Resetting the Recruiting Landscape Five Weeks Out From National Signing Day

Which schools will close strong? Where will the top unclaimed prospects land? Who might flip their commitments? Despite the flurry of activity in the early signing period, there's still much to be decided before the 2018 recruiting cycle is over.
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There’s no getting around it: National Signing Day won’t be as interesting this year as it has been in the past. Many programs handled the bulk of their recruiting work for the class of 2018 by the end of the first early signing period, a 72-hour window late last month in which senior prospects inked their National Letters of Intent. But there’s still quite a bit to sort out in this cycle. With about a month to go before the traditional signing date on the first Wednesday of February, which falls on Feb. 7 this year, here are six questions to monitor:

Where will the undecided five-stars end up?

There are six prospects in the class of 2018 assessed five-star ratings, according to the 247Sports Composite, who are not verbally committed to a program right now. Let’s take take a quick look at where each of them stand:

Patrick Surtain Jr.
247Sports Composite rank: 5
Position: Cornerback
High school: American Heritage (Fla.)

LSU has long been viewed as the leader for the son of the former three-time Pro Bowl defensive back who bears the same name (and who played high school football in New Orleans), but the Tigers don’t have Surtain in the fold yet. He is expected to take multiple official visits in January.

Amon-Ra St. Brown
247Sports Composite rank: 12
Position: Wide receiver
High school: Mater Dei (Calif.)

Don’t assume that St. Brown will join either of his brothers, junior Equanimeous (Notre Dame) and freshman Osiris (Stanford), at the next level. Although both of their schools made the top three list he put out on Christmas Day, the other school on that list, USC, will be tough to beat here.

Nicholas Petit-Frere
247Sports Composite rank: 17
Position: Offensive tackle
High school: Berkeley Preparatory (Fla.)

Petit-Frere could end up at a nearby school like Florida or Alabama, or he could opt to leave the Sunshine State for a program in the Midwest like Notre Dame, Ohio State or Michigan. The Wolverines practicing at his high school in advance of their Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina can’t have hurt their chances.

Devon Williams
247Sports Composite rank: 22
Position: Wide receiver
High school: Antelope Valley (Calif.)

The Ducks have undergone a coaching change since Williams named Oregon the leader in his recruitment this summer, although in promoting Mario Cristobal to succeed Willie Taggart, Oregon decided not to make a clean break from the previous regime. Still, it’s possible the shakeup opened the door for other programs eager to add a top-flight big-play threat.

Isaac Taylor-Stuart
247Sports Composite rank: 26
Position: Cornerback
High school: Helix Charter (Calif.)

Taylor-Stuart is a natural target for California powerhouse USC, but he’s indicated that his recruitment won’t be shut off to schools away from the West Coast. Taylor-Stuart reportedly plans to visit SEC programs in January, and the top-six list he released in early December comprised Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas A&M and the Trojans.

Tyson Campbell
247Sports Composite rank: 27
Position: Cornerback
High school: American Heritage (Fla.)

Miami has already amassed enough talent in its 2018 class to keep it in the thick of the ACC championship picture following its breakthrough season in 2017, but this elite local coverman would be the Hurricanes’ top-ranked prospect in the haul. Alabama and Georgia will be among the teams pushing Miami for Campbell’s signature leading into signing day.

What will USC’s finishing kick look like?

The Trojans came out of the early signing period with a 13-member class, including Mater Dei (Calif.) High’s JT Daniels, a five-star quarterback prospect who decided to reclassify from 2019 to ’18 and potentially could compete for the starting job right away, depending on whether incumbent Sam Darnold decides to bolt for the NFL. Last week they picked up their second-highest rated commitment of the class, Crescent Valley High’s Talanoa Hufanga, the No. 2 athlete in the country and No. 1 player from Oregon. This is a strong haul pound-for-pound: USC ranks 11th in the 247Sports Composite team ratings, but no other teams in the top 30 have fewer commitments and/or signees, and only three squads boast a higher average player rating.

The Trojans should rise in both ratings over the next month. Their top-ranked target is St. Brown, a teammate of Daniels at Mater Dei whom Daniels has said he’s “getting” to Los Angeles. USC also could be in position to swipe a coveted prospect from its crosstown rival. Mission Viejo (Calif.) High’s Olaijah Griffin, the No. 4 cornerback in the nation, had been committed to UCLA since this summer, but he elected not to sign during the early window and recently rescinded his pledge. The Trojans have developed a reputation as late-cycle aces, and they have a chance to reaffirm that by making some major additions at the 11th hour this year.

Ohio State’s no longer No. 1. What now?

The Buckeyes’ loser label coming out of the early signing period should not be confused with a critique of their entire class. In that regard, Ohio State is in terrific shape, having compiled the No. 2 haul in the country with the No. 1 average player rating, according to the 247Sports Composite. And while watching Georgia take up residence at the top of the national team ratings stings, the Buckeyes can rest easy knowing they’ve done most of their heavy lifting in this cycle. Ohio State seems like a good bet to reel in at least one of three uncommitted defensive ends: Four-star Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High’s Tyreke Smith, four-star Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep’s Tyler Friday and Blair (N.J.) Academy’s Jayson Oweh. Another player who could end up in Columbus is North Point (Md.) High’s ​four-star offensive tackle​ Rasheed Walker, although Penn State could be difficult to fend off in his recruitment.

Irrespective of how the Buckeyes fare in their remaining battles, it would be silly to describe their 2018 class as anything less than great. A less-than-ideal finishing stretch would put a damper on the addition of yet another crop of high schoolers capable of fueling Big Ten and national championship runs, but the big-picture takeaway here will be that Ohio State did what it needed to improve its roster.

Can Florida State and Texas A&M close well?

Head coaching changes caused the Seminoles and Aggies to rush into the early signing period under decidedly sub-optimal circumstances. Neither new Florida State coach Willie Taggart nor new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher had much time to develop relationships with committed prospects or targets, so it’s not shocking that neither program’s 2018 class currently rates in the top 20 of the 247Sports Composite ratings. (The Aggies are at No. 23. The Seminoles are at No. 33.) Both should bolster their hauls in the coming weeks.

Though Texas plucked a large chunk of the Lone Star State’s premium talent, Texas A&M remains in the running for esteemed in-state prospects like four-star Episcopal High wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and four-star Cypress Springs High safety Leon O’Neal Jr., who reopened his recruitment in December after initially issuing a verbal commitment to the Aggies in June. One out-of-state player Fisher could lure to College Station is Taylor-Stuart.

At Florida State, Taggart did well to sign five-star St. John Bosco (Calif.) High safety Jaiden Woodbey in December after flipping him from Ohio State, but his biggest victories in the lead-up to signing day could come on the other side of the ball. Grabbing four-star Lanier (Ala.) High quarterback James Foster would provide a nice lift after in-state dual-threat stud Emory Jones inked with Florida in the early window, and four-star Armwood (Fla.) High wide receiver Warren Thompson could follow Taggart to Tallahassee after decommitting from Taggart’s previous employer, Oregon, in December.

What’s going to happen at Arizona?

On Dec. 20, the first day of the early signing period, Arizona announced it had signed 16 players to National Letters of Intent. That group includes highly sought after California-based prospects like Cajon High athlete Jhevon Hill and Calabasas High defensive tackle Mykee Irving. The Wildcats also hold a verbal commitment from Cienega High’s Jamarye Joiner, the Grand Canyon State’s No. 2 quarterback prospect, according to the 247Sports Composite.

Those recruits bought into a future in Tucson with the understanding that Rich Rodriguez would be their head coach, but that won’t be the case after university president Robert C. Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke announced on Tuesday night that Arizona was firing Rodriguez, citing an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against Rodriguez dating to October and “the direction and climate of our football program.” Players, like Joiner, who had verbally pledged, but not signed, with the Wildcats are free to pursue other opportunities at different programs, but it’s not that simple for the signees.

This is a prime example of one of the foreseeable pratfalls of implementing an early signing window. In previous years, with just about every coaching change taking place before the usual signing date in early February, players could put off inking their NLIs until the coaching situations at their programs of choice were settled. Players who sign early, on the other hand, are at the mercy of the often-unpredictable coaching carousel, which can keep spinning at a fast pace well into January, with assistants shuttling between schools and other coaches decamping for NFL gigs. Arizona signees who’d like to reopen their recruitments presumably will need to ask for releases from their NLI, a restrictive contract that provides security for schools and strips athletes of their leverage in the recruiting process. Whether, and under what circumstances, the Wildcats will grant releases to their signees is not totally clear.

To point to one recent high-profile case, former five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes originally signed with Notre Dame in 2013, only to subsequently transfer to UCLA for what he described as personal reasons and have the Fighting Irish refuse to release him from his NLI. On appeal, he was cleared to play for the Bruins immediately, sparing him the loss of one season of eligibility. Let’s hope Arizona and its recruits reach a more amicable solution.

Which prospects could flip?

One of the obvious benefits of the early signing period for schools is that it offers clarity about the intentions of committed players. If prospects who’ve already verbaled to programs choose not to sign with those programs in December, that could mean they have misgivings about their pledge and are considering signing somewhere else on the first Wednesday of February. There were a handful of big-name recruits who didn’t put pen to paper in the early window but have yet to revoke their commitments, some of whom seem more keen on backing out than others.

Texas A&M may not be able to hold on to four-star Manvel (Tex.) High wide receiver Jalen Preston (who looks ready to start grilling SEC defensive backs right now), but there’s a chance Fisher and his staff convince Westfield (Tex.) High four-star defensive tackle Keondre Coburn to withdraw his pledge to Texas and join the Aggies. It doesn’t seem like Chip Kelly has much to worry about with the crown jewel of UCLA’s 2018 class, four-star Bishop Gorman (Nev.) High quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, but one of the most highly regarded members of Alabama’s haul, four-star Crisp County (Ga.) High linebacker Quay Walker, reportedly has lined up several official visits. Here are two other recruits who deserve to be put on flip watch, both of whom are currently committed to SEC programs: four-star Cambridge Christian (Fla.) School offensive tackle Richard Gouraige (Florida) and four-star Brookwood (Ga.) High wide receiver Matthew Hill (Auburn).