Wednesday's national signing day will serve as the culmination of months—sometimes years—of intense effort from players, coaches and parents to connect the nation's top high school football prospects with the schools they best fit with. Most of the attention will be on the big names, the uncommitted recruits who make their final decisions and the top-tier schools that land another big haul of future talent.
But the day is just as much about the unheralded stars from all corners of the country, players who might have been stars in their hometowns but have gone relatively unnoticed outside of their own states. Those players' signings won't stand out as much overall, but we're shedding a little light on at least one from each state.
We've identified a 2016 high school football recruit from each of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, whose story and accomplishments are worth knowing about.
Love it or hate it, national signing day is the biggest moment in the lives of a lot of young athletes, many of whom are also capable of affecting the landscape of college football.
Sure, it sometimes gets ridiculous, depending on the style of some announcements. What used to be just picking a hat out of a bag has turned into a game of one-upmanship in which everyone tries to do something new. Still, it is all in good fun, as these players are getting their first exposure in the national spotlight.
Meanwhile, the actual decisions made will be extremely important. The top players are the future of the sport, and where they choose to go to school will make a difference for many programs around the country. If you are a fan of college football, make sure to keep up with the biggest announcements during signing day on Wednesday, Feb. 3.
Top Recruits to Watch
Rashan Gary, DT
As the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Gary's process has been closely followed for months. The defensive tackle has the size (6'5", 293 lbs), strength, agility and technique to make an early impact at the next level and has been pursued by just about every team in the nation.
For much of the process, Michigan seemed like the clear leader for the New Jersey native, although Clemson is making up ground in a hurry and is now featured in the final two, according to Brian Dohn of Scout.com. Gary's mother, Jennifer Coney, explained how impressed she was with the recent visit to Clemson, via Dohn:
The academics, and the academic support, I was pleasantly surprised with everything at Clemson. The staff, the whole staff, the whole student body. I'm not talking about the football players, and the football players were phenomenal, but the whole student body. The players want them to recruit good football players because it's only going to make them better.
Mike Farrell of Rivals.com also noted that the Tigers were serious competitors in this race:
Although Gary might still end up being a Wolverine, Clemson has certainly made things interesting in recent weeks. Considering how much talent is returning to the roster for the national runners-up, this announcement could end up being extremely important for next season.
Ben Davis, ILB
The experts certainly think this won't be a contest, with 100 percent of predictions from 247Sports' Crystal Ball leaning toward Alabama. The local product has certainly leaned toward Nick Saban's team for a while and could easily end up being the latest in a long line of impressive linebackers in this program.
However, he still does have his options open while keeping five teams on his shortlist:
Perhaps the biggest discussion, though, might be what happens after he commits.
Bleacher Report's Tyler Donohue speculated that Davis and Lyndell "Mack" Wilson could end up being a package deal after spending time together on their latest official visit. The other Alabama linebacker could create quite a tandem in Tuscaloosa, although both are also considering Georgia since former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart now the head coach.
In any case, Davis has the talent to be one of the top defensive players in the nation within a few years, and any team will be extremely lucky to have him.
Mecole Hardman Jr., ATH
This recruiting cycle is definitely dominated by defensive players, with studs capable of making an impact at each level of the defense. However, one top recruit who can fare well on the offensive end is Mecole Hardman Jr.
Although he hasn't decided on a position, Hardman is likely to spend his college years at receiver. This is bad news for cornerbacks, because the Georgia native is one of the fastest players in the entire class, as he displayed in recent practices for the U.S. under-19 team:
Hardman still has a lot of schools in consideration, with Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio State all technically still alive. That's a lot of hats on the table before Wednesday.
Despite the multiple options, Georgia might have the edge as the hometown team, but you never know what will happen when these players eventually make their choices.
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Every preseason is filled with an ever-evolving group of major storylines that seem to dominate the conversation from spring meetings through media days and on up to the opening kickoff in Week 1.
More often than not for the past decade, some form of "What conference will challenge the SEC?" has been a key talking point for coaches, players and the media nearly every week of the year. The talk has picked up the past two seasons in particular with regards to the Pac-12, and whether Commissioner Larry Scott’s great western renaissance project has drawn even, or close to even, with the Southeastern Conference.
In many respects, the Pac-12 has come close to matching (and even exceeding, depending on what metric you use) the SEC. The Pac-12 has certainly proved to be deeper than any conference in the country, it has some of the best coaches in college football, and many of the 12 schools’ facilities are now either up to par or class-leading.
While a national title is still lacking since the days of Pete Carroll at USC, on the field and in terms of national perception, it seems as though the two leagues are closer than ever before.
But will that still continue to be the case going forward?
There appears to be little slowing down the SEC at the top. The conference captured yet another national title this past season thanks to coach Nick Saban and Alabama, and the league will continue to dominate the recruiting rankings with nearly every program capturing a top-25 class by the end of national signing day. But while there appears to be a firm grip on the top conference in college football, who’s No. 2 might be more of a question up for debate in the coming years.
The Pac-12 is certainly well-positioned to keep taking a run at the top. But could the Big Ten be nipping at its heels with yet another strong recruiting cycle in 2016? Yes, it can.
Let’s start at the top of the conference. As much as we would like to discuss depth or how it really matters to have a competitive middle and lower tier, conference superiority is—in the eyes of many—chiefly measured by how the alpha dogs of the league perform.
When it comes to the Big Ten, that’s a good thing.
In the case of one of those heavyweights, it was just over a year ago when Ohio State throttled Oregon in the national title game to signal a return to prominence for head coach Urban Meyer and his home state Buckeyes. OSU seemed to battle the perception that the Big Ten was down all season long in 2014 but, in the end, had the last laugh by holding up the trophy to conclude the season. A head-to-head win against the SEC and Pac-12 champions wasn't lost by many either.
Combined with a 12-1 campaign and Top Four finish in 2015, it's clear Ohio State has returned to being an annual title contender. Given how energized Meyer has appeared on the sidelines and on the recruiting trail (three top-five classes in the past four years, according to 247Sports), the Buckeyes will likely have something to do with the Big Ten title—and a possible playoff spot—for the foreseeable future.
Even with a steady stream of talent departing for the NFL draft each offseason, Ohio State is an elite program.
Then there are the Buckeyes’ rivals to the north. Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s debut season for Michigan went better than most expected, with a New Year’s Day throttling of SEC East champ Florida serving as a cherry on top of a 10-win campaign. Nobody is doubting Harbaugh’s coaching chops based on his resume, and with the way momentum is going in Ann Arbor, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before the Wolverines are in the College Football Playoff with a shot to land another national title.
Michigan already returns quite a bit from last year’s team and Harbaugh—a quarterback whisperer of a coach—will have a number of quality signal-caller options, including 247Sports 4-star Brandon Peters.
If you are looking for a statement that things are a bit different around the conference for 2016 and beyond, that might be one.
It’s not just the two brand names in the Big Ten, either. Michigan State remains one of the most consistent and elite programs in the country under head coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans, this year’s semifinal result notwithstanding, are capable of beating anybody whenever they take the field and are recruiting at a higher level than ever before.
Combined with Dantonio’s penchant for developing talent, it seems pretty clear that there’s depth and staying power at the top of the Big Ten.
Though they may not be quite to the level of their peers at the top of the league, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and even Northwestern have been Top 25 programs as well. The Nittany Lions in particular could be a team to watch going forward as they move further past their scholarship restrictions and rely more on the talent (yet another top-20 class appears to be a lock in 2016) head coach James Franklin is bringing to Happy Valley.
While there’s plenty of momentum heading into national signing day this year in the Midwest and the 2016 Big Ten race is shaping up to be the most interesting in some time, there appears to be signs of regression out West.
The highest-rated recruiting class in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, belongs to defending-champion Stanford at No. 11. While the Cardinal have become a West Coast powerhouse and a threat to make the final four what seems like nearly every season, they will not come close to a top-five class and may very likely slip out of the top 12 Wednesday.
The team does return Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey to headline its 2016 squad but also must find replacements on the current roster or among the incoming freshmen for a host of key contributors, such as quarterback Kevin Hogan and linebacker Blake Martinez. Pollsters will no doubt rank the team highly in the preseason and consider the Cardinal one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 next year, but a slight regression from their 2015 form should be expected.
Then there’s North Division rival Oregon, which will be one of the most intriguing teams in the country this season when its top-30 recruiting class full of speedy playmakers infuses its fairly talented roster.
The Ducks still face plenty of questions, such as replacing departed stars (such as quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.) and the recent staff shakeup under head coach Mark Helfrich, so it remains to be seen if the typically flashy program from the Pacific Northwest can get back to the level it was just two seasons ago when it found itself in the national title game.
Down South, the two Los Angeles schools are both in the middle of an interesting offseason. UCLA lost an impressive amount of talent to graduation and the NFL draft but will return plenty of star power, led by quarterback Josh Rosen.
The Bruins already have a number of recruits on campus, and this year is shaping up to be yet another with a top-25 recruiting class for head coach Jim Mora Jr. Whether that will be enough to finally get over the hump in Westwood remains to be seen, but regardless, it will be clear that the level of buzz around the program won’t quite be what it was in years past without Myles Jack, Paul Perkins and others in the powder blues.
Across town at USC, head coach Clay Helton has brought stability to the land of Troy but faces an uphill battle in returning the Trojans to being a consistently elite powerhouse. It remains possible that they’ll finish with another top-10 recruiting class in 2016, but as has been the case the past several seasons, that doesn’t mean much when it comes to on-field results for the Cardinal and Gold.
Elsewhere, Washington will add a quality group of recruits to an already young and talented team to form a legitimate Pac-12 dark horse for head coach Chris Petersen. Aside from the Huskies though, question marks remain for most teams around the league, and even solid recruiting classes won’t do much to dampen those thorny issues that will be the focus when spring ball rolls around everywhere from Utah to Arizona.
As good of a recent run as the Pac-12 has had, momentum appears to be slowing. On the flip side, Harbaugh is creating headlines daily, Meyer is recruiting furiously for another title, and the rest of the Big Ten is slowly doing what it takes to raise its game on the field and off it.
Can the Big Ten move past the Pac-12 to firmly establish the league as a firm choice for the second best around? One great recruiting class in 2016—as it looks right now—might help the conference do just that.
Combine that with a solid base of talented returning players, and it wouldn't be surprising if the topic of conversation this summer turns from whether the Pac-12 is the league chasing down the SEC to whether the Big Ten is actually the one that has closed the gap.
The results won’t be in until midseason at best, but there appears to be a real opportunity for the once-downtrodden Big Ten to capitalize on some recent energy and go from mocked to highly praised on the national scene.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football reporter for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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Running back Kyle Porter is reportedly staying in Texas. The coveted recruit made the decision to join the Longhorns on Tuesday.
Texas head coach Charlie Strong provided his take:
Davis noted the impact of picking up Porter's commitment on the Longhorns' overall class:
Porter is a 4-star prospect who rates just inside the Top 275 in the 2016 class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. More importantly for Texas, he checks in as the No. 11 running back among the incoming group, and it managed to keep him in state.
The Katy, Texas, standout didn't spend much time focused on recruiting during his final season of high school football. That meant he had a lot to learn about the Longhorns during the final weeks before national signing day, as he explained to EJ Holland of 247Sports in January: "I don't have much time to make a decision, so I really want to see what Texas has to offer. I'm going to go in there with a lot of questions about the program, the system and everything. I just need to learn as much about it as possible."
Clearly, Texas impressed him enough during his visit to earn his commitment.
Porter is a dual-threat rusher, equally capable of running between the tackles or becoming a useful piece in the passing game. The transition for running backs typically goes smoother than most other positions, which means he could make a quick impact, as well.
There should be plenty of snaps available in the Longhorns backfield. The departure of senior Johnathan Gray opens the door for Porter to earn some playing time alongside the likes of D'Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III, if he can impress right out of the gate.
Even if he's forced to wait before seeing the field regularly, his long-term outlook is positive, and it's certainly a nice addition for Texas ahead of signing day Wednesday.
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Getting major minutes at quarterback as a true freshman is quite difficult, especially at the Power Five level.
For every Josh Rosen or Brett Rypien, dozens of highly regarded quarterback recruits spend their first years way down on the depth chart or with a redshirt.
But this talented 2016 quarterback class has a handful of signal-callers who could make an instant impact at their new school by either battling for the starting job immediately or nailing down a key role as a backup. Several are already on campus, preparing for spring practices and their first opportunities to climb the depth chart at the college level.
Here are seven 2016 quarterbacks who are the most likely to see the field as true freshmen this fall. These incoming freshmen aren't No. 1 contenders for their respective starting jobs this far in advance—and some might still take redshirts—but they all appear to have the ability and opportunity to get some sort of early playing time.
Which 2016 true freshman quarterback do you think will have the most success in the upcoming season? Tell us in the comments below.
The furious sprint that started in the month of January toward national signing day is almost over, and in just a short time thousands of players will be putting pen to paper for their college choices.
While every head coach wants to nail down a top-notch group out of the Class of 2016, those who are taking over new programs face a different kind of pressure. They don’t have the luxury of time to recruit their kind of players, and many also have to deal with the fact that they’re changing offensive or defensive systems.
For some, one great first signing class could lay the foundation for a successful tenure. For others, a bunch of misses as they scramble to cobble together a group of high school players could mean their tenure is over before it began.
Here are eight head coaches who face the most pressure to nail their first recruiting classes.
Kalani Sitake, BYU
Like many others on this list, Sitake is a first-time head coach who has had to make the transition from having a narrower focus when it comes to recruiting to seeing the whole picture.
It helps tremendously that he is coaching at a place he knows well as an alum and in an area where he spent nearly a decade as an assistant. Also, the Cougars do draw upon a narrower pool of recruits than other schools, which helps in some respects for Sitake but can also make it tough to nail down evaluations.
Then there’s the roster management that must occur by default each and every year, starting with this year’s crop of recruits. With various players coming and going from their two-year missions, it can sometimes be difficult to truly get a sense of how the roster will look until fall camp really gets underway.
Sometimes things work out (see Mangum, Tanner) but it’s another thing on Sitake’s plate that other head coaches don’t have to deal with as much. While Sitake does inherit a solid team coming off a good year, he’ll have to lock down a number of contributors with this recruiting class, because the 2016 schedule he faces is likely the toughest in the country (featuring six Power Five teams, plus Toledo, Boise State and Cincinnati).
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Like Sitake, Smart returns to his alma mater as a first-time head coach. The biggest difference between them, however, might be the simple fact that expectations are sky high in Athens.
After all, Mark Richt was shown the door after going 9-3 last season and despite signing a pair of top-eight classes in the 247Sports Team Rankings the past two years. In short, the bar is very, very high for Georgia, which puts a lot of pressure on Smart.
The good news is that the biggest pieces of the 2016 class are already on campus: 5-star QB Jacob Eason and 5-star TE Isaac Nauta. Landing those two were big signs that Smart and his staff could hold their own despite some serious challengers.
The Bulldogs will be considered one of the favorites to win the SEC East again in 2016 and a top-notch first effort from Smart on the recruiting trail and strong finish on Wednesday could help make a division title a reality.
Mike Norvell, Memphis
Norvell is a sharp young coach who faces a big challenge in his first head coaching job on two fronts.
First off, the fact that the Tigers have won 19 games the past two seasons after being one of the worst FBS programs in the country results in a very high bar for the team’s new head coach. The Tigers don’t just have to maintain a high level of play in the transition from Justin Fuente to Norvell but also have to do so in one of the most competitive conferences in the country in the AAC.
Add in the fact that several key pieces from Memphis’ recent run will be lost to graduation or the NFL (especially QB Paxton Lynch), and the pressure will be on to bring in a class that is both deep and filled with some early contributors.
Norvell has already brought in several JUCO recruits to help fill the gaps, including landing former Tennessee quarterback Riley Ferguson.
Barry Odom, Missouri
Odom has landed his dream job, but things haven’t exactly been smooth sailing in Columbia since he took over.
The recent Maty Mauk incident drew plenty of negative headlines, and the school is still dealing with the issues caused by the recent protests (in which the football team had a prominent role). Having to recruit in that kind of climate is difficult for any head coach, much less a first-time one in the extremely tough SEC.
The other big thing that puts pressure on Odom is the fact that he’s a defensive-minded coach who needs to fix the Tigers offense…badly.
Only six of the team’s commitments are on that side of the ball as of Feb. 2, which that might cause Odom to make a false start before his career gets going if he can’t close on a high note with some offensive reinforcements.
Dino Babers, Syracuse
Babers was hired to bring Baylor’s prolific style of offense to the Carrier Dome, which means finding players who will fit in perfectly with what he wants to do on that side of the ball.
Upstate New York isn’t exactly fertile recruiting ground for athletes who make plays in space, but Babers has done a good job expanding the recruiting base to key areas around the country. The ACC is a big step up from the MAC when it comes to recruiting, but it seems as though the Orange staff has come in with a good plan and have followed through on it.
It might take a season or two for the fast-paced offense to really take hold at Syracuse, but if it does, finding some big-time playmakers in the 2016 class will be a big reason why.
Scott Frost, UCF
Like Babers, Frost was brought in to juice an offense that seemed to go sideways more often last season than it went forward.
He’ll have a big advantage of not being able to go far to find fast athletes and will be able to sell the fact that he will run the Oregon version of the spread in a state full of college teams running more pro-style offenses.
Still, it’s undeniable that Frost is going to have to dig the Knights out of a big hole, given how bad they were last season and how competitive their conference is. That means finding players who can play right away as freshmen.
Clay Helton, USC
The past five recruiting class ranks for USC are, according to 247Sports composite team rankings: No. 2, No. 10, No. 13, No. 9, No. 3. That's despite turmoil at the head coaching spot and some brutal NCAA sanctions.
In short, few schools recruit as well as the Trojans do, and the result is a very, very high level that Helton must reach with his first recruiting class.
What is strange about USC this season is that there is such little buzz about the team heading into Wednesday’s festivities. It figures to be a smaller class than most, but it’s a bit abnormal to see the class sitting third in the Pac-12 and not in on as many 5-stars as past years.
The head coach at USC always has plenty of pressure put on him, and that is the case on signing day as much as it is on the first day of the season.
Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia
Mendenhall was one of the most left-field hires of the offseason, which puts a little pressure on him to land a quality class as he attempts to remake the Cavaliers.
The fact of the matter is that he seems like such a fish out of water after spending so much time at BYU. Sure, the Cougars recruited nationally under Mendenhall, but things are a bit different when you need to focus more regionally at Virginia.
Further complicating things is that most of the BYU staff went east with its head coach, so there might not be a ton of strong local ties present for this first recruiting class.
Given how competitive the ACC has become on the recruiting trail, Mendenhall has his work cut out for him trying to make a dent in such a short time period with his first class.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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Whether you want to admit it or not, recruiting at an elite level is critical in competing for and winning a national championship. Yes, coaching matters, too. So does player development. We can be nuanced and honest enough to understand there's not one factor that overrides all else when it comes to putting together a championship-caliber team. If you want to head down that road, lucky breaks play a role, too.
However, combining individual factors like those can't lead to blanket statements like "recruiting stars don't matter." Of course they do. The star system is an inexact science, but it matters all the same.
Just look at the string of recent national champions. Every single one recruited annually at a high level. Alabama, in fact, has taken its dynasty and made it twofold. There's the dynasty on the field and the dynasty on the recruiting trail.
"Nobody has had a recruiting dynasty like this in college football," Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals, told Bleacher Report's Lars Anderson last year.
In the table below are the last 10 national title winners and their previous four recruiting classes dating from four years before (Year -4) to the year immediately preceding (Year -1).
With the exception of Auburn in 2010, every single championship winner averaged a top-10 class in the four years leading up to their big win.
However, the Tigers had a once-in-a-lifetime player in quarterback Cam Newton—who, by the way, is likely going to be this year's NFL MVP, is playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday and who is, according to B/R's Mike Freeman, "the most dangerous quarterback weapon we've ever seen." Still, Auburn averaged a top-15 class for this exercise.
There are variances, of course. First of all, not all recruiting services rank players and classes the same. Where 247Sports and Rivals rank the same class could vary. Secondly, as Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports rightly explained, "whether your favorite school finishes fourth or seventh is a largely arbitrary distinction. ... ultimately those are both really good classes."
The distinction, as Mandel goes on to write, is "between fifth and 35th."
Additionally, claiming that recruiting matters doesn't instantly mean a program is going to win a national championship. LSU, Texas and USC are recent examples of underachieving programs in the star-system era. Conversely, one could look at programs like Baylor, Michigan State and Stanford as overachievers.
These are outliers, though. And, for the record, the aforementioned overachievers have a whopping zero national championships in the star-system era among them.
The point is if a program routinely recruits at a top-10 level, it puts itself in a better position to win a national title. This is what Josh McCuistion of SoonerScoop.com firmly believes:
Based on the above chart, McCuistion isn't wrong. Paul Myerberg of USA Today, on the other hand, puts that magic number at 15:
There's a large degree of truth in both statements. Auburn has already been discussed, but there's another example that somewhat supports Myerberg's assertion: Clemson, which was No. 1 in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee last season.
Over the last four recruiting cycles, the Tigers averaged a recruiting rank of 14th, which puts them just inside the cutoff point. Clemson, of course, came oh so close to winning it all.
In short, top-10 classes are as close as you're going to get to a sure thing when it comes to translating raw talent to national championships. Top-15 classes are probably the limit.
With that in mind, who fits the mold for 2016-17?
A quick glance across this year's 247Sports recruiting rankings shows a lot of the usual suspects: LSU, Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, etc.
Historically speaking, those are the types of programs capable of putting together top-10 to top-15 classes. In other words, don't be surprised if one of those teams hoists the playoff trophy next January.
As Gerry Hamilton of ESPN.com notes, national title-winning teams have a history of recruiting extremely well in the year leading right up to the championship:
So the next time you hear someone say national signing day is overrated or that stars don't matter, tell them to look at the numbers, because they say something different entirely.
Is recruiting a perfect formula? Absolutely not. Nothing in sports is predicted with 100 percent accuracy.
But the correlation is there. That's what matters.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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Recently, 2016 stud quarterback recruits Brandon Peters (Michigan) and Shea Patterson (Ole Miss) stopped by the Bleacher Report office to duke it out in the grandaddy of them all: the office obstacle course.
Watch the two future stars face off in the video above.
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After coming out on the losing end of a quarterback battle at the University of Georgia and subsequently leaving the school, Jacob Park "plans to sign" with Iowa State.
According to Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports, the soon-to-be sophomore is looking for a new lease on life in the Big 12.
"I feel blessed to have another opportunity," Park said on Tuesday. "I know a lot of people don't get one shot at it. I'm getting two. I'm going to make the best of it."
Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register believes landing Park could turn out to be a major coup for the Cyclones:
After current Georgia starting signal-caller Greyson Lambert transferred from Virginia to Georgia last summer, Park decided to leave Athens, per Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I just want to say thank (you) dawg nation and everyone else who made my stay in Athens special," Park said on social media. "Never will forget the people and friends. Time to move on and turn the page to the next chapter. Go Dawgs."
According to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald, Park attended Trident Technical College this past season rather than playing football at a junior college.
The former South Carolina Mr. Football honoree was a redshirt freshman in 2014 during his only season with the Bulldogs.
Per Wiltfong, Park was rated as the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2014, and he is excited about the opportunity to play for the Cyclones:
Coach (Matt) Campbell, he's the most down to earth coach I've ever met. Coach (Alex) Golesh is like talking to my big brother. (Passing game coordinator) Coach (Jim) Hofher is like the best teacher. I spent 45 minutes in the room for him for two days and learned more in those 45-minute sessions than I did in my whole time at Georgia.
When I showed up on campus they treated me like family and I felt like I was at home. They have a good situation to me at quarterback walking in the door, all signs are pointing that this is has to be the right decision.
With Sam B. Richardson no longer in the picture and Joel Lanning failing to establish himself as the definitive starter as a sophomore, Park has a golden opportunity to step in and start right away for Iowa State.
Park has his work cut out for him since the Cyclones haven't won more than three games since 2012 and haven't had a winning record since 2009, but he should receive the playing time he covets.
It clearly wasn't going to happen for him at Georgia, but Park now has a chance to show the Bulldogs why he deserved a longer look under center.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.
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With the news that they are no longer in the running for the nation’s premier defensive tackle prospect, SEC powers Alabama and Auburn—who were in Gary’s previous group of contenders—have to look elsewhere for help along the defensive line.
Both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers are recruiting other stud recruits at that position, but where will each program turn after missing out on Gary?
Keith Niebuhr of AuburnUndercover reported that a source close to Brown indicated the Peach State’s top overall prospect has a top three that includes Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee.
Of that group, the Tigers seem to have the most buzz with Brown—as evidenced by the heavy movement toward Malzahn’s program on Brown’s Crystal Ball page.
After his official visit to Auburn the weekend of Jan. 15, Brown told Niebuhr that his comfort level on the Plains is part of what appeals to him with the Tigers.
"Coming out here, you always get the family atmosphere," Brown told Niebuhr. "Some people say that but you can't really tell that. But definitely coming here you get that feel."
The Tigers would love to pair Brown with fellow Georgia native and 4-star defensive tackle Antwuan Jackson—who is already on campus as an early enrollee.
Another defensive tackle prospect from the Peach State who has both the Tide and the Tigers among his final group is 4-star Michail Carter.
While it would be tough to pull the 6’4”, 302-pounder away from the Bulldogs, it appears as if Alabama is in the best shape to challenge Georgia.
As noted by BamaOnline, Carter visited Tuscaloosa during the week before making his way to Georgia, and he’s been on the Tide’s campus on numerous occasions throughout his recruitment.
While losing out on Gary is a blow, both the Tide and the Tigers appear to be in a good position to meet their needs at the defensive tackle spot when the dust settles on national signing day.
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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We're getting down to the final moments before Wednesday's national signing day, and we're predicting where the top uncommitted recruits will land.
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From the end of April through early December, TaDarryl Marshall was a proud Tennessee commit for a little more than seven months.
On Dec. 6, he and Tennessee officially parted ways. On Monday night, the Leeds, Alabama, 3-star athlete committed to Samford.
Marshall is excited about his college future, but outsiders looking in immediately ask the same question: How does someone once committed to play in the SEC—someone with 26 reported offers—prepare to play FCS football?
These are the questions of recruiting that come right around the closing hours before national signing day. And with three words, Marshall seemed to answer every question that comes up regarding the random—and oftentimes unfair—activities that happen before signing day.
"It's a business," Marshall said, "and every athlete should learn how to sell themselves in order to land the offer to the school they want."
The harsh reality of recruiting is that in some cases, commitments don't stick. And by that, we're not talking about athletes decommitting from a program.
In Marshall's case, Tennessee reportedly chose to part ways with him. He said in a tweet that the Volunteers revoked his offer, which forced him to look at different avenues within his recruiting process.
"Once I committed to Tennessee, some of those offers I had went away. Schools were looking at other people," Marshall said. "So after I decommitted, it was so late in the game, and spots were already taken. Kentucky and Arizona ended up pulling their offers the same day.
"I mean, I understand it, but it can be a lot better—especially with the communication part of it. I think it's better to just tell a recruit early rather than when they're looking for something last-minute. If Tennessee told me three months ago, I wouldn't have been in this situation."
Sadly, these things happen in recruiting.
Scholarships are given, and then they can either be downgraded to grayshirt opportunities or, worse, pulled altogether. It's not an illegal process. Some may consider it immoral, but it's not illegal.
When it happens, it puts an athlete in an awkward situation—particularly the athlete who is blindsided by a program's plan or the athlete who spent months helping a program recruit other players. Perhaps even more disturbingly, these situations occasionally happen extremely close to national signing day, which leaves some athletes in desperate situations.
Riley Cole now finds himself in that situation. After committing to Alabama in June, the 3-star linebacker tweeted on Sunday that he has reopened his process after Alabama downgraded his offer to a grayshirt—when an athlete doesn't enroll in class until the second term of his freshman year.
The NCAA allows college athletes five years to complete four years of eligibility.
Athletes grayshirt all the time. It's the timing of the situation that makes Cole's process tough for some to process.
Alas, recruiting is a business. And it isn't always fun.
Last month, 4-star offensive tackle Erik Swenson decommitted from Michigan after reportedly having his offer rescinded. The decommitment happened on Jan. 20, but he found a home at Oklahoma 10 days later and is planning to sign with the Sooners on Wednesday.
Patrice Virgil knows about these horror stories all too well.
Her son is Fresno State quarterback Chason Virgil, a member of the 2015 recruiting class and currently a sophomore-to-be who once thought his future would be at Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs, however, pulled Virgil's scholarship and offered him a grayshirt. The timing sent his family into a frenzy, as Mississippi State pulled the offer 16 days before he graduated early from West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas.
"It was devastating for us because of the fact that we've always taught Chason when you decide where you want to go, there won't any changing of the mind," Patrice Virgil said. "We didn't want to go into thinking it could be Mississippi State today and another school the next.
"Knowing they waited all that time and never said anything until he had 16 days left before he graduated, that hurt."
Additionally, Virgil had to put his college future to the side momentarily in November 2014. He and his family received the news two days before he had to lead his team in a playoff game.
"When they lost, it took him a long time to leave the field," Patrice Virgil said. "It hit him. He didn't have anywhere to go. He said, 'Mama, where am I going to go?' That broke my heart."
The good news for Virgil is that he ended up with an FBS scholarship, as did Swenson. Marshall, who said many of his scholarship offers were no longer available because of lack of space in the class, is currently the top-ranked player in Samford's class.
As for Cole, there's still time for him to land somewhere. Remember, national signing day is only the first day of the actual signing period. Cole will have until April 1 to sign a national letter of intent.
It won't be with the school he originally committed to, but that's the business side of recruiting that no one likes discussing.
Damon Sayles is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Damon via Twitter @DamonSayles.
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With one day left before national signing day on February 3, coaches are hustling around like Christmas Eve shoppers looking to secure that one last recruit that will solidify their classes.
While there are plenty of great prospects who have already announced, Wednesday will still serve as decision day for many of the nation's top high school athletes.
Here's a look at the top prospects in the nation who have yet to sign, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, and where they could be headed.
Most Intriguing Prospect to Watch
Rashan Gary, DT, Paramus Catholic (Paramus, New Jersey)
Defensive tackle Rashan Gary will undoubtedly be the biggest prize on Wednesday. The 5-star defensive tackle has the body and athleticism to make an immediate impact on the field as well as the final recruiting rankings. He's the No. 1 player in the nation, according to 247Sports' composite rankings.
Gary isn't just media hype, either. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports spoke to several college coaches who believe the incoming freshman is the most likely to make a difference right away. One coach even compared him to Leonard Fournette in terms of ability to contribute right away:
"This is a really good defensive line class and he is head and shoulders above every other D-lineman in this class," one longtime college coach said. "He's 300 pounds and he moves well enough, he can play end. He's great with his hands. He's strong. He's been very well-coached and has had a great high school D-line coach. Rashan Gary is the Leonard Fournette of this class."
Gary will make his decision live on SportsCenter during the 1 p.m. ET hour, according to ESPN.com. When he does, it's believed that his decision will come down to Michigan or Clemson, according to Brian Haines of Fox Sports.
Jim Harbaugh has gone to great lengths to turn Michigan's signing day into a spectacle. As SportsCenter noted, a slew of celebrities and athletes will be in Ann Arbor to announce the new Wolverines:
Harbaugh's efforts have proved to be worthwhile thus far. Michigan sits at No. 6 in the nation heading into the big day, according to 247Sports' composite team rankings.
His first 5-star recruit could propel that class even higher in those rankings.
Mique Juarez, OLB, North High School (Torrance, CA)
If you're looking for a potential curveball announcement, 5-star linebacker Mique Juarez could take the proverbial cake by going to BYU.
UCLA is the definite favorite to land the Californian. The Bruins garner 87 percent of 247Sports' Crystal Ball predictions, with Alabama getting the other 13.
But new BYU coach Kalani Sitake and Co. have made a late push for Juarez as signing day approaches. The LDS athlete took an official visit to Provo, Utah, on Jan. 29, and his mother, Nathasha Juarez, grew up as a fan of the Cougars:
It's a long shot. It isn't very often that a player of Juarez's caliber shuns Power Five conference schools to go to a place like BYU. However, a mother can be a very powerful factor for a high school athlete in choosing his school.
If Juarez weren't at least considering becoming a Cougar, it's hard to believe he'd schedule an official visit over the final weekend before signing day.
Demetris Robertson, WR, Savannah Christian Prep (Savannah, GA)
Come February 4, the most highly sought-after recruit still looking for a school will be Demetris Robertson. That's because the No. 1 receiver in the nation has already decided that he won't announce where he's signing until after February 3.
"The timeline right now will be Feb. 10 or Feb. 17," Robertson said, via Kipp Adams of 247Sports.
The site's Crystal Ball predictions have tabbed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as the favorites to land the class's No. 1 wide receiver with 42 percent of the vote. Georgia is right behind them with 37.
However, it's a trip to Athens that Robertson plans on making post-signing day. The Georgia native will give his home state program one last opportunity to sway a potentially big catch.
"My thoughts are really high for the Bulldogs," Robertson said via Adams. "The coaching staff is great. I have known Coach Kirby Smart and Coach Glenn Schumann for a long time. And meeting coach James Coley and coach Jim Chaney boosted them up."
Waiting until after signing day to sign a letter of intent isn't necessarily a popular move, but it does allow a prospect to see what kind of recruiting class his potential schools will have in place.
The Bulldogs (No. 8) are already rated slightly higher than the Irish (No. 10) heading into the final day, and the gap could widen on Wednesday. The Bulldogs could be in play for Derrick Brown, Mecole Hardman and Lyndell Wilson, among others.
Robertson will have his choice between two of the best classes in the country. With his decision coming last among the elite prospects in the country, he will be one of few remaining questions about where the biggest unsigned prospects will be playing in the fall.
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Championship teams are not first assembled on sweltering practice fields in the heat of August. They do not come together during the quaint, unorthodox December intermission. They are constructed on days like February 3—a national football holiday known as national signing day.
On this celebrated calendar moment, the sport's future will become its present. The nation's premier crop of high school players will confirm where they plan to spend the next three or four years.
Time-honored fax machines will give off a distinguished hum before spitting out commitments one by one. Logoed hats will be lifted off tables to dramatic applause.
And on the outside, otherwise responsible adults with children and mortgages and successful jobs will call in sick—developing a "cough" in the wee hours of the morning—all to watch this grandiose spectacle unfold.
In the normal world, none of this would make sense. But in our world, the absurdity of national signing day is strangely comforting. This year is no exception.
There is still much work to be done. With unexpected surprises waiting around every corner, 2016's recruiting Super Bowl promises to deliver yet again. Just what it will deliver is yet to be determined; that's why we'll all be glued to the madness of it all.
So, manufacture the appropriate illness yet again and make it a good one. This statured day deserves more than, say, the common cold.
Who Is the Best Player in the Country?
I'm glad you asked.
It's rare to see all recruiting outlets acting as one. In the instance of the No. 1 overall recruit for the 2016 class, however, debate is essentially nonexistent.
The top overall player in this class, according to 247Sports and everyone else, is defensive tackle Rashan Gary—a 6'5", 293-pound quarterback-eating, offensive lineman-destroying monster. He runs the 40-yard dash somewhere right around 4.8 seconds, which is a terrifying bit of football physics.
Gary has the knack of making his entire deep catalog look entirely too natural. At some of the elite gatherings of prospects, he regularly made gifted linemen look helpless.
It was much more about him than them; he is a physical rarity and a potential once-in-a-decade type of player.
The growing buzz is that Gary will take his talents to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to play for Jim Harbaugh—the tree-climbing, sleepover-having head coach currently doing anything possible to make an impression.
Chris Partridge, Gary's former high school coach at Paramus Catholic (New Jersey), is now on the staff and recently received a promotion. Obviously, his presence can only help nurture this connection that seemingly felt right from the onset.
It would seem that the only team that is still standing in the way of this connection is Clemson, according to Brian Dohn of Scout.com (h/t the Detroit News). A race that began with many is down to two. Stay tuned.
So Alabama Is Going To End Up with the No. 1 Class Again, Right?
For the first time in a long time, the answer to this question will likely be no. I say this with full understanding that I am regularly, um, wrong and could be once again.
Now is not the time to dump your Nick Saban stock and question why college football's great empire is crumbling. Alabama has a top-10 class heading into signing day and will likely close remarkably strong.
Saban won't lure away all of the players Alabama is vying for—and there are quite a few. But he will land a last-second wave of talent that will push this class even higher.
In the end, Alabama likely will have to settle for (sigh) a deep class loaded with prospects and finish somewhere around the top three in the team rankings.
If Not Alabama, Then Who Will Win the Recruiting National Championship?
Let's assume Alabama does not climb its way to the top for another recruiting national championship. If that is indeed the case, someone will have to lift the heavy recruiting crown.
Here are some of the likely contenders.
Even if Les Miles' team simply holds serve from this point—capping off an unbelievable recruiting year—it still might be the top class in the country. There's a possibility LSU could land Kristian Fulton, the nation's No. 2 cornerback. If not, it still will have absolutely dominated the talent-rich state of Louisiana. Remember when Miles was almost fired a few months ago?
In a year when everyone, including the mascot and ball boy, decided to bolt from Columbus, Urban Meyer has assembled yet another magnificent class. The highlight of this group is unquestionably defensive end Nick Bosa—the gifted younger brother of Joey Bosa. The Buckeyes are also still in the mix for more elite talents, including Hardman (No. 1 ATH).
The possibility of an enormous close to an already enormous year exists. The Rebels are still in the mix for cheat code Gary, defensive end Jeffery Simmons, safety Deontay Anderson and others. If Hugh Freeze simply hangs onto the pieces he has, it will be a wonderful day. But if he adds more, Ole Miss could be a surprising closer.
Others in the Mix
Florida State has quietly put together a monster. A strong few days could push the Seminoles to the top, which would not be surprising in the least. They're right there. The same can be said for Michigan, especially with the nation's No. 1 player feeling good about Ann Arbor. This one, however, will require a few more dominoes. And in the SEC, Florida, Georgia and even Alabama—despite what's written above—are still hovering near the top.
The "Look What We Have Here" Class of 2016
Houston is no longer a cute little story about a nice team with the head coach who got a grill with that rapper you used to listen to from time to time. It has assembled a class that personifies true program momentum.
Ed Oliver, the nation's No. 3 defensive tackle and the No. 6 overall prospect in this class, is committed. So is Tyrie Cleveland, the No. 2 wide receiver, although be sure to keep an eye on him. Tom Herman is assembling a mammoth in a place that has not enjoyed this kind of recruiting success in recent years.
Each year, a team or two tend to pop up on national signing day, make a splash and then fade back to the normal standing. But this feels different. If Herman stays at Houston—which is indeed an enormous "if" given how much interest will continue to come—this might be the start of something spectacular.
National Signing Day Headliners
Eight of the top 20 players listed on 247Sports' composite rankings remain uncommitted. Almost all of these players will commit on signing day.
Outside of the nation's No. 1 still waiting his turn, here are other pieces who will generate tidal waves come commitment time.
Derrick Brown (No. 4 DT, No. 9 overall): In a class seemingly bursting at the seams with elite defensive linemen, Brown will provide an immediate boost to a SEC team. At 6'3 ¾", chances are he'll cause havoc for Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia or Mississippi State. Those are the finalists for the Buford, Georgia, product, whom Kirby Smart (Georgia) would love to welcome.
Ben Davis (No. 1 ILB, No. 10 overall): The nation's premier linebacker also happens to be the son of Wayne Davis, Alabama's all-time leading tackler. That, of course, gives you an idea of one team in the mix, although Saban is not alone in his pursuit of this great tackling machine. The Alabama native is also considering Auburn, Georgia, LSU and Notre Dame.
Mique Juarez (No. 1 OLB, No. 11 overall): A deadly combination of speed and size, the nation's top outside linebacker, who hails from Torrance, California, is going to spend the next three or four years at UCLA, Ole Miss or Alabama. Saban appears to be churning momentum with the product late in the process, but will it be enough to lure him away from the West Coast?
Mecole Hardman Jr. (No. 1 ATH, No. 13 overall): One of 2016's most unique prospects, Hardman could play on either side of the ball. Ultimately, a team will be thrilled to use him on offense or perhaps even play him both ways. Hardman, yet another fascinating piece out of the state of Georgia, is considering the Bulldogs, along with Ohio State, Clemson, Florida, Alabama and Tennessee. This feels like the first of many Smart vs. Saban recruiting battles.
Lyndell Wilson (No. 2 OLB, No. 15 overall): A fascinating recruitment will finally come to an end; Wilson, after dropping his leader, Florida, late in the process—or so a tweet said before it was quickly deleted—will likely decide between Alabama, Georgia and Auburn on signing day. Just how bad does the head coach of the Crimson Tide want to add Wilson to an already impressive stable?
Well, this bad.
Teams to Watch on Signing Day
Texas: The strong finish for Texas is already underway, although no team situated outside the top 25 in 247Sports' team rankings could surge higher than Charlie Strong's Longhorns. Brandon Jones (No. 1 S) and Jeffrey McCulloch (No. 4 OLB) are two of the key pieces in this late movement, although they are not alone. There is work to be done, and Strong is in a position to add many new pieces at the finish line.
Georgia: It's easy to see why Georgia will be featured in so many places on signing day. With many of the state's top players waiting to announce (see: above) and the Bulldogs under consideration in almost every major recruiting battle, it could be a busy day in Athens. They won't hit on all of them, but they will hit on some. A top-10 class is almost guaranteed. Now, let's see how much higher they can climb.
Alabama: I just finished telling you why Alabama likely won't finish with the nation's top recruiting class, although I am already second-guessing myself for this proclamation. Alabama is still in the mix for just about every 5-star player on the board. It won't land them all—and I still don't believe it'll finish with the nation's top class, final answer—but it will close with a bang. And if the day somehow all comes together, look out.
What Will This Year's Most Original and Elaborate Commitment Include?
Welcome to the best part of signing day. Pledging a commitment to a university is fine; pledging a commitment to that team with the help of a live animal or dangerous prop is where this day separates itself.
I think I am going to throw a school out on signing day. Like on that day I am going to throw a school out so I can have probably a set six. I don't know what that school is going to be. I will probably make that decision soon. It will be probably be hats or cakes. I don't know what. However my momma wants to do it, we will do it like that.
Cakes are a start. They are delicious and can be smashed. But we can do better than stopping at cakes.
I hope this is the year a recruit rides an elephant around his high school's parking lot, making his commitment to Alabama final. This will happen at some point. Hopefully, it's 2016.
If not an elephant, let's just hope other animals will be involved, and general weirdness—all in good fun, of course—will take place.
This is your day, recruits. Go nuts.
Best Names in the Class of 2016
We spend such an exorbitant amount of time assessing body size, scheme fit and growth potential that it's easy to look beyond one of signing day's most precious commodities.
Names. Yes, names.
This is a welcome party of sorts. College football isn't just being infused with a tidal wave of talent. Some of the great, original names headed our way are spectacular in nature.
Here are some of the highlights of a deep class.
- DiCaprio Bootle
- Divine Deablo
- Eddie McDoom
- Brodarious Hamm
- Lil'Jordan Humphrey
- Dude Donaldson
- Dakota Holtzclaw
- Dredrick Snelson
- Handsome Tanielu
- Nigel Warrior
Should I Tweet at Recruits?
But let's continue. If a player picks up a hat off the table that does not display the logo you worship, the entire exchange ends right there. Sure, your program just missed out on a must-get prospect. You read that on a message board or recruiting outlet, so it must be true.
Why a perfect stranger would possibly contact this young man through Twitter or Facebook remains a great mystery. It's also creepy. Do not be that guy.
To the young man who is making an important decision on an important day, it means so much more. It's only football to the rest of us; there's no need to offer up any further direct commentary.
This is widely known and understood. And yet when a player announces a commitment, he is bombarded with atrocities through social media—anonymous words of hate and bitterness that no one should have to deal with.
It is a small, vocal minority exercising maximum stupidity. It still doesn't make it any easier to swallow when you sift through a dumpster fire of a recruit's timeline.
This probably isn't you. I hope this is not you. Thank you for exercising common sense and human decency. But because it cannot possibly be said enough, let's say it together one more time with feeling.
Do not tweet at recruits.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @KegsnEggs.
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With a top-five class all but guaranteed, Michigan has already called for a celebratory atmosphere to follow the culmination of Jim Harbaugh's first full recruiting cycle in Ann Arbor.
There will be Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, wrestling legend Ric Flair and hip-hop trio Migos among other headline-worthy acts at an unprecedented "Signing Day with the Stars" event presented by the Players' Tribune. After having spent the past year dominating the headlines on the recruiting trail, Harbaugh has done everything he can to ensure that trend won't change come signing day.
But while Michigan will undoubtedly be the center of the college football world on Wednesday, a sense of uncertainty will hang over Ann Arbor until 1 p.m. That's when the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary, will announce where he'll be spending his college career.
Should the Paramus, New Jersey, product choose the Wolverines as 247Sports' Crystal Ball projections currently predict him to do, it wouldn't just be the cherry on top of Michigan's signing day sundae—it'd be a whole other sundae to celebrate.
But if Gary chooses his other finalist, Clemson, as reported by Scout.com's Brian Dohn, an unprecedented signing day celebration could soon turn sour with many wondering what went wrong for the Wolverines.
While the merits of Michigan's 2016 class will stand with or without the presence of Gary, the addition of the 6'5", 293-pounder would solidify Harbaugh's status as one of college football's elite recruiters. The second-year Wolverines head coach already inked his quarterback of the future and took away one of Ohio State's prized prospects, but Gary would serve as his signature signing and first 5-star addition since arriving in Ann Arbor 13 months ago.
Dating back to the recruiting rankings boom in the early 2000s, each class has possessed at least one marquee player. And it's not a coincidence that each successful head coaching tenure in the past 15 years can usually be marked by the acquisition of such a prospect.
In 2002, Mack Brown boosted his resume by inking the nation's No. 1 player, 5-star quarterback Vince Young. That same year, Ohio State's Jim Tressel jumpstarted the Buckeyes' run to the national title with the signing of Maurice Clarett.
Urban Meyer inked Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow to the same class at Florida in 2006, one year before Les Miles signed Terrence Toliver at LSU and two years before Nick Saban landed 5-star wideout Julio Jones in Tuscaloosa.
The examples continued into the 2010s, be it Jimbo Fisher signing Lamarcus Joyner at Florida State in 2010 or Meyer announcing his arrival at Ohio State with the addition of 5-star defensive end Noah Spence in 2012. Even as recently as 2014, it wasn't until Mark Dantonio signed 5-star defensive end Malik McDowell or Dabo Swinney inked Deshaun Watson that Michigan State and Clemson were considered college football heavyweights on the recruiting trail.
For Harbaugh, landing Gary would do that and then some and could hand Michigan the nation's No. 1 class as it crosses the finish line that is signing day. As currently constituted, the Wolverines' 2016 haul ranks sixth nationally, providing strong cornerstones like 4-star signal-caller Brandon Peters and former Ohio State commit and 4-star running back Kareem Walker for Harbaugh to build on.
The addition of Gary, however, would take Michigan's class to the next level. The nation's top-ranked player isn't just the type of prospect capable of becoming an instant impact performer, but also the kind of player who could one day become a No. 1 overall draft pick and become a sales pitch of his own to future Wolverines targets.
"We’re going to bring the finest student-athletes and character that we can to the University of Michigan," Harbaugh said last week as he defended his recruiting practices, unable to speak publicly about unsigned prospects. "That process continues for the next three to four days."
But for all the benefits that Gary, who recorded 13.5 sacks in his senior season of high school, would bring to Michigan, beating out Clemson for him could prove to be just as important for the Wolverines.
Having hired Gary's original high school coach Chris Partridge, first as director of player personnel before promoting him to linebackers coach this offseason, Harbaugh gave himself an inside track to 2016's top prospect more than a year ago. By the start of the 2015 season, Michigan was considered the favorite to land Gary over Alabama and Auburn as Partridge helped the Wolverines forge a pipeline into the Garden State.
But while a Gary pledge to Michigan seemed just like a formality a mere month ago, a late surge from Clemson has induced newfound drama into the final days of his recruitment. After taking a weekend visit to Clemson, Gary's mother, Jennifer Coney, told Dohn that her son's decision was truly up in the air.
"As it stands right now, if signing day was [Tuesday], Rashan would go on and say he hasn't decided yet," Coney said.
Pulling a move out of the Harbaugh playbook, the Tigers staff presented Coney with a birthday cake during her son's visit, which soon went viral across social media.
Should Clemson win out in the battle for Gary, it'd be hard to feel like Michigan didn't lose some momentum heading into signing day—no matter how impressive the Wolverines' 2016 class is otherwise.
But if Harbaugh comes through with his first signature prospect since arriving in Ann Arbor, the biggest signing day celebration in the country will somehow get even bigger.
Will Michigan's festivities on Wednesday feel authentic or artificial?
At this point, only Gary appears to know.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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Every June, high school linemen from around the country lumber into Piscataway, New Jersey, for Rutgers University's Big Man Academy, aiming to expand their collegiate horizons and options.
Four years ago, however, the biggest splash made among a group of big people was by a middle schooler, one who has become the top recruit in the nation: Rashan Gary.
"As a recruiting staff, you sometimes hear about the potential of eighth-graders, but you really don't believe it until you see it," former Rutgers recruiting assistant Sopan Shah said. "When Rashan Gary showed up, it quickly became clear his ceiling was about as high as it gets."
And Gary was still months away from his first varsity snaps at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in New Jersey.
"He was just as big as the juniors and seniors who already had several college offers. Then he gets into drills and starts beating those guys," said Shah, who most recently served in the Philadelphia Eagles' scouting department.
Rutgers extended a verbal scholarship offer to the middle school sensation that month. It became the first college option on a list that now includes national championship contenders from every corner of America.
"It's been a journey since I got that first offer in eighth grade. I didn't think much of it until I got to high school and realized there were seniors who worked really hard and still didn't have any offers," Gary said last summer.
Several years in the spotlight have supplied him with a strong impression of the college football recruiting landscape, in which he reigns as the No. 1 overall prospect in 247Sports' 2016 composite rankings.
"Seeing players struggle to get colleges interested at camps kind of puts things in perspective and keeps me humble. A lot of people want to be in my shoes," Gary said.
Those shoes carry a 6'5", 293-pound defensive tackle who many believe is destined to dominate in college football and beyond. Within a few months, Gary will once again be the compelling newcomer attempting to challenge older, more established linemen.
This next chapter may take place on practice fields in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Or Clemson, South Carolina.
We don't yet know which college Gary will select on Feb. 3, when national signing day concludes a whirlwind recruitment that began well before several interested head coaches inhabited their current jobs. When he makes his choice this Wednesday, one college fanbase will enthusiastically welcome him to campus with immediate expectations for greatness.
"He is two years ahead of almost any high school lineman in the country when it comes to college-level technique," Gary's mentor and trainer, Peter Kafaf, said. "That technique builds off itself, so I expect him to be perfecting it during these next few seasons while other kids are just attempting to learn it."
Kafaf, an offseason volunteer trainer for several local New Jersey linemen, has worked with Gary since March 2014. Several marquee college coaching staffs were already chasing his young pupil, but there was room for improvement.
"His upper body was very, very tight. His chest was tight, his arms were tight and his hands were slow," Kafaf recalled. "We gave him some martial arts hand moves that translate directly into football and had him practice those repeatedly until he was ready to develop more moves off those."
Todd Huber, a former offensive lineman at Cal and current director of football at Student Sports, a company that hosts skills camps, has worked closely with Gary during several football events. He also noted how Gary's improved handwork has been crucial to his ascension.
"He's probably the one kid in my years of doing this that I had to pull out of a drill because he played with the same motor that he does now, but he was so raw and didn't know how to use his hands. It wasn't intentional, but he ended up just head-butting kids," Huber said. "It's kind of funny to look back at that and then now see the finished high school prospect he's become."
The change didn't happen overnight, but pretty close to it. Prior to his junior season, Gary received an ultimatum from Kafaf.
Even though Gary was essentially a wrecking ball as a sophomore, further enhancement would require precision few prospects ever display before college.
"He was trying to rip and bull-rush everybody because that's what he was comfortable with. At that point I said, 'Look, Rashan, I really can't work with you anymore if all you want to do is run through people,'" Kafaf said.
Gary got the message and sent one back.
"The next day, I got a text from Rashan," Kafaf said. "It was, 'I needed to hear that. I'm all in.' From that point forward, his hands just got electric."
Combined with rare speed for his stature—Gary has been timed at 4.74 seconds in the 40-yard dash—the sharpened technique took him one step closer toward becoming a complete package.
Two months before debuting at Paramus Catholic High School, to which he had transferred for his final two seasons, Gary traveled to Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for The Opening, an annual invite-only football skills camp. Despite his status as the only non-senior competitor in the trenches that week, Huber hailed him as one of the top five overall performers.
"As an offensive lineman, you've got to pick your poison because of the leverage and effort he plays with. If you stop Rashan on his first move, he'll throw another one at you. If you stop his second move, he's ready to counter with another," Huber said.
The youngster's effort also drew recognition from the premier 2015 prospects in attendance. Offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, a former 5-star recruit who started this season for Clemson as a true freshman, was among those who walked away from one-on-one showdowns with a newfound respect.
"We just assumed he was another senior, especially based on the way he competed. It was a shock for sure," Hyatt said afterward. "He's way above his level when compared to other players at that age. He's going to be fun to watch in the future because he has everything a defensive lineman needs to be dominant at the next level."
Matthew Burrell, now a freshman offensive lineman at Ohio State, offered even loftier praise.
"I think he could be the top player in our class , let alone his own," Burrell said.
The momentum he gained at The Opening carried into his first campaign at Paramus Catholic, where he was coached by current Michigan Wolverines recruiting director Chris Partridge. The highlight of his 2014 campaign, which included 55 tackles and 14 sacks in 11 games, occurred in October against regional rival Bergen Catholic High School.
Gary created a nightmare afternoon for Bergen Catholic quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, sacking the Tennessee commit five times in just three quarters of a blowout win. He also blocked a punt, returning it for a touchdown:
By the end of his junior season, Gary was considered the country's top 2016 prospect by most. He would use a return trip to The Opening as a method of removing any notion of doubt.
"Last year gave me a lot of confidence because I knew I could compete against the top linemen in the country who were a year older than me," Gary said before heading back to Beaverton. "Now I'm looking to go back with that confidence and bring that defensive line MVP back home to Jersey."
That's exactly what he did, decimating America's most lauded offensive linemen in bunches:
"He went from big-time recruit to No. 1 overall recruit in the country during the year between his trips to The Opening," Huber said. "With a bigger [target] on his back and more hype around him than ever, Rashan brought even more competitiveness. He's the most complete player we've had on the defensive line since I've been around ."
Simply put, Gary put on a clinic that showed consistency well beyond his years.
"I got some reps against Rashan, and they were humbling experiences for sure," 5-star offensive lineman Jack Anderson said after drills. "He's the real deal."
Despite dozens of scholarship offers, endless media inquiries and constant attention from fans on social media, Gary has impressed those around him by carrying himself the same way as when he was the oversized eighth-grader on Rutgers' campus.
"Rashan is one of the most extraordinarily humble young men I've ever met," Kafaf said. "He's quiet but incredibly focused. Once he understands what he's trying to accomplish, he comes back with a better effort every time."
Gary is known for sprinting back to his side of the line when a whistle ends one-on-one drills. He is not known to stand over his opponent and gloat, nor does he search the field for onlookers (essentially every recruiting analyst in attendance).
Instead, he pops up, bursts back behind the row of defensive linemen and waits for his next opportunity to wreak havoc.
"He attacks the more mundane items of football," Huber said. "That motor isn't just on when the lights are on."
Huber compares Gary to former Ohio State star and current Pittsburgh Steelers defender Cameron Heyward.
"His ability to play off the edge when he has a huge defensive tackle body is rare. He's powerful but has enough speed to make you stay honest," Huber added.
That versatility makes him a coveted commodity for defensive coordinators who've invested significant time, travel and phone calls in an attempt to land this recruiting cycle's biggest prize.
"If you're doing your job as a coach, you probably don't have him lined up in the same spot on every single down. You want to move Rashan around and have the offense account for him on each snap," said Todderick Hunt, an NJ.com recruiting analyst who has covered Gary as long as anyone.
Gary's mother, Jennifer Coney, also understands how valuable her son's assets are in a college attack. She made it clear that everything, including scheme, is under consideration during a midsummer conversation with Chris Kirschner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
I know [Georgia runs] a 3-4 defense, and I don’t know how good that would be for my son. In that three-person line, their job is to hold the offensive line so the linebackers can come in to make the tackle. Well, how is Rashan supposed to shine in a 3-4? A 4-3 defense is what I prefer. It’s OK for him to play in a 3-4, only if they rotate in a 4-3. I just don’t see how playing in a 3-4 defense would benefit him.
It didn't seem to matter where he lined up during the Under Armour All-America Game, held Jan. 2 in Orlando, Florida. Beforehand, Gary returned to what he calls "The Lab" and capitalized on a series of postseason sessions with Kafaf. He capped off an illustrious prep career with his most impressive performance to date.
Gary tied the All-America Game record with three sacks, tallying six total tackles in a rotational role.
"He played like I've never seen him play before," Kafaf said. "He was beating other All-Americans with a combination of hand moves. Once an offensive lineman showed his hands off the snap, Rashan counterattacked. He exceeded my expectations with that performance."
A matchup filled with highly regarded college recruits became a coronation of sorts. Within weeks, the four major recruiting industry sites—247Sports, Scout, Rivals and ESPN—released final 2016 rankings with Gary on top.
Honor naturally comes from widespread acknowledgement. But contentment? That simply isn't Gary's style.
"Rashan is driven by his own metric, not anybody else's," Kafaf said. "That's what sustains him."
Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue unless otherwise noted. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.
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Ron Souza fielded a consistent question in varying forms as the 2005 NFL draft approached.
What was wrong with Aaron Rodgers?
Professional football scouts wanted to know how the potential multimillion-dollar franchise quarterback failed to land a single Division I scholarship offer just three years earlier.
"One general manager told me, 'Guys like this don't just fall out of the sky. People find out about this kind of ability when they're 15 or 16 years old.' I got a chuckle out of that," Souza said.
Souza, Rodgers' former position coach at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, California, would politely field these inquiries while examining a photo collage of former players on his desk.
"There's Aaron as a sophomore at about 5'6", 125 pounds. He's just a midget. How did people miss on him? Here it is," Souza said.
Once overlooked with regularity, Rodgers now resides in the middle of the NFL spotlight.
"He's the type of person that doesn't have doubt in himself," former Pleasant Valley head coach Sterling Jackson said. "You knew that can-do attitude would take him as far as he could go. We weren't sure where that would be, but now we know."
Long before he became a Green Bay Packers icon and Hall of Fame lock, Rodgers was a football savant whose mental maturity in the sport surpassed his physical growth.
"The reality is, he arrived as a 5'3" freshman, his [junior varsity] year I think he was 5'7" and his senior year he started at 6'0", 180 pounds," Souza recalled. "But Aaron always had an incredible understanding for the game."
Rodgers' passion for football drew him to the San Francisco 49ers, who played just a few hours away from his home in Northern California. Even at a young age, he would do more than simply watch as a fan.
"He loved the 49ers, but he also studied them," Jackson said. "Aaron was one of those kids who just wanted to dive into the sport and all of its aspects. He would come in Mondays after seeing something happen over the weekend and be able to recite every dynamic of the game."
This quickly became a staple of early game-week preparation during high school seasons.
"He would talk about defenses that the 49ers saw, whether it was a nickel or dime package that he could relate to the high school level, and look at ways to create mismatches," Souza said. "He would apply that to high school competition and coordinate routes that were best suited for our personnel instead of Jerry Rice."
Rodgers stepped into the starting quarterback role at Pleasant Valley in 2000 as a junior. Despite his lack of prototypical size, he was ready for the moment.
It didn't take long for Rodgers to find his rhythm behind center, earning the trust of Pleasant Valley's coaching staff and later going on to set the school's single-season record for passing yards (2,303) during his senior campaign in 2001.
"Aaron has always handled himself well under pressure," Souza said. "He didn't get rattled and remained undaunted in situations where other players would lose focus. He has that ability to rise above and make the people around him better."
That effort warranted All-Section honors but didn't do much for the quarterback's collegiate outlook.
The only consistent contact from college coaching staffs came from lower-tier programs in the Northwest, such as Southern Oregon and Lewis & Clark College, among others.
Jackson attempted to help elevate his star's status shortly before the 2001 season, when they attended a camp at the University of Illinois.
"We took him to this camp at Illinois and [it] felt like he was the best quarterback on their campus. The frustrating part for us was trying to convince coaches to look past his size and give him a little time to mature," Jackson said. "College coaches wanted highly rated quarterback recruits who they felt were already proven and physically prepared. We just wanted someone to give him a chance."
Rodgers added approximately two inches and 15 pounds as a senior, according to Souza, and even though he also excelled as a student, he still struggled to attract attention as a possible Division I scholarship athlete.
"Our society in sports, especially football, is so driven by the 'eye test.' At quarterback, they want you to look a certain way. I'm sure that definitely deterred some people from giving him an opportunity," Jackson said.
Souza, also the head baseball coach at Pleasant Valley, convinced Rodgers to spend his final high school spring on the mound. A natural athlete and competitor, he was hurling 90 mph pitches before long.
"He was pretty dejected about the lack of recruiting interest, so we got him to come out for baseball, and he had a lot of success that season," Souza said. "I think it was great to get his mind off football for a bit in order to help him get over that frustration. There's no doubt in my mind he could've had a future in baseball, but Aaron wasn't ready to walk away from football."
Craig Rigsbee, then the head football coach at nearby Butte Community College, reached out about the overlooked quarterback. Following a phone conversation with the Rodgers family, Rigsbee realized the quarterback lived just one cul-de-sac over from his home.
"It's amazing how things worked out like that," he said. "I was at their door in a hurry."
Rigsbee, now the athletic director at Butte College, made the short walk through a field to the Rodgers home and immediately understood he might be facing an uphill battle to bring in the quarterback.
"Aaron's mother was like, 'Hey, my son has worked too hard in school to attend a junior college.' So I really needed to take my time explaining our football program and the situation," Rigsbee said.
Rodgers was searching for increased credibility as a college recruit, and Butte at least offered him a shot.
"Aaron's main concern was whether he could leave after one year for a Division I opportunity," Rigsbee said. "Of course, I'm thinking he needed to slow down there because we already had a starting QB who was returning. I explained the depth chart to Aaron, but all he wanted was for me to look him in the eye and promise I would give him a chance."
By the time Rodgers enrolled at Butte College in 2002, his physical stature was beginning to match his already impressive mental makeup. He arrived as a freshman standing about 6'2", 200 pounds, immediately entering a position battle with the program's incumbent starting quarterback.
"They were actually very close during the first week of practice, and then we saw some separation," Rigsbee recalled. "The other guy had been there for years and Aaron had only been there for days, but he already knew the offense better. Aaron started making plays we weren't used to seeing at practice."
Despite a consensus among assistants that the veteran "deserved" the spot, Rigsbee simply couldn't see the season unfolding with his intriguing freshman playmaker sequestered on the bench.
Rodgers, then just 18 years old, was anointed the starter on a team featuring multiple players in their mid-20s. His competition quit the team weeks later, leaving him as the unquestioned offensive leader.
"Once he gained that confidence as a freshman, there was no turning back," Rigsbee said.
Rodgers spearheaded a 10-1 season for the Roadrunners, who claimed a NorCal Conference championship and climbed to as high as No. 2 in the national junior college rankings. He completed nearly 62 percent of his pass attempts, compiling 2,408 yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions on 265 attempts.
The school's record book was rewritten, as Rodgers set new single-game marks for total yards and touchdowns.
Along the way, he caught the eye of Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, who established his reputation teaching eventual first-round NFL draft picks Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, David Carr and Joey Harrington.
Kyle Boller, Tedford's first starting quarterback at Cal, would become the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick in 2003. It was time to find his next project.
Tight end Garrett Cross, the recipient of 10 Rodgers touchdown tosses in 2002, compelled Tedford to turn on the Butte College game tape that fall.
"We were looking for a tight end, so I was watching Garrett's tape and I was really impressed by the quarterback. He jumped off the screen at me as a guy who had a lot of good things going for him," said Tedford, who most recently served as head coach of the BC Lions franchise in the Canadian Football League.
He didn't hesitate to call the school.
"Jeff Tedford gets on the phone with me and he's asking all about Aaron, saying how impressed he was by the film," Rigsbee said. "He asked me who else was recruiting him. The answer was nobody, and he said, 'Good. I'll be up there tomorrow.'"
Though he didn't meet with Rodgers during that visit as he awaited word on whether the QB could leave Butte after one year, Tedford gathered plenty of positives while watching him practice.
"He was very talented throwing the ball and athletic moving around, but I came away even more impressed by his leadership ability," Tedford said. "His team followed him, and he was in command. He was running the show."
Rodgers' attitude, combined with physical attributes that no longer failed the eye test, compelled Tedford to pull the trigger.
"Once I was there and saw his demeanor, leadership, athleticism and other characteristics that are important for a quarterback, it was an easy decision for us to offer him," he said.
Tedford called Rodgers hours later. A scholarship was formally extended before the Cal coach arrived back in Berkeley.
Less than a year after choosing between junior college and Division III possibilities, Rodgers relished the milestone moment.
"Aaron was grateful for the chance, but he's too smart to jump at something unknown," Tedford said. "It was a matter of him learning more about Berkeley and our situation. He did his research and gave us a chance to build a relationship."
Rodgers was ready to commit within weeks, though he considered coaches and teammates at Butte College before taking the plunge.
"Aaron comes in to tell me he's excited about his offer from Cal, but he's also saying he's not sure if he's going to take it because we had a chance to be really good the next year," Rigsbee said. "I told him even if I had to drive him down there myself, he was going to Cal."
Rodgers would win the starting job during his first year with the Golden Bears and ultimately play in 25 games at Cal. He threw for 5,469 yards, 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during two seasons in Berkeley before declaring for the NFL draft as a junior.
Just like that, the kid who couldn't convince a top-notch college coaching staff to accept him out of high school was charting his own career path.
"I got to sit and learn and be with the disappointment," Rodgers told author Bruce Feldman. "Those experiences can either strengthen your character or make you really bitter. Thankfully for me, it really strengthened my character and gave me a good resolve."
Green Bay selected Rodgers 24th overall in the 2005 NFL draft. Since replacing Packers legend Brett Favre, he has earned a Super Bowl title and two league MVPs.
"Aaron has been striving for perfection for a long, long time," Jackson said.
The scrawny teenager pictured in Souza's collage already holds dozens of Packers franchise records and is presently the NFL's all-time leader in career passer rating (104.1).
"He's always had the mental sharpness and fundamental mechanics. These are basic attributes he's built on over the years," Souza said. "What we're seeing him do now, though, it's at a Ph.D. level. He's changing the way quarterback is played."
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The 2016 NFL draft process is in a critical stage as evaluators scurry to find potential steals in the coming event. While focusing on one team or player, it can be easy to overlook other playmakers. When focusing in on Penn State’s defensive line in 2015, there was clearly a trio of impact defenders among the front four.
The Nittany Lions defense was one of the stingiest in the nation last year. The unit allowed just 21.8 points per game, which ranked as the 26th-lowest amount of all Division 1-A teams. Penn State also had a terrific pass rush, which finished third in the country with 46 sacks.
That type of production is eye-opening because it takes significant talent to amass such a total. The majority of the disruption and production came from the dynamic trio of Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. Those three defensive linemen accounted for 30 sacks.
Projecting talent into the NFL isn’t as easy as reading the stat sheet, but production is one important aspect of it. We’re going to look deeper at each lineman and see why each can be at least a solid NFL player, if not a standout.
Let’s start with the 2015 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Carl Nassib.
One of the biggest storylines of the 2015 college football season was the breakout play of defensive end Carl Nassib. The former walk-on was just 218 pounds as a freshman, and he had never started a single game in high school. His intense dedication in the weight room and personal development paid off with an incredible senior season.
The 6’7”, 272-pounder totaled 15.5 sacks in his first season as a starter. He had just two sacks in his first two years, as he was buried on the depth chart. Amazingly enough, Nassib had more tackles for loss in 2015 with 19.5 than he had total tackles in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Playing in Penn State’s versatile defensive front allowed Nassib to align outside of the offensive tackle at times and also the inside shoulder. His time spent in a creative 4-3 allowed him to show an explosive skill set that will translate to the next level.
His ability to go through or around offensive tackles makes him a tough player to block. He has more length than most defenders and showed strong hands that keep him clean when he must disengage to finish a play. When Nassib has the chance to finish, he’s proven he’s a playmaker.
Maybe even most impressive from Nassib’s season was his ability to create turnovers. He led the NCAA with six forced fumbles.
Projecting Nassib to the NFL, he has a ready-made game despite just one year of extended experience. His hand usage is solid, and he has a good feel for the game. He tends to make plays when his team needs them most.
To maximize his potential, Nassib would be best served in a 3-4 defense that allows him to play in a limited space. His quickness often catches blockers off guard, so keeping him over the tackle won’t expose his lack of elite burst like the best edge-rushers have. But he will need to increase his functional lower body strength before he is ready to start.
As the season wore on, Nassib was exposed to more powerful blockers that controlled him in the run game. We know Nassib will put in the work to be great. If he can add another 15-20 pounds in his lower body, it’ll be just a matter of time until he’s a three-down player.
His draft value is projected to be Round 2, according to CBS Sports. That is where I’d put Nassib, who can be an impactful rotational player until he’s ready for a full-time role. His upside is high, and his rapid development to this point is a significant selling point.
The lone junior of the Penn State defensive line trio is tackle Austin Johnson. The 6’4”, 323-pound one-technique defensive tackle was the key cog for this unit to be successful. Without Johnson demanding double-teams, his teammates wouldn’t have had as much success.
Johnson is thick in his lower body, boasting mammoth thighs and rear end. His power is drawn from his impressive lower body and projects very well to the NFL. He has no size concerns as he makes the transition from college.
The former 3-star recruit wasn’t just eating blocks every play despite the deserved attention. When he had the chance to split a double team or he faced one blocker, he showed great power and surprising speed for someone his size. Johnson finished with 78 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks in 2015.
While Johnson is more of a run defender than pass-rush threat, he is very active and has a terrific motor despite his size. He cleans up sacks effectively, which gives him three-down value. When he’s asked to hold his own at the line of scrimmage, he rarely disappoints.
Teams looking for a reliable man in the middle of their 3-4 or 4-3 front should be interested in Johnson. He has the ability to play either, although he is most experienced lining up between the guard and center. He commands double teams consistently, which is excellent for teams that have quality pass-rushers on the outside that need to be one on one.
The knock on Johnson is that he’s not more of an explosive pass-rusher. This limits his value and is why CBS Sports has a second-round projection for him. He should be a long-term starter with upside to develop into one of the best run-stoppers in the league.
Maybe the most well-known name of the trio is defensive tackle Anthony Zettel. Zettel was the biggest prospect of the bunch from high school, coming to Penn State as a 4-star recruit. His career really took off as a junior in 2014 when he moved from defensive end to tackle.
At 6’4” and 284 pounds, Zettel is very quick to get into the backfield. He is a splash player who disrupts plays as much as he finishes them. While his production could be better, he shines on tape because of his ability to affect plays even without logging a statistic.
Zettel finished his four-year career with 119 tackles, 38 tackles for loss and 20 sacks. The emergence of his two peers may have hurt his 2015 numbers, which were considerably lower than his 2014 totals. Regardless, he stood out as a solid NFL prospect even next to Nassib and Johnson.
His greatest strength is his quickness. Zettel is tremendous against zone offenses because he routinely beats the blocker to the zone. This can single-handedly wreck a zone-running offense and force it to become more one-dimensional. When he’s paired with a solid gap-eater, Zettel can take over the game for stretches.
Although Zettel doesn’t have the lower body strength to be an NFL starter right away, 4-3 defenses should love his ability to produce as a tackle or end in sub-packages. He is too explosive to keep off the field on obvious passing downs, or when facing a zone-running team. His blend of hustle and quickness is very disruptive. As he continues to add mass to his legs, his ability to stop the run should also improve. He must hold up at the line of scrimmage better to ever start in the NFL.
CBS Sports currently has Zettel as a fifth- or sixth-round pick. That seems low for such an explosive rusher, but it does reflect that he has some room to grow before he can start. As a rotational piece, he has the talent to earn meaningful snaps early in his career.
As this group proceeds through the NFL draft process, expect to hear their names as standout performers. Each member of the Penn State defensive trio has the size, athleticism and skill to be a quality NFL player. The fact they’re all coming from the same school is highly impressive and a testament to the recruiting and coaching at the program.
Johnson, Nassib and Zettel all have NFL futures based off their excellent Penn State careers. Their NFL journeys can be very successful if they continue to improve like each did in the past few seasons. Don’t be surprised if this trio helps the Nittany Lions produce the best draft class of any collegiate program in 2016.
All stats used are from Sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss and USC can reportedly end lengthy pursuits of No. 1 overall prospect Rashan Gary.
The 6'5", 293-pound defensive tackle is focused on Clemson and Michigan as finalists, his family told Brian Dohn of Scout.com on Monday. Less than 48 hours shy of national signing day, this development sets the stage for a showdown between two of America's most recognizable college football coaches in Dabo Swinney and Jim Harbaugh.
If Gary's decision proves too difficult to reach before a scheduled 1 p.m. ET announcement Wednesday, the nation's most frenzied recruitment process may extend longer than expected.
"As it stands right now, if signing day was (Tuesday), Rashan would go on and say he hasn't decided yet," Jennifer Coney, Gary's mother, told Dohn.
It's a late twist in a recruitment that stretches back to June 2012, when Rutgers extended a verbal scholarship to the New Jersey lineman months before he entered high school. Gary has kept his options open throughout the journey, remaining relatively tight-lipped when it comes to any favorites lists or leans.
His fifth and final official visit occurred last weekend when he went to Clemson. It followed previous official visits to Auburn, Michigan, Ole Miss and USC, while Notre Dame, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU and Alabama are among programs that also shared reciprocated interest during different stages of the 2016 cycle.
Now that we know it's a one-on-one battle for the Paramus Catholic High School senior, let's assign odds on the chances Gary lands at either campus for his collegiate career.
Despite the overall silence on the subject of a commitment from Gary on social media or in-person interviews, Michigan emerged as the perceived front-runner prior to his senior year. That sentiment has only intensified during this final stretch, especially with close friends Kareem Walker and Michael Dwumfour joining the class since December.
"[Walker, Gary and I] are like brothers," Dwumfour told Brandon Justice of Maize n Brew. "We spoke about [playing together] when we were young, and Kareem brings it up a lot now. It would be great if we could."
Wolverines coaches hope to make Gary the sixth Garden State prospect to join the signing day party in Ann Arbor. Michigan commits have also played a crucial role in the push for America's premier player.
"The Jersey Boys [are going to] bring that swag to Michigan, and there's gonna be lots of playing time between all of us," Michigan commit and fellow New Jersey resident Ron Johnson told Bleacher Report. "I believe Rashan would top off this class and would add a little to the Jersey swag."
Harbaugh is the leader of strong 2016 Wolverines recruiting efforts but it's assistant Chris Partridge who has arguably played the largest role in this instance. He served as Gary's head coach at Paramus Catholic in 2014, targeting his former pupil as a top priority since his arrival in Ann Arbor.
“They treat us like family. Coach Partridge knows how my mom is and knows how I am," Gary said following an unofficial summer visit. "He showed us everything we needed to see.”
Signs have pointed toward Gary punctuating Harbaugh's first full cycle at Michigan for a while, with the Wolverines garnering 81 percent of experts' predictions in his 247Sports Crystal Ball.
“If the No. 1 player wants to come to Michigan, then we’re going to be on top soon," early enrollee Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters said. "Something big is coming."
The separation of these odds may seem vast, but our indication is Michigan remains a firm leader based on staff and roster relationships. Still, this past season has featured a meteoric rise for Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, and on-field success has translated well onto the recruiting trail.
The Tigers, like the Wolverines, currently claim a top-10 class in composite class rankings. Clemson welcomed a trio of early enrollee defenders to school in January who are considered top-three recruits at their respective positions.
Linebackers Tre Lamar and Rahshaun Smith are rated No. 2 and No. 3 nationally among inside linebackers, while 5-star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is the No. 2 overall recruit looking up at only Gary.
"The academics, and the academic support, I was pleasantly surprised with everything at Clemson," Coney told Dohn following their most recent visit. "The staff, the whole staff, the whole student body. I'm not talking about the football players, and the football players were phenomenal, but the whole student body."
While Michigan is in the early stages of a program ascension, Clemson arrived at college football's pinnacle last month by competing in the College Football Playoff national championship. The Tigers are 56-12 since 2011 and 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson will be back under center again next fall.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is an extremely effective recruiter on behalf of Swinney. He and fellow Tigers staff members clearly provided a short-term and long-term outlook that commanded legitimate attention of Gary and his mother.
Sealing the deal Wednesday with this cycle's most coveted recruit looks like an uphill battle for Clemson, but the Tigers suddenly find themselves in a position certain to make plenty of programs envious during the final stages of a scintillating chase.
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