On National Signing Day last Wednesday, thousands of high school seniors inked National Letters of Intent to unofficially begin their college football careers. For the programs bringing in those players, though, signing day marked the end of a process that began a long time ago. Some of those prospects had issued verbal commitments more than a year before putting pen to paper.
Many younger recruits find themselves in that very situation right now. Members of the class of 2018 may well have verbally pledged to programs already, but they have about 11 months to make their final decisions. While a lot will change between now and the first Wednesday of February 2018, SI.com is taking an early look at that class. Here are 10 things to watch.
December signing period
The reference above to the first Wednesday in February could be misleading for some. The NCAA has recommended the adoption of a mid-December signing period that coincides with the current window for junior college players. As part of a larger package of reforms, prospects also would be allowed to take official visits, for which schools cover costs, beginning April 1 of their junior years until late June. (Right now they can make such trips only after Sept. 1 of their senior years.) If the package is approved in April, it’s expected that many players will effectively end their recruitments before Christmas, which would suck some of the drama out of signing day as we know it. Recruiting fanatics may not welcome the change, but players with longstanding pledges to programs could appreciate the opportunity to wrap things up early.
Can Penn State keep this up?
Pull up the 2018 team recruiting rankings, and you might be surprised by the program sitting on top. It is not Alabama or Ohio State or any other program that finished in the top 14 of the 2017 rankings. It’s the Nittany Lions, who’ve already secured verbal commitments from 10 players, including one of the nation’s top defensive ends in Central Dauphin (Pa.) High five-star Micah Parsons and one of the nation’s top running backs in CD Hylton (Va.) High four-star Ricky Slade. Penn State almost certainly won’t finish this cycle with the best class in the country (the Crimson Tide or Buckeyes are better bets), but if the Nittany Lions can sustain the on-field success they had last season, this group of recruits could serve as the foundation for future College Football Playoff runs.
Lawrence is not just the highest-rated quarterback in the country. Three major recruiting services peg him as 2018’s top overall player. What’s all the hype for? At 6’6", 200 pounds, the Cartersville (Ga.) High product offers favorable size for his position, and he’s an accurate passer with a strong arm who, according to Scout.com’s analysis, “just has ‘it.’”
In keeping with quarterbacks’ propensity to declare their intentions to join a program relatively early in their high school careers, Lawrence committed to Clemson in December. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they won’t have him around this season to help them replace Deshaun Watson. Campus Rush took a deep dive into Lawrence and some of 2018’s other top QBs last July.
Cornerbacks with NFL pedigrees from south Florida
The surnames of two blue-chip cornerbacks in the class of 2018 should sound familiar. American Heritage (Fla.) High five-star Patrick Surtain Jr. is the son of three-time Pro Bowler Patrick Surtain, and St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High four-star Asante Samuel Jr. is the son of four-time Pro Bowler Asante Samuel. (Forgive me for making you feel old.)
Neither prospect has issued a verbal commitment to a program yet, but it’s highly unlikely Surtain Jr. or Samuel Jr. will wind up at their respective father’s alma mater (Southern Miss for Surtain Jr., UCF for Samuel Jr.). Surtain Jr.'s recruitment could come down to a battle between LSU and Florida State, while Samuel Jr. released a top 10 list in April that included programs such as the Tigers, Seminoles, Miami and Ohio State.
Dalvin Cook’s brother
Florida State is losing arguably the best running back in college football this off-season, but the players it has recruited to replace Dalvin Cook should ensure the Seminoles maintain one of the nation’s best ground games. It probably wasn’t hard for coach Jimbo Fisher to settle on a top RB target for 2018: Cook’s brother, James. The 5’10", 188-pound back, who reclassified from 2019 in May, committed to Florida State in March. It’s unrealistic to expect him to replicate Dalvin's production in Tallahassee, but Scout.com describes him as “instinctive with impressive field vision.”
Keep in mind that Florida State landed three top-shelf tailbacks as part of its 2017 class: Clinton (Miss.) High five-star Cam Akers, Bishop Sullivan Catholic (Va.) High four-star Khalal Laborn and North Fort Meyers (Fla.) High four-star Zaquandre White.
Texas’s first full class under Tom Herman
The reaction to the new Longhorns coach’s first recruiting class in Austin was mostly negative. Herman missed on prospects like Westlake (Texas) High four-star offensive tackle Stephen Zabie and North Shore Senior (Texas) five-star defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson on signing day, and Texas finished 28th in Scout.com’s 2017 team rankings, below programs such as Mississippi State and South Carolina.
Whereas Herman didn’t have a lot of time to put that class together after being hired in late November, he will have more than a year to work on the Longhorns’ 2018 haul, so it’s reasonable to expect better results. If Texas shows progress on the field this season after finishing 5–7 in 2016, Herman could sign a top 10 class next February.
The Jayhawks are loading up with elite talent. No, seriously. Only one Big 12 program, Oklahoma, currently leads No. 11 Kansas in Scout.com’s 2018 team recruiting rankings (the Jayhawks finished last in the conference in those rankings for 2017). Kansas has already earned verbal pledges from three four-star prospects: Hahnville (La.) High running back Anthony Williams, Landry-Walker (La.) High cornerback Corione Harris and Landry-Walker (La.) High wide receiver Devonta Jason. The Jayhawks may need to fight to keep those recruits on board through signing day, which will be even more difficult if Kansas continues to toil at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. But there’s no denying this is a great start for head coach David Beaty and his staff.
Lone Star State exodus
Programs from the SEC and other Power 5 conferences have made major inroads in Texas in recent years, and almost all of its top players in the class of 2017 opted to play college football in different states. Only one of the Lone Star State’s top 11 prospects, according to Scout.com, stayed home (four-star center Jack Anderson, who signed with Texas Tech).
There’s plenty of Texas-based talent to go around in the class of 2018, starting with two top-level wide receivers from Houston in Alief Taylor High’s Brennan Eagles and Manvel High’s Jalen Preston. It’s unclear if that talent will follow their class of 2017 peers in spurning in-state programs to pursue opportunities elsewhere. An on-field resurgence from the Longhorns would help stanch the bleeding.
California wide receivers
Few signing day announcements garnered more attention than Augustus F. Hawkins (Calif.) High five-star wide receiver Joseph Lewis’s decision to sign with USC. A teammate of his in the class of 2018, Jalen Hall, could develop into an even more potent perimeter threat in college, and another wideout from the Golden State, Mater Dei High’s Amon-Ra St. Brown, is more highly touted than his two talented brothers: Equanimeous, a junior at Notre Dame, and Osiris, a class of 2017 Stanford signee. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Hall rank as the two best wide receivers in the class of 2018, according to Scout.com. It wouldn’t be surprising if Hall follows Lewis to USC, while St. Brown could join his oldest brother in South Bend.
Alabama’s and Ohio State’s continued domination
The Crimson Tide assembled the best recruiting class in the country in the last cycle, and they’re in position to repeat the feat in 2018. Alabama already has two four-star players committed (running back Dameon Pierce and wide receiver Xavier Williams), and it’s pursuing some of the nation’s top prospects.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, finished fourth in the 2017 rankings but submitted the highest average star rating (4.19). Their 2018 haul counts three commits, each from a different region of the country: St. John Bosco (Calif.) four-star safety Jaiden Woodbey, Heard County (Ga.) High four-star quarterback Emory Jones and Armwood (Fla.) High four-star running back Brian Snead. Anything short of a top-five finish for either program would be a disappointment.