- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2008

For the first time in a while, college football’s national signing day belonged to the relatively needy.

Over the last decade, it was pretty much guaranteed that the nation’s top five classes would be collected by some combination of Southern California, Florida State, Texas, Tennessee, LSU, Florida and Oklahoma. Yesterday that form held only for the Gators, and even the mighty Tebows tumbled several slots after losing verbal pledges to a couple of signing day reversals.

Yesterday’s trio of biggest winners lost six games or more last season. Two of my top five failed to make bowl appearances. And none of the top five classes was signed by a 2007 conference champion.

Taking into account the assessments of Rivals and ESPN, as well as his own team-need analysis the Back Judge discovered a surprise five of Alabama, Miami, Notre Dame, Florida and Clemson — teams with a combined record of just 33-30 last season.

“Signing day is usually a case of the rich getting richer, but that truly wasn’t the case,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said.

Nope, it seems that the top recruits are more concerned than ever before with depth charts and early playing time, making traditional powers looking to rebound from atrocious seasons the order of the day:

1. Alabama — Quite simply, this is why the Crimson Tide made Nick Saban the college game’s highest-paid coach a year ago. One crop of Saban’s recruits just took a title back to LSU, and yesterday the tireless taskmaster secured possibly the greatest signing class in Alabama’s storied history. The only thing missing from this massive, balanced 32-man class is a game-breaking running back. It’s hard to pick just one gem from such a trove, but I’ll take wide receiver Julio Jones, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound block of carved onyx who will spend the near future torturing physically overmatched SEC cornerbacks.

2. Miami — After the Hurricanes closed out Randy Shannon’s first season by losing six of seven games, a number of the team’s verbal pledges wobbled, scheduling 11th-hour visits. But Shannon and the Hurricanes kept every pledge and even swiped Florida commit Ramon Buchanan. Defensively, no class comes close to matching a Miami influx that includes the nation’s top defensive tackle (Marcus Forston), top linebacker (Arthur Brown) and two of its top defensive backs (Buchanan and Brandon Harris). There still doesn’t seem to be a legit college quarterback on the roster, but with such defensive riches maybe all Miami needs is a good field goal kicker.

3. Notre Dame — Between signing a class that includes three of the nation’s best targets (Michael Floyd, Deion Walker and tight end Kyle Rudolph) and hiring former Georgia Tech defensive guru Jon Tenuta, Charlie Weis and the Irish have had the game’s best offseason. Notre Dame will be the most improved team in college football next season … by far.

4. Florida — A solid 22-player class lacks the star power of previous Gator hauls, though Jersey City hit man Will Hill should start from Day 1 at safety.

5. Clemson — After a career defined by solid though unspectacular recruiting and coaching, Tommy Bowden enters unfamiliar elite territory by signing the nation’s top defensive player (unblockable defensive end DaQuan Bowers) and going out of state to upset Georgia, Florida State and Tennessee in their own backyards for defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, tailback Jamie Harper and massive offensive tackle Antoine McClain, respectively.

No-huddle

Top offensive prospect Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette, Pa., has put off his decision until after this weekend’s trip to Oregon. The best dual-threat quarterback recruit since Vince Young (even including Heisman winner Tebow), Pryor is down to Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Oregon. While the Ducks have a perfect system for Pryor and better facilities than any pro franchise (thanks, Phil), the Back Judge still thinks he’ll end up in maize and blue. With the departure of Ryan Mallet to Arkansas, nobody needs a quarterback more than RichRod. We can’t understand why the Nits and Bucks (with their dino offenses) are even in the conversation.

The top two impact players not listed above who signed yesterday are top running back Darrell Scott and top cornerback Patrick Johnson. Scott (Ventura, Calif.) decided not to join the tailback bread line at USC and signed with Colorado. And the 6-1, 195-pound Johnson, who jammed every wideout put in front of him at the U.S. Army All-American Game, is LSU’s next star in the secondary.

If Scott’s signing weren’t enough proof for those questioning the enhanced importance of early playing time for recruits, consider the fact that top postgraduate player Enrique Davis (Hargrave Military) signed with Ole Miss. The Rebels have no chance of fashioning a winning season next year, but Davis knows new coach Houston Nutt will feed him the ball 30 times a game.

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