NCF On The Trail: Vonn Bell

New Year's Day and national signing day used to be the two most disheartening days on the Big Ten football calendar.

Make no mistake, New Year's Day had been much more of a buzzkill. The Big Ten's poor results on an afternoon where it clustered its top postseason games on big stages damaged the league's reputation and depressed its fans.

National signing day had been a different kind of downer. Unlike New Year's Day, when the Big Ten's collective struggles were front and center, national signing day pushed the league off to the side. The Big Ten went from being embarrassed on Jan. 1 to being largely ignored on the first Wednesday in February.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOhio State raised a trophy in January and raised expectations for the Big Ten on signing day.
Of course, this was ESPN's fault, as all things were/are. ESPN's in-season obsession with all things SEC spilled into its recruiting coverage, Big Ten fans contended.

Two things to note:

1. Recruiting rankings are inherently subjective

2. The numbers don't lie. Every recruiting list shows more elite prospects in the South -- many of whom choose to play for SEC schools -- than in the Midwest

The bottom line is signing day had become more of an SEC and ACC event than a Big Ten exposition. There's a reason why every year around this time, I snarkily ask our friends in ACC country if they're ready for the biggest day on their football calendar.

But signing day 2015, arriving in just 36 hours, could have a different feel around the Big Ten. For the first time in a while, the Big Ten is the most talked-about league in the sport. Ohio State just won the first College Football Playoff national championship, securing its first title -- and the Big Ten's -- in 12 seasons. The Buckeyes capped a Big Ten bowl season that far surpassed expectations (6-5 overall, 2-0 in New Year's Six games).

Michigan made the top coaching move of the offseason by landing Jim Harbaugh. Two former Big Ten quarterbacks shined Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIX, with former Michigan signal-caller Tom Brady coming away with his fourth ring.

The Big Ten has tangible momentum that it wants to sustain through the offseason, beginning with national signing day.

How realistic is that goal?

Signing day is largely about hype, and the Big Ten undoubtedly will be discussed more this year than in the past.

Ohio State's class, ranked No. 7 nationally by ESPN RecruitingNation, will be examined as the Buckeyes bring in standouts such as Justin Hilliard and Jashon Cornell, and hope to keep Torrance Gibson. Unlike many Big Ten coaches, Ohio State's Urban Meyer eschews redshirting and has quickly turned young players into key contributors. Meyer's first full class in 2013 -- featuring Joey Bosa, J.T. Barrett, Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall and Darron Lee -- played a huge role in this year's title run.

Michigan's first class under Harbaugh also will be in the spotlight. It will be small -- the Wolverines have only nine verbal commitments -- but Harbaugh already has bolstered the quarterback spot with Zach Gentry, who had originally picked Texas. Michigan could finish strong with tight end Chris Clark, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall, all of whom are announcing their decisions on signing day.

James Franklin's first full class at Penn State should get Lions fans excited for the future. Franklin and his staff put much of the group together last spring, landing 13 commitments before the end of May. They've upgraded their top problem unit, offensive line, with recruitsSterling Jenkins and Ryan Bates, to go along with junior college transfer Paris Palmer.

Michigan State is arguably the nation's top player development program. But after consecutive top-5 finishes, the Spartans' recruiting efforts are getting noticed. MSU is poised to sign a top-30 class and might have locked up its future offensive backfield with quarterback Brian Lewerke and running back L.J. Scott. Twin brothers Andrew and David Dowell, one-time Northwestern and Kentucky commits, recently switched their pledge to MSU.

Wisconsin and Nebraska also could end up among ESPN RecruitingNation's top 30 classes. Not surprisingly, the Badgers have seen attrition in their class after the surprising departure of coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State, but they've bolstered their offense with running backs Bradrick Shaw and Jordan Stevenson, tight end Kyle Penniston and quarterback Austin Kafentzis. Nebraska also went through a coaching change but has made a nice push under Mike Riley and his innovative recruiting approach, landing offensive lineman Jalin Barnett and holding onto defensive back Eric Lee and others.

As colleague Mitch Sherman wrote last week, Big Ten coaches had no consensus about whether the league's recent on-field surge would improve recruiting, especially for non-traditional powers. Maryland, despite losing two recruits to Indiana this past weekend, will be a program to watch Wednesday as linemen Austrian Robinson and Isaiah Prince make their decisions. Illinois hopes to upgrade its defensive line with Jamal Milan, who also is considering Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota, Rutgers, Northwestern, Indiana and others look to lock up solid classes on Wednesday.

There will be Big Ten teams that don't move the needle regionally or nationally, as there are every year. But there's optimism about the league's overall recruiting efforts, fueled by the bowl/playoff momentum.

The Big Ten changed its fortunes on New Year's Day. National signing day looms, and league should gain a greater market share of the spotlight, providing a springboard to the offseason.
In the coming days, I'll take a closer look at whether the Big Ten would benefit from having prospects take official visits earlier, such as at the end of their junior years in high school. It's an idea Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo has championed, and one that makes since because of the accelerated recruiting cycle and the far-flung locations of some Big Ten schools.

Some Big Ten teams might not benefit from earlier official visits. They have no trouble getting recruits to campus and piling up early commits. Others must play the waiting game and make strong pushes before national signing day. Coaching changes can make an impact when teams get verbal commits, as Penn State has learned in recent weeks. Recruits also have been more likely to flip pledges leading up to signing day, forcing some teams to scramble to fill spots.

We're a day away from the big day, and while there are a few key undecided recruits who will make their choices Wednesday, most of the hay is in the barn, so to speak.

When did Big Ten teams get their 2014 recruits to verbally commit? Here's a closer look (as of Monday night):

ILLINOIS

Total commits: 18 (four already have signed)

March-May 2013: 4
June-July: 8
August-September: 0
October: 1
November: 0
December: 4
January: 1
February: 0

INDIANA

Total commits: 25 (six have signed)

March-May 2013: 0
June: 5
July: 4
August: 0
September: 1
October: 3
November: 0
December: 2
January: 6
February: 4

IOWA

Total commits: 21

January-April 2013: 2
June: 5
July: 3
August: 2
September: 1
October: 1
November: 2
December: 1
January: 4

MICHIGAN

Total commits: 16 (seven have signed)

August 2012: 1
February 2013: 3
April-May: 7
June: 3
July: 1
August: 1
September-February: 0

MICHIGAN STATE

Total commits: 21 (two have signed)

August 2012: 1
September 2012: 1
April-May 2013: 5
June: 4
July: 1
August: 1
September: 2
October: 0
November: 1
December: 3
January: 1
February: 1

MINNESOTA

Total commits: 19 (two have signed)

February-April 2013: 3
May: 0
June-July: 3
August: 0
September: 1
October: 1
November: 2
December: 1
January: 6
February: 2

NEBRASKA

Total commits: 26 (two have signed)

March 2013: 1
April-May: 0
June: 7
July: 3
August: 1
September: 0
October: 1
November: 2
December: 2
January: 6
February: 3

NORTHWESTERN

Total commits: 16 (one has enrolled)

March-April 2013: 4
May: 5
June: 1
July-November: 0
December: 3
January: 1
February: 2

OHIO STATE

Total commits: 22 (seven have signed)

December 2012: 1
January-February 2013: 3
March-May: 4
June: 5
July: 2
August: 1
September: 1
October-November: 0
December: 2
January: 3
February: 0

PENN STATE

Total commits: 25 (five have enrolled)

October 2012: 1
February-April 2013: 5
May: 2
June-July: 3
August-September: 0
October: 3
November: 1
December: 1
January: 8
February: 1

PURDUE

Total commits: 20 (two have signed)

May 2013: 2
June: 3
July: 1
August-September: 0
October: 1
November: 1
December: 8
January: 3
February: 1

WISCONSIN

Total commits: 27 (four have signed)

April 2012: 1
August 2012: 1
September 2012: 1
May 2013: 2
June-July: 5
August: 0
September: 2
October: 3
November: 5
December: 3
January: 2
February: 2

Notes/comments
  • The James Franklin effect certainly can be seen in Penn State's class, as all nine recruits who committed in January or February did so after Franklin's hiring on Jan. 11. Franklin flipped several prospects from his former team, Vanderbilt, and also brought in some surprises during a furious push down the stretch.
  • Early recruiting has been a hallmark for Brady Hoke at Michigan, and it's no surprise to see the Wolverines basically done with their 2014 class before the season. Michigan had 21 of its 27 recruits in the 2013 class verbally commit before the 2012 season.
  • Iowa's commit pattern was the steadiest in the league, as the Hawkeyes received at least one pledge every month between June 2013 and January 2014.
  • Nebraska has accelerated its recruiting pace in each of the last two years. The Huskers had just five verbal commits before the season in the 2012 class but doubled that total in the 2013 class and have 12 in the 2014 crop. Nebraska is one of the Big Ten schools that seemingly could benefit from earlier official visits because of its location in relation to recruiting hotbeds.
  • Gary Andersen's first full recruiting class at Wisconsin is a huge one, and Andersen and his staff did much of their work both during and after the 2013 season. Seventeen of Wisconsin's 27 pledges came after the games began.
  • Northwestern stockpiled commits early on and would have been done in mid-December after Parrker Westphal's pledge, but two prospects (Noah Westerfield and Jordan Thomas) decommited last month, forcing the Wildcats to make some late additions.
  • Ohio State's recruiting is following a somewhat familiar pattern under Urban Meyer: strong winter and spring, a few summer pickups, relatively quiet during the season and then a nice push from mid-December to early January. The Buckeyes have landed some of their best prospects late in the process, from 2013 recruits Mike Mitchell and Vonn Bell to 2014 standout Raekwon McMillan.
  • Purdue and Minnesota tend to add the bulk of their commits later in the process. The Boilers added 12 commits in the 2013 class following Darrell Hazell's hiring in early December, and 12 of their 20 commits in this year's class came after Dec. 1. Minnesota picked up nine of its 19 commits in the current class after Dec. 1 -- a similar ratio as it had in the 2013 class.

Ohio State grabs commitment No. 16 

July, 29, 2013
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Ohio State certainly is doing its part to shore up positions of need in the 2014 recruiting class.

After landing ESPN 300 offensive guard Demetrius Knox (Fort Worth, Texas/All Saints Episcopal) on Sunday, the Buckeyes hauled in four-star athlete Malik Hooker (New Castle, Pa./New Castle) on Monday. He is their 16th pledge in 2014 and picked Ohio State over Pittsburgh and Penn State.

This month is very important for Ohio State, as the staff is set to host its senior advanced camp on Sunday. Hundreds of prospects will be in attendance, including several top targets. Here are five storylines to watch this week:


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Ohio State’s defense is based on speed, and the Buckeyes will go anywhere to find it.

And that includes Oklahoma, a state Ohio State rarely recruits.


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C.J. Reavis (Chester, Va./Thomas Dale) got a sneak peak at The Horseshoe seven and half months ago when he participated in Ohio State’s Friday Night Lights camp.


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NSD TV announcement schedule

January, 31, 2013
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National signing day is just around the corner on Feb. 6. That day, a number of the nation’s top football recruits will announce their college destinations and 18 ESPN 300 prospects are scheduled to do so on ESPNU.

Below is the full schedule of announcements on ESPNU, which kicks off with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche, making his long-awaited decision at 7:30 a.m. ET.

Note: All times are Eastern

DB Bell excited about Vols under Jones 

January, 30, 2013
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The official visits and in-home visits are over for ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland). Ohio State was thought to have an early lead for the 6-foot, 190-pound defensive back, then Alabama surged ahead last fall. Over the last week however, a new frontrunner might have emerged.


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Vonn Bell sets announcement time 

January, 29, 2013
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After taking his official visits to Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee, ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland) is getting closer to choosing his future home. The 6-foot, 190-pound defensive back was thought to be leaning toward the Crimson Tide before taking his last official visit to see Tennessee, whom he has been a longtime fan of.


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WR commit could pay dividends for OSU 

January, 25, 2013
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Two weekends ago, it looked like Ohio State might get the chance to lock up a wide receiver.

Corey Smith (Akron, Ohio/East Mississippi CC), Cornelius Elder (Nashville, Tenn./Ensworth) and Shelton Gibson (Cleveland Heights, Ohio/Cleveland Heights) were on campus on official visits.


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A WR could go a long way for OSU

January, 23, 2013
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Two weekends ago, it looked like Ohio State might get the chance to lock up a wide receiver.

Corey Smith (Akron, Ohio/East Mississippi CC), Cornelius Elder (Nashville, Tenn./Ensworth) and Shelton Gibson (Cleveland Heights, Ohio/Cleveland Heights) were on campus on official visits.

Ryan Timmons (Frankfort, Ky./Franklin County) was scheduled to come as well, but backed out at the last moment. Incidentally, Timmons picked up an offer from the Buckeyes on Tuesday night so that could change things again.

Smith is a Mississippi State commitment, but still loves the Ohio State. Elder has the Buckeyes and UCLA in his final two. Gibson has committed to West Virginia.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Travis L. Brown/ESPNDallas.com Getting Dontre Wilson to flip his commitment from Oregon to OSU could pay dividends for other recruits on the Buckeyes' board.
While Timmons is still in play -- Ohio State visited him Tuesday -- Oregon commit Dontre Wilson (DeSoto, Texas/DeSoto) is scheduled to come to town this weekend.

Incidentally, James Clark (New Smyrna Beach, Fla./New Smyrna Beach) could be a late add to this weekend’s official visit list as well. He has an in-home visit with the Buckeyes tonight.

The following weekend another Duck, this one -- Darren Carrington (San Diego/Horizon) -- has an official visit lined up as well.

Tyree Robinson (San Diego/Lincoln) and his twin brother Tyrell Robinson were scheduled to make an official visit this weekend, but have parted ways with Ohio State.

If they can lock up Wilson it might push things along in the process with others.

Wilson likes Oregon’s promotion of former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, but still wants to look around. He has always liked the Buckeyes, so a complete sell job could be the difference.

A wide receiver commitment could also hurry the process along a bit for other targets.

With Urban Meyer and Co. filling up another spot in a class with so few precious ones remaining, a commitment from a lineman like Dan Skipper (Arvada, Col./Ralston Valley) or Cameron Hunt (Corona, Calif./Centennial) could come sooner rather than later.

It won’t likely affect ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland), who will wait until signing day, but maybe it brings one of the aforementioned receivers to Columbus, Ohio.

Either way, a pledge this weekend should get the ball rolling. Otherwise, expect an insanely hectic final week for the Buckeyes as they wrap up their 2013 recruiting class.

Signing day primer: Alabama 

January, 23, 2013
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A little behind on the recruiting trail? Worry not -- TideNation has you covered. To catch you up on where the Alabama recruiting class of 2013 stands, we'll take you through the high points, including how the coaching staff has addressed certain needs and set the team up for seasons to come.

Team needs: With three of five starting offensive linemen and two of three defensive lineman starters off to the NFL draft, Alabama was forced to focus on finding help in the trenches. Nick Saban and the rest of the UA coaching staff had success filling those needs with the 2013 class, particularly along the offensive line. The Crimson Tide secured the commitments of four offensive linemen, one coming by way of a junior college in New York. Leon Brown, who was ranked in the top 20 of all junior college prospects by ESPN, could find himself competing for the starting right tackle job vacated by D.J. Fluker.

Derrick Henry
Derek Tyson/ESPN.comDerrick Henry is the only five-star commitment Alabama has and can fit at a variety of position.
Help is on the way: Outside of the lines, Alabama was once again in search of talented athletes to continue bringing potency to an offense that's been on a steady rise the past few years. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon were difference makers in 2012 and there could be one or two who do the same this year. Derrick Henry, the No. 1 athlete in the country and Alabama's lone five-star commitment, could be the biggest wild card of the class. At 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds, he's an option at tailback, H-back and possibly linebacker. He'll begin at running back, where he set a national career rushing yards record at Yulee High in Florida.

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Vonn Bell spends time with finalists 

January, 15, 2013
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In a span of fewer than 72 hours, ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland) spent time with coaches from each of his three finalists. First was on his first official visit, to Ohio State.


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Is Ohio State still in the mix for ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland)?

His high school coach Mark Mariakas wasted no time at all in answering that question after talking to Bell’s father, Vincent, following the four-star senior’s official visit.


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When Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland) announced he was planning to take official visits to Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee shortly after his team’s state runner-up finish, BuckeyeNation said the trip to Ohio would be important.

Developments since then prove just how vital this weekend will be for the Buckeyes as they try to round out an already stellar defensive recruiting class by adding the ESPN 150 safety.


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