Let’s get this out of the way first: The class of 2014 is full of high-motor, blue-chip, top-tier recruits who are oozing with potential and have the natural talent and athleticism to make an instant impact at the next level. Why wouldn’t it be? Sure, some prospects may be raw. Some may take time to become college-ready. But all are explosive, most are dynamic and fans around the country have every right to lose their minds when one ceremonially faxes in his signature. ’Crootin’, after all, is the lifeblood of college football.
Still, there’s more to National Signing Day than clichés and obsolete technology. These kids are people, and it’s the little things that make people tick. With Feb. 5 right around the corner, here are 10 (mostly significant) things you should know about this year’s class -- and some of the players who could dominate the sport in the years to come.
1. The nation’s No. 1 recruit made his college decision while eating at Wendy’s. Woodbridge, Va., defensive end Da'Shawn Hand is the top-ranked prospect in the nation, according to Rivals.com. He was the subject of The Washington Post’s excellent video series “First and 17,” which you really should check out if you have a few minutes.
As he digested a meal from Wendy’s, Hand said he got a gut feeling Alabama was the school for him. Once he shared the news with his family, Hand called the Florida and Michigan coaches before dialing Alabama coach Nick Saban.
“He was like ‘Yaaayy!’” Hand said of Saban’s reaction. “I was like, ‘Whoa, Nick, is that you?’ Usually, he’s monotone, but he was excited and I’m excited.”
Is Hand a Baconator man? Or does he prefer the Spicy Chicken Sandwich? Does he dip his fries in his Frosty like a true American hero? This much is certain: Wendy’s is the only logical place to make major-life decisions, including, but not limited to, one’s college destination, investment portfolio, love and dipping sauce.
Also (somewhat) of note: Earlier in the recruiting process, a college coach promised Hand the chance to meet Michael Jackson, a tidbit CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman unearthed over the summer.
Q: What is the craziest thing that has happened to you since you've been named the nation's No. 1 recruit?
Hand: Well, I ain't gonna say any names, but one coach told me that since I'm the No. 1 player, I'm gonna get to meet Michael Jackson. I said, "Isn't he already dead?" The coach goes, "Well, all right, you can meet Tito." I was like, all right. OK, I'm done.
2. JReall, 2Stackz and Drizobeats are all five-star prospects. Music and sports just go together. Like bacon and eggs. Or spaghetti and meatballs. Or awards shows and robot hugs.
Well, it should come as no surprise that this year’s class is not only full of aspiring athletes, but of aspiring artists, too. That begins with Jabrill Peppers, the country’s top-ranked cornerback, who originally starred at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. -- the Ironmen’s 2012 season was chronicled in a terrific feature by The New Yorker’s Ben McGrath -- before transferring to Paramus Catholic during the winter of his sophomore year.
Peppers is a rapper who goes by the name JReall. He committed to Michigan by dropping the following verse on ESPN: I can see it now, the fans screaming, yelling/As I’m walking out that tunnel, in the winged helmet.
He has also adopted Drake’s “No New Friends” mentality, as evidenced by his music video released in May.
*Note: Stick around for Peppers’ dance at the 3:15 mark, which I’m sure as heck going to tweet out every time he picks off a pass next season.
He’s far from the only budding musician. Georgia-bound running back Sony Michel -- who has been a household name on recruiting the circuit since he was in the eighth grade, when he rushed for 1,825 yards and 18 touchdowns at American Heritage High in Plantation, Fla. -- is a John Legend and Meek Mill fan who raps using the moniker 2Stackz (in reference to 2,000 rushing yards). Chesapeake, Va., defensive tackle Andrew Brown is a producer who goes by Drizobeats. (He has even released a mixtape.)
Basically, what I’m saying is that dual-threat can mean a variety of things now, and that ESPN doesn’t have to play Eminem during every montage sequence next fall.
3. Leonard Fournette has fans in high places. Fournette is probably the most talked-about player in this year’s class. The running back from New Orleans has already drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He’s the cousin of Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. Heck, he’s even made a fan out of Lil’ Wayne, which is pretty much the coolest thing you can accomplish as a high school student.
He’s drawn rave reviews from Peyton Manning, who is a football player you may have heard a thing or two about.
“It was big game between St. Augustine and John Curtis, who have always been powerhouses in New Orleans,” Manning said. “So I was home on a Friday night, turned the game on and he’s an impressive linebacker -- and, oh by the way, he’s also the top-rated running back, as well. He’s some kind of athlete. And I haven’t had a chance to meet him, but watching the game that he had against John Curtis, one of the best programs in the country, that kind of told me everything I needed to know about how good of a player he is.”
On a more serious note, Fournette was raised in a bad neighborhood. He grew up around drugs and devastation and death. As ESPN’s Alex Scarborough detailed in 2012, he came out of it with a perspective that transcends his age, and one most people may never fully comprehend.
"Where we grew up at, we never had the best neighborhood," Fournette said. "We've seen people get shot right in front of us. That's why when you talk to everybody, they say they've got to grind. They're trying to get their momma out the position they're in. You can't take it anymore. That's why you work out as much as you can.
"You want your momma to kick her feet up and drink -- I don't know what she drinks -- but drink something, anything good."
Fournette is headed to LSU next fall. Remember his name.
4. The class of 2014 has unlocked the essence of Nick Saban. There are some things seen so rarely that they seem more myth than reality, like Bigfoot, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Nick Saban’s smile is one of those things -- people want to believe it exists more than they actually think it does.
Well, here is West Monroe, La., offensive tackle Cameron Robinson pictured with Saban and a box of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies just days after Alabama’s last-second Iron Bowl loss to Auburn.
The secret is in the Little Debbie’s. Use this power wisely.
Hoover, Ala., cornerback Marlon Humphrey is also apparently a Saban whisperer. Humphrey, who goes by the nickname Fruit Punch, tweeted out an elusive Saban selfie photobomb.
The class of 2014 works miracles, y’all.
5. Jalen Tabor has a chest tattoo that you really should see. A onetime Arizona commit, Tabor flipped to Florida earlier this month. The defensive back out of Friendship Collegiate Academy in Washington, D.C., has already enrolled in Gainesville, but for all of his accolades -- he had five interceptions and 17 pass breakups as a senior -- his lasting impression may come via his can’t-miss chest tattoo.
My take: This is nice. Tabor has magically combined the superpowers of Superman and Wolverine, which makes him a SuperWolverine, meaning he poses a real threat to the unsuspecting receivers he covers. However, I’ll defer to Tom Mantzouranis, a senior producer at The MMQB and SI’s resident tattoo expert, for further analysis:
"First, let's just get it out of the way: The fact that Tabor is tattooed at all means he has obvious character flaws. That being said, this tattoo is an interesting case study. Artistically, it's pretty well done, so you can be safe knowing it wasn't a drunken decision late on a Saturday night. But do we really want another athlete with the Superman schtick? The lack of creativity worries me, as I want a DB capable of really reflecting on who he is and coming up with an original visual representation of that. It's a key skill at the position."
6. #Crootinhair? #Crootinhair. Two years ago, basketball phenom Nerlens Noel announced he was heading to Kentucky by famously shaving “UK” into the back of his head. Well, Charles Brighton, an offensive lineman out of Brighton, Tenn., upped the ante with his commitment to Tennessee.
However, the undisputed hair king of the class of 2014 is Alabama commit Tony Brown. A cornerback who is also an Olympic hopeful, Brown started his track career with the Crimson Tide last week. Behold:
7. Adoree’ Jackson is college football’s next social media all-star. Jackson is the latest playmaker to come out of Junipero Serra High in Gardena, Calif., the school that also produced wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. He’s a standout basketball guard and long jumper in addition to being a football star, and he led the Cavaliers to a 13-1 record and a berth in the CIF Southern Section championship game this season.
What you really need to know, however, is that he goes by the Twitter handle @AdoreeKnows, which you should follow immediately. He offers thoughts about gaming:
And touchdown dances:
8. These recruits put up some pretty unbelievable numbers. Every year, the country’s top high school players break more and more records. That’s what happens when offenses become faster and more innovative, and players become smarter and more athletic. Still, some of the stats from this class are pretty remarkable. A sampling:
• QB Will Grier (Davidson, N.C.): The Florida commit passed for a national-record 837 yards and 10 touchdowns in Davidson Day's 104-80 win over Harrells Christian Academy on Nov. 9, 2012.
• DE Myles Garrett (Arlington, Texas): The second-ranked recruit in the nation, according to Rivals.com, Garrett had 8.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt in Arlington Martin’s 47-3 win over Weatherford on Oct. 4, 2013.
• WR Trey Quinn (Lake Charles, La.): The LSU commit's 6,566 career receiving yards broke Dorial Green-Beckham’s all-time national record.
• QB Deshaun Watson (Gainesville, Ga.): Clemson’s early enrollee threw for 13,077 yards and 155 touchdowns, both Georgia state records; he also ran for 4,057 yards and 59 scores.
9. Offensive lineman Braden Smith can bench press 515 pounds. That is a lot.
10. Johnny Football’s protégé is heading to Tempe. As far as headlines go, “With help of Johnny Manziel, Manny Wilkins has turned life around” is a pretty enticing one. But Wilkins’ story is even better.
An Arizona State commit out of Novato, Calif., Wilkins isn’t as highly touted as many of the other prospects in this column. He has a three-star rating on Rivals.com and only moved to quarterback the spring before his junior season. Yet he has a chance to be a difference-maker in college, something that seemed completely implausible only a few years ago.
After his father died of a drug addiction, Wilkins moved from California to Missouri City, Texas. He got mixed up in the wrong crowd and was soon expelled from school. However, with the help of Manziel -- who he met at an Elite 11 camp -- and Kentfield, Calif., quarterback Morgan Mahalak, Wilkins got back on the right path.
"I remember sitting by myself, wondering what am I doing with my life? How can I make something out of myself to make my family and friends proud? Something clicked there. I wanted more."
Wilkins led San Marin High to a 9-3 mark as a senior. Once Taylor Kelly graduates, Wilkins could emerge as a vital cog in the Sun Devils’ up-tempo offense.
Have more stories, tidbits or facts about the class of 2014? Let us know in the comments section below. STAPLES: All-Name Team: Best monikers in the 2014 recruiting class