Five recruiting storylines to know as 2016 cycle begins winding to close
The dead period for Football Bowl Subdivision prospects began this week, and National Signing Day is less than two months away. Programs have mostly filled out their 2016 classes, but expect some players to change their minds as the end of this cycle nears. Here are five recruiting-related things to know as we enter the postseason and prepare to turn the calendar on 2015:
1. Jacob Eason Watch
Eason is the No. 2 quarterback and No. 7 player in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com. He has been committed to Georgia since last summer, but the strength of his pledge has been called into question because of recent events. In early November, less than a week after Florida crushed Georgia in The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party to take pole position in the SEC East, Eason created headlines when he followed Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier on Twitter. Richt visited Eason in Washington later that month, the day after Georgia’s win over Auburn on Nov. 14, and posted a picture on social media of the two having breakfast together.
The image may have temporarily eased Bulldogs’ fans nerves, but it wasn’t long before they probably went into panic mode again over Eason’s future. Georgia fired Richt after the regular season ended, and Eason, who plans to enroll early, took official visits to both Florida—who picked up a commitment from another blue-chip quarterback, Feleipe Franks, in late November—and Washington. But the Bulldogs got another chance to sway Eason when he made his official visit to Athens last weekend, a trip that new Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he thought “went great,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Eason tweeted Monday night that he’ll decide between Florida and Georgia on Tuesday, and his coach at Lake Stevens (Wash.) High, Tom Tri, told the Journal-Constitution recently that he thinks the Bulldogs remain Eason’s top choice. For what it’s worth, Franks said this weekend that he’s not commenting on Eason and that he’s made his final decision.
2. The Big Ten is on the rise
This season the Big Ten fought back against years of negative commentary surrounding its plodding style, perceived lack of speed and combination of poor weather and early kickoff times. The conference placed five teams in the top 15 of the final edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, more than any other league, including three in the top five. Buoyed by the unexpectedly quick emergence of Michigan under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and the continued excellence of Ohio State under Urban Meyer and Michigan State under Mark Dantonio, the Big Ten now has three national contenders with staying power, plus some solid depth with programs like Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
The conference’s on-field success is paying off on the recruiting trail. For the first time since 2005, the Big Ten could finish with more than two teams in the top 10 of Scout.com’s recruiting rankings. The conference currently has four in that range: Ohio State (No. 3), Michigan (No. 5), Penn State (No. 7) and Michigan State (No. 8). It’s not surprising that the Buckeyes have compiled one of the nation’s top classes given their track record under Meyer, but the prospect of other programs raising their talent levels bodes well for the league’s ability to push for playoff berths and invitations to top-tier bowl games going forward.
3. Two New Jersey recruits are high on Michigan’s list
The presumption upon Harbaugh’s hiring as the Wolverines’ head coach last December—that he would instantly elevate the program’s recruiting—was spot on. After finishing 35th in the country in Scout.com’s team recruiting rankings in 2015, Michigan currently sits at No. 5, behind only one other Big Ten program (Ohio State, at No. 3). But Harbaugh could make his first full class in Ann Arbor an even bigger win if the Wolverines reel in two uncommitted prospects from New Jersey.
Paramus Catholic High defensive tackle Rashan Gary and DePaul Catholic High running back Kareem Walker are ranked first and second in the nation, respectively, at their positions. Walker, who decommitted from longstanding rival Ohio State in November after visiting Ann Arbor the previous month, is set to announce his decision on Thursday. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen when Gary will reveal his choice, but he relayed that his official visit to Michigan in September went well, and the Wolverines hired former Paramus Catholic coach Chris Partridge to a recruiting operations position in January.
It goes without saying that landing one or both of the two five-star prospects—each of whom count more than 25 scholarship offers from FBS programs—would be great news for Michigan. It would also add to the Wolverines’ three-deep contingent of class of 2016 recruits from the Garden State: Cedar Creek High four-star wide receiver Ahmir Mitchell, Camden High four-star wide receiver Brad Hawkins and Camden High three-star defensive end Ron Johnson Jr.
4. The Big 12 is behind the 8-ball
Unlike last year, the Big 12 did send a team to the playoff, but it’s lagging behind its Power 5 peers when it comes to luring top-tier talent. The highest-ranked team from the conference in Scout.com’s rankings is Baylor at No. 16, with no other squads in the top 20. The picture is just as bleak when looking at individual prospects. Only one player in the top 30 of the latest edition of the Scout 300, wide receiver Devin Duvernay (No. 29), is committed to a Big 12 program (Baylor). What’s more, of the top 16 ranked recruits who hail from Texas—which houses four of the conference’s 10 programs and ranks among the nation’s most talent-rich states—only three are pledged to a Big 12 program, and it’s the same program (Baylor).
Is this bad? Recruiting rankings are not perfect, but they do serve as a solid baseline when forecasting team and, by extension, conference quality. While the Big 12’s nouveau riche, Baylor and TCU (No. 26), are attracting better players thanks in part to their success in the conference, two of the Big 12’s premier programs, Oklahoma and Texas, aren’t holding up their end of the bargain. To be fair, the Longhorns (3.42) and Sooners (3.38), respectively, lead the Big 12 in average star rating, but they aren’t in the same stratosphere as the top teams from other Power Five conferences, such as Ohio State (3.88), Georgia (3.79) and USC (3.71), all of which have also secured commitments from more prospects than Texas and Oklahoma.
5. Quarterbacks have made up their minds
If you’re wondering whether your favorite program can land a top quarterback prospect, here’s some bad news: The top 13 passers in the class of 2016, according to Scout.com, are off the board. That doesn’t mean they can’t change their minds in the weeks before signing day. To wit: the biggest recruiting-related topic of discussion right now is whether one of the nation’s top QBs (Eason) will defect in favor of another program in the same division. While the possibility exists that at least one top-tier passer could switch allegiances between now and the first week of February—and one move could set off a host of others—you may be disappointed if you’re expecting a lot of drama.
In fact, six of the top nine quarterbacks in the class of 2017 already have issued verbal commitments. Still, the makeup of the top of the 2016 quarterback rankings is not representative of the upper reaches of the 2016 class as a whole. Fourteen of the top 23 players in the class of 2016 have yet to declare where they plan to enroll, including six of the top 11 (Gary, offensive tackle Greg Little, defensive end Oluwole Betiku, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, defensive tackle Shavar Manuel and athlete Mecole Hardman Jr.). That’s a lot of top-notch talent that’s still up for grabs, even if it doesn’t include a quarterback.