Two of the biggest days on America's football calendar are close—national signing day in the college game and the Super Bowl in the NFL ranks.
This intersection of recruiting hype and championship drama has made for an interesting look back at the players who will star in Sunday's big game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.
Both franchises have former blue-chip prospects who went on to have huge college careers and breakout stars who were severely underrated out of high school. Some had a laundry list of scholarship offers from schools all over the country, while others didn't even get a single one at first.
Let's take a look at several stars from both the Broncos and the Panthers—seven for each squad—and see where they were rated as high school or JUCO prospects.
All recruiting information here comes from 247Sports, which has historical composite rankings from industry leaders dating back to the 2002 season.
We’re down to the final hours until national signing day in college football, and while every Southeastern Conference coaching staff will be nervous about every commitment until the paperwork is signed, sealed and faxed, each will also be on edge about the players who haven’t made even a commitment yet.
Everyone has a wish list. For some coaches, that list includes players they’re certain they don’t have a shot at and others they think they’ll land but still don’t know for sure.
It’s a stressful and fun day for everyone to be sure, but here’s a last-minute look at who each SEC team hopes to see join its official roster Wednesday.
Chris Kirschner of SEC Country reported that Lashley chose Alabama over Mississippi State and LSU at a ceremony at his high school.
Lashley is a 4-star prospect who ranks among the top 20 offensive tackles and top 200 overall players in the 2016 class. He received offers from numerous top programs before making his decision.
The West Point High School (Mississippi) standout briefly committed to Mississippi State in May before deciding to reconsider the landscape.
Lashley decided to play out his senior season while continuing to gather information about the interested programs. He explained to Barton Simmons of 247Sports in December that getting on the field quickly was among his top considerations during the process:
Where I feel like I can fit in but not so much building a relationship with the coaches because coaches leave but really a place where I know I can come in and help them contribute. That's mainly the main factor.
I would like to play early. If I redshirt, I redshirt. You can learn from the coaches, learn the position. I'm still new to the game. This is really my second year playing football so I would like to go so somewhere and play early but if I do redshirt that would be OK.
His strong play earned him a chance to take part in the 2015 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game alongside several other top prospects. The group included prized defensive end Jeffery Simmons, and Courtney Cronin of the Clarion-Ledger spotlighted that matchup:
Lashley has the raw tools to become a top-tier college tackle. His combination of size (6'6'', 300 lbs), power and athleticism makes him the type of prospect a coaching staff can mold into a special player.
It's going to take a while before he can reach that level, though. He has plenty of work to do in terms of his technique, and there will be an adjustment period as he moves to the college level, where he won't be able to rely on outmuscling opponents.
Ultimately, Lashley becomes the latest in a long line of star recruits to land at Alabama. Perhaps it was that arcade basketball game with head coach Nick Saban that made the difference:
Choosing the Tide does make his path to playing time a little less certain. The loss of senior Dominick Jackson does open up a spot in the starting lineup, but the incoming freshman will have plenty of competition if he's focused on earning that spot.
The likelier scenario is he'll need to wait a season or two before he's able to make his presence felt.
Ultimately, Lashley opted for Alabama in what comes as at least a minor surprise after Mississippi State and LSU pushed hard for his commitment.
Lashley could be given a chance to prove himself right out of the gate, and if he's impressive enough, he may be given a chance to start as a freshman. His comments made it clear he'd like to contribute right away.
We'll see if he ends up getting that opportunity, but his long-term outlook will remain positive either way.
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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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