NCAA Football News
It was a wild race to the national signing day finish line as the Texas Longhorns inked the No. 12 signing class in the nation.
Second-year head coach Charlie Strong had a rocky start on the recruiting front and struggled to secure early commitments from some of the nation's elite talent. The Longhorns had 10 verbal commitments following the 6-6 regular season record and looked to be heading towards another lackluster signing class.
But Strong and his staff proved their willingness to battle it out until the end and finished with the No. 1 signing class in the Big 12.
"We knew we were not going to back down. We took it all the way up to the last day," Strong said Wednesday. "It was a total team effort for everyone involved and it's so great to see the way we ended with this class. The recruiting process always starts early, but you have to remember that signing day is the first Wednesday in February, so you just have to battle until then."
The Marquee Recruit Changed the Game
Recruiting cannot be an easy job when your team is coming off a losing season. It is even more difficult when the program you are trying to sell has not finished in the Top 25 since these prospects were in grade school.
The Longhorns needed to land a big-name recruit in the months leading up to national signing day to help gain momentum on the recruiting trail. Strong just so happened to get his wish when Malik Jefferson, the No. 1 outside linebacker in the country, announced his pledge to Texas.
The 5-star's commitment gave Texas the push it needed to sign other highly touted prospects, which ultimately led to the Longhorns finishing with one of the top 15 recruiting classes in the country.
"Anytime you're in the recruiting process, there has got to be a marquee player and that was Malik Jefferson for us," Strong said. "He jump-started the program when he got on board. He was able to sell the program. There were recruits who were sitting on the fence, and then when they saw Malik jump on board, some of them followed."
Jefferson is the first 5-star player Texas has signed since 2012. He is one of the most well-recognized names in his class but is far from the only athlete who has the chance to make a difference on the field in the coming years.
Best Linebackers in 2015?
Strong is often recognized as one of the best defensive minds in college football. He believes the only way to experience a championship level of success is to have a stout defense.
13 of the 29 Texas signees are on the defensive side of the ball, and many of these athletes have an opportunity to see the field early in their careers.
Of all of the position needs Texas fulfilled, the Longhorns signed arguably one of the best linebacker groups in 2015. Jefferson's commitment may overshadow some of the other linebackers in this class, but it does not mean he is their only talented linebacker heading into next season.
One of the more underrated players is 4-star Cecil Cherry. The Lakeland, Florida native is extremely athletic, plays with ferocity and is not afraid to knock people senseless on the field. Cherry fits the mold of the ideal player Strong wants on his defense and could surprise a lot of people when he puts on his Texas jersey.
4-star Anthony Wheeler is a big-bodied linebacker who has the versatility to play both on the inside and outside. Wheeler chose Texas over Alabama, Ole Miss, Michigan and many others.
Another talented linebacker—one who offers a different skill set than the others—is Cameron Townsend. The 6'1", 206-pound athlete adds speed to the position and has the ability to drop in coverage and play nickel.
Texas desperately needed to add talent to the linebacker position. The Longhorns will look to replace veterans Jordan Hicks and Steve Edmond and there's a good possibility these youngsters could fill the void at linebacker.
A Flipping Good Class
Wednesday wrapped up one of the more exciting recruiting seasons in recent Texas football history. And a lot of the excitement revolved around the staff's ability to flip recruits.
Strong and Co. managed to convince nine prospects to flip from their commitments to other schools and sign with Texas. The Longhorns had successfully changed the minds of six prospects heading into the week of national signing day, and the flipping party continued through Wednesday morning.
Quarterback Kai Locksley was the first flip of the week. The 4-star athlete committed to Florida State last July, but that did not stop the coaching staff from continuing to recruit the dual-threat quarterback.
An in-home visit with the coaches sealed the deal for Texas, and Locksley announced his decision to decommit from the Seminoles and sign with the Longhorns Monday evening.
As the fax machines warmed up early Wednesday morning, a buzz began to circulate that Strong was not finished with some remaining targets that were verbally committed to other universities.
The first flip of the day came when 3-star defensive back P.J. Locke, who had been committed to Oregon since last July, announced his pledge to the Longhorns. What's interesting about Locke's decision to sign with Texas is the limited amount of time it took the Longhorns to get in the mix.
Texas extended an offer to Locke Sunday, to which he initially declined. But after speaking with people close to him, the Beaumont, Texas athlete, who had offers from 35 schools across the country, changed his mind.
Locke was one of two signing-day flips for the Longhorns. The second was 3-star wide receiver Ryan Newsome.
Texas was one of two programs in consideration for the speedy athlete. But on Jan. 23, he announced his commitment to UCLA.
Newsome looked incredibly torn when he made his decision to play for the Bruins. He was visibly upset and extremely emotional, even as he put on the UCLA cap. It was apparent the wide receiver was not 100 percent solid in his decision, so the Texas staff continued to recruit him.
Strong waited a few days before he re-opened the lines of communication with Newsome and ultimately convinced the speedster to sign his letter of intent to play for the Longhorns.
"Sometimes we forget that they're [recruits] 17 and 18 [years old]. And if they make a decision, you have to keep battling for them and sell your program and sell what you have. That's what our staff did," Strong said of his success flipping committed players.
"Our staff was relentless. We had guys who just kept going and going, and they were not going to take no for an answer. You can't take no for an answer until the fax comes across your desk or it goes somewhere else. You can't take no. You just have to keep battling."
Adding Playmakers on Offense
The Texas offense was kryptonite to the Longhorns' success in 2014. Texas lacked big-play guys and had zero depth at the quarterback position.
The obvious need for the Longhorns continues to be under center. Texas has not had competition at the quarterback position for a number of years, which is why adding Locksley to the mix is huge for the Longhorns.
But a quarterback can only be so good if he doesn't have weapons around him. Strong made it a point to find talented skill players to help rebuild the struggling Texas offense.
Newsome is one of the fastest athletes Texas signed and has the potential to be that big-play wide receiver the Longhorns have not had for many years. Texas also filled the need of the long, athletic wide receiver in John Burt, Deandre McNeal and Gilbert Johnson.
One of the more overlooked players on national signing day was tight end Devonaire Clarington. A 4-star monster from Miami, Florida, Clarington was the first high school tight end Texas has signed since 2011. At 6'5" and 224 pounds, Clarington will have the chance to play immediately and could potentially revive a position that has been rather non-existent for Texas since in 2008.
Running back Kirk Johnson has the opportunity to replace Malcolm Brown on offense. Johnson is an all-purpose back who is very disciplined, has good vision on the field and can run the ball with power. He also has a great ability to block, which is a trait that can be difficult to find in elite running backs.
Joining Johnson is Chris Warren, who made his decision to sign with the Longhorns Wednesday. The 4-star running back is a big, powerful athlete and was one of the nation's most sought-after backs in 2015.
Overall, the Longhorns added much-needed talent on the offensive side of the ball and many of the signees will have the opportunity to see playing time from the moment they arrive in Austin.
Building the Foundation for the Future
Texas entered December with a .500 record on the field and a lack of verbal commitments for the 2015 class. It was nearly impossible not to think the Longhorns were going to struggle getting any of the nation's top prospects due to the issues Texas displayed on the football field in 2014.
But Strong and his assistant coaches were determined to fight it out until the very end in hopes of signing players who could help the Longhorns build a foundation for the future. The coaches did not focus on what happened on the field in 2014, rather they continued to stress the future on the recruiting front.
"I'm very simple. When I go into a house, I talk about our mission. Our mission number one is to see the young men graduate. Number two, we need to go win football games. The standard here is never to lose seven games. That will never be what we are looking to get done here," Strong said.
"The third thing is to talk about making them a better person. I talk about the core values all the time because I know that's how a lot of them are raised. I tell them that they have a chance to walk into the best program in the country, and they have a chance to put their footprint and handprint on it. They can watch it change and be a part of that change."
Wednesday marked the end of Strong's first complete recruiting cycle as the Longhorns head coach. The journey to the finish line had many ups and downs and featured a few big misses for the Longhorns. But Texas ultimately ended on a positive note and signed a class that could one day be recognized as the foundation of returning the Longhorns back to the top of the college football ranks.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Recruiting rankings via Rivals.com.
Taylor Gaspar is Bleacher Report's featured columnist covering the Texas Longhorns. Follow Taylor on Twitter: @Taylor_Gaspar.
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The 5-star offensive tackle sat down with Bleacher Report to discuss his upbringing, being the top recruit in the nation and why he chose the Aggies.
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Although UCLA may not have landed one of the top few recruits in the 2015 class, the Bruins still walked away winners on national signing day. They did a nice job of securing some key additions as the dust settled on perhaps the most hectic day of the college football year.
Coaching staffs around the country work constantly to secure verbal commitments. It's not until signing day, when prospects start making their final decisions, that they find out where they stand, though. Head coach Jim Mora and Co. should be pleased with this year's result.
Of course, now it all comes down to player development. A high star rating doesn't mean anything if the player doesn't grow and make the most of their talent. Let's check out some of the biggest names heading to UCLA based on 247Sports' commitment tracker and then evaluate the class' outlook.
Top 2015 Commits
As mentioned, the Bruins didn't land any of the biggest names available in terms of the top five players in the nation. Josh Rosen is still a strong top recruit at No. 12 and getting two players inside the top 20 is a terrific foundation.
The overall result saw UCLA finish with the seventh-best recruiting class after signing day, according to 247Sports. The site notes that was a 12-spot jump from beforehand. It was an example of a program gaining some early momentum and carrying it through the day.
Mora wasn't completely satisfied, though. Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News noted the coach felt they missed out on some key targets up front on defense:
He also wanted to make sure the Rosen addition wasn't overlooked. The quarterback has been enrolled at UCLA since January, which took away the typical attention paid to a top player at the position. Abbey Mastracco of Fox Sports West provided Mora's thoughts on him:
I think today, kind of lost in the shuffle, was Josh Rosen. It was such an exciting day because there were these new names and these new commitments. Unfortunately because of the hype, but fortunately for us, it was kind of a little bit under the radar. But you can't take away from the fact that this class includes the No. 1 ranked quarterback and the Rivals No. 1 ranked football player in the United States of America.
Overall, the class is very well-rounded, aside from the defensive front. The five players listed above are obviously major building blocks. DeChaun Holiday is of particular interest because he's got the size to become a perfect corner for today's game, assuming he stays at the position.
Edward Lewis of Rivals.com notes he could eventually make the switch to wide receiver:
There are several players outside of that top group that could make a quick impact, as well.
Josh Wariboko is a guard with massive power and solid short-area quickness. He's excelled in both pass protection and run-blocking without any serious technique flaws. He has plenty of polish for an incoming freshman and will continue to improve once he gains experience against top college linemen.
ESPN Stats & Info put the spotlight on the Bruins' struggles up front last season:
Then there's Cordell Broadus. The wide receiver is best known at this point for being Snoop Dogg's son, which is unfortunate because he can really play. A terrific route-runner with a nice burst and the moves to make defenders miss.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports points out he also has some history with Rosen:
UCLA could add another notable piece in the form of Roquan Smith. Michael Carvell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes he originally chose the Bruins but is waiting to see how some things with the coaching staff play out before a final decision is made.
Ultimately, the class the Bruins brought in is definitely worth it's top-10 ranking. They were able to fill crucial voids at quarterback and on the offensive line with top recruits and build a strong supporting class around them.
It's going to take a few years before the full impact of the class is felt. But if the Bruins are able to force their way into the playoff conversation, fans will likely be able to pinpoint this class as the one that jump-started the championship rejuvenation.
All recruiting details via 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
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The future of the Florida State football program is nothing like Jameis Winston, and he's everything like Jameis Winston.
The young man's name is Deondre Francois, and he can currently be found behind the gates of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Francois has many of the same tools on the field that made Winston a Heisman winner, national champion and potential top pick in this year's draft, but they're kept in a very different box off the field.
"He's a good player," Francois says of Winston. "But I like to play my own game, have my own swag."
Where Winston is outspoken and brash, Francois is soft-spoken and matter-of-fact, rarely raising his voice more than a few decibels above a murmur. But the 6'1", 190 pound quarterback's words, and more importantly his game, carry weight.
Francois will not hesitate to say he is the man for the job in Tallahassee, regardless of who is on the depth chart. He doesn't say it brashly, but with confidence and no fear of whether it will make other quarterbacks on the Florida State roster dislike him.
"I don't think they like me," Francois told the Orlando Sentinel in late December, "but that's just what comes with competition."
IMG wide receiver K.J. Osborn has grown accustomed to Francois' matter-of-fact way of communicating. "He's always telling me, 'Get out of your break faster,' or, 'Why you running so slow,' " Osborn told Bleacher Report. "I tell him, 'We not running slow. You just throw far.' "
Anything you can do, I can do better
Winston was an unusual case at Florida State. Most quarterbacks take a while to pick up Jimbo Fisher's complex pro-style offense, but Winston grasped it almost instantly. His football IQ is considered the highest in this year's draft, and QB guru George Whitfield Jr. has said Winston is every bit as sharp as Andrew Luck. It is something Francois notices when he looks at film of the 2013 Heisman winner.
"I see he expects perfection from his wide receivers and his line," Francois said. "He's calm in the pocket. I like the way he sees the field. He has good vision. I can tell by how he plays the game, he can see the whole field."
According to IMG head coach Chris Weinke, Francois possesses the same processing ability.
"Against Clearwater Central Catholic (Fla.), at the snap I thought he should go somewhere else with it, but he ended up making an outstanding touchdown pass to T.J. Chase," the former Seminole Heisman winner said. "When he came off the field, I said, 'Why did you throw it there?' He said, 'I saw the leverage on the corner, and I knew that T.J. was gonna get by him.' I said, 'Well, what about the crossing route that came wide open right across your face?' He said 'I know that was there. I could see it, but I wanted to take a shot, and I knew that I had it.' "
"I know I can trust him," Osborn said. "I'm not gonna be set up [for a big hit], I know the ball is going to be where it needs to be, and I know he's not gonna throw six interceptions."
Weinke knew what he had when Francois transferred from Orlando's Olympia high school in 2013. The feet and the arm have been special for a long time.
"When I first got to high school, I compared my arm strength to all of the quarterbacks that were older than me," Francois said. "I felt like I was better as a freshman."
The rest of Central Florida also noticed the talent, but it was Weinke who taught Francois how to harness it into the full package. He taught Francois all the nuances of quarterbacking, how to throw with more accuracy, how to identify the holes in complex defensive sets, how to throw with different speeds and arcs so he can fit it over linebackers and in front of the secondary.
Most importantly, Weinke taught Francois an offense similar to the complex pro-style offense Jimbo Fisher runs at Florida State.
Coming out party
The full package was on display during the Under Armour All American game in early January. Francois spent a majority of the game running read-option and handing off the ball. However, he took advantage of his limited opportunities in the air, going 4-for-4 for 103 yards one touchdown—and two wow moments.
In his first series, he stepped up in the pocket and threw a 60-yard bomb that dropped right into the hands of his roommate for the weekend, George Campbell, also a Seminole recruit. The very next play was a 30-yard touchdown pass to former Pop Warner teammate and Clemson-bound Garrett Williams.
Francois almost instantly made a fan of his coach for the week, Herm Edwards, who said he could tell the future Florida State signal caller was especially polished after only two practices.
"He was a little step above everyone else as far as footwork, ball security, where to have the ball to get it out of his hands." Edwards said. "He had good vision coverage. When he saw it, he knew where to go with the ball. He didn't force a lot of things where he didn't need to and made some plays with his legs."
Edwards also coached Winston in the Under Armour game and had this to say about how Francois compares to the Heisman Trophy winner.
"He's not as big—Jameis is huge," Edwards said. "He's probably a quicker footed guy...but his release point isn't as high. You want quarterbacks with poise and confidence. You could just tell right away, the game's not too big for him. Some guys you can just tell when the lights come on and they play good."
Cool under pressure
Most kids would be nervous for their first high school start. In Deondre Francois' first one, as sophomore at Olympia, he threw for an astounding 358 yards and two touchdowns while flashing uncommon calm that led the Orlando Sentinel to declare, "It takes a lot to get Deondre Francois riled up."
That poise is a characteristic that those who know him are quick to compliment. Edwards said it was the biggest thing that separated him from the other quarterbacks at the Under Armour game. Weinke discovered it firsthand during what may have been Francois' only moment of on-field adversity at IMG: the second game this past season, when Francois threw four interceptions and IMG got trounced 35-2.
"There were some frustrating moments," Weinke said. "[Francois] made some good throws that weren't caught and had some interceptions."
But Francois didn't let the adversity affect him and continued to battle.
"That game was probably the true indicator that we have something special here. Even though he was obviously frustrated after the game, the first thing he wanted to do is [ask himself], 'Hey, what can I do to get better?' "
That poise was on display again in late January in an incident that set the recruiting world on fire for a couple of hours.
Francois was walking back to his dorm when his phone started to blow up. When he checked his Twitter account, he read, "I'm officially decommitting from the university of Florida State." But he says he didn't type it. He immediately deleted the tweet and reset his password, extinguishing the blaze with a tweet saying:
Then, as sports media everywhere scrambled to confirm or deny the potential bombshell tweet, Francois took a nap.
When asked where his poise comes from, Francois did not hesitate with an answer.
"I grew up with a single mom," Francois said. "She raised me well."
The journey continues
Francois may have become gained notoriety in Orlando, but the roots were planted in Miami. He grew up at his grandparents' house, under the guidance of his three quarterbacking uncles, all of whom parlayed stardom at Miramar high school into Division I scholarships. He admired his uncle Patrick Julmiste, quarterback at USF, the most.
"He'd have the football, bring it home from school. I'd have it in my hand, and it would be so big," Francois said. "I had to go on YouTube and look up Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and [Aaron] Rodgers and how to throw a football. Then I'd grab a can of yams and do the same motion. As soon as I got a football in my hand, it was all natural."
He moved to Orlando with his mother permanently in the seventh grade. He experienced continued football success through his sophomore year at Olympia. After a new coaching hire and some graduations led to a tough junior season, a change was necessary. That led him to IMG, seemingly an athlete's paradise.
He transferred shortly before finals and he got a crash course in the life of a student athlete.
"Wake up about 6:45 and eat breakfast. From 7:30 to 12:30, I'd have class," Francois said. "Eat lunch at 1:00. Go to dorm and relax from 2:15 to 3:40. Team meetings and individual meeting. Then practice until 6:45. Then I thought my day was done, but it really wasn't. After practice, I'd have to get dinner, then go to tutoring from about 7:30 to 9:00. Our curfew is 10, so I'd only have an hour to socialize, then I'd have to go back to my dorm and do homework again until I go to sleep around [midnight]."
There were times when Francois questioned his decision. Was all of this sacrifice and time away from his family worth it?
"Sometimes I think it wasn't, but it really was," Francois said. "I learned that me doing the right things, it's going to pay off in the future. And I knew that me keeping my grades up and studying the playbook, that I would be happy with my decision coming here. I'm already ready for college. When I get there, I sure won't be homesick."
He won't have time to be. This is football, and just like the bounce of the oblong shaped ball, anything can happen. There will be seven quarterbacks on the Florida State roster in the fall, including incumbents Sean Maguire and J.J. Cosentino. Even Winston redshirted as a freshman.
That said, perhaps the biggest challenger to Francois will be 2016 commit Malik Henry. The California recruit is the second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in his class, according to Rivals.com, and at least an inch taller.
While admitting he was shocked when he heard Henry committed, Francois said he is not concerned about someone who won't be at the school until next year. His mindset was clear while watching the end of the Rose Bowl in a room full of Florida State recruits. While everyone else in the room grew a little agitated during the demoralizing second half, Francois was thinking, "I can't wait to get there."
Quiet and direct. Doesn't sound much like the next Jameis Winston. But that might be just what he is.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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