NCF On The Trail: SEC

With such a talented group of players on one list, the Ultimate ESPN 300, it was difficult to narrow things to three favorites. After all, these are some of the best ever to play college football. With that being said, here are three of my favorites:

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFew players have come off the edge like Jadeveon Clowney in his South Carolina heyday.
1. I've covered recruiting for several years, but watching defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (No. 1) go up against offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio at the 2011 Under Armour All-America game and practices was something I'll never forget. Clowney is the best athlete I have seen, and watching him go up against another five-star prospect was incredible.

Kouandjio more than held his own that week against the top player in the country, but there was no doubt Clowney was on another level. Clowney went on to have an incredible career at South Carolina, and who could forget the devastating hit he laid on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl?

2. Quarterback Tim Tebow (No. 2), with his unusual throwing mechanics and bruising style of play, had his doubters coming out of high school. Tebow, however, went on to have one of the most prolific careers in the history of college football by winning two national championships, two SEC championships and a Heisman Trophy.

To sum up Tebow's leadership ability and team-first mentality, I recall watching Tebow's high school team, Nease, play in the Florida state championship game against Armwood High School. Armwood had the ball and was driving for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown and a defensive lineman for Nease had to leave the game because of an injury. Tebow races out to the field and lines up at nose tackle. Though he didn't make the play, Nease won, and it displayed what kind of person he was. He was willing to do whatever it took to help his team win, and that's how he played throughout his college career.

3. Running back Derrick Henry's (No. 202) high school team, Yulee, didn't play in a very strong division in Florida, so the ridiculous stats (11,182 rushing yards and 153 rushing TDs) Henry put up in his high school career seemed to be somewhat inflated.

Henry's senior season, I had a chance to watch Yulee take on Belle Glade Glades Day School, which had Kelvin Taylor (No. 174), another five-star running back. I assumed that because of Henry's size (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) he would likely move to another position on the next level. But after watching him play in person and seeing how athletic and nimble he was, Henry convinced me he had the tools to be a top running back. Watching both running backs rush for more than 200 yards on the night and seeing two future stars at their brightest was one of the most memorable games I've ever had a chance to cover.
Some players flipped their commitments while other’s had memorable signing-day moments. Here is a closer look at the five most intriguing recruitments from the SEC.

Many believe ESPN Junior 300 defensive Nick Bosa will be an even better college football player than his brother. That’s saying a lot because his brother is Joey Bosa, star defensive lineman for national champion Ohio State and one of the top projected picks for the 2016 NFL draft.

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SEC signing day roundtable: Most important 2015 class

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
Wrapping up our weeklong, post-signing day series, we look at which coaches signed the most important -- not necessarily the best -- classes of 2015. For some, such as Mississippi State, that meant building on the momentum of a big year. For others, such as Florida, it meant closing strong in the first year under a new coach.

Click here for the rest of the series:
Key storyline | Coach under pressure | Instant-impact recruit | Under-the radar talent

Edward Aschoff: Mississippi State
It took Dan Mullen five years to get to this point and it isn’t exactly easy to recruit to Mississippi State. But Mullen and his coaches did a tremendous job in signing the nation’s No. 16 recruiting class, equipped with seven ESPN 300 members. When you’re at a program like Mississippi State, you can’t get caught behind, ever, if you want to build off any sort of positive momentum. Mullen signed the No. 2 safety (Jamal Peters), No. 2 inside linebacker (Leo Lewis), No. 2 juco receiver (Donald Gray) and No. 1 juco offensive tackle (Martinas Rankin). He hit needs with top talent and signed five of the state of Mississippi’s top six players. That’s called reloading, and its exactly what Mississippi State needed to continue to trend upward.

David Ching: Missouri
Missouri has never been known as a national recruiting juggernaut, but Gary Pinkel’s staff has earned a well-deserved reputation for developing talent as effectively as any group of coaches in the country. Now what might the Tigers accomplish after landing their first top-20 recruiting class since ESPN began compiling team rankings in 2006? The star of Mizzou’s class is obviously Terry Beckner Jr., the No. 2 overall prospect in the ESPN 300 and top defensive tackle. But the Tigers also landed perhaps their next star quarterback in Drew Lock, addressed a glaring need at wide receiver after losing their top four pass-catchers (Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Darius White and running back Marcus Murphy) and added a couple of instant-impact junior college transfers in defensive end Marcell Frazier and running back Chase Abbington. Seven SEC teams finished higher in the class rankings than Missouri, but that’s nothing new. If Pinkel’s crew does its usual solid work with this crop of signees, the Tigers should be able to remain among the top SEC East contenders.

Sam Khan Jr.: Tennessee
Butch Jones is trying to bring back the winning tradition to Rocky Top and he and his staff have done a wonderful job of recruiting so far. Adding a top-five class for a second consecutive year is huge – and necessary – to build the depth of talent needed to compete with the best of the best in the SEC. When it comes to the Vols' highest-rated recruits, this class was heavy on the line of scrimmage, with five of their seven top prospects playing on the defensive or offensive lines. That's the way to build a winner.

Chris Low: Auburn
When the final recruiting rankings were tallied, Auburn wound up third in the SEC behind Alabama and Tennessee, but few classes anywhere in the country were more important than the one the Tigers put together this year. For one, they were coming off a disappointing finish to the 2014 season and needed some momentum, especially with Alabama reeling in its fourth straight No. 1 class. They desperately needed pass-rushers, too, and got them in Byron Cowart and Jeffery Holland. What's more, the Tigers were confident that new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp would make a big impact on the recruiting trail, and it's safe to say he delivered in his first year on the Plains with the way he helped land several players late.

Greg Ostendorf: Mississippi State
Mullen just signed his best class ever at Mississippi State, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bulldogs lost 14 starters from last year’s team, and several signees from the 2015 class will be asked to contribute early. For Mullen to compete year in and year out in the SEC, he needed a class like this. Without it, there’s a chance Mississippi State would have fallen off next season and maybe more so the following year, when Dak Prescott is gone. Now, there’s a foundation to build upon. The future is bright.

Alex Scarborough: Auburn
No team met it needs more on signing day than Auburn, which closed strong and finished with the nation's No. 7 class. After watching his defense implode during the second half of the season and subsequently firing its coordinator, coach Gus Malzahn clearly focused on improving personnel. Including the nation's No. 1 player in DE Cowart, four of Auburn's top five signees will play defense. There's even a chance that the fifth, athlete Kerryon Johnson, spends time at safety. With so much talent coming in and Muschamp now leading the charge, there are no more excuses why defense should be Auburn's weakest link.

Derek Tyson: Florida
It has to be Jim McElwain's new team. A week-and-a-half before signing day, the Gators had only 10 verbal commitments but finished with 21. Florida landed two five-star prospects in offensive tackle Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson, two other ESPN 300 prospects D’Anfernee McGriff and Antonio Callaway and four-star running back Jordan Cronkite — all on signing day. The Gators needed offensive line help desperately and landed five linemen, led by Ivey and ESPN 300 center Tyler Jordan.

SEC 2015 recruiting in review 

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
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.
Quarterback Kyler Murray grabbed all of the headlines at Allen (Texas) High School over the past few seasons, but it’s actually junior offensive tackle Greg Little who is a higher-ranked prospect.

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For all the solid work Jim McElwain and his coaches did down the critical 2015 recruiting stretch in the past month, those efforts should stand as a starting point for Florida's football program. That is by no means an end game or a standard for the Gators.

Not to sound like I'm getting ahead of myself too much, but Florida's 2016 recruiting class is critical to the success McElwain hopes to have during his tenure in Gainesville. The SEC is too good and the threat of sliding further and further in the SEC is nothing for the Gators to play around with. Just look at how long it's taken Tennessee to get back to relevancy, and that journey back toward the top still has a steep climb ahead for the Vols.

McElwain has yet to name a starting quarterback, let alone coach a single moment of practice, but in a fast-paced, cutthroat college football society, he and his coaches can't waste any time getting some sort of time with this 2016 class, which really could make or break McElwain's time at Florida. That might sound harsh or even like a bit of hyperbole, but look where Florida's program is now and look at the SEC around it. You can't afford to be a weak link in a conference as cannibalistic as the SEC.

The good news for McElwain is that he and his staff proved they have a clutch closing gene that helped transform a once hopeless 2015 Florida class into a top-20 group equipped with two five-stars and six ESPN 300 members. Another thing to consider is that recent new coaches in this league have had very good success with their second recruiting classes. From Urban Meyer to Butch Jones, a handful of first-year coaches in the SEC have cleaned up in recruiting with their second classes, and McElwain has to continue that trend.

What McElwain got in his first class with the Gators was a mixed bag -- some contents quality, some unknown. Landing immediate-impact five-star prospects Martez Ivey (offensive tackle) and CeCe Jefferson (defensive end) and playmaking hopefuls like running back Jordan Scarlett, wide receiver Antonio Callaway, and athletes D'Anfernee McGriff, Jordan Cronkrite and Chris Williamson gives the Gators a solid early foundation to work with, but it's no secret Florida needs more star power in its 2016 class.

McElwain desperately needed depth along the offensive line and signed five lineman, including two ESPN 300 recruits. That certainly helps with depth, but getting a little more quality there in 2016 will be essential. The same is absolutely true about the wide receiver spot, where Florida again needs legit playmakers, and quarterback, where questions abound this season.

Florida currently has just one 2016 commitment -- wide receiver Rick Wells -- but if recent history is any indication, McElwain and Co., who can sign a big class with such low scholarship numbers for this current team, could really make a statement with next year's class.

Not to immediately compare McElwain to Meyer and Nick Saban -- although Gators fans are hoping he reaches their level -- but those two went from having OK first classes at Florida and Alabama, respectively, to consensus top-five classes by major recruiting services (, and in Year 2. Florida ranked No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings in Meyer's second year (2006), while Alabama ranked third in Saban's second year (2008). Meyer went on to win two national titles at Florida, while Saban has won three at Alabama.

After bringing in a top-20 class during his first year at LSU in 2005, Les Miles landed a consensus top-eight class nationally in 2006 and won the national title in 2007. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik reeled in a top-25 class in 2009, then won a national title in his second year and brought home a top-five class in 2010.

Even coaches who haven't won titles have recently had second-year recruiting success in the SEC. Hugh Freeze began his time as Ole Miss' coach in 2012 with a class that barely registered on the recruiting radar and then signed arguably the school's best class ever in 2013 with headliners like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil.

Butch Jones signed a top-30 class in 2013 and now has back-to-back No. 5 classes in ESPN RecruitingNation's class rankings. Of course, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has signed back-to-back top-10 classes in his two years at Auburn, but he's just bragging at this point.

McElwain has a long way to go as a coach and a recruiter at Florida, and he hasn't even seen his team run actual plays on a field yet. But having a strong second year of recruiting is essential to righting Florida's ship. Heck, even his predecessor, Will Muschamp, signed the No. 4 class nationally in his second year, so there's a formula for recruiting success McElwain can follow. And with the way the SEC is moving, McElwain can't afford to get behind and must emulate those before him.

SEC signing day roundtable: Most important storyline

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9
The SEC might have had a disappointing conclusion to the 2014 season, but it remains unbeaten on signing day. Alabama finished with its fourth consecutive No. 1 class, and the conference as a whole had five of the top 10 (and 10 of the top 20 classes) in the country. The conference signed 118 ESPN 300 players, 24 more than the next two closest conferences combined.

Each day this week, we'll examine a key SEC issue in the wake of signing day. Up first is the biggest storyline from last week.

Edward Aschoff: Tennessee keep building contender
Vols coach Butch Jones is starting to own national signing day. From the spiffy bow tie to the elite talent he’s gathering in Knoxville, Jones is making Tennessee’s presence known. If you look at the shape this program was in for the last decade, Jones’ recruiting efforts were beyond impressive … again. For the second straight year, Jones reeled in the No. 5 recruiting class in the country and is continuing to build a solid foundation at Tennessee. The Vols signed 13 ESPN 300 members and 18 total four-star prospects. The Vols signed 12 players who ranked within the top 10 at their positions and had one of the biggest steals of the day by flipping four-star offensive tackle Drew Richmond from Ole Miss. Another great class shows how far the program has come under Jones and the potential it has.

David Ching: The rich get richer
The drama with prospects such as Byron Cowart, Roquan Smith and CeCe Jefferson made signing day a bit more interesting, but to me the biggest storyline is how the rich got richer. In this case, the rich – of course – are the teams from the SEC. Just look at ESPN’s class rankings. Alabama signed the top class for the fourth straight year, and SEC teams occupied 12 of the top 22 spots. For those who wonder how the SEC dominates the national rankings, its schools’ wins on signing day are where it all starts.

[+] EnlargeKyler Murray
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesHanging on to quarterback Kyler Murray was huge for Texas A&M's recruiting momentum.
Sam Khan Jr.: Texas A&M closes with Murray, Mack
There's no doubt that Cowart and Jefferson made waves with the events surrounding their respective signing days, but there's one SEC team that had to fight tooth-and-nail almost to the end for a pair of five-star prospects, and that's Texas A&M. Being able to hold on to five-star quarterback Kyler Murray (the nation's No. 1 dual-threat quarterback) and regaining the commitment of No. 6 overall player and five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack put a strong -- and necessary -- finish to the Aggies' signing day. If they weren't able to secure Mack and Murray, it would have been a significant blow to the Aggies' No. 12 class, which is solid but ranks only sixth in the SEC.

Chris Low: Alabama stays on top
Signing day might as well be re-named Alabama Day. The Crimson Tide had the No. 1 class for the fourth consecutive year. Alabama landed 19 ESPN 300 recruits, including three five-star prospects, and signed more players ranked inside the top 100 than the entire Big Ten (12 to 9). Eight players in the class are already enrolled and eligible to go through spring practice, including five-star quarterback Blake Barnett of Corona, California. Alabama also signed two of the top-five cornerback prospects in the country and the No. 3 safety, all big needs in the secondary. The College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State was disappointing, but the Tide did what they always do under Nick Saban on signing day -- reload.

Greg Ostendorf: Muschamp's instant impact
How big of an impact did Will Muschamp have on Auburn’s class? Of the eight players signed from the state of Florida, seven committed after Muschamp arrived. Byron Cowart, the nation’s No. 1 player, would likely be a Gator right now if not for Muschamp’s dismissal at Florida and subsequent hire at Auburn. The same can be said for ESPN 300 linebacker Jeffery Holland and four-star athlete Ryan Davis, among others. It’s incredible the job Muschamp did in less than two months, and to go into the Sunshine State and poach players away from his former employer had to make it even sweeter.

Alex Scarborough: Florida makes its move
For most of the morning of signing day, the biggest takeaway was how Will Muschamp and Auburn raided Florida's closet, stealing many of its top targets. But, to me, the narrative changed dramatically in the afternoon when the Gators and new coach Jim McElwain turned the tide. By focusing up front and getting No. 1 offensive tackle Martez Ivey and No. 2 defensive end CeCe Jefferson (who has yet to fax in his letter of intent but says he's still committed to the Gators), McElwain got what he needed. For a coach who hadn't been recruiting the Southeast much at Colorado State to pull off the No. 20 class in the country was impressive. (Remember, Saban's first class at Alabama came in at No. 17 overall.)

Derek Tyson: Auburn vs. Florida battles
The major recruiting battles between Florida and Auburn that unfolded on national signing day were something that could be talked about in the years to come. Despite the intense battle, both teams appeared to have done well, with Auburn landing Cowart, Davis and Holland and the Gators landing Jefferson and Ivey.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Just like every other coach, Hugh Freeze stood in front of the media on national signing day and discussed his 2015 recruiting class. He said it might be the best class, top to bottom, since he has been at Ole Miss. He called the mid-year group a home run.

That’s all fine and dandy, but it didn’t hide the fact it was a disappointing finish for the Rebels. The fans were hoping for more.

Maybe it was because the memory of signing day two years ago was still fresh in their minds. The day started with Robert Nkemdiche choosing Ole Miss and by the time it was over, fellow ESPN 300 stars Laremy Tunsil, Tony Conner and Austin Golson had followed suit.

[+] EnlargeOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesOle Miss' Hugh Freeze wouldn't object to an early signing period, but he's just not sure what it would look like.
Or maybe it was the sting of losing two longtime commitments, offensive tackle Drew Richmond and linebacker Leo Lewis, in the final weeks leading up to signing day. Both players were ranked among the top five nationally at their position, and both would have been cornerstone pieces for the Rebels in the future.

Freeze made sure to touch on that, too, when he addressed the media on Wednesday.

“I have kind of had that on my soap box this morning with our coaches,” he said. “We have created a media frenzy around this circus, and so many more people have become involved in the recruiting process. The kids are genuine and nice and want to communicate with every staff. Every staff is good at recruiting. The last one that is on the phone with them sometimes has them confused and leaning that way. As long as they are taking those calls, there are possibilities.”

The number of recruits to switch their commitments in the final weeks has seemingly increased every year, and this year was no different.

Richmond signed with Tennessee. Lewis signed with Mississippi State. ESPN 300 defensive end Arden Key flipped from South Carolina to LSU in the days leading up to signing day, and Van Jefferson, a longtime Georgia commitment, flipped to Ole Miss in late January and nearly switched again before ultimately signing with the Rebels. That's just the SEC.

And how about Kentucky? After losing six straight games to finish the season, the Wildcats had nine players decommit from their 2015 class. It was no wonder third-year coach Mark Stoops was calling for an early signing period.

But he wasn’t alone.

“I have always been in favor of it,” Freeze said. “Always. The only problem is, I do not know if any of us could ever agree on what it looks like. But, I think an early signing period in some form or fashion would be good.

“I actually like the idea someone had of as soon as someone commits, having them sign the paper. So you will know right away who is really committed. Then we can save a lot of time and money in the last six weeks on the ones who really are.”

It looks easy in principle, but just like adding a ninth conference game, good luck getting all the SEC coaches to agree on it. When would the early signing period be? Before the season? During the season? What about the kids? Is it fair to make them sign early before they have looked at all their options? There are a lot of variables involved.

In the meantime, Freeze says he plans to revisit the entire recruiting process, including the idea of letting committed guys take visits to other schools. Maybe Richmond and/or Lewis would have signed with Ole Miss if not for visits taken to other schools. Or maybe not.

The important thing for Freeze now is that he has a group of 22 signees who will be the future of Ole Miss football. And he’s happy with that group … even if he missed on a few.

“You always lose some when you are battling for the best,” he said. “Every school does. We had a few of those, but we also won many battles of kids who really want to be at Ole Miss, in this program, and representing this great university. I am excited to get to work with them.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- As Mark Richt strolled up to his jet black podium to address the media about Georgia’s 2015 signing class, there didn’t appear to be a hint of angst. Richt, as laid back a coach as you'll find, simply slid to the front of the room, bright lights beaming down on behind him, and happily discussed yet another top-10 class for the Bulldogs.

"We are absolutely thrilled about these young men and can't wait to see them do their thing,” Richt said. “Some of them are already here doing their thing a little bit.”

 It was easy for Richt grin ear-to-ear and have some enthusiasm in his voice. Outside of some afternoon theatrics, Richt and his crew had a pretty stress-free day in Athens. Thanks to a stellar and steady recruiting effort from the start, Georgia had most of its class secured in the morning. By 10 a.m., the Dawgs had already secured 22 signees (eight early enrollees). At the end of the day, Georgia had signed 29 players, 18 of which were four-star players or better, including 14 ESPN 300 members

Richt, who has been criticized in the past for not keeping top players at home, had little problem securing in-state talent, as the top-seven players in this class hailed from the state of Georgia, including No. 2 overall defensive tackle -- and five-star stud -- Trenton Thompson, and No. 5 athlete Terry Godwin.

Despite a couple of late flips and the continuing saga of four-star linebacker Roquan Smith and his decision, the Dawgs made out quite well on national signing day. They even concluded the day with the unnecessarily theatrical signing from Godwin, who prolonged his ceremony until 6 p.m. ET, for, you know, dramatic effect.

While there was no real early drama for the Dawgs, this class hit on the necessary needs. In a year in which Georgia unflatteringly came in second in the SEC Eastern Division, rumors swirled and intensified about Richt’s coaching future, and long-time offensive coordinator Mike Bobo left to become the head coach at Colorado State, Georgia didn’t miss a recruiting beat.

No, the Dawgs coasted to a signing day finish line without many bumps or bruises, and could still land another big fish in Smith to cap off the school’s fifth straight top-10 recruiting class, and seventh in the past eight years.

Where Georgia really struck gold was with its defensive line class. With just five scholarship linemen returning, Richt and his crew went out and signed six players destined for the defensive line. Two -- defensive tackle Jonathan Ledbetter, a four-star who flipped from Alabama, and four-star defensive end Michael Barnett -- enrolled early, giving Georgia more room to rotate up front this spring.

“You've got to have the beef up front, both sides of the ball,” Richt said. “You've got to have guys that can command double teams. You've got to have guys that can hopefully put pressure on a quarterback without having to bring blitzes and things of that nature, guys that can be stout in their run gap responsibilities and not get pushed around. It's truly important to have the big men up front. I think we did a good job there."

And the thing about this defensive line haul is that it’s both quantity and quality. With so little depth coming back up front, it was imperative that Georgia’s staff go out and sign quality numbers. Georgia did just that, and might have landed the nation’s best defensive line class.

“I’m pretty glad that we’re known as one of the best defensive line groups,” Barnett said. “Hopefully, it pans out that way, as the season comes along. I’m just happy to be a part of that group.”

The headliner is Thompson, who should push for immediate playing time when he gets on campus. The 6-foot-4, 311-pound monster in the middle was a critical piece to Georgia’s class, and Richt wasn’t shy about gushing over Thompson’s talents.

“Trent is a big, massive man who has got great agility,” Richt said. “If you meet him, he's just the nicest guy you ever want to meet, but when he's playing ball, he gets after it. He's just got tremendous quickness for a big man, changes direction, plays very hard, and I think probably the reason why he got rated as high as he did is when you start taking these guys and bringing them to allstar games or combines or whatever and you start letting them compete with some of the best, the word I got from some of those kids in those situations were like, the guy just was very difficult to handle by anybody.”

And the hope in Athens is that adding a class like this will increase the Dawgs’ chances of being difficult to handle this fall. With the East still littered with questions, Georgia once again has the talent to take the division. Getting out of its own way appears to be Georgia’s biggest obstacle, but the new guys are noticing a fiery attitude early and bitterness toward last season.

“When I talk to [teammates] I get chills,” JUCO linebacker transfer Chuks Amaechi said. “When they talk, you can hear it in their voices that they’re hungry for a championship.”

2016 recruits to watch in the SEC 

February, 6, 2015
Feb 6
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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Give Jim McElwain this: He appears to have the closing gene.

After a late start and a major game of catch-up for Florida's brand new staff, McElwain & Co. were able to finish stronger than most expected in this staff's first recruiting season in Gainesville. A week ago, the Gators weren't even a blip on the SEC recruiting radar. Light years away from even top-40 class, the general consensus was that McElwain's first class with the orange and blue was going to be a dud -- maybe the worst in school history.

The firing of Will Muschamp coupled with the simple fact that McElwain wasn't the big-name coach that would electrify recruits appeared to be weighing on Florida's 2015 recruiting class, which was in the single digits at the end of January.

[+] EnlargeMartez Ivey
ESPNNo. 1 offensive tackle Martez Ivey is the jewel of Florida's recruiting class.
Then, the final recruiting push happened, and the Gators roared to a solid finish by bringing in seven four- or- five-star prospects in the last week, including five-star gems Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. (Jefferson committed Wednesday but Florida has still has not received his letter of intent. According to Jefferson’s father, Leo Jefferson, Jefferson is still thinking about his decision.) Not counting Jefferson, four of those six eventual signees were ESPN 300 members, giving the Gators five for their 2015 class. Nineteen of Florida's 20 signees came from the states of Florida and Georgia.

It wasn't the elite class that a school like Florida expects, but after mired in a recruiting funk and even with the prospect of not signing Jefferson, it's hard to argue that McElwain delivered one of the best closing acts of the 2015 recruiting season.

"For our first signing class, first and foremost, the momentum that we've gained has been fantastic," McElwain said. "The doors that we've opened in this short period of time back in the places that we need to be successful at when we go out and recruit, go out and recruit, and obviously that's in the state of Florida first, and bumping into that five-hour radius part as we go up into Georgia is something that we need to make sure that we work on and keep getting better at.

"We knew it was going to be late because we were getting in late on a lot of guys. We had to go back and re-evaluate a lot of players to fit the criteria that we felt were going to be successful Gators and I feel really good about those guys that ended up coming."

Disaster seemed to be the theme of this class until the Gators got Ivey's much-needed commitment. The nation's No. 1 offensive tackle temporarily washed away the pain of losing out on RecruitingNation's No. 1 overall recruit, defensive end Byron Cowart, who picked Auburn over the Gators. You know, the school where Muschamp is now the defensive coordinator. A string of prospects then began picking Auburn over Florida, including ESPN 300 members Jeffery Holland (linebacker) and Ryan Davis (athlete). Not to mention the fact that ESPN 300 offensive lineman Mike Horton flipped to the Tigers early on signing day.

But Ivey was the prized possession of the class -- he always was. With the pitiful offensive line numbers the Gators currently have on campus, landing Ivey, who could start immediately at one of the tackle spots, was critical.

As the day went on, Florida addressed its needs at offensive line (signing five linemen), got a playmaker at receiver in ESPN 300 member Antonio Callaway and snatched up four-star athletes Jordan Cronkrite and D'Anfernee McGriff (an Auburn flip), who could both play running back.

On Monday, the first real momentum-building domino fell when the Gators grabbed former Miami running back commit Jordan Scarlett, also an ESPN 300 member. So while this wasn't exactly a who's who of a recruiting class, Florida's late surge shows recruiting promise for the future.

And that's now where the focus lies.

McElwain and his staff have to get more elite players on campus. Florida didn't sign a quarterback in this class, which means that McElwain now has a full year to find one. Only two receivers signed, and everyone knows the need for playmaking receivers is crucial to turning Florida's offense around. And of course, Florida will need to continue to build on that offensive line.

McElwain's finish to the 2015 class was very impressive, and it just makes you wonder what he and his staff can do with a head start of a full year.
Gus Malzahn was not a happy camper after the Iron Bowl. He was frustrated with his team’s execution in the red zone, and he was not pleased with his defense, which allowed 55 points and 539 yards to rival Alabama. One of those was on him. The other he knew he needed to fix.

The day after the game, Malzahn let go of veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson after two seasons on the Plains. Less than two weeks later, he hired ex-Florida coach Will Muschamp to replace Johnson. It was a home run hire for Auburn. In January, Travaris Robinson and Lance Thompson were added to the defensive staff, and the transformation was complete.

But this was a defense that allowed 30 or more points in seven of the last eight games. It needed more than a few coaching changes. It needed an infusion of young talent.

Fast forward to Wednesday, national signing day. Auburn finished with the No. 7 recruiting class per ESPN. Of the 27 signees, 13 came on the defensive side of the ball. That group included five players ranked in the ESPN 300 and was highlighted by five-star defensive end Byron Cowart.

"The future is very bright on that side of the football," Malzahn told ESPN after the class was complete.

It didn’t come without drama, though. Oh was there drama. The coaches rejoiced in the morning when Cowart announced he was choosing Auburn over Florida, but grew weary when the signed letter of intent never came through. Finally, it was Muschamp, the man most responsible for landing Cowart, who took the papers off the fax machine about 3 p.m. CT.

The coaches could celebrate once again, knowing they landed the nation's No. 1 player.

"You’re talking about the best player in the country," Malzahn said in his signing day news conference. "So yeah, he’ll have a chance to compete and have a chance to be on the field immediately with his skill set."

Cowart, along with fellow Floridian Jeffrey Holland, filled arguably the Tigers’ biggest need -- players who could get to the quarterback. Auburn finished No. 11 in the SEC this past season with 21 sacks, so developing a pass rush was Priority No. 1 for the new staff.

"We didn’t have Carl Lawson this year, and we had a couple other injuries, too, so I thought it was very important," Malzahn said. "That was one of our priorities -- get some guys so that we could rush the passer with just four guys and not have to blitz. We were able to do that two years ago, and we weren’t able to do that this past year. So that was definitely a focus, and we’re very excited about these guys that signed today."

The other need Auburn wanted to address on signing day was finding players who could cover. The Tigers struggled against the pass last season, and with two starters departing from the secondary, it was important to bring in a handful of new defensive backs.

That is where Robinson comes in. The new assistant coach, who was with Muschamp at Florida, proved instrumental to the 2015 class, specifically in the secondary. Auburn landed four defensive backs in the past three weeks, and Robinson had a large part to do with all four signing Wednesday. It was no surprise that all four hailed from the Sunshine State.

"Coach T-Rob went out -- he already had relationships with some guys -- and he felt very good about them coming in," Malzahn said.

Auburn also signed Richard McBryde and Darrell Williams, the top two linebackers in the state. Both bring versatility, and should help with the transition of defensive schemes now that Muschamp has arrived. That was another key for this class.

"Coach Muschamp, he’s handpicking these guys to fit his defense, and he’s very excited about that," Malzahn said. "We’ve got some guys that can help us immediately."

Wednesday was the next step to rebuilding a defense that let Auburn down time and time again last season. Nobody expects a top-10 group next season, but as Malzahn said, the future certainly looks bright on that side of the ball.

Grading the recruiting classes: SEC

February, 5, 2015
Feb 5

A team-by-team look at the 2015 recruiting classes in the SEC.


1. Alabama Crimson Tide

National rank: 1

The Crimson Tide finished with a four-peat in the class rankings. Alabama's class, which has 19 ESPN 300 prospects, is headlined by five-star CB Kendall Sheffield. Five-star quarterback Blake Barnett leads an offensive group that includes wide receivers Calvin Ridley (No. 23 overall) Daylon Charlot, running backs Damien Harris (No. 36) and running back DeSherrius Flowers (No. 104), tight end Hale Hentges (No. 109), guards Lester Cotton (No. 100), Brandon Kennedy (No. 86) and Richie Petitbon (No. 151), and center/guard Dallas Warmack (No. 249). No. 48 Da'Ron Payne is a massive DT in the defensive class, which includes linebackers Adonis Thomas (No. 54), Mekhi Brown (No. 88) and Joshua McMillon (No. 171). In the secondary, No. 65 Deionte Thompson and No. 133 Shawn Burgess-Becker join No. 27 overall Minkah Fitzpatrick.

To see more grades from the SEC, click here. Insider