NCF On The Trail: Mississippi State Bulldogs

NEW ORLEANS -- Many said the absolutely loaded 2014 recruiting class in Louisiana would never be matched. Somebody forgot to tell that to the players in 2016 class. The Bayou State is again stacked, and many of those national recruits will be on display at Saturday’s Nike Opening regional at Joe Brown Park. More than 20 players ranked in the ESPN Junior 300 will be in attendance, including nine of the top 20 players in Louisiana.
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BUFORD, Ga. - Despite the cold and rainy weather conditions, more than 400 prospects from all over the Southeast made the trip to Buford High School for the Nike The Opening Regional Camp on Sunday.
[+] EnlargeMalik Henry
Miller Safrit/ESPNFlorida State quarterback pledge Malik Henry was among the prospects earning invitations to The Opening.
With less than ideal conditions for throwing the ball, several quarterbacks and wide receivers -- including Malik Henry, David Moore, Josh Imatorbhebehe, Freddie Swain, Tre Nixon and several other players -- had standout performances at the camp. Swain, the No. 214 prospect in the ESPN Junior 300, was one of the most impressive receivers and took home the wide receiver MVP as well as an invitation to The Opening. The 6-foot, 170-pound athlete from Citra (Florida) North Marion High School took advantage of his trip to Atlanta by visiting the University of Georgia on Saturday before attending the Nike camp. The visit turned out to be a success for the talented receiver. “I just got offered by Georgia yesterday on my visit,” Swain said. "It was a lot of fun and I got to meet with coach Richt. He just said to keep working hard and he’ll see me in the spring.”

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Despite being overcast and rainy, the Orlando Nike regional camp had an incredible turnout of some of the top prospects in the ESPN Junior 300.

The impressive list of prospects in attendance was led by the 30th-ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300, No. 30 Isaac Nauta, No. 32 Feliepe Franks, No. 42 Demetris Robertson, No. 66 Rahshaun Smith and No. 92 Shaq Quarterman. The 10th-ranked player in the country, Nate Craig-Myers, was also in attendance but did not participate due to an injury.

While Saturday’s camp in Miami showcased many defensive top defensive back prospects, the offensive line was dominant on Sunday in Orlando.

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SEC 2015 recruiting in review 

February, 13, 2015
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It was another incredible year of recruiting in the SEC. More than one-third (117 prospects) of the ESPN 300 signed with SEC schools. The conference also signed 12 of the 20 five-star prospects, and 218 four-star prospects. All but two of the 14 SEC schools finished in the top 40 of the final ESPN class rankings. Here is a closer look at the 2015 recruiting cycle in review.


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The days of waiting for youngsters to make impact in college football are over. If you're a top freshman prospect, you're expected to come in and contribute.

So much for slacking on your training before prom.

But more and more, freshmen are proving to be up for the task of immediate playing time and immediate pressure. Coaches aren't afraid to throw these guys into the fire, and it's working out all around the country.

So who are some freshmen to keep an eye on in the SEC from the 2015 class?

Edward Aschoff: DT Trenton Thompson, Georgia
What the Bulldogs needed in this class were hefty, intimidating, athletic defensive linemen. Georgia got all of that in Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 311-pound behemoth who could see immediate playing time for a Bulldogs team in need of help at the defensive tackle spot. With only five scholarship defensive linemen returning, Thompson will have every opportunity to compete for a starting spot. The five-star was the No. 2-rated defensive tackle nationally, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and was named the 2014 Maxwell Football Club’s National High School Player of the Year. Georgia needs a quality plug in the middle who can stop the run and harass quarterbacks. Thompson has everything needed to be that in 2015.

David Ching: DE Arden Key, LSU
I touched on this subject from an LSU perspective earlier this week. The first player I listed in that post was Key, ESPN’s No. 24 overall prospect and No. 6 defensive end, because he can help address an immediate need. LSU must replace starting defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. There is some talent returning – Tashawn Bower seems to be a leading candidate to take over one of the starting spots – but nobody has proven himself as a college player yet. LSU struggled to generate sacks last season, finishing 102nd nationally with just 19. Les Miles and his assistants believe Key can help address that issue right away.

Sam Khan Jr.: S Deionte Thompson, Alabama
The ESPN 300 prospect has good size (6-2, 180) and speed and the advantage of being an early enrollee. Thompson, the nation's No. 3 safety and the No. 65 player overall in the ESPN 300, is a versatile athlete (he was a talented high school track and field athlete) and given the departures at safety for Alabama (two graduated plus Landon Collins declared for the draft) there will be spots available. Don't be shocked if Thompson works his way into one of them and plays well.

Greg Ostendorf: S Jamal Peters, Mississippi State
Peters, ranked No. 40 in the ESPN 300, is the highest-ranked player to sign at Mississippi State since Dan Mullen took over, slightly surpassing current defensive lineman Chris Jones (No. 46). Last week, Mullen was already raving about his new toy at his signing day news conference. With Jay Hughes graduating, there’s an opening at the strong safety spot that’s perfect for Peters to come in and play right away. It’s not an easy position to play early, but Peters has the size and athletic ability to do it. The rest he can learn along the way.

Alex Scarborough: RB Damien Harris, Alabama
I'm tempted to go with Kyler Murray here because I believe he could win the job outright, but the QB position is just too hard to predict. So instead I'll turn to a position that does lend itself to making an impact early: running back. I'm going way down the list of the top players in the country to No. 36 Harris. The nation's No. 2 running back has a chance to make a significant impact from Day 1 with Alabama. T.J. Yeldon and Jalston Fowler off to the NFL, remember, and Kenyan Drake is coming off an injury, Altee Tenpenny has transferred out and Tyren Jones has a history of ending up in the doghouse. If Harris, a well-rounded back, can grasp the offense, he could be a dangerous change of pace to the bruising Derrick Henry.

Derek Tyson: DE Byron Cowart, Auburn
The Auburn defense was tied for 92nd in the FBS in sacks by getting to the quarterback only 21 times last season. That was a point of emphasis for new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, and no player was bigger than the No. 1 defensive end and No. 1 player overall, Cowart. The five-star prospect was absolutely dominant during the Under Armour All-America game week of practice. At 6-3, 258 pounds, he is already big and athletic enough to see the field early on in his career at Auburn.
For years, Dan Mullen had to convince recruits.

Have faith, he said to them on their visits and during meetings at their high schools. Never mind that Mississippi State had never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West since he took over the program in 2009. He wanted prospects to believe that as a Bulldog they could compete for national championships.

But faith and evidence are two different things. The proof had to be in the pudding -- in the win-loss record and the polls, as it were.

During one staff meeting before State’s showdown against No. 2 Auburn in mid-October, Mullen went over the week’s recruiting plans. But at one point he had to acknowledge the obvious: a win would make everything easier.

And it did, because that 38-23 victory said Mississippi State was for real. It propelled the Bulldogs to No. 1 in the country where they’d stay for five long weeks.

[+] EnlargeLeo Lewis
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesMississippi State signed five of the state's top six prospects, including the No. 2 inside linebacker in the country, Leo Lewis.
Atop the polls, faith was no longer required. Mullen and his staff no longer had to tell (or sell) anyone anything.

“A lot of these young men and their families see what we do,” Mullen told reporters on Wednesday afternoon in Starkville. “The proof -- we don’t have to show them. Before we had to talk about it a lot.”

As he would later put it, “It’s been proven that you can be No. 1 at Mississippi State.”

So it’s no small coincidence that signing day yielded what on paper is the best recruiting class in school history. With seven ESPN 300 signees and 11 four-stars overall, Mississippi State finished 16th in the ESPN RecruitingNation class rankings, a full 20 spots higher than the year before.

As far as the best-ever debate, Mullen said, “We’ll wait a couple of years to see if that’s true or not.” But for now he’d be forced to acknowledge that it’s at least the most star-studded with No. 2 safety Jamal Peters and No. 2 inside linebacker Leo Lewis.

Landing Lewis, in particular, was a major coup for Mississippi State. After watching in-state rival Ole Miss gain headlines in recent years for signing a number of top recruits, the Bulldogs got one of their own, and stole him away from the Rebs in the process.

“Obviously he’s got great size, he’s got great athleticism, he’s got great instincts, he’s an explosive football player; he’s got all of those,” Mullen said of the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker. “But the thing that is most exciting about him is he’s got an excellent work ethic with that.”

He later added: “His ceiling is going to be much, much higher than where he is right now today. I expect him to have a tremendous career with us.”

Like Lewis, Peters is expected to come in and contribute right away.

“Timing in life can be a lot of great things,” Mullen explained. “The opportunity is obviously for him being a special talent back there in the secondary, but also a huge need for us at that position with guys graduating and Kendrick Market coming off a severe injury. If he showed up on campus today without stepping on the field he might be in the two-deep rotation right now because of numbers, never mind talent or anything else.”

Peters might even play some offense.

“He’s pretty electric when he touches the football,” a giddy Mullen said.

But, to be clear, the signing of top talents like Lewis and Peters doesn’t necessarily signal a change in Mississippi State’s recruiting philosophy.

Mullen may be able to land more highly sought after players now that State has shown it can compete in the SEC, but he still wants to find those diamonds in the rough the program has become known for -- under-the-radar prospects like Johnthan Banks, Benardrick McKinney and Dak Prescott.

“You look at guys that maybe four years ago on this day ... guys like Preston Smith or Benardrick McKinney where a lot of people were like, ‘Who is that?’ on the national stage, and now they’re potential first-round draft picks,” Mullen said.

As much as the winning and the success in the polls, high school prospects have noticed that too.

So don’t expect the Bulldogs’ momentum on the recruiting trail to slow down anytime soon. With three ESPN Junior 300 players already committed for 2016, Mississippi State is suddenly selling itself.

2016 recruits to watch in the SEC 

February, 6, 2015
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With national signing day 2015 complete, attention will now turn to the Class of 2016. There are 33 prospects in the ESPN Junior 300 already committed to SEC schools. Here's a closer look at five players who could be grabbing headlines a year from now.


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Completed class: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Mississippi State has announced its 2015 class:

ESPN 300
Jamal Peters, S -- Bassfield High School, Mississippi
Leo Lewis, ILB -- Brookhaven High School, Mississippi
Malik Dear, ATH -- Murrah High School, Mississippi
Fletcher Adams, DT -- Brandon High School, Mississippi
T.D. Moton, DT -- Woodlawn High School, Louisiana
Darryl Williams, OG -- Bessemer City High School, Alabama
Timothy Washington, OLB -- Yazoo City High School, Mississippi

ESPN JC 50
Donald Gray, WR -- Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Tennessee
Martinas Rankin, OT -- Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Mississippi
Traver Jung, OLB -- Holmes Community College, Mississippi
Johnathan Calvin, DE -- Copiah-Lincoln Community College, Mississippi

Four-star
Nick Gibson, RB -- Pinson Valley High School, Alabama

Three-stars
Alec Murphy, RB -- Nixa High School, Missouri
Kendell Jones, DE -- Clay-Chalkville High School, Alabama
Deddrick Thomas, ATH -- Memphis Central High School, Tennessee
Dontea Jones, WR -- Louisville High School, Mississippi
Keith Joseph, DE -- Pascagoula High School, Mississippi
Harrison Moon, ATH -- Signal Mountain High School, Tennessee
Maurice Smitherman, CB -- Minor High School, Alabama
Jonnas Spivey, ATH -- Bay Springs High School, Mississippi
Justin Johnson, WR -- Hoover High School, Alabama
Nick Tiano, QB-DT -- Baylor School, Tennessee
Chris Stamps, CB -- Warren Central High School, Mississippi
Farrod Green, WR -- Wesson Attendance Center, Mississippi
Mark McLaurin, ATH -- Collins High School, Mississippi
Keith Mixon, RB -- Shades Valley High School, Alabama
Anfernee Mullins, DE -- Aliceville High School, Alabama
Michael Story, OG -- Ripley High School, Mississippi

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

February, 3, 2015
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With national signing day only one day away, it is officially crunch time in recruiting. While some schools hosted several underclassmen for their junior day events, other schools hosted several official visitors in hopes of getting last-minute additions to their 2015 classes. Here is a closer look at some of the top news from around the SEC this weekend.


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Best of the visits: SEC

February, 1, 2015
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It is down to the final weekend before national signing day, and there were some very important visitors over the weekend. Some were official visits, some were unofficial, and some were from top juniors around the country. Recruits from all over the SEC shared there thoughts on social media through tweets or Instagram photos. Here’s a look at the best social media posts from the weekend.

Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson posted an Instagram video of Mike the Tiger while on his official visit to LSU this weekend. Jefferson is set to make his decision on Wednesday and it's down to LSU, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and FSU.

 

Arizona State athlete commit Jaason Lewis posed for a photo while on his official visit to Ole Miss this weekend.

 

Four-star offensive guard Quarvez Boulware posted three photos while on his Florida visit this weekend. One of the photos included all of the official visitors Florida brought in over the weekend.

 

Mississippi State safety commit Jamal Peters posed for a photo with one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC this past season, Dak Prescott. There were rumors Peters might visit LSU this weekend, which had Mississippi State fans worried. But the No 2-ranked safety visited the team he has been committed to for a while, and it appears he will stick with his pledge on signing day.

 

ESPN 300 offensive tackle and Ole Miss commit Drew Richmond posted this photo when he arrived for his scheduled official visit to Tennessee this weekend. The Rebels are obviously hoping to hold on to the four-star prospect commitment, while the Vols are doing everything they can to flip the talented lineman.

 

Two ESPN Junior 300 prospects Derrick Brown and Kaden Smith posed for a photo during Alabama’s big junior day on Saturday.

 

Florida had commitment visits on Saturday from three-star offensive linemen Richerd Desir-Jones and Fredrick Johnson.

 

Recent Iowa State defensive tackle commit Josh Coleman took an official visit to Missouri this weekend.

 

ESPN Junior 300 running back C.J. Freeman and 2016 wide receiver Tyrek Tisdale pose for a photo while on an unofficial visit to South Carolina for the Gamecocks junior day.

 
HOOVER, Ala. – It started with a dream, the dream to play Division I football. Next Wednesday, four high school teammates will become one step closer to turning that goal into a reality when they sign with their respective schools.

The only catch? The quartet from Hoover High School will be choosing four different colleges.

“It was kind of a dream that we’d play together,” ESPN 300 linebacker Darrell Williams said. “I still think that would be cool if we could all four go to the same school, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go where’s best for you.”

In four years at Hoover, they won three state championships and finished with a record of 42-3. But now Williams (Auburn), Christian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin) and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) are on to the next chapter, and each is paving his own way.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Williams
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNDarrell Williams grew up an Alabama fan, but Auburn turned out to be a better fit for him.
The pretty boy

Off the field, that’s what teammates call Williams -- he’s always fixing his hair, he’s the last to leave the locker room after the game, you get the idea -- but on the field, it’s a different story. He still likes to look good, but he likes to look good making plays.

At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds, Williams has a rare combination of size and speed, and the scary part is he’s not done filling out his frame.

“He can cover a lot of grass,” Hoover coach Josh Niblett said. “He’s a great blitzer, but he’s a great dropper. He can play inside or outside. But he brings something to the table with length and athleticism that you don’t normally see out of a lot of kids.”

Williams grew up an Alabama fan. He always wanted to play for the Crimson Tide. But when it came time to make his college decision, Alabama wasn’t ready to accept his commitment. The coaches wanted to see him in camp first. That didn’t sit well with Williams, especially after seeing one of his teammates commit in April, around the same time he was ready to make a decision.

Two weeks later, Williams gave his verbal pledge to Auburn.

He developed a bond with the Auburn coaches that got stronger with every visit. Though the last two months have been a whirlwind with all the coaching changes, he remains firm to Gus Malzahn and the Tigers.

Finally, he can say he’s 100 percent committed.

“It feels good,” Williams said recently after his official visit to Auburn. “It’s kind of a relief because this whole process has been kind of stressful.”

The freak

Bell is the type of player quarterbacks have nightmares about. He’s 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, has a quick first step and when he gets around the edge, look out.

He’s also the teammate who committed to Alabama in April when the staff told Williams to hold off. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bell is more talented, but maybe he’s a better fit for Nick Saban’s defense. Or maybe the coaches saw a certain edge about him, an attitude that leads to his intense and aggressive demeanor on the field.

His teammates, who have been with him since middle school, still have trouble describing him.

“Christian is Christian,” one said.

“I don’t know what word can describe Christian,” another said.

Shaw probably said it best.

“He’s the freak,” Shaw said. “In practice, he’ll give the offensive lineman a move and just do whatever he wants. He manhandles people.”

Surprisingly, Alabama wasn’t always the choice for Bell. He, too, weighed his options before making his commitment and admits that Mississippi State and UCLA were very much in the mix at that time. Both schools offered a better chance at early playing time.

But that’s not what Bell was interested in. He understands he’s just another name in Alabama’s star-studded recruiting class, and that’s the way he likes it.

“We haven’t really talked about playing time because if they say I’m going to start, I don’t really want to know that,” Bell said. “I want to just go in there and work.”

The quiet one

[+] EnlargeChristian Bell, Bradrick Shaw, Justin Johnson
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNChristian Bell (Alabama), Bradrick Shaw (Wisconsin), and Justin Johnson (Mississippi State) will join Darrell Williams as Hoover (Ala.) players headed to FBS schools.
A week ago, Shaw was the only uncommitted member of the Hoover quartet. The four-star running back didn’t have the luxury of staying in state with both Alabama and Auburn loaded at his position.

“They’re in state, but I guess they got the players who they wanted,” Shaw said. “I can’t do anything about it.”

Instead, his choice came down to Vanderbilt and Wisconsin. Many predicted that he would sign with the Commodores given the proximity to home and the opportunity to play in the SEC. But it wasn’t meant to be. Shaw chose the road less traveled.

“I’m OK to go out of the SEC,” he said. “The Big Ten is nice, too. They produce great running backs every year. Of course, Ohio State won this year. It’s elite talent just competing. SEC is one of the best conferences, but the Big Ten is pretty nice, too.”

It fits his personality. Go to a school where nobody knows you, keep your head down, work hard, and maybe become the next Melvin Gordon.

It’s the same attitude that helped Shaw get on the field at Hoover as a freshman. It’s what made him better every season and what ultimately turned him into a star. But you would never hear that from him.

“I’m not quiet,” Shaw said. “But I’m kind of like the most normal guy. All the other guys are crazy.”

The underdog

There was a time when Johnson didn’t know if he’d be part of the group. He didn’t know if he’d have the same opportunity as the others. They all had received Division I scholarship offers by the beginning of last year, but he was still waiting on his.

“It was pretty tough,” Johnson said. “Thinking about it really does upset me sometimes, but you get over it. You don’t realize it, but it makes you go harder.”

“Of course everybody wants to be ranked high and stuff like that. That’s every kid’s dream. Sometimes things just don’t work out as you expect they would. I’m not upset about it or anything. It’s just one of those things that sticks in the back of your head and drives you.”

Eventually, the offers came. The three-star wide receiver was offered by Kentucky, Mississippi State, and a handful of smaller schools.

When it was time to make a decision, the choice was easy. Johnson committed to Mississippi State because it’s a program that reflects his attitude. Since Dan Mullen arrived, they have exceeded expectations just like he has done throughout his career at Hoover and just like he plans to do when he arrives in Starkville.

“I see that underdog mentality,” he said. “You never know what to expect.”

Dak Prescott was a three-star recruit and Josh Robinson a two-star prospect who both became stars with the Bulldogs. Johnson is hoping to become the latest in that line of under-the-radar stars.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 27, 2015
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This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.


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It’s not often a recruit commits to the same school twice, but that’s what happened with ESPN 300 receiver John Burt on Monday.


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Daily Social Roundup: UCLA checks in with Iman Marshall 

January, 22, 2015
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Wednesday marked the two-week point until national signing day and coaches were out in force on the recruiting trail, with UCLA's visit to No. 4 overall prospect Iman Marshall leading the headlines.


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Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 20, 2015
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National signing day is less than three weeks away and it’s coming down to crunch time. This past weekend was one of three remaining weekends for recruits to take official visits before signing day and some of the top prospects took full advantage of the available weekend. Auburn had a monster recruiting weekend and, though not to the same extent, so did Alabama, Texas A&M, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and others. Here’s a closer look at the top news from this past weekend.


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