National Signing Day preview: Five things to watch

2:17 | College Football
A way-too-early look at the 2017 college football landscape
Monday January 30th, 2017

The day recruiting diehards have spent months looking forward to is nearly upon us. On Wednesday, hundreds of high school players will make official their decisions to join college programs as part of the wild and unpredictable spectacle known as National Signing Day. Many of these decisions have already been made. Others will be revealed in televised ceremonies, probably with a baseball cap or even a live animal. The large number of top prospects in the class of 2017 that have already declared their intentions could make for a relatively tame 24 hours, but here are five things to track:

How USC closes

The Trojans kicked off the final stretch of this recruiting cycle by securing a commitment from one of the nation’s top safeties, Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High four-star Bubba Bolden, during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in early January. They followed up later in the month by flipping an elite defensive tackle, Central (Ore.) High four-star Marlon Tuipulotu, from Washington and earning a pledge from Mountain Pointe (Ariz.) High four-star safety Isaiah Pola-Mao.

Yet the Trojans could make their biggest moves on signing day. A handful of highly regarded prospects who remain undecided could announce for USC. It is viewed as the frontrunner for two five-star prospects, Augustus F. Hawkins (Calif.) High wide receiver Joseph Lewis and North Canyon (Ariz.) High offensive tackle Austin Jackson, a Trojans legacy. Other targets include Bingham (Utah) High five-star defensive tackle Jay Tufele, Lee County (Ga.) High five-star defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon, Inderkum (Calif.) High four-star tight end Josh Falo and Westlake (Texas) High four-star linebacker Levi Jones, as well as four-star athlete Greg Johnson, Lewis’s teammate at Augustus F. Hawkins. USC won’t lure all of those players to Los Angeles, but no program is better positioned to upgrade its class in a big way on signing day.

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Undecided defensive tackles

A top-tier DT can play a central role in defanging an opposing offense and anchoring a dominant defense. And while many prospects at the position need a year or two to develop before they’re prepared to make a big impact at the college level, some, like Houston stud Ed Oliver this past season, are ready to contribute right away.

The three top-ranked defensive tackles in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com, have yet to make their final decisions. None of them is likely to perform as well as Oliver (a Sports Illustrated All-America honoree who garnered some late Heisman Trophy buzz) as true freshmen, but all of them could develop into all-conference players by the time they graduate or jump to the NFL. The most highly coveted prospect in the group, Episcopal (Texas) High’s Marvin Wilson, hails from the Houston area, just like Oliver, but he won’t join Oliver on the Cougars; Florida State and LSU are in good position to get Wilson on board, with Ohio State also in the mix. Solomon, who decommitted from Michigan last summer, could end up in Ann Arbor after all, but the Wolverines will need to fend off late pushes from Alabama and USC. And while Utah has gone to great lengths to keep Tufele at home, the Utes could have a difficult time preventing him from leaving the state for a more glamorous program like USC.

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How Florida State closes

The ceiling on Florida State’s potential signing day bump is lower than it is for USC’s, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore the Seminoles on Wednesday. Their biggest target is Wilson. Neither LSU nor Ohio State can be discounted in this battle, but Florida State seems in a good spot to add the No. 10 prospect in the nation, according to Scout.com. The same can be said for Jones, who’s down to the Seminoles, Florida and USC and is fresh off a visit to Tallahassee last weekend. Jones may well be joined by another esteemed prospect at his position: There seems a decent chance Brookwood (Ga.) High four-star linebacker Leonard Warner III will leave the Peach State for his college career. Florida State also is in contention for two top-shelf wide receivers, Robert E. Lee (Ala.) High four-star Henry Ruggs III and Amite Magnet (La.) High five-star Devonta Smith. The expectation is that at least one of them will sign with Alabama, but the recent departure of Crimson Tide wide receivers coach Billy Napier to take Arizona State’s offensive coordinator job could open the door for the Seminoles. Even if Florida State can’t close on Smith or Ruggs III, its class should look a lot more impressive on Wednesday night than it does now (even though the Seminoles' haul is already ranked eighth in the country), giving coach Jimbo Fisher's program a momentum boost for an off-season spent bathing in 2017 national title hype.

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Alabama’s dominance

There’s nothing especially surprising about Alabama potentially compiling the best collection of prospects in the nation. Coach Nick Saban targets the best high school players in the country, and a large proportion of them typically wants to play for him. But the Crimson Tide’s dominance shouldn’t obscure the breadth and quality of talent they’re adding to their roster in 2017. Among the players Alabama has already enrolled are the nation’s top running back, Antioch (Calif.) High five-star Najee Harris, and the nation’s top inside linebacker, IMG (Fla.) Academy five-star Dylan Moses, plus one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, St. Louis (Hawaii) School four-star Tua Tagovailoa.

The Crimson Tide’s haul should grow on signing day. Solomon would be the biggest coup, although beating out Michigan for the five-star won’t be easy. Wide receivers Smith and Ruggs could potentially join Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High four-star Jerry Jeudy and Lewisville (Texas) High four-star Tyrell Shavers to form a staggering cluster of top-end pass-catching talent in Alabama’s class. However, the aforementioned staff shakeup may tip the scales against the Crimson Tide. Alabama is also considered the favorite for Clemens (Ala.) High four-star defensive end LaBryan Ray. None of these prospects are locks for the Crimson Tide, but it’s foolish to doubt Saban in recruiting crunch time. Alabama’s class is already outstanding, and the safe bet is that it will add a few more key pieces on signing day.

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The state of Florida

As one of the most talent-rich states in the country, Florida is never short on recruiting intrigue. On Wednesday, three of the state’s FBS programs in particular will be under the spotlight. Florida, Florida State and Miami all could bolster their recruiting classes by adding a number of elite prospects. The Gators will hope that a verbal commitment from McDonogh 35 Senior (La.) High four-star cornerback Brad Stewart last weekend sets off a fruitful dash to the finish line. They’re contenders for other recruits like American Heritage (Fla.) five-star offensive/defensive lineman Tedarrell Slaton and Hampton (Va.) four-star defensive tackle Elijah Conliffe. The Seminoles, as mentioned above, look poised to finish with a flourish even if Wilson rebuffs Florida State in favor of another program. And Miami coach Mark Richt has already assembled a promising first full class in Coral Gables and could add to the group by reeling in players like St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High three-star wide receiver Michael Harley Jr., East St. Louis Senior (Ill.) High four-star wide receiver Jeff Thomas, Christopher Columbus (Fla.) High four-star athlete Christopher Henderson and Blinn College (Texas) four-star cornerback Jhavonte Dean.

Of the three programs, Florida is under the most pressure to deliver on signing day, as coach Jim McElwain has come under scrutiny for the Gators’ lack of progress on the recruiting trail during his tenure.

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