When No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama meet in the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday night, fans will tune in to watch some of the best players in the country. There’s Derrick Henry, the Crimson Tide’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back, and Deshaun Watson, the Tigers’ electric dual-threat quarterback, among other stars. Both squads feature all-conference honorees and future NFL draft picks on both sides of the ball. There will be an abundance of elite talent on the field at all times.
While Clemson and Alabama clearly built strong rosters for this season—they wouldn’t be in this position otherwise—attention will shift to the teams’ outlooks for next season soon after one of them is crowned king of college football in Glendale. Some fervent Crimson Tide and Tigers supporters have already started looking toward the future, with particular interest in which high school prospects their favorite teams will add in the first week of February. As National Signing Day approaches, here are three things to know about each title game participant’s 2016 recruiting class.
1. The Tigers are on a strong run
Over the last five weeks, Clemson has won the ACC title game, earned the top seed in the playoff and secured a spot in the national championship. But during that span, it has gotten plenty of great news off the field, too. On Dec. 14, five-star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence became the highest-ranked prospect in Clemson’s recruiting class when he committed to the Tigers over North Carolina State, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Ohio State and USC. Less than a month later, four-star defensive end Rahshaun Smith—a former Clemson commit who reopened his recruitment in August—pledged to the Tigers at the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Fla. At another all-star game played the next day, the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, Clemson picked up a commitment from four-star wide receiver Diondre Overton. And that’s without mentioning the recent decision by Hunter Johnson, the No. 4 quarterback in the class of 2017, to flip from Tennessee to Clemson.
Whether those players would have chosen to join the Tigers without this run of success is up for debate, but it clearly hasn’t hurt their standing with elite recruits. Beating Alabama on Monday night will only make Clemson a more appealing option.
2. Clemson should be O.K. if Wayne Gallman leaves
Gallman helped Clemson rank 10th in the nation in Football Outsiders Offensive S&P+ and second in the ACC in points per game this season. The running back been particularly effective over the Tigers’ last two contests against North Carolina and Oklahoma, racking up 337 yards and three touchdowns on 6.24 yards per carry. Clemson will have a strong running game if Gallman returns next season, but as a redshirt sophomore he’s eligible to enter the draft.
The good news for the Tigers is that they should be able to get consistent production at running back even if Gallman turns pro, thanks to a commitment from Tavien Feaster, the top running back proscpect in the class of 2016. The Spartanburg High standout was named Mr. Football in South Carolina this year after recording 2,097 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns, according to MaxPreps, and earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors in track and field. Scout.com, which ranks Feaster the No. 26 overall player in the class of 2016, notes in its scouting report that he “can make the quick cut without losing speed and he is good in the open field,” and that “his hands out of the backfield are a real strength of his.”
Lining up the speedy Feaster next to Gallman in the backfield would be ideal for Clemson, but the Tigers’ outlook at running back is rosy even if Gallman doesn't return. Clemson has not landed a back as highly regarded as Feaster since Union County (Fla.) High’s C.J. Spiller, the No. 16 player in the class of 2006.
3. The Tigers are reloading on the defensive line
Of the class of 2016 prospects mentioned above, none was a bigger recruiting victory for Clemson than Lawrence. Scout.com’s scouting report of Lawrence describes him as a “prospect who jumps out the minute he steps off the bus,” and notes that he is “really strong in using size, power and quickness to get penetration,” among other positive qualities. Lawrence has distinguished himself among a group of excellent prospects at his position. Of the top 10 players in the Scout 300, five (uncommitted Rashan Gary, Lawrence, Houston commit Ed Oliver, uncommitted Derrick Brown and Florida commit Shavar Manuel) are defensive tackles. Lawrence ranks behind only Gary, whom Scout.com Managing Editor Scott Kennedy described as “one of my four best defensive linemen of all time.”
In sum, Lawrence is very good, and he’s the second top-tier defensive tackle recruit Clemson has landed in as many years (freshman standout Christian Wilkins ranked No. 6 among DTs and No. 39 overall in the 2015 Scout 300). And Lawrence isn't the only blue-chip defensive lineman in the Tigers’ 2016 recruiting class. They also secured a commitment from Xavier Kelly, the No. 18 defensive end in the nation; Nyles Pinckney, the No. 41 defensive tackle; and Smith, the No. 32 defensive end. That group, plus Wilkins and others, can help ensure Clemson’s defensive line doesn’t slip in 2016 even though it’s set to lose star end Shaq Lawson to the NFL.
(Note that Alabama offensive tackle signee Charles Baldwin was excluded from the chart, but he is Scout.com’s No. 3 junior college prospect in the class of 2016 and was assessed a five-star rating.)
1. This is another great class
A piece of information that won’t surprise anyone even vaguely familiar with college football recruiting: Alabama is compiling another stellar class. The Tide have not ranked outside the top five of Scout.com’s team recruiting rankings since 2011—when they ranked No. 7—and are set to clear that bar with ease in ’16. Alabama’s class counts commitments from 19 players, including 14 assessed four-star ratings or better by Scout.com. Twelve made the latest version of the Scout 300, and 10 rate in the top 15 at their respective positions. Among the top prospects in the Tide's class are Kendell Jones, a five-star defensive tackle from Shoemaker (Texas) High (more on him below), and B.J. Emmons, a four-star running back from Freedom (N.C.) High.
Though several of Alabama’s players could leave for the NFL this off-season—including the Heisman Trophy-winning running back Henry—signing day will ease any angst over roster departures. Until the Crimson Tide begin to decline on the field—something that will require more than one fluky, turnover-filled loss to a division rival in September—expect them to keep dominating off of it. Alabama’s 2016 recruiting class will provide another wave of reinforcements, and the Tide are already beginning to piece together a strong 2017 class.
2. The “Hulk” is coming to Tuscaloosa
The position unit most responsible for Alabama’s success this season is its defensive line. From A’Shawn Robinson to Jonathan Allen to Jarran Reed, the Crimson Tide feature a deep rotation of tackles and ends capable of smothering opposing ground attacks. That dominant group helped Alabama lead the nation in rushing yards allowed per play and defensive Rushing S&P+. However, the Tide could lose multiple pieces to the NFL this off-season.
Fortunately for Alabama, it’s set to add arguably the most physically imposing recruit in the country. Kendell Jones is the No. 6 defensive tackle and No. 19 player in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com. Nicknamed “Hulk,” Jones measures 6’5”, told AL.com last week that he weighed around 370 pounds, and indicates on his Hudl page that he can run the 40-yard dash in 4.90 seconds, bench press 400 pounds and squat 600 pounds.
Scout.com describes Jones as a “gifted physical specimen, who is quick and athletic for a player with his size,” and notes that he is “a bit raw as a prospect, but shows the explosion and get off of an elite player.” That should frighten any offensive lineman scheduled to face Alabama over the next three years. Jones, quite simply, is a massive human being who could be joined in Tuscaloosa by two other four-star defensive tackles commits (Raekwon Davis and Quinnen Williams). To get a sense of how big Jones is, check out this footage of him standing next to Rashan Gary, the 6’4”, 286-pound defensive tackle who ranks No. 1 overall in the Scout 300.
3. The Crimson Tide are not done
As mentioned above, Alabama already has compiled a really good class. But the Tide still could add some more big names to the group before signing day. Mecole Hardman Jr., the top athlete and No. 16 player in the class of 2016, said this week that Alabama stands atop a list of top six schools that also includes Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Clemson and Tennessee. Demetris Robertson, the No. 4 athlete and No. 43 player in the class of 2016, said the Tide are among the four schools he’s focusing on (the others are Georgia, Stanford and Notre Dame). Another one of the nation’s top athletes, former Miami commit Ahmmon Richards, said he’s still considering the Tide along with Auburn, Tennessee and the Hurricanes. And Alabama remains in the mix for several other coveted prospects, including five-star linebacker Ben Davis, five-star safety Nigel Warrior, five-star tight end Isaac Nauta, four-star inside linebacker Lyndell “Mack” Wilson and four-star defensive end Jeffery Simmons.
The Tide won’t land all of those players, but even if they somehow came up empty, this would still stand as one of the nation’s top classes (it currently ranks No. 2 in the nation on Scout.com). It's a testament to Alabama’s success and the effectiveness of coach Nick Saban’s recruiting pitch that the Tide continue to attract top-flight prospects from all over the country even though their roster is already stocked with former four-stars and five-stars.