Commentary

Knights, USF battling for Big East's top class

Rutgers is looking to bounce back from a rash of midseason defections to have the top class in the Big East, writes Bill Conley.

Originally Published: January 22, 2009
By Bill Conley | Scouts Inc.

The battle for the top spot in the Big East in terms of recruiting is as competitive as it was for the conference championship this past season. It's not how you start but how you finish in recruiting. Right now, it looks like Rutgers and South Florida are in the lead for the top class. Watch out for Bill Stewart's West Virginia Mountaineers to close hard and challenge the Scarlet Knights and the Bulls for the best class. It could be a matter of not necessarily whom you get but whom you don't lose down the stretch for these Big East teams. Bearcats

Cincinnati

No one gets more out of his players than Brian Kelly. The Bearcats' 2009 class doesn't have any superstars, but they have seven wide receivers and tight ends to fit the needs of their spread offense. Some very good defensive players are also in the fold.

Top prospect: Outside linebacker Angel Clybourn (Richland, N.J./Blair Academy) is perhaps the best player coming to Cincinnati from the high school ranks. Clybourn is a disruptive perimeter player who will grow into an intimidating defender. Another future player to watch for the Bearcats is tall and rangy athlete Chris Williams (Cincinnati/Winton Woods). Williams will more than likely line up in the secondary for Cincinnati. Playing as a defensive back means that his athleticism and quickness can best be used. He is a big hitter with great closing speed.

Don't be surprised if … This could be Kelly's last season with the Bearcats: He is a hot commodity, so look for a major BCS team to grab him next season.

UConn

Connecticut

It's been more than a month since the Huskies have gotten a verbal commitment, so a strong finish is crucial. The class is highlighted with five defensive ends. This is no surprise since the Huskies graduate five seniors on the defensive side of the football, including both starting ends and one defensive tackle.

Top prospect: Versatile athlete Leon Kinnard (Baltimore/Loyola Blakefield) is a major get for Connecticut. Even though he was a highly productive high school quarterback, Kinnard will most likely line up at corner or running back for the Huskies. Despite his lack of size (5-foot-9), his quickness and elusiveness make him a valuable recruit.

Don't be surprised if … The Huskies land a couple of skilled offensive players in the closing weeks. They could use more depth at the wide receiver position to go with their youthful quarterbacks.

Louisville

Louisville

Cardinals fans aren't used to winning only one game in the Big East, and the pressure is on the coaching staff to make major strides in 2009. The coaches know that giving up almost 30 points per game is not a formula for winning. The recruiting class is, therefore, heavy with defensive talent.

Top prospect: The Cardinals have ventured south for players, including six from the state of Florida. One of these Floridians, safety Richard Lee (Lakeland, Fla./Lake Gibson), is the best prospect in the 2009 class. Lee has great instincts and anticipation from the secondary. He breaks quickly on the pass and demonstrates excellent timing when going up for the interception.

Don't be surprised if … The Cardinals struggle again in 2009. As rough as they were defensively, the Cardinals must get much better production from the quarterback position.

Pitt

Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is the best of the second tier of Big East recruiting. The class is solid, but it doesn't have the talent Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia are bringing into the conference. Dave Wannstedt has found a way to survive in the Big East and nearly won the title in 2008; a strong finish on the trail will help the Panthers stay competitive.

Top prospect: Tall and talented Todd Thomas (Beaver Falls, Pa.) is the best player in Pitt's class. He will probably line up at wide receiver for the Panthers due to his soft hands and ability to go up for the football. He can also play free safety if things don't work out on offense. Don't be surprised if … With LeSean McCoy going to the NFL and a Pitt recruiting class that is lopsided toward offensive players, look for at least one of the five incoming running backs to compete for the starting position in 2009.

Rutgers

Rutgers

Coach Greg Schiano knows the importance of defense in order to win championships, and this philosophy is reflected in this year's recruiting class for the Scarlet Knights. Four of the top five recruits for Schiano line up on the defensive side of the football -- two defensive linemen and two defensive backs. If it wasn't for decommitments from center Mark Brazinski (Basking Ridge, N.J./Immaculata), running back Desmond Scott (Durham, N.C./Hillside), and safeties Terrance Taylor (Miami/Archbishop Carroll) and Gerald Hodges (Paulsboro, N.J.) the Scarlet Knights would have a lock on the Big East recruiting title.

Top prospect: Quarterback Tom Savage (Philadelphia/Cardinal O'Hara) is one of the top pocket-passers in the nation; he is ESPN's No. 8-ranked signal-caller in this class. Savage has a strong arm and can throw the deep ball extremely well. He also has great touch and can fit the football into tight spots. Savage is a very good field general and is sharp when progressing through his reads.

Don't be surprised if … The Scarlet Knights grab at least one more recruit from down South. Ever since Greg Schiano has been at Rutgers, he has taken a lot of pride in bringing in players from Florida. Of Rutgers' current commits, only talented defensive tackle Antwan Lowery (Miami/Columbus), another ESPN top 150 player, is from the Sunshine State.

South Florida

South Florida

[+] EnlargeRicardo Dixon
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comRicardo Dixon has the potential to be a lock-down corner.
The Bulls are right at the heels of the Scarlet Knights. One of the most impressive things about South Florida's recruiting is how the Bulls have won some of the head-to-head battles against higher-profile universities, including other Florida schools. A perfect example is how players like running back Victor Marc and cornerback Ricardo Dixon of Hallandale High School had their choice of major schools, but are currently committed to South Florida.

Top prospect: Active defensive end Ryne Giddins (Seffner, Fla./Armwood) applies a ton of pressure as an edge-rusher with his quickness and athleticism. Although he is still a raw talent, Giddins makes up for technical mistakes with his energy and effort. The nation's fifth-best defensive end possesses exceptional closing speed and lateral movement.

Don't be surprised if … South Florida's class stays largely intact. 2009 has been big for the Bulls with five verbals coming since Jan. 1. The key will be to keep players like Marc and Dixon on board since they are still planning on taking other visits. South Florida's key recruits are getting hammered, and don't look for the pressure to slack off.

Syracuse

Syracuse

New head coach Doug Marrone has his work cut for him in terms of recruiting. The class is less than stellar; it lacks both quantity and quality. The Orange need a lot of help on both sides of the football, and the entire football program needs a makeover.

Top prospect: Zack Chibane (Paramus, N.J.) is a quick, high-motor offensive lineman. He has a tendency to play a little high, but he displays excellent leg drive. Chibane is one of Syracuse's three O-line commits.

Don't be surprised if … Look for Syracuse football to put an emphasis on going back to recruiting more speed in the future. Doug Marrone believes in an aggressive, attacking defense. The Orange really need to find a Southern recruiting area in which to concentrate for speed and skill.

W. Va.

West Virginia

[+] EnlargeEugene Smith
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comEugene Smith is at his best out of the shotgun.
There is no doubt the recruiting game plan for the Mountaineers was to go after top offensive talent, especially at the skill positions. So far the mission has been accomplished, with eight of West Virginia's top 10 ranked recruits lining up on the offensive side of the football. Of these eight offensive recruits, three are wide receivers, two play running back and one is a quarterback.

Top prospect: Pat White is gone, and although the cupboard is not bare at the quarterback position in Morgantown, Eugene Smith (Miramar, Fla.) could be the future. The athletic Smith fits right in with the Mountaineer's spread offense. He is an outstanding dual-threat quarterback with excellent mobility and elusiveness. Don't let Smith's running ability fool you, however. He has a strong arm and is accurate as a passer

Don't be surprised if … The Mountaineers close as good as any team in the Big East when it comes to recruiting. They do a super job for a program that has such a small in-state base. Eight different states are represented in this year's class. Don't be surprised if West Virginia slides by both Rutgers and South Florida in the final stretch

Bill Conley is a recruiting coordinator for ESPN Scouts Inc. He previously worked at Ohio State for 17 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.