Recruiting Wrap-up: National Signing Day 2018
The introduction of the Early Signing Period took some of the juice out of what is usually an eventful and entertaining first Wednesday of February, but that’s not to say this year’s National Signing Day was a dud by any means. We saw a Landon Collins-esque situation when Jacob Copeland committed to Florida (don’t worry, there were hugs and smiles by the end), we saw teams with new coaching staffs make final pushes, and we saw teams already ranked near the top finish strong.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to look at where some of the nation’s top skill position players landed and take a look at which freshmen could be making instant impacts.
This class is loaded with star power at the position as the nation’s top two players are quarterbacks according to the 247 Composite Rankings. Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) and Justin Fields (Georgia) signed their letters of intent in December and are already enrolled at their respective schools, but it’s entirely possible that neither of them win starting jobs this year considering that they’ll be competing against quarterbacks who led their teams to College Football Playoff berths in 2017.
In fact, a quarterback who was technically a junior in high school when the season began might have the best chance to lead a major program as a freshman. I’m talking about J.T. Daniels, who reclassified to the Class of 2018 this fall and is heading into a situation that is wide open at quarterback with Sam Darnold gone. He’ll have to beat out Jack Sears and Matt Fink, but it’s not unthinkable considering how talented Daniels is as the Gatorade Player of the Year who threw for 12,014 yards and 152 touchdowns during his three-year career at one of California’s powerhouse high school programs. That Daniels won’t get to USC until the summer does hurt his chances of being the Week 1 starter, but the competition ahead of him compared to Lawrence or Fields isn’t quite as intimidating, so we could see the freshman wunderkind under center for USC before long.
Among other freshmen quarterbacks with chances to start, it’s hard not to keep looking west. UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a natural fit in Chip Kelly’s offense that could push Devon Modster for the role. Up in Pullman, Luke Falk’s departure and Tyler Hilinski’s tragic death could signal the start of the Cammon Cooper era at Washington State as soon as 2018.
One SEC program that could start a youth movement at quarterback is Florida, which inked former Ohio State pledge Emory Jones in December. Jones is a name to watch not only because of his talent, but also the team context. New coach Dan Mullen isn’t tied to Feleipe Franks, who struggled mightily last season, and he simply may want to start fresh with one of “his” guys running his system. Beyond the aforementioned politics that come with a new coach entering the scene, Jones can flat out play and is considered the fifth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class. Look for him to push for playing time sooner than later and possibly win the job outright come fall camp.
Looking at the big picture, Notre Dame’s Phil Jurkovec and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral both have the talent to suggest they’ll be the next big thing under center at their respective schools, but both the Irish and the Rebels have solid and established options under center for 2018 that lessens the need for either program to rush a freshman to lead the offense. Both are among my favorite quarterbacks in this cycle.
The rich got richer at the running back position with Georgia pulling in the No.1 (Zamir White) and No.5 (James Cook) running back recruits while Ohio State added Nos. 4 (Jaelen Gill) and 6. (Brian Snead). Penn State picked up a top talent in Ricky Slade to round out the backfield following Saquon Barkley’s departure and Miami did the same by adding Lorenzo Lingard after Mark Walton bolted for the NFL.
Instant impact might not be in all of these guys’ futures, however. White is enrolled at Georgia but suffered a torn ACL towards the end of his senior season, and while he’s on track to practice come fall camp according to 247 Sports, the Dawgs have the depth at the position to where they don’t need to press him into action before he’s 100 ready. James Cook’s presence helps with that depth, and he’s entering a backfield situation that already features rising star D’Andre Swift and the underrated Elijah Holyfield.
Ohio State has a similar situation where Gill and Snead, along with Master Teague are all future contributors, but J.K. Dobbins has earned the right to start and Mike Weber is still in the mix. With that, I see only one of these freshmen seeing much of a role in 2018. Penn State is another interesting case in the sense that Slade enters a situation where he won’t have to compete with a living legend like Barkley. That said, Penn State has been crushing the running back recruiting game for some time now, and I see a former top running back in Miles Sanders (class of 2016) finally getting his shot to be the workhorse for the Nittany Lions, meaning Slade will fill a No.2 role at best.
Where I do see some freshman potential is at North Carolina State and at Auburn. With Nyheim Hines bolting for the NFL, four-star Ricky Person should immediately push for carries for the Wolfpack. He’ll have to compete with senior Reggie Gallaspy, but with NC State having to replace 274 carries from Hines and Jaylen Samuels, Person could easily see 100-plus touches out of the backfield. On The Plains, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway are off the NFL, leaving the Tigers with a lot of production to replace. Auburn still has Kam Martin, but a Gus Malzahn run game always seems to be at its best when there are multiple options that can sting a defense. With that, four-star freshmen like Harold Joiner and Asa Martin are both newcomers to keep an eye on. Joiner is particularly intriguing considering his frame (6-3, 218) is one that’ll immediately be able to hold up at the next level.
Looking further down the list, Cincinnati’s Tavion Thomas (6-2, 225) is the highest-rated running back to sign with a Group of Five school, so even though Gerrid Doaks and Michael Warren II both showed out as freshmen last year, the Bearcats should be able to find some room to get Thomas some work.
Penn State makes another appearance here with Justin Shorter literally and figuratively standing above all the other receiving prospects in this year’s class as the No.1-rated receiver and checking in at 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds. His composite rating is higher than that of Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones from the Class of 2017 or Cal’s Demetris Robertson in 2016. Shorter isn’t just a big athlete who’s still learning to play receiver; he has all the skills you look for in a big No.1 wideout. He knows how to position himself to come down with 50-50 balls, he has the classic high point ability, and he’s got speed that is reported to be in the 4.5 range. That combination of talent and polish should allow him to see the field early in his career, and the departures of DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, and Saeed Blacknall leave plenty of targets available in 2018.
Amon-Ra St. Brown is another wideout with plenty of buzz in this cycle. The younger brother of Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown, Amon-Ra is a different type of receiver at 5-foot-11 and 191. While his style might be different than his older brother’s, Amon-Ra still has what it takes to be a problem for PAC-12 opponents. He has blazing speed and to go with tremendous foot quickness that allows him to create separation at the line, and Amon-Ra also plays like a bigger receiver with the ability to come down with 50-50 balls deep down the field. Oh, and he was also the aforementioned J.T. Daniels’ top target in high school. My concern here is along the lines of what anyone’s would be with a true freshman making an impact: opportunity. USC’s receiving corps is full of young and talented players with similarly impeccable recruiting backgrounds. Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman Jr. have either broken out or are on the verge of doing so, which means the top two spots in the receiving corps are likely locked in. St. Brown is definitely worth keeping an eye on, but it might take until 2019 for him to carve out a significant role.
Heading down to the Bayou, it was something of a disappointing recruiting haul for LSU, at least compared to what Tiger fans are used to. However, the crown jewel of the class, Terrace Marshall, is a player who is already generating buzz as an impact freshman. In a report from The Advocate, new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger pointed to Marshall, who is already on campus and will participate in spring practice, as a player who could earn a role early.
Moving down the list a bit, UNC signee Jordyn Adams is someone who stands out as a freshman breakout candidate. Injuries and inexperience were a big reason behind UNC’s failings in the passing game last fall, but that doesn’t mean Adams can’t move his way up the depth chart early. Adams reportedly has just one full year at receiver under his belt, but his natural ability at the position is tough to ignore. He’s a smooth route runner with impressive hands and Adams is still just scratching the surface of what he can develop into at the position.