National Signing Day wrap and awards

Published on February 4, 2009 by     Seahawk Fanatic

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Rivals.com four-star safety Darren Myles sounded a bit cocky Wednesday when asked on national television what his expectations were now that he’d chosen to sign with Tennessee.

“Freshman All-American!” the Atlanta native predicted.

At least he’s being honest. You’d be hard-pressed to find too many of today’s big-name recruits who envision spending the next two to three years waiting their turn for a starting job.

Traditionally, that’s been the path most college players’ careers take, which is why Signing Day, for so many years, did not elicit nearly the level of fan frenzy it does today.

But times have changed. A true-freshman receiver, Alabama’s Julio Jones, amassed 124 yards in last year’s SEC championship game. (Two years earlier, then-freshman Percy Harvin was MVP of the same game for Florida.) Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor was the starting quarterback in the Fiesta Bowl. Florida’s Janoris Jenkins was a starting cornerback in the national championship game. And Miami’s top receiver (Aldarius Johnson) and top two tackles-for-loss leaders (Sean Spence and Marcus Robinson) were true freshmen.

“There is no such thing as a redshirt at Florida anymore,” said Gators coach Urban Meyer. “We try to make that real clear.”

Say what you want about the annual recruiting-hype overload and the admittedly unscientific class rankings, but several of Wednesday’s developments will have a direct impact on teams’ 2009 fortunes.

With the stroke of a pen, Hawaii native Manti Te’o (Rivals.com’s No. 12 prospect nationally), sent shockwaves through the recruiting world by choosing Notre Dame over USC. In Te’o, the Irish landed a player who will likely start at linebacker and be a defensive difference-maker next season.

Meanwhile, it took right up until the midnight hour, but Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez may have finally landed his next Pat White in athletic quarterback Denard Robinson (Deerfield Beach, Fla.)

Down South, Glen Coffee‘s early exit to the NFL may have opened up a spot at Alabama for Pensacola, Fla., running back Trent Richardson (No. 6 nationally), who signed Wednesday with the Crimson Tide after entertaining a swirl of suitors over the past several weeks.

That’s not to mention the biggest potential impact freshman of all, Bryce Brown (Rivals’ No. 1 player in the country), who didn’t sign anywhere Wednesday, but who will likely honor his commitment to Miami.

“If I were to pick one guy most likely to be rookie of the year in a BCS conference, it would be Bryce Brown,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. [Top-ranked defensive tackle] Sheldon Richardson is going to play right away at Missouri. [No. 1 receiver] Rueben Randle will play right away at LSU.”

In talking with recruits across the country over the past year, Farrell noticed two definitive trends: An increasing number of coaches promising early playing time to prospects, and an increasing number of prospects choosing their schools in part due to the depth chart at their position.

“The big difference was early playing time being a factor for positions that aren’t normally a factor,” said Farrell. “For the last few years it was pretty clear receivers, running backs and even some DBs have been promised early playing time. That’s reasonable. But now you’re hearing [about] quarterbacks, offensive linemen, defensive linemen. That doesn’t happen very often.”

The lack of such a promise led Valdosta, Ga., cornerback Greg Reid, MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game, to back off a longstanding commitment to Florida last month, drawing Gators coach Urban Meyer’s ire. Reid, aware the national champions’ two starting corners last year were first- and second-year players, signed instead with Florida State, which needs him more desperately.

Meyer himself will be counting on at least one freshman next season, speedy receiver Andre Debose. Rivals’ No. 21 player has been described as a Harvin clone — a convenient comparison, seeing as Harvin just bolted for the pros.

Asked where Meyer plans to play Debose next season, the coach replied: “The ‘Percy Position.’ … I think he is perfect. … With the proper training this spring, he is going to be one of the fastest in the state of Florida.”

In announcing his decision to sign with Georgia over Ohio State and Tennessee, Memphis receiver Marlon Brown (No. 53) said of the Bulldogs: “They have a good system for a receiver to come in and play early.” Indeed: The 6-foot-5 Brown could be lining up alongside 6-4 A.J. Green, who notched 963 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman.

It’s a bit riskier having to count on a freshman quarterback — but some teams might not have a choice.

Anyone who had the misfortune of watching Michigan’s offense last season knows the Wolverines could desperately use a competent, mobile quarterback. One of two freshmen — either Robinson or Tate Forcier — will likely fill that role next season. Auburn may need Tyrik Rollison to do the same. Clemson may even call on U.S. Army All-America MVP Tajh Boyd, despite the fact he’ll be coming off ACL surgery.

And then there’s LSU’s Russell Sheppard, the No. 2 quarterback in the country (behind USC-bound Matt Barkley), who figures to play a key role for the Tigers next season — in some capacity.

The Houston native is a supremely gifted athlete who enrolled at LSU in January with eyes on grabbing the reins at quarterback, a position that caused no shortage of headaches for the Tigers last season, but the scouts are mixed as to whether that’s where he belongs.

“I don’t think he’s a quarterback. Everything he does as a passer is not even close to being ready at that level,” said Farrell. “As an athlete, they have to find a place for him on the field. If I’m LSU, I’m getting him out in the slot, out wide, getting him into the offense as a true freshman, because he’s as dynamic a player as there is in this class.”

SuperPrep’s Allen Wallace offers a different assessment.

“I think he’ll play quarterback,” said Wallace, whose service named Sheppard its player of the year. “He’s going to be one of those guys that does Vince Young-type things.”

Sheppard headlined LSU’s generally stellar class, which finished just shy of Alabama’s for the distinction of No. 1 in the country. Said LSU coach Les Miles: “A lot of the newcomers will play right away.”

It seems to be a common theme this year.

Signing Day Awards

Biggest surprise (Wednesday): Te’o signing with Notre Dame. While the Irish had been on the linebacker’s short-list all along (Charlie Weis even took his team to Hawaii for its bowl game), it’s rare these days to see USC lose anything to Notre Dame, much less a star linebacker with the opportunity to succeed Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing.

“It was a big event for [Notre Dame’s] program,” said SuperPrep’s Wallace. “It shows that despite Charlie Weis’ shortcomings, he’s a hell of a worker and he can reel them in.”

Biggest surprise (in general): Stanford’s top 20 class. Third-year coach Jim Harbaugh has been building momentum for the Cardinal since the day he arrived, and Wednesday he reaped the rewards. Stanford’s 22-member class — highlighted by New York LB Shayne Skov (Rivals’ No. 45 player) and four-star receivers Jamari Roberts (Long Beach, Calif.) and Jamal Patterson (McDonough, Ga.) — includes signees from 11 different states.

Biggest disappointment (Wednesday): Florida. The defending national champs didn’t exactly close like national champs, losing previously committed receivers Nu’keese Richardson and Marsalis Teague to Tennessee and missing out on RB Trent Richardson (Alabama) and DE Jarvis Jones (USC). The Gators’ wealth of on-hand talent may actually have worked against them for all the reasons discussed above — guys want to get on the field as early as possible.

That being said, shed no tears for Florida. Meyer’s team still finished right on the cusp of the Top 10, adding five-star LB Jelani Jenkins and officially locking down Debose on Wednesday.

Biggest disappointment (in general): Nebraska. You know the formula: Hot-young coach takes over at tradition-rich program and puts together a monster class in his first full recruiting year. In fact, it happened the last time the Huskers changed coaches — Bill Callahan landed a top five class in 2005.

However, that wasn’t quite the case for Bo Pelini, whose first full class was solid (top 30) but hardly spectacular. The lone “star” is QB Cody Green (Dayton, Texas) — and even he was ranked just 173rd by Rivals.

Strongest finish: Alabama. As anticipated earlier this week, Nick Saban‘s team was the big winner Wednesday, reeling in seven more commitments to finish No. 1 for the second straight year. Five-star RB Richardson, reportedly torn between the Tide and LSU right up until his announcement, ultimately donned a houndstooth cap. Two other Top 100 players, CB Dre Kirkpatrick and LB Tana Patrick, as well as four-star WRs Kendall Kelly and Kenny Bell and four-star RB Eddie Lacy, all joined him.

Most crucial catch: Michigan QB Robinson. Second-year Wolverines coach Rodriguez was already facing an uphill climb turning around a program he just led to its worst season in history (3-9). After losing two previously committed QBs, he was down to just one, Forcier, which would have put immeasurable pressure on the San Diego native and done little to improve Michigan’s thin depth at the position.

The fleet-footed Robinson may be a raw passer (Florida reportedly wanted him as a receiver) but at least he gives Rodriguez another option. “He’s a great fit for that offense,” said Farrell. “He’s a Pat White-type player.”

Getting its money’s worth: North Carolina. The tradition-starved Tar Heels hired former Miami and Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis for his reputation as a masterful recruiter, and on Wednesday it paid off. North Carolina’s class of 29 signees — including seven of the top 10 players in its state — merited a top 10 ranking from Rivals.com.

Coming on the heels of the school’s first bowl berth in four years, Davis clearly has the program heading in the right direction.

Taken for granted: Ohio State, Texas and USC. While plenty of schools spent a frenzied Wednesday waiting on word from a host of uncommitted prospects, the Buckeyes and ‘Horns, as is often the case, finalized most of their class months ago. Both finished in Rivals’ top five, with Ohio State landing six Top 100 players (Pennsylvania native Dorian Bell could be the next great Buckeyes linebacker), Texas seven (hometown QB Garrett Gilbert could eventually succeed Colt McCoy).

The Trojans, meanwhile, didn’t close quite as ferociously as usual, losing out on Te’o, four-star WR Alshon Jeffery (to South Carolina) and four-star guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (to rival UCLA, which also landed four-star guard Stan Hasiak to boost its much-maligned offensive line). That being said, it says something about the absurd recruiting standard Pete Carroll‘s program has set that it would be taking any flak on a day when it signed eight Top 100 players to finish with its seventh straight Top 10 class. USC is going to be just fine.

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