College football 2016 recruiting class primer: Top 16 storylines to follow
It has been little more than a month since class of 2015 prospects signed their National Letters of Intent. While it may seem early to analyze the players who will sign their NLIs a year from now, recruiting never rests, and many programs are already off to strong starts in the next cycle. Here are 16 notes, questions and myriad observations about key storylines in the recruiting class of '16.
1. Miami's need for a strong class
The Hurricanes sit atop Rivals.com’s 2016 team recruiting rankings with 19 verbal commitments, including five from four-star prospects. It’s unlikely Miami will finish the ‘16 cycle with the nation’s top class—or even the ACC's top class—but a strong haul would provide some momentum after the school watched more than 10 players in the ‘15 class renounce their pledges before Signing Day, according to InsideTheU.com. Four-star tailback Jordan Scarlett (Florida), receiver Antonio Callaway (Florida) and safety Shawn Burgess-Becker (Alabama) were among the South Florida-based prospects the Hurricanes failed to land.
Their 2016 class includes wideout Sam Bruce, a star at nearby power St. Thomas Aquinas High, who is ranked seventh nationally among receivers by Rivals.com.
2. Jim Harbaugh's first full class at Michigan
When Harbaugh replaced Brady Hoke as the Wolverines coach in December, he was tasked with salvaging a 2015 class that at one point counted only six verbal commitments. Michigan finished with 14 recruits, including six four-star players, for the 50th-ranked class in the country, per Rivals.com.
Now that Harbaugh has an entire cycle to scout and recruit players, expect the Wolverines to pull in a stronger group. The combination of Harbaugh’s pedigree, coaching style, salesmanship (see below) and ability to connect with high school players—top-ranked 2015 tight end Chris Clark, who ultimately chose UCLA, compared Harbaugh to LeBron James—should yield favorable results.
3. The Texas and Texas A&M recruiting rivalry
Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played since November 2011, but the two programs have continued to trade punches on the recruiting trail since Charlie Strong arrived in Austin. Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin’s first two full classes ranked among the top 12 in the nation, according to Rivals.com, while the big talking point surrounding Texas near the end of Mack Brown’s tenure was how many star quarterbacks he once tried to recruit as defensive backs.
Strong helped the Longhorns land a 2015 class including 14 four-star prospects and one five-star prospect, while A&M reeled in another strong haul featuring 11 prospects from the Rivals250. The Kyler Murray drama provided a glimpse of the future; expect more heated battles for the Lone Star State’s top high school talent.
4. Alabama’s continued domination
According to Rivals.com, Alabama has put together the nation’s top class in four of the last five years. (It finished second behind USC in 2015.) Barring a sudden and unexpected downturn, its stretch of recruiting dominance should continue.
Nick Saban's 2016 class already counts commitments from top-50 prospect Shyheim Carter and five-star athlete Demetris Robertson. Perhaps the most impressive—and, for any program competing against the Crimson Tide, the most terrifying—part about Bama’s recruiting machine is that it continues to land the most talented prospects in the country even though the Tide’s depth chart is already stocked with similarly talented players.
5. The possibility of an early signing period
CBSSports.com reported in January that an early signing period has been formally recommended and Division I commissioners will vote on the recommendation in June. If it passes, the three-day early signing period would begin on Dec. 16 and take effect for the 2016 class.
The measure would have several repercussions, but one that sticks out concerns schools in isolated regions. With the possibility for recruitments to end in the middle of December, schools would have a smaller window in which to host prospects for official visits, expenses-paid trips that are allowed beginning after the first day of a recruit's senior year. Some players may not be able to afford unofficial visits (on the recruit's own dime) to geographically isolated schools, so those schools could struggle to get recruits on campus before they are permitted to sign their NLIs.
6. Jim McElwain’s first full class at Florida
Even though Florida lost top-rated 2015 prospect Byron Cowart to Auburn on Signing Day, the Gators managed to land two of their top targets in offensive lineman Martez Ivey and defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson. That capped a promising finish to a cycle that suffered from the uncertainty surrounding former coach Will Muschamp. Given the abundance of local talent and the freedom from the confines of a shortened recruiting calendar, McElwain has the potential to annually deliver one of the nation’s top classes. Will he harness that in ‘16?
7. Will fewer prospects sign NLIs?
This question was motivated by the reaction to the eventful recruitment of Macon County (Ga.) High linebacker Roquan Smith. Smith drew national attention when he committed to UCLA on Signing Day but decided against signing his NLI. The move sparked discussion over the merits of the NLI, with one Alabama columnist going as far as to compare Smith to Rosa Parks. SI.com’s Andy Staples used Smith, who later committed to Georgia, to help explain why he believes the NLI is the “worst contract in American sports.” It remains to be seen how many prospects will follow Smith’s lead, but don’t expect anything drastic in this cycle.
8. Ohio State’s momentum
Kareem Walker, the top-ranked running back in the 2016 class, committed to Ohio State during halftime of the Buckeyes’ national title win over Oregon. Ohio State has landed six four-star players in the class, including tight end Jake Hausmann.
The Buckeyes have outpaced the rest of the Big Ten on the recruiting trail since Urban Meyer took over as coach in November 2011, and should continue to hoard top talent within the conference. Still, it will be entertaining to watch Harbaugh and Meyer battle for recruits in the Midwest and beyond, though the title of reigning national champions is a nice trump card for Meyer.
9. USC's need for major on-field success
USC was able to use a full allotment of scholarships in 2015 for the first time since NCAA sanctions kicked in from Reggie Bush’s impermissible benefits case. The program closed with a flourish, landing three five-star prospects on Signing Day, including top cornerback Iman Marshall.
The Trojans should sustain their recruiting momentum if coach Steve Sarkisian can deploy that talent to produce on-field results. USC will likely enter the 2015 season ranked in the top 10 of the AP Poll, and a successful campaign would give it even more clout with elite prospects—while also stanching some of the buzz crosstown rival UCLA generated in the previous recruiting cycle.
10. UCLA’s sustainability, and what it means for USC
Speaking of the Bruins, they made their own waves on Signing Day when they added five-star running back Soso Jamabo, four-star receiver Cordell Broadus, four-star tight end Clark and four-star offensive lineman Josh Wariboko to a class that already included top-ranked quarterback Josh Rosen. Since coach Jim Mora was hired in December 2011, UCLA has finished outside the top 15 of Rivals.com’s class rankings only once. No other Pac-12 team seems better suited to challenge the Trojans on the recruiting trail, and the Bruins could strengthen their position by extending their on-field winning streak against USC.
11. Ole Miss's quest to land another banner class
The Rebels’ first full recruiting class under Hugh Freeze netted five-star prospects Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, as well as nine four-star players. That group helped power Ole Miss to one of the best seasons in program history, highlighted by an upset of Alabama in October.
The Rebels haven’t matched that recruiting success in two subsequent classes—which ranked 19th and 21st, respectively—but their big 2014 season may have boosted their ‘16 recruiting efforts. According to Rivals.com, Miami (18), Kentucky (14) and Florida State (12) are the only schools with more commitments than Ole Miss (10), which last month earned a pledge from Shea Patterson, the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback.
12. Rashan Gary's anticipated decision
Every recruiting class features its share of athletic marvels, but one to watch in 2016 is Paramus (N.J.) Catholic standout Rashan Gary. At The Opening in July, Gary, a 290-pound defensive tackle, ran a 4.74 40 and recorded a 32.1-inch vertical jump. To put those numbers in perspective, the top marks for defensive tackles at this year’s combine were 4.84 seconds and 34.0 inches, respectively. There is video of Gary—who is ranked No. 1 among defensive tackles and No. 4 overall in the class—dunking a 16-pound shotput in his high school gym.
His former high school coach, Chris Partridge, recently took a position at Michigan, where former Paramus Catholic star Jabrill Peppers now plays. But Gary told Rivals.com last month that he is still "breaking down" his list of schools.
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13. Penn State's push under James Franklin
The biggest national headline to come out of Happy Valley on 2015 Signing Day involved an accidental FaceTime call. Nittany Lions fans were probably more focused on their class, which included 11 four-star prospects and finished 15th in Rivals.com’s team rankings.
Franklin established his reputation as a strong recruiter long before he became Penn State’s coach last January. Can he help the Nittany Lions continue to land heralded classes, even when competing with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan? It should help that Franklin can recruit in 2016 with knowledge that Penn State’s NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal are over. The program is off to a promising start, having already secured commitments from Miles Sanders, the nation’s second-ranked tailback, and Shane Simmons, a blue-chip defensive end.
14. Clemson's attempt to hang with Florida State
The Tigers reeled in a 2015 class with three five-star prospects and nine four-star players that finished fourth in Rivals.com’s rankings. Clemson already has commitments from touted dual-threat quarterback Zerrick Cooper, tailback Tavien Feaster and three other four-star guys in '16. Florida State will likely continue to out-recruit everyone in the ACC, but Clemson finished one spot behind the Seminoles in '15 and should keep signing elite talent as it wins double-digit games.
15. The impact of cost of attendance stipends
At the NCAA’s annual convention, Power Five schools voted to increase the value of athletic scholarships to cover the cost of attendance. The new measure wasn’t discussed much in the context of 2015 recruiting because the vote took place less than a month before Signing Day, but expect to hear more about it moving forward.
With the cost of attendance varying at different schools (and not set by athletic departments), the potential for COA figures to be used to entice (or discourage) prospects from attending a certain school cannot be dismissed. How much this will factor into prospects’ college decisions will likely differ on a case-by-case basis, but it’s a new element of the recruiting process to take into account.
16. Top quarterbacks' early commitments
For those anticipating heated battles to land the premier 2016 quarterbacks, the following may be disappointing: The top three quarterbacks in the Rivals250 have already verbally committed. Lake Stevens (Wash.) High’s Jacob Eason pledged to Georgia, Calvary Baptist (La.) Academy’s Patterson committed to Ole Miss, and IMG (Fla.) Academy’s Malik Henry picked Florida State. The lone holdout, Santa Margarita Catholic (Calif.) High’s K.J. Costello, reportedly has listed a top three of Stanford, USC and Michigan.
Still, there are plenty of talented signal-callers in the process of deciding on a school. Those include Dwayne Haskins Jr., Jarrett Guarantano and Austin Kendall, who decommitted from Tennessee earlier this week.