The University of Alabama landed college football’s top-rated class of high school players after winning a national championship for the third time in four years and spending almost $1 million on recruiting.
While the University of Mississippi was yesterday’s biggest signing-day surprise, adding the nation’s best offensive and defensive line prospects, Alabama continued to stockpile talent. The haul by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban included 12 of Rivals.com’s top 150 players and featured four of the nation’s most highly touted high school running backs.
“This is just a culmination of what you’ve worked for, really for a whole year,” Saban said. “A good job of evaluating and a good job of building relationships. The key to it is not the stock you buy today, but how that develops.”
Yesterday was the first chance for high school football players to make a written commitment to a college under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules. Recruits previously could make only non-binding verbal commitments and several top players changed their choices on signing day.
Alabama claimed the top recruiting class for the fifth time in six years, according to Rivals.com, and also topped ESPN’s team rankings. Saban’s staff, whose recruiting expenses totaled $930,997 according to AL.com, got letters of intent from players in 12 states outside Alabama.
Six teams from the Southeastern Conference finished in the top 10 of ESPN’s recruiting ranking, with the University of Florida finishing second and Mississippi climbing to the fifth spot. Louisiana State, Texas A&M and Georgia also finished in the top 10 out of the SEC, which has produced seven straight national champions. The last time a school from outside the SEC won the Bowl Championship Series title was in 2005, when this year’s recruits were in fifth grade.
Ohio State, coming off a 12-0 season in which it was ineligible to play in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions, finished atop Scout.com’s recruiting rankings and was ranked No. 3 by ESPN. The University of Notre Dame, which lost the BCS title game to Alabama after starting 12-0, brought in a recruiting class that’s ranked fourth by ESPN. The University of Michigan, Florida State, Auburn, UCLA, Clemson and Southern California also had top classes, according to recruiting analysts.
USC, which lost five of its final six games last season after a 6-1 start, added five of the top 40 players in Scout.com’s rankings. The Trojans, whose scholarships are limited by NCAA sanctions, also lost six top recruits who previously made verbal commitments to the school.
“The energy of a program is so important,” former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said on ESPNU. “When you start losing that energy and things start becoming negative around your program, it’s so difficult to overcome.”
National signing day started with Robert Nkemdiche, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end from Loganville, Georgia, saying in a televised announcement he’d attend Mississippi. Nkemdiche had 43 sacks in high school and was considered the nation’s consensus top prospect. Laremy Tunsil, a 6-foot-6, 295-pound offensive tackle from Lake City, Florida, also said on ESPNU that he signed with Ole Miss, which went 7-6 last season, including a 3-5 record in the Southeastern Conference.
“Hugh Freeze and his staff have done a great job, but time will tell,” ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said of the Mississippi coach. “There is no crystal ball here. Wins on the field, more than anything else, will sustain this snowball effect.”
Nkemdiche has been compared by recruiting analysts to University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was the nation’s top recruit in 2011 and set a school record with 13 sacks as a sophomore this season. Clowney was an All-Southeastern Conference first-team choice and won the award as college football’s best defensive end.
“I feel like it’s the right place. They can do special things for me and it’s a program on the rise,” said Nkemdiche, who revealed his decision during a news conference at his high school by pulling a Rebels hat out from behind a podium.
In 2009, the top two players on ESPN’s recruiting list were Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. Both were college seniors last season, with Barkley considered a top quarterback prospect for the National Football League draft and Te’o leading the Fighting Irish to the national title game.
“We won’t know about this signing day until two or three years,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, whose class of 28 recruits includes 11 in ESPN’s top 150. “Football is a developmental game. You’ve got to get these guys on campus and see the production. You aren’t winning any games today.”
Alabama’s stable of running back prospects include 6-foot-3, 243-pound Derrick Henry, who set a Florida state record by rushing for 4,260 yards and 55 touchdowns as a high school senior. Alvin Kamara picked Alabama over Georgia yesterday, helping put the Crimson Tide atop the class rankings after fellow running backs Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones also signed letters of intent.
Notre Dame’s class features three of ESPN’s top 25 recruits along with the sons of Hall of Fame basketball player David Robinson and Major League Baseball player Torii Hunter.
They weren’t the only sons of prominent professional athletes to sign letters of intent yesterday to play college football. Less than a week after his father won the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, running back Ray Lewis III committed to the University of Miami. Offensive lineman K.J. Malone, the son of basketball Hall of Famer Karl Malone, signed with LSU.
“These kids come from a background where they’ve been around athletics,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “They understand the commitment necessary. That’s pretty good lineage.”