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Five burning questions heading into National Signing Day 2011

1. Where/when will the nation's top recruit sign?

Rock Hill, S.C., defensive end Jadeveon Clowney doesn't plan to announce his college choice until his birthday on Feb. 14, meaning this will likely be the third time in four classes that the nation's highest rated recruit will stretch the drama past National Signing Day.

In 2008, Jeanette, Pa., quarterback Terrelle Pryor waited until March 19 to announce he would sign with Ohio State. Last year, Twin Cities offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson committed to USC on Signing Day, but didn't actually sign a letter-of-intent until March 23. Henderson then requested a release from that letter-of-intent and went to Miami, where he started nine games.

Clowney has made official visits to Alabama, Clemson and South Carolina, and the extra time could allow him to take two more visits -- presumably to LSU and/or North Carolina. So will Clowney pull off a Valentine's Day shocker? Or will he follow former South Pointe High teammates Stephon Gilmore and Devonte Holloman to South Carolina? "I'll just flat out tell you, I think he's going to the University of South Carolina," former South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll told Palmetto State recruiting guru Phil Kornblut last weekend. "I've thought that since Day 1. I just believe that's where he's going. When you can get 18,000 fans to chant, 'We want Clowney' [at a recent Gamecocks basketball game] that's pretty impressive. I've got a good feeling that's where Mr. Clowney is going to end up."

The only real shocker would be if Clowney actually signed on Wednesday.

2. Drama in the top 20

Clowney isn't the only top-of-the-board recruit taking his decision to the wire. Though they don't plan to wait as long as Clowney, five other members of the 247Sports.com top 20 plan on announcing their decisions on Signing Day.

The biggest -- literally and figuratively -- is Hyattsville, Md., offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio (No. 2 overall). The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Kouandjio took official visits to Alabama, Auburn, Iowa and New Mexico. The Crimson Tide could have the edge. Kouandjio's brother, Arie, signed with Alabama last year.

The highest ranked defensive tackle on the board is Tim Jernigan of Lake City, Fla. (No. 4 overall). Jernigan is considering Florida State, LSU and Tennessee. If he picks the Seminoles, he would add to an already strong class that includes Davenport, Fla., safety Karlos Williams, Tampa, Fla., tailback James Wilder Jr. and Palm Beach, Fla., tight end Nick O'Leary. In addition to being the nation's top-ranked tight end, O'Leary is the grandson of Jack Nicklaus.

Wadesboro, N.C., linebacker Stephone Anthony (No. 10 overall) has played things close to the vest. Clemson and Virginia Tech seem to be out front, but he is also considering Florida and North Carolina.

Another Clemson target is linebacker Tony Steward (No. 12 overall) of St. Augustine, Fla. Steward was once thought to be a Florida State lock, but the Tigers have made an impression.

Meanwhile, Columbus, Ga., tailback Isaiah Crowell (No. 14 overall) is down to Alabama and Georgia. The Crimson Tide have had a run of big-time tailbacks, but the Bulldogs have been cleaning house in the Peach State. Here's one factor to consider: Georgia is the only FBS school to offer Quintavious "Cootie" Harrow, the Carver High defensive back who just so happens to be Crowell's best friend. Harrow committed to the Bulldogs five days after receiving his offer in November.

3. Will the Black Mamba sign with USC, or will he start a paradigm shift?

An athlete in L.A. doesn't get to share a nickname with Kobe Bryant if he isn't special. De'Anthony Thomas, who was tagged with the serpentine moniker by none other than Snoop Dogg while playing Pop Warner, is that special.

Thomas, a tailback/cornerback from Crenshaw High who has said he expects to play defense in college, seemed solid to USC until last weekend. That's when he visited Oregon, the program that has won the past two Pac-10 titles.

USC has assembled an impressive class with or without Thomas, but losing him to Oregon would be a stomach-punch just before the Trojans have to begin cutting scholarships to comply with NCAA sanctions. Crenshaw High is 2.9 miles from USC's campus. To swipe Thomas would literally be poaching from USC's own backyard.

Getting Thomas would be a monumental figurative step for the Ducks, who already have built a fine class that includes 6-5, 225-pound Hillsboro, Ore., tight end/receiver/linebacker Colt Lyerla. To lose Thomas would be a blow for USC, which has already fallen behind Oregon on the field and can't afford to lose ground on the recruiting trail.

Thomas will announce his choice Wednesday.

4. Will a new NCAA rule curb oversigning?

If you read my story last week on this topic, you know the answer is probably no. Limiting schools to 28 signees between Feb. 2 and May 31 won't keep programs from signing more players than they have scholarships to accommodate, so some recruits will be grayshirted, while some current players will get cut.

But I wasn't kidding when I wrote that powerful people -- including some in the SEC -- are fired up about this issue. Just read this op-ed piece from University of Florida president Bernie Machen, published Tuesday here at SI.com.

If more people on Machen's level take a stand, the NCAA will have to adopt tougher rules to protect the recruits from fuzzy math done by millionaire coaches who consider them mere numbers on a board.

(Also, a word on pre-arranged grayshirts: They're fine, but the NCAA should ban schools from signing such players to a letter-of-intent. If a program wants a player in the class of 2012, that program should sign the player in 2012, thereby allowing other schools to continue recruiting him in 2011. This way, if the player changes his mind during the summer and wants to enroll at a school with an available scholarship, he has the option to do so without swimming through red tape.)

5. Is this the year that Notre Dame's high-rated class actually lives up to its high rating?

Stop me if you've heard this one before: The recruiting gurus have Notre Dame's class ranked pretty high. As of Tuesday morning, the Fighting Irish were ranked No. 7 by Scout.com and No. 9 by Rivals.com.

So does that mean anything? Doesn't Notre Dame have a top 10 class every year? Actually, it doesn't. The Irish haven't had a top 10 class since 2008, when Rivals and Scout ranked the Michael Floyd-led class No. 2 behind Alabama. Of course, the members of that Alabama class contributed to a national title a year later. The members of that Notre Dame class haven't won more than seven games in a season.

The defensive ends are the stars of this year's Notre Dame class. The Irish beat out Florida and Florida State for 6-6, 245-pounder Aaron Lynch and 6-6, 230-pounder Ishaq Williams -- from the football hotbed of Brooklyn -- five-star recruits on Rivals.com. Stephon Tuitt, a 6-5, 260-pounder from Monroe, Ga., also has a five-star ranking, and the Irish beat out Auburn and Georgia Tech for his commitment.

We won't know for two or three years whether this Notre Dame class is worth the hype, but it should offer an important barometer. Irish coach Brian Kelly built winners at Central Michigan and Cincinnati with players who never rose above three-star status in high school. Will Kelly's evaluation skills be as good now that he has access to more heavily recruited players? Common sense says yes. And if, in two or three years, Notre Dame still hasn't turned into a national title contender, it may be time to stop blaming the coach.

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