. "Everything is about first impressions."

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video Malik McDowell has generated plenty of drama without playing a down for the Michigan State Spartans.

McDowell's recruitment gained national attention leading up to signing day, as a family conflict about his college destination played out in public view. Although the ESPN 300 defensive tackle prospect wanted to sign with Michigan State, his parents -- and particularly his mother, Joya Crowe -- opposed the decision. Crowe wanted her son at Florida State, Ohio State or Michigan.

Despite picking Michigan State during a signing day announcement at his high school and appearing to sign a national letter of intent, Malik had yet to send a letter to any school. Tuesday marked the deadline to do so, and all indications suggested it would pass without a signed letter.

But there was more drama. McDowell's signed letter arrived Tuesday night at Michigan State. According to his Twitter page, he barely made the deadline, faxing in the letter at 11:12 p.m.

While everyone around McDowell might not be thrilled about his destination, Michigan State was his choice all along. I spent signing day inside MSU's football office and captured the coaches' excitement when McDowell said he would become a Spartan. Tension built throughout the day as no letter arrived. McDowell actually sent in his signed Big Ten tender of financial aid -- a document that doesn't require a parent's signature -- late in the afternoon, but Michigan State still could not announce his signing.

Now, the process is over. Michigan State adds the nation's No. 5 defensive tackle prospect, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. The Spartans lose both defensive tackle starters from last year's team, and while they should get by with Damon Knox, Joel Heath and others, McDowell could be a factor depending on how he performs in fall camp.

Here's hoping the signing puts McDowell and his family at ease. The saga has been a massive distraction, and like any young player, McDowell will need his family's support when he arrives at Michigan State.

Drama followed McDowell to East Lansing. Michigan State hopes more of it -- the good kind -- is on the way.
I caught up earlier today with Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who has some very interesting thoughts on recruiting reform as well as how to better assist athletes during their playing careers.

[+] EnlargeRandy Edsall
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyRandy Edsall would like an overhaul of how scholarships are offered by programs.
Edsall's biggest initiative is to slow down the scholarship offer process. He wants to see no offers, written or verbal, extended to recruits before Sept. 1 of their senior year in high school. He also wants all offers of scholarships or financial aid to come from the institutions, not from football coaches. Written offers currently can't be sent out until Aug. 1 before a prospect's senior year, but there are no regulations on verbal offers.

The setup, in which Edsall admits he participates, but hates, has coaches extending verbal scholarship offers to prospects in eighth or ninth grade. They're doing so primarily because others already have. There are major questions about academic development, athletic development and where they fit in on rosters, questions that can't be answered when prospects are barely in high school or, in some cases, still in middle school.

"I have my iPad right here and this is crazy: I’ve got a board of 2015, 2016 and 2017, guys that we’ve offered in 2017," Edsall said. "I don't even know what my own roster will be like in 2017. The day and age of developing players is going by the wayside. Because now a kid comes in and if he isn't what somebody thinks they are in a year or two, 'You've got to transfer. Time for you to get out of here.'

"The number of decommitments, the number of transfers we have, that have skyrocketed in the last five to eight years. We have an issue, so let’s sit down and take care of the issue."

Edsall recently discussed his ideas with NCAA president Mark Emmert, specifically the need to have full-time national oversight devoted to football issues like this one.

"You can't let the institutions try to decide this," he said. "You've got to have people talking about these issues and make sure you get out ahead of these things. What's happened is you didn’t have anybody and that's why we're where we're at today."

Edsall also weighed in on the athlete experience, in light of the Northwestern unionization ruling earlier this week.

"Look what’s happening with Northwestern," Edsall said. "The kid [former quarterback Kain Colter] said they wanted to bring me here for athletic reasons, not academic reasons. Well, yeah, there's validity to that when we’re out here offering kids when they’re eighth, ninth and 10th graders. It's based on their athletic ability. It's not based on who they are as students because you don't have enough information."

The basic parameters of an athletic scholarship haven't changed since Edsall played quarterback at Syracuse in 1976. But back then, seasons were 10 games and players went home in the summer.

"It's still room, board, books, tuition and fees," he said "We've increased the games, we've increased their time commitment, all those things, but we have not done anything for the student-athlete. I can see how they ruled in the student-athlete's favor to unionize."

Edsall would like to see money going toward player personnel departments, of which more college teams are establishing, instead go toward increasing the value of athletic scholarships.

"You have a pro model at the college level," he said. "Eliminate that stuff and put the money back into your student-athletes you have on campus. Make the scholarship cost of attendance with all the extra things that have been added to their plate."

Edsall makes a lot sense here. What do you think? Let me know.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles’ official title is head football coach at LSU, but he might as well add "fortune teller" to the list of roles he fills in his job.

On some level, every big-time college football coaching staff deals with the dilemma that Miles currently faces, but a spate of NFL early entries in recent seasons has made predicting the future an even more vital element in LSU’s success. Specifically, Miles and his staff must lead an incomplete 2014 squad through 15 spring practices while also attempting to project whether players who aren’t yet on campus will be ready to play key roles this fall.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre
ESPNMalachi Dupre won't be on campus until this summer, but he's one of several LSU freshmen who could vie for playing time immediately.
“We absolutely have to,” Miles said after last Saturday’s scrimmage. “I think we’re trying make a determination as we design the summer plans that, 'This is where this guy’s going to be, this is where this guy’s going to be’ and how to operate it.

“I think the skill players on offense are going to be musts and I think the skill players on defense, with the safeties stepping in there and being able to play -- I just think the recruiting class will hit us just where we need to be hit.”

At some positions, LSU’s needs are great. At others, it’s simply that the caliber of athlete is high enough that Miles’ staff knows to include him in its 2014 plans. In some cases, both scenarios are in play.

Take receiver and running back, for example.

When 2014 signees Malachi Dupre -- the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect -- and tailback Darrel Williams showed up to observe the Tigers’ first spring practice, Miles joked afterward that he wished the two players could have participated in the team’s workout.

The Tigers are short on proven performers at receiver -- and thanks to several recent injuries at the position, they’ve been short on warm bodies to even run through drills -- and have only two scholarship tailbacks available this spring.

Those depth shortages are a direct result of several NFL draft early entries in the last couple of seasons. LSU lost two tailbacks to the draft after the 2012 season and two more this year when Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both turned pro. It's a similar story at wideout, where the only two accomplished players on the roster, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, opted to skip their senior seasons.

Miles’ staff addressed those issues in phenomenal fashion on signing day, adding Williams and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, at tailback, plus arguably the top collection of receivers that any program signed in 2014 -- a group that also includes No. 3 wideout Trey Quinn and two more ESPN 300 recruits in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.

The problem is that no member of that group is on campus yet, forcing LSU’s coaches to both evaluate what they have at present and how the signees’ summer arrival will affect the group dynamic.

“I just think that some of those guys are going to get first-[team] snaps,” Miles said of the receiver signees. “They’re going to be advantages for us and we’ve got to use them well.”

As Miles mentioned, a high-quality group of safety signees could dent the depth chart in similar fashion. The Tigers have a few returning veterans and have moved Jalen Mills over from cornerback to shore up their needs at safety, but signees such as No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 prospect Devin Voorhies and John Battle could shake up the competition in August.

It’s not that those players’ absences have made this spring useless for LSU. But Miles and his staff must function this spring with the knowledge that they’re coaching an incomplete roster.

That’s not much different from Alabama or Texas A&M or Auburn, which also lost players to the draft and have key signees who haven't arrived, but the situation is more extreme in Baton Rouge. If Miles balances the magician part of his job correctly, perhaps he can pull a rabbit out of his famous hat by the end of August, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin in Houston.

“Here’s what you get out of 15 practices in the spring of the year: You practice the team that you have with you and you advance them and get them taught and get them improved. You teach technique and whatever you can get to, you get to with that team,” Miles said recently.

“Before the next team, that next part of your team, shows up, you anticipate where your direction goes. You anticipate that, ‘That guy goes here and that guy goes here’ and you fit it. Then in the first game, you hope that you prepared them well enough to win and play well in the first game. If you win and play well in the first game, you’re all on track.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban has hosted enough quarterback competitions to know how this oncoming saga will play out. From now until the moment he names a starter under center, the entire state of Alabama will be in a panic over who will become AJ McCarron's successor. The rest of the country will be watching, too.

Is Cooper Bateman really ready to take a step forward after redshirting last season? What about Parker McLeod and Alec Morris? Would Saban dare gamble on the run-oriented Blake Sims? Is it possible that true freshman David Cornwell could get a look? My goodness, what about Jacob Coker?! Isn’t the job really his anyways?!

As Saban sat down with a group of reporters on Wednesday to discuss the start of spring practice and a number of other issues facing his Crimson Tide, he seemed resigned to the oncoming quarterback drama. Asked what he was looking for in the next starter, he listed a number of qualities: the ability to process information quickly, to make good decisions, to throw the ball accurately, to manage the game and make the correct calls.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesIf you think Nick Saban is just going to open up daily about the QB competition, think again.
“Whoever can do that on the most consistent basis and have the kind of leadership to affect the people on offense around them is the guy that will probably have the best possibility to win the job,” Saban explained.

And then came the disclaimer.

“But let me be very clear about this,” he said. “We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is.”

That’s right, folks. Saban and his staff plan on taking their time with this decision. So hold your questions, please. Whatever opinions you have on who should start and why, keep them to yourselves until this is over.

“We're not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is,” Saban said. “We're going to give everybody a lot of opportunity to compete. You guys are going to ask me at least 1,000 times between now and the first game who's the first-team quarterback, and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a 1,000 ‘We're going to wait and see.’”

Saban’s been through this before. If you count John Parker Wilson, he’s been a part of naming three starting quarterbacks at Alabama. He did the same at LSU and Michigan State plenty of times before that. And each and every time he’s been content to employ the wait-and-see approach.

When the temperature rises and the competition heats up in the coming months, Tide fans will do well to remember that Saban didn't rush naming McCarron the starter in 2011, and that worked out to the tune of two national championships and a slew of new school passing records.

“When AJ became quarterback him and Phillip Sims actually alternated quarters in the first two games, I think, to see who played the best,” Saban said, drilling the point home now. “And it really was hard on all you guys.

“I think it's important to get it right. ... And we have one candidate in this horse race who's not even going to be here until May, till he graduates where he is now. He's certainly a guy that's going to compete for the position too.”

Ah, Jacob Coker.

Whatever we think we're able to learn this spring will come with the caveat that the primary competition hasn’t even arrived yet. Coker, who will make his transfer from Florida State complete in May if he passes all his remaining classes, is the presumed frontrunner to win the job. He’s not bowing to the pressure that comes with that, but it won’t change the perception around camp this fall that he's the man to beat.

Saban would cringe at such assumptions. But his desire for less talk and more patience will do nothing to change what's sure to develop into a circus-type atmosphere as we inch closer to the start of the season. Between Coker's hype, the other quarterbacks competing and the arrival of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, all eyes will be squarely on who's under center in Alabama. Every day a starter isn't named will be a day someone somewhere will talk about who it should be rather than who it actually is.

Just don't look for the competition itself to play itself out publicly. Scrimmages at Alabama are closed to the general public and media. Reporters only see the first few minutes of practice each day, and it's never enough to glean any real information. Getting insight from coaches and players will be next to impossible. None of the quarterbacks are likely to be made available to reporters while the competition is ongoing, and teammates who do speak won't stray from the company line. If you're looking for Kiffin to talk, he'll have his one and only media obligation of the year in early August, and even then he's never been one to show his cards. Which leaves Saban, who won't deviate from his steadfast policy to divulge nothing and speculate on even less.

So trade predictions at the water cooler, shout at the talking heads on television and scream at talk radio all you want. Whatever you do, though, have a little patience. Because whatever soap opera you were hoping for just isn't going to happen. This is The Nick Saban Show and it has very little in the way of drama.

3-point stance: No uptempo evidence

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
1. The NCAA Football Rules Committee proposed a rule to cut defenses some slack against uptempo offenses. They are doing so under the guise of player safety, which is the argument that Nick Saban and others have been making all along. But if there is data illustrating a rise in injuries among defensive players because of uptempo offenses, I haven’t seen it. And anecdotally, it doesn’t ring true. Stanford plays several no-huddle teams every season, and the Cardinal have as low an injury rate as any FBS team.

2. The other rule proposal is a victory for common sense. The committee proposed that if a targeting violation is overturned by the automatic video review, then the 15-yard penalty that goes with it is overturned as well. There is some logic in the current rule – the hit may be a personal foul, just not targeting – but there was no accommodation made for plays where video absolved the tackler. The penalty still stood. There turned out to be no logic in that. I don’t foresee that proposal getting shot down.

3. January enrollees are seen as getting the jump on other recruits because they get in on winter conditioning and spring practice. But January enrollees don’t get to bond with other newbies the way that freshmen arriving in June do. They don’t get to ease their toe into the academic water by taking one or two summer classes. It takes a uniquely mature young man to handle the change, which might be another reason why the percentage of players who arrive in January remains small.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban had plenty to be proud about with the signing class he assembled last Wednesday. It was talented, deep and met every need the Crimson Tide had heading into the 2014 season. It was, according to ESPN and every other major recruiting outlet, the No. 1 class in the country by a wide margin.

[+] EnlargeDa'Shawn Hand
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIDE Da'Shawn Hand could make an immediate impact for Alabama in 2014.
But for Alabama, top recruiting classes are nothing new. It was the third consecutive year the Tide finished No. 1 in ESPN’s class rankings. In fact, no class assembled by Saban with the benefit of a full calendar year to recruit (since 2008) has finished lower than No. 3 overall.

There was something special about this class, apart from the record five five-star athletes and 19 ESPN 300 signees. This class of offensive linemen might be the most decorated in the program’s history. It is, at the very least, the best Saban has ever put together since arriving in Tuscaloosa.

According to Saban, solidifying the trenches was the goal.

“I think that was a point of emphasis early on when we started this, is that we needed to get quality people up front on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters at his annual signing day news conference. “We got six offensive linemen, and I think six defensive linemen. Even though three of those guys are junior college guys, we felt that it was important that we get some guys that had a little more maturity about them, a little more veteran experience.”

The defensive linemen could turn out to be just as special. Da’Shawn Hand, a dynamic athlete out of Virginia, was the second-best defensive end in the country, according to ESPN. Jarran Reed, a former Florida commitment, could make an instant impact after transferring from junior college, as could former freshman All-SEC choice D.J. Pettway. Johnny Dwight and Joshua Frazier could develop into solid contributors as well.

But make no mistake, the most impressive group of the class was the O-line, led by No. 1-rated offensive tackle Cameron Robinson of Monroe, La. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound athlete brings back visions of Cyrus Kouandjio, who was the No. 1 offensive tackle recruit when he came to Alabama only a few years ago. With a similar build and similar attributes to Robinson, Kouandjio started eight games as a true freshman before a knee injury caused him to miss the rest of the season.

Robinson isn’t the only impressive tackle, though. Dominick Jackson, the No. 1 junior college offensive tackle in the country, is ready to make a good first impression. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, no one is going to miss the towering product from College of San Mateo in California.

[+] EnlargeCameron Robinson
Miller Safrit/ESPNCameron Robinson, the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle, leads an impressive group of offensive line recruits for Alabama.
Josh Casher and J.C. Hassenauer offer a similar two-deep at the center position. Casher, from nearby Mobile, Ala., and Hassenauer, of Minnesota, were ranked the No. 1 and No. 2 centers in the ESPN 300, respectively.

Throw in Montel McBride, the No. 28-ranked offensive guard in the country, and Ross Pierschbacher, the No. 3 offensive guard in 2014, and you’ve got an offensive line class with both quality and depth.

In fact, both areas are unmatched in Saban’s tenure with Alabama. The six prospects averaged a scout’s grade of 84.17. Compare that to the previous high of 81.67 in 2011 when Kouandjio and three other offensive linemen signed with Alabama. Four O-line classes (2007-10, 12) had an average scout’s grade of 80 or lower.

At this point it’s important to remember that rankings aren’t everything. As coaches were quick to point out throughout the last week, whatever stars a recruit “earned” in high school vanish upon enrollment. It’s no longer about who you are as much as what you can do.

Case in point: Alabama’s offensive line, circa 2012. That line, featuring All-Americans Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, was hailed as the best in the country and arguably the best in the history of the program, clearing ground for an offense that took to Tide to the BCS National Championship.

But if you judged that line based on each player’s recruiting rankings, it would have been considered middle-of-the-road at best. Jones was a C+ tackle prospect out of Tennessee (scout’s grade: 78) and Warmack was thought of in much the same way (scout’s grade: 79). Right guard Anthony Steen was a three-star prospect who wound up starting three years at Alabama. Big D.J. Fluker (6-7, 325 pounds) was the most highly regarded recruit of the bunch, the No. 1 tackle prospect in the 2009 class and the No. 12 player overall, according to ESPN.

Saban, for his part, wouldn’t be sad to see recruiting rankings fall off a steep cliff. We can talk about how great Alabama’s O-line class is today, but he’d like to see it judged three years from now when players have developed and have an opportunity to move on to the NFL.

“The challenge for all these young men [who] got recruited [on Wednesday], wherever they're going, is to be able to stay focused on what they need to do to improve as players and do the things that they need to do to become very effective college football players,” Saban said. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all, maybe even more so going from college to the NFL, I think is having the maturity to be able to stay focused on the things they need to do to develop as players and keep a positive attitude toward the goal they have, understand what it takes to accomplish the goals they have and then have the discipline they have to execute it every day.”
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson’s first recruiting class was put together in a matter of weeks -- a timetable cut unenviably short, much like the task of Penn State coach James Franklin.

Their approaches, though, were vastly different.

When Clawson left Bowling Green, he also left his recruiting class. Franklin, however, continued to pursue some of the recruits he had committed to Vanderbilt, and was praised for flipping five pledges from his former school. For some of those teenagers, the relationship with the head coach overrides the actual school. They commit to the coach, not the program.

[+] EnlargeDave Clawson
Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesWake Forest coach Dave Clawson didn't believe it was right to try to recruit players who were committed to Bowling Green, his former school.
"It's not about the buildings; it's about the people inside the buildings," Franklin told Big Ten reporter Adam Rittenberg. "That comes down to relationships and trust and all those things. We've had guys we've been recruiting across the country for two years, and we were going to stick with those guys. The same thing with the recruits and families. They were comfortable with us and who we are as men and how we conduct ourselves. It also helped that we went from one school to another that has similar philosophies when it comes to academics."

Clawson, who was hired in December, used the recruiting dead period to hire his staff and called it a “three-week sprint” to start from scratch on the recruiting trail. He didn't consider Bowling Green’s targets much of an option, for several reasons.

“I didn’t think it was right to do that,” Clawson said. “We didn’t want to recruit anybody who had committed to us at our previous school. There were a handful of guys we had recruited there that had not committed there, and part of the reason they didn’t commit there is they were probably above us. Some of those players were able to get on [at Wake Forest], and I think those were some of our better commits.”

Ironically, so was a former Vanderbilt pledge.

Once Franklin left Vandy, that opened the door for Wake Forest to recruit some of those pledges, too. The Deacs’ top recruit, receiver Kameron Uter, was once a Vanderbilt commit. Head coaching changes open the door for last-minute decisions and late pushes by rival coaches. Clawson said the Wake staff was careful, though, to respect solid commitments.

“What we did, quite honestly, was, if that relationship was intact -- probably not too many kids were going to switch if they had committed to a place that had the same head coach, same coordinator, same recruiting coach, all those relationships,” he said. “If there were instances that that relationship had changed because of a head coaching change, we certainly approached those players and asked if they were still committed. If they told us no, that became our opportunity to get guys we felt were ACC-level players that we weren’t now at a relationship disadvantage.”

Clawson and his staff did the best they could under the circumstances -- just as Franklin did at Penn State. They just had a different philosophy in how to get it done.

EAST LANSING, Mich. and KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Hope springs eternal on national signing day, and that's whether you're coming off your best season in more than 40 years or your fourth straight losing season.

At Michigan State, the Spartans are fresh off a 13-1 season and Rose Bowl victory over Stanford and riding a wave of momentum under Mark Dantonio.

At Tennessee, the Vols are trying to get back to national relevance under Butch Jones after just missing a bowl game in his first season in Knoxville.

Adam Rittenberg spent signing day with the Michigan State staff and had behind-the-scenes access, while Chris Low did the same with the Tennessee staff.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban began his signing day news conference with something of a joke, telling the assembled media how much he’d missed them since January when his Alabama Crimson Tide lost to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Everyone in the room snickered at his sarcasm, but for Alabama fans throughout the country, there wasn’t much comedy to be found in a reminder of that game. The loss at Auburn to end the regular season hurt enough, but that was nothing compared to what occurred in New Orleans when Alabama was dominated by Oklahoma in a game that exposed many of the Tide’s deficiencies.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban and the Crimson Tide
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Saban has tweaked what he's looking for defensively, and he believes his 2014 class is a big step in the right direction.
On Wednesday, Saban seemed to have moved on from the loss, though. He was too busy enjoying the top-ranked recruiting class he’d just assembled, one that has all the potential to be looked back on as the best in school history. It has five five-star prospects and a total of 19 ESPN 300 recruits. A few hours earlier he and his staff stole Rashaan Evans, the No. 2 outside linebacker in the country, out of Auburn’s backyard. It was a win that won’t count on the scoreboard of the next Iron Bowl, but it was a moral victory Alabama desperately needed.

If there were any Alabama fans still wallowing in the way last season ended against Auburn and Oklahoma, they should have joined Saban and put on a smile. Why? Because Saban didn’t simply add some of the best talent in the country this week, he also answered each and every need Alabama had on its roster, most notably the need for more athletic defenders to help stop the letdown it experienced in the final two games of the season against offenses that employed some form of the spread or hurry-up, no-huddle offense.

Saban has said on multiple occasions recently how important it is for Alabama to adapt to the changing landscape of college football. His system has long relied on big, heavy bodies on the defensive line to clog running lanes and free up linebackers to play in space. And for a while, no one had an answer for it as his defenses at LSU and Alabama routinely dominated the point of attack. But as more and more mobile quarterbacks have begun moving the pocket and more and more hurry-up offenses have sped up the game, the size Saban so covets has been nullified. Three-hundred pound defensive linemen are too slow to catch quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall, and they’re too slow to catch someone like Trevor Knight when he’s getting rid of the ball in the blink of an eye.

The litany of personnel packages Saban was known for using have become outdated as well. It’s not that they’re no longer effective, they’re simply no longer applicable. With so many teams going without a huddle on offense, there’s no time to substitute players. So, in turn, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have had to simplify the defense and find players who can play multiple roles. That means no more lumbering defensive ends and no more linebackers who don’t have the speed to cover a slot receiver. Athleticism and versatility is now the name of the game.

“One of the goals we had was to get a little more fast-twitch, quicker body type guys to play on the edges for us,” Saban said. “We're playing against a lot more spread. I feel between the outside backer types we got as well as some of the more athletic kind of defensive ends we got that maybe we satisfied that need as well.”

“We’re excited about Rashaan,” Saban added later in the news conference, “who not only is a fantastic athlete and exactly what we're looking for in terms of the more athletic, fast-twitch edge player who can rush, but also has great character, is a really good person.”

Alabama met a lot of its needs on Wednesday: two five-star corners in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, a slew of offensive linemen that included standouts Cameron Robinson and Dominick Jackson, a quarterback in four-star David Cornwell. But no need was more obviously met than pass rushers. Evans and Christian Miller are the top two outside linebackers in the country, and both have the speed to chase down the quarterback or drop back in coverage. D.J. Pettway is a veteran defensive end with the ability to play the run and the pass, and five-star Da'Shawn Hand is one of the nation’s premiere edge rushers as well.

How each player develops remains to be seen. But as we saw last season, it’s not that farfetched to imagine some of this year’s 27-man signing class playing in the coming season. True freshmen A'Shawn Robinson was among the most impressive newcomers in the SEC in 2013 with a team-high 5.5 sacks, and fellow defensive lineman Jonathan Allen was a consistent contributor as well, appearing in 12 games. Both could vie for starting jobs as sophomores now that Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson are gone, loosening up the logjam on the second and third string for newcomers such as Hand and Pettway.

The hope for Saban and Alabama is that with more athleticism on the field at every level, outcomes like last season won’t happen again. Instead of getting one hand on players like Manziel and Marshall, maybe they’ll get two hands and a tackle.

Saban’s change in philosophy has been steady. The question is how quickly it catches on.

Commitment that works both ways

February, 7, 2014
Feb 7

Kevin Shorter donned a burnt orange Texas hat and black T-shirt, gathered his big family in the Newton High School library and enjoyed a day he'll never forget.

For Cedric Collins, it was a stylish look as always. A large, checkered bow tie and white dress shirt topped with a navy collar sweater and a white Texas A&M ball cap. Anyone who's spent time with the cornerback from Dallas' Skyline High School will tell you he dresses to the nines, as he did to celebrate signing day.

The two high school seniors are going different places, yet what they've signed up for appears all too similar.

The letters of intent that Shorter and Collins signed and faxed on Wednesday typically signify a binding promise for a future. For these two recruits, there can be no guarantee.

They've never met, but they now have plenty in common. Shorter and Collins, once coveted and touted recruits, have both been told that due to spinal cord conditions, they'll never play football again.

This is the story of how the game they love was taken away from them, though the better tale might be what comes next.

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