The Players, Programs and Plot Lines to Watch During College Football’s Early Signing Period

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By Chris Johnson, Sports Illustrated | Source: MSN

The college football recruiting calendar is changing. A new early signing period will allow prospects to shut down their recruitments well before the traditional signing date, the first Wednesday of February, which falls on Feb. 7 for this cycle. From Dec. 20-22, recruits can ink National Letters of Intent and officially join their programs of choice. Although some top prospects won’t take advantage of the new period, those 72 hours definitely won’t pass without major recruiting news. With just a week to go until players start putting pen to paper, here are six big storylines to track:

How did we get here? Who will the early period help and hurt?

This spring, an NCAA council and an association of college commissioners approved a 72-hour early signing period during which high school seniors will be allowed to sign NLIs. Those players also can take official visits, for which schools cover costs, from April to June of their junior years. (Previously, with only the traditional signing date in place, they had to hold off until Sept. 1 of their senior years to make paid-for trips to campuses.) The three-day window, which begins on the same day as the usual signing date for junior college players, will primarily benefit two groups: (1) recruits who are certain they want to play for the programs to which they’ve issued verbal commitments and (2) coaches who won’t have to worry about monitoring those commits through the postseason and into February for fear that they’ll flip to a different program.

The early period also could help clarify the strength of prospects’ pledges. If they choose not to sign early, that could be an indication those prospects are thinking about jumping ship. However, it also could hurt late bloomers whom programs otherwise would have pursued toward the end of the recruiting cycle had those programs not filled their classes with early-period signees. Certain big-time programs could be negatively affected, too: No longer will they have the luxury of trying to swoop in at the 11th hour to flip prospects committed elsewhere.

Alabama’s momentum

The Crimson Tide have out-recruited the rest of the nation for much of Nick Saban’s tenure, but they got off to a slower start than usual in this cycle. As of late June, Alabama checked in just inside the national top 50 with only five commitments, according to Unsurprisingly, it has made up a lot of ground since then, and it’s going to roll into the early period on a hot streak.

The Crimson Tide have picked up three verbals since last Tuesday: three-star Westminster Christian (Ala.) Academy tight end Michael Parker, four-star Miami Norland (Fla.) High cornerback Nadab Joseph and four-star Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College cornerback Saivion Smith, who transferred away from LSU in May. Those pledges brought Alabama’s total to 14 for 2018 and pushed it to ninth in the team 247Sports Composite Rankings.

Alabama is in position to make more progress in short order. Brenton Cox, a five-star defensive end from Stockbridge (Ga.) High, decommitted from Ohio State after a recent official visit to Tuscaloosa, and the Crimson Tide are still targeting other esteemed prospects such as five-star St. Francis (Md.) Academy defensive end Eyabi Anoma, four-star Desert Hills (Utah) High offensive tackle Penei Sewell, four-star Colquitt County (Ga.) High linebacker JJ Peterson, four-star Episcopal (Tex.) High wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and Josh Jobe, a four-star cornerback from Cheshire (Conn.) Academy who is committed to Miami.

Quarterback shuffling

One other player Alabama is recruiting who was not mentioned above is getting a lot of attention in the lead-up to the December signing window. That player is Emory Jones, a four-star quarterback out of Heard County (Ga.) High who pledged to Ohio State in late July of 2016 by way of a video involving a drone. Jones remains committed to the Buckeyes for now, but his recruitment is hardly finished. He’s taken visits to both Alabama and Auburn and could end up signing with either of those two programs instead of Ohio State.

The Buckeyes, in a move that seemed geared toward insuring against the possibility of a Jones flip, picked up a pledge last week from Matthew Baldwin, a three-star passer from Lake Travis (Tex.) High. Jones reacted to that verbal by posting a thinking-face emoji on Twitter, but it’s clear Ohio State is at least preparing for the possibility of not having Jones in its haul. While Alabama is starting a true sophomore (Jalen Hurts) and signed a dual-threat five-star (Tua Tagovailoa) and a pro-style three-star (Mac Jones) in its 2017 class, it has yet to reel in a QB for 2018. Auburn has Bartram Trail (Fla.) High four-star Joey Gatewood in tow, but the Tigers seem intent on bringing in two signal-callers for this cycle. An even more highly-regarded dual-threat quarterback than Jones, Harrison (Ga.) High’s Justin Fields, also bears monitoring during the early signing period. We covered the coveted Georgia commit’s situation here.

Who’s finishing on top?

Ohio State could not claim the top recruiting class in the country last cycle. That honor belonged to Alabama for the seventh year in a row, according to the 247Sports Composite. However, the Buckeyes did earn another title in 2017. Their haul was the best pound-for-pound, by virtue of their average player rating of 94.59, on a scale of 100. (The Crimson Tide finished with a 93.76 average player rating, but their class was bigger than the Ohio State’s.) The Buckeyes could own both distinctions in ’18. Their class occupies the No. 1 slot in the 247Sports Composite with 21 verbals and an average player rating of 94.87, slightly better than their nation-best finish last year.

Eight prospects rated among the top 60 in the country have made the call for the Buckeyes, including three five-stars: Westerville South (Ohio) High all-purpose back Jaelen Gill, St. John Bosco (Calif.) High safety Jaiden Woodbey and IMG (Fla.) Academy defensive tackle Taron Vincent, the son of former NFL cornerback and current NFL executive VP of football operations Troy Vincent. Losing Emory Jones, one of the aforementioned top-60 recruits, would be a considerable blow at an important position, and Woodbey may not be totally set on a future in Columbus at this point, but Ohio State got a commitment on Tuesday from four-star Christian Brothers College (Mo.) High wide receiver Kamryn Babb and could add to its 2018 crop by plucking top-shelf prospects like five-star Fairfield (Ohio) High offensive tackle Jackson Carman, four-star Blairstown (N.J.) Academy defensive end Jayson Oweh and four-star Cleveland Heights (Ohio) High defensive end Tyreke Smith. Those three players all have been given ratings higher than the Buckeyes’ current average.

Sunshine State shakeup

Miami has asserted itself on the recruiting trail under second-year head coach Mark Richt. Its 2018 class counts 21 commitments and ranks third in the 247Sports Composite, 11 spots higher than the next ACC program (Clemson) and behind only Ohio State and Texas. The two other Power 5 programs in the Sunshine State, Florida and Florida State, are currently sitting at No. 18 and No. 38 respectively, after one (Florida) fired its head coach, and the other (Florida State) had its head coach resign to take the same position at a different Power 5 program. Yet both the Gators and Seminoles made smart moves in tabbing replacements who should be able to make gains quickly because of their recruiting ties in the Southeast.

In new Florida head coach Dan Mullen’s case, he previously spent four years on the Gators’ staff under current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, and new Florida State head coach Willie Taggart led South Florida for four years before taking over at Oregon and then leaving for Tallahassee after only one season in charge of the Ducks. Both Mullen and Taggart are already familiar with the lush recruiting turf they’ll need to scour to elevate their new programs. Richt and his staff had a huge head start in this cycle, and the Hurricanes’ breakthrough season in 2017 will make Coral Gables an even more attractive destination for in-state prep standouts wavering between one nearby program trending toward another double-digit-win campaign in ’18 and two others with longer timelines for national success. That said, while Miami has separated itself from its in-state peers in 2018, Florida and Florida State are both primed for recruiting surges after making promising hires.

Elite defensive ends

Two of the four top-ranked uncommitted prospects in the 247Sports Composite play the same position, defensive end, and both of them are expected to reveal their college choices during the early period. Both Harrisburg (Pa.) High’s Micah Parsons, the No. 4 player in the country, and West Forsyth (N.C.) High’s KJ Henry, the No. 8 player in the country, have set their announcements for Dec. 20.

Parsons initially committed to Penn State in February 2016, but he backed out of that pledge in April of this year. Now the Nittany Lions are favored to bring him back in the fold, with Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State rounding out his top six. Henry put out a list of five in July comprising Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia Tech and Clemson, and while as it stands the Tigers are considered the leaders in Henry’s recruitment, he indicated this week that if his father, Keith—who coaches running backs at Charlotte—were to be hired by one of his finalists, it could affect his decision.

Should Henry choose Clemson, he’d give defensive coordinator Brent Venables a second five-star DE in the 2018 class, along with IMG (Fla.) Academy’s Xavier Thomas. That duo could help the Tigers sustain their dominance on the defensive side of the trenches once studs like Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant leave campus. Penn State already has assembled the second highest-rated class in the Big Ten, behind only Ohio State, and Parsons would become its most esteemed piece. He’s also more highly regarded than any recruit in the Buckeyes’ haul.

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