published Sunday, February 9th, 2014

SEC again leads way on signing day

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, center, calls drills as his team warms up before facing Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in this January file photo.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, center, calls drills as his team warms up before facing Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in this January file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

That's a wrap, and a convincing one.

The Southeastern Conference dominated college football's recruiting landscape this past week, with Alabama and LSU placing 1-2 in Rivals.com's final team rankings and with seven league members finishing in the top nine. Twelve of the SEC's 14 members were in the top 35, and all were in the top 50.

Coach after coach opened his respective news conference Wednesday by expressing his pleasure over "needs met" and "character kids," but each would eventually offer more. Here is a team-by-team recap:

ALABAMA

Rivals ranking: 1st

Alabama was tabbed Rivals.com's No. 1 class for the sixth time in seven years, but Nick Saban's latest version is very different from the 2008 bumper crop that jump-started this unprecedented run. That class had 18 players from the state of Alabama, headed by receiver Julio Jones, defensive lineman Marcell Darius, linebacker Courtney Upshaw and defensive backs Mark Barron and Robert Lester.

This year's class has just eight players from Alabama, including quarterback Jake Coker of Mobile, who will graduate from Florida State after the spring semester and transfer to Tuscaloosa. The 27 total signees hail from 15 states: also Louisiana (4), Georgia (2), Florida (2), Arkansas (1), California (1), Colorado (1), Iowa (1), Minnesota (1), North Carolina (1), Ohio (1), Oklahoma (1), South Carolina (1), Texas (1) and Virginia (1).

The Crimson Tide signed 39 in-state players in Saban's first three classes but only 36 in the last five, though their most notable signee last Wednesday was outside linebacker Rashaan Evans from Auburn High School.

"I don't think it makes a difference where a guy is from," Saban said. "I think guys are just looking for the right fit."

He believes recruiting classes should not be judged until three years down the road. His latest signing group has been rated his best ever, but the 2008 class set a high bar.

"They all came here when this was not the sexy place to be," he said. "We were 7-6. That class is the closest to my heart."

When asked about the increased attention recruiting continues to receive, including a video that surfaced last month of him dancing, Saban said, "I've been doing that Electric Slide since I was probably 15, but that's the first time it made YouTube. I'm just sorry they didn't get me doing the Wobble, too, because I can do that pretty well."

ARKANSAS

Rivals ranking: 29th

The first full recruiting cycle for Bret Bielema proves that the state of Florida, especially in and around Miami, will be a common target area for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas signed five players from Florida, matching its number of in-state signees. Leading the program's efforts in the Sunshine State is linebackers coach Randy Shannon, a former head coach of the Miami Hurricanes.

"As far as keeping Florida open, it's something that I've believed in since I started," Bielema said. "What our staff has done is recruit the right type of player and someone that can fit in here at Arkansas. Someone that knows what that means understands that this isn't Miami, this isn't Fort Lauderdale and that this is a different environment here.

"When I took over, I really felt that we needed to be strong in Arkansas. We're going to recruit the snot out of Texas. We're going to do great in state and in the surrounding states as well, but the next big area for us has to be Florida."

AUBURN

Rivals ranking: 9th

Less than an hour before Rashaan Evans made his announcement that he was choosing Alabama over his hometown Tigers, Auburn pulled a surprise of its own by landing offensive lineman Braden Smith of Olathe, Kan. Smith is the nation's No. 3 guard prospect according to Rivals.com and 247Sports.com and chose the Tigers over Texas A&M and TCU, where his sister is in school.

"We got on him late when Greg Robinson declared for the draft," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "[Offensive line] Coach [J.B.] Grimes did a great job of developing a great relationship in a short period of time. He came on a visit and just hit it off. Auburn is his type of place.

"He is very athletic and is one of the strongest guys in the entire country. He will really fit in for us. I think he will have the ability to help early."

Auburn arguably signed the league's best quarterback-tailback-receiver trio with Sean White, Racean Thomas and D'haquille Williams.

FLORIDA

Rivals ranking: 8th

After labeling last season a "miserable fall" in Gainesville, fourth-year Gators coach Will Muschamp was much more giddy during Wednesday's signing day news conference.

Cornerback Jalen Tabor, offensive tackle David Sharpe and defensive tackles Thomas Holley and Gerald Willis III were among Florida's elite signees, but the biggest accomplishment for the Gators was developing quality depth at quarterback behind Jeff Driskel with the dual-threat tandem of Will Grier and Treon Harris.

Muschamp is like Saban, his former boss, in downplaying the recruiting rankings, and he had fun at the expense of an old foe.

"I was watching ESPN this morning and somebody said Tom Luginbill was the number one junior college player when he came out," Muschamp said. "I intercepted Tom Luginbill [in the 1994 Georgia-Georgia Tech game], so that will tell you how important those rankings are. I texted him to remind him of that."

GEORGIA

Rivals ranking: 7th

Signing day gave Georgia coach Mark Richt the opportunity to gush not only over 21 new signees but over his new defensive assistants as well.

"I'm excited, I really am," Richt said. "I like keeping continuity within, but when change does happen and then you see the outpouring and the interest that people have to be at Georgia, it fires you up. It gets you excited. I can't tell you how many people wanted to come coach for Georgia -- great people and great coaches at great places.

"If these defensive positions had opened up and nobody was really interested to jump on the boat and join the family, it would have been discouraging, but it was just a 180 from that. It was very encouraging, and I'm really thrilled with the guys that have joined our staff."

Georgia's new defensive staffers worked at very different locales last season, with coordinator Jeremy Pruitt arriving from Florida State, Tracy Rocker from the Tennessee Titans, Kevin Sherrer from South Alabama and Mike Ekeler from Southern Cal.

KENTUCKY

Rivals ranking: 17th

The highest-rated class in Kentucky history improved Wednesday, when the Wildcats added defensive end Lloyd Tubman of Louisville. Tubman had been committed to Vanderbilt before Commodores coach James Franklin left for Penn State, and then he committed to Penn State.

Tubman is a four-star prospect according to 247Sports and was Rivals' No. 3 player in the Bluegrass State.

"We liked Lloyd a lot," Wildcats coach Mark Stoops said. "We recruited him for a full year. I think he's one of the top players in the state, and he's a great student and a fine young man."

Kentucky defensive line coach D.J. Eliot said it just took some time for Tubman to see what Kentucky had to offer. His addition gave the Wildcats four of their state's top five players, with quarterback Drew Barker and defensive tackle Matt Elam, who picked Kentucky over Alabama, creating the most excitement.

LSU

Rivals ranking: 2nd

LSU was all about filling needs and filling them quickly, and the Tigers are expected to benefit immediately from the in-state tandem of running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Malachi Dupre. Each is considered the best at his position.

The Tigers have lost 18 players early to the NFL the past two years, which is 10 more than any other school ever in a two-year stretch, and they've played 30 true freshmen over the past two seasons.

"This class is a must," LSU coach Miles said. "It's an opportunity to replace guys that have graduated from college and gone on to business or gone on to play professional football. It's a class that will come in to replace those juniors who have gone on to the NFL."

MISSISSIPPI

Rivals ranking: 19th

A year after raking in five-star signees such as defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell and tackle Laremy Tunsil, the Rebels inked 18 players who were ranked four-star prospects by at least one service.

Last year's class had an instant impact for Ole Miss, which defeated Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl to cap an 8-5 season, but coach Hugh Freeze is hoping for something a little different moving forward.

"I hope we can redshirt more kids than we were able to the last two years," Freeze said. "That's a sign we're headed in right direction and getting kids more maturity before they have to hit the field. Last year, we had some top-heavy guys that got a lot of attention.

"We were also able to evaluate correctly with guys like Evan Engram and Derrick Jones. With this class, we might be better top to bottom."

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Rivals ranking: 41st

There were rumblings late in the recruiting process that Mississippi State would flip Birmingham defensive lineman Cory Thomas from Tennessee's commitment list, which did occur. The Volunteers simply responded by adding Michael Sawyers of Nashville's Ensworth High.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen felt Thomas was a needed piece to his program, which lost defensive tackles Denico Autry and Kaleb Eulls from last season's Liberty Bowl champions.

"The defensive line is obviously of huge, huge importance to us," Mullen said. "When you look at the inside guys we got, Braxton Hoyett and Cory Thomas will be huge for us. Those are guys who are going to have to make immediate impacts. It might not be in game one, but it's going to be in a hurry with four senior defensive tackles on the roster.

"Next year there will be a huge gap for us when you look at what we are losing. We will lose offensive linemen and defensive linemen. We will take big hits after next season, so you have to have guys ready to step in and fill those positions."

MISSOURI

Rivals ranking: 35th

Missouri became the first program in SEC history to follow a 12-win season with a 12th-place finish in the league's recruiting ledger. That said, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel was very happy with a haul that contained many more prospects from within the SEC's footprint compared to several years ago.

As for Pinkel's sales pitch? Well, it's getting longer and longer.

"We're able to sell the fact that since 2007, Mizzou is the only program in the country to be in the top 10 in wins, the top five in first-round NFL draft picks as well as the top five in the Academic Progress Rate," Pinkel said. "That really resonates with the kids and their families and coaches. They trust that when they come to Mizzou, we make them the best that they can be."

SOUTH CAROLINA

Rivals ranking: 16th

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is one of the great offensive masterminds of the modern era, adjusting to the talents he inherits, but this year's class was more about reconstructing the defense.

"As all the Gamecocks know, we lost three starting defensive linemen in Jadaveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles," Spurrier said. "We have signed, I think, seven defensive linemen. Another need was defensive back and defensive corner, especially with Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree, with one being a senior and one leaving early. We need to replace those players.

"We've picked up four or five defensive back-type players that will come in and compete with the guys we've got to play that position next year."

TENNESSEE

Rivals ranking: 5th

The Volunteers had an average home attendance of 89,965 during Derek Dooley's final season in 2012, including lethargic audiences down the stretch against Troy, Missouri and Kentucky.

This past season, which was the first under Butch Jones, Tennessee had its average home attendance improve to 95,584. Among those crowds were fever-pitch atmospheres during the second half and overtime against Georgia and throughout the upset win over South Carolina.

Jones believes the uptick in fan support paid dividends.

"Our fans are the best in the country," Jones said, "and they do such a great job of creating a lot of positive energy and a lot of pride that just reinforces the importance and magnitude of Tennessee football. It is not just in the great state of Tennessee, but nationwide.

"Every single individual in our signing class was present for game day atmosphere. They were able to take in and feel that positive energy by our fans and our fan base."

TEXAS A&M

Rivals ranking: 6th

Before this recruiting cycle, the Aggies never had signed a five-star prospect from outside the Lone Star State.

This year they got two. Texas A&M snagged the nation's No. 1 quarterback, Kyle Allen, out of Arizona and the nation's No. 1 athlete prospect, Speedy Noil, out of Louisiana.

"I think it speaks to our brand expanding east and west and with the television exposure we've had the last couple of years," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said.

Though Texas long has been a gold mine in recruiting, the Aggies signed players from six states.

VANDERBILT

Rivals ranking: 50th

Dropping from 19th a year ago to 50th this time around shows the effect James Franklin and his departure had on the program.

Yet the Commodores were ranked in the 70s before new coach Derek Mason led a closing push. Mason and his two coordinators have Pac-12 backgrounds, and knowledge of the SEC among the staff is somewhat limited other than running backs coach and special teams coordinator Charles Bankins, who was retained from Franklin's staff.

"I don't see that as a detriment, because when you recruit nationally it doesn't matter," Mason said. "I think our brand is different and that we have to recruit nationally, so it becomes more about the demographics. When you have to go to Texas and California, a lot of times you've got to step into somebody's back yard, and, in doing so, you have to have a product that speaks to being able to go into somebody's back yard and pull a student-athlete.

"So for us, I didn't worry about SEC ties. I contemplated who are the best teachers and who are the guys I could send into homes and how impressive would they be as teachers and as ambassadors to the university, and that's what we've got. When we had a chance to get in front of parents, the parents melted."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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