- Craig Haubert, RecruitingNation
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Pittsburgh may have the most overachieving class in the country. After going 5-7 last fall, the Panthers will head into signing day with the top class in the Big East and sits in the top 25. West Virginia's class took a big blow when Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan but Bill Stewart did land some talent from Florida in John "Doc" Holliday, one of the better recruiters in the country to close down the stretch. Connecticut fielded a great team in 2007 but it will take a few more winning years to attract top national and even in-state recruits to Storrs; the Huskies lost out on the top seven Connecticut prospects in 2008 and surprisingly Rutgers is in the same boat in Jersey. South Florida continues to land the residual prospects in Florida who may be an inch too small or 20 pounds too light for the more prominent Florida colleges but are just good football players who can run. Here's a look at each class:
Schools in order of 2007 finish
Signing day storylines: On the upside, the Mountaineers have been the class of the Big East since the conference reshaped in 2005. They spent most of the 2007 college football season as a serious national championship contender and went to and won their second BCS bowl game in three years. On the downside, they lost a crucial late season game to archenemy Pitt to lose a surefire bid to the national championship game, lost their head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan, have a scandal worthy of Washington, D.C. brewing over whether Rodriguez shredded key documents before leaving and a battle between the former coach and the university over buyout money.
A new regime is in place with former associate head coach and special teams coordinator Bill Stewart taking over. He is a likeable figure who earned the praise and support of the West Virginia players en route to getting the head coaching job. His demeanor and likeability should be an asset for West Virginia in recruiting, but his lack both of experience and success as a head coach (compiled an 8-25 record at VMI from 1994-'96) could be a hurdle.
West Virginia lost several assistants to Michigan including recruiting coordinator Tony Gibson, but Stewart did hire former Florida assistant John "Doc" Holliday, one of the better recruiters in the country. Holliday, a former West Virginia player and coach, should bring a needed boost to West Virginia recruiting.
The Mountaineers do not have a class indicative of their on-field success. They have been bitten by some de-commitments like wide receiver D.J. Woods (Strongsville, Ohio), junior college cornerback Blair Irvin (Patterson, La. / Coffeyville C.C.) and in-state offensive lineman Josh Jenkins (Vienna, W. Va./Parkersburg). They could get Jenkins back, but it may be a long shot.
Unlike last year when then snagged running back Noel Devine (North Fort Myers, Fla.) late, West Virginia does not seem to have any possible late impact additions. It will very likely not have a top-25 class and Mountaineer fans will need to wait until the 2009 class to get a gauge on what type of impact Stewart, Holliday and the rest of the West Virginia staff can have on recruiting.
Top prospect: West Virginia finished 2007 with three seniors and one junior listed at the cornerback position on the two-deep. Luckily, its top prospect Jerome Swinton (Daytona Beach, Fla./Seabreeze) fits that need. The No. 21-ranked corner is a competitive player and a good pickup for West Virginia. He lacks ideal size at about 5-foot-8, but he is fast and plays much bigger than his listed measurables. He can cover with the best of them with great top-end speed and acceleration and will also come up and hit in run support. He could have trouble with some bigger and physical wide receivers at the college level, but he could help immediately on special teams units.
Class highlights: With some key defections to the NFL like wide receiver Darius Reynaud and running back Steve Slaton as well as upper classmen at several key positions, West Virginia has some holes to fill. Unfortunately this current class does not hold a lot of obvious answers.
Swinton is a big get at corner as is junior college transfer Branton Bowser (Phoenix/Phoenix College). Devine will help ease the loss of Slaton and West Virginia also looks to finally add 2007 signee running back Terrence Kerns (Frederick, Md.), who spent the season at Hargrave Military. West Virginia also has onboard physical, run-stuffing inside linebacker Donovan Miles (Stafford, Va. / Brooke Point). With some youth at safety also needed, No. 37-rated safety Jermaine Robinson (Pittsburgh/Brashear) is a solid addition.
Could see the field in 2008: Cornerbacks Bowser and Swinton (at least on special teams), running back Kerns, JUCO defensive end Larry Ford (Georgetown, S.C./Coffeyville C.C.).
Signing day storylines: UConn was one of the pleasant surprises in college football in 2007. It entered with few national expectations but finished 9-3 with a share of the Big East title and is still building in only its fifth year in the league. It played well in 2007 but proved there is still work to be down in blowout defeats to league big dog West Virginia and on-the-rise Cincinnati.
Head coach Randy Edsall has done a good job building this program and looks to be in for the long haul. Not among the upper-tier programs in recruiting, Edsall has done a good job identifying talent in the Northeast but doesn't have a program big enough or successful enough to recruit on a national level or keep major prospects close to home. The top seven prospects in the state of Connecticut in 2008 have all left. With more success, that can change over time.
Top prospect: Big offensive tackle Jimmy Bennett (Alexandria, Va./West Potomac) is at the top of the Huskies' board. He is a promising lineman with a big frame and the ability to develop into a physical monster. He is an aggressive run blocker who plays with good leverage for his height and can eventually help keep UConn's solid ground game churning. He likely needs some time to physically fill out and develop his game but could become a solid starting tackle. The Huskies beat some prominent programs for Bennett's services and he is a good pickup.
Class highlights: The Huskies currently have 17 verbal commitments, but it is a player already on campus who highlights this class. Former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer (Mechanicsburg, Pa.) transferred to Connecticut and is a nice addition. Junior college transfer Tyler Lorenzen played well in 2007 and will be back, but Frazer, rated as the No. 6 Class of 2006 quarterback, could be the man to take over the reigns once he graduates. The Huskies also have a verbal from another signal caller in Casey Turner (Chesapeake, Va./Great Bridge), a quarterback with good size and athleticism but an odd delivery. He has upside though and with some work could be an intriguing addition down the line.
Could see the field in 2008: Frazer in a back-up role.
Signing day storylines: Head coach Brian Kelly has brought an excitement to Cincinnati football. In his first full year he led the Bearcats to a 10-3 record and a win in the Papajohns.com Bowl. His high flying "Cat Attack" offense broke several school single-season records and the profile of Cincinnati football has been raised.
From a recruiting standpoint there is still work to be done; Kelly is still trying to recruit prospects to a basketball school in a professional football city. Another hurdle is that the Cincinnati program is surrounded by Big 10 and SEC programs, making the competition for top nearby prospects tough. The Bearcats have a fighting chance as Kelly just signed a new contract offering some stability and his offense will be appealing to skilled recruits.
The Bearcats do not have close to a top-25 recruiting class, but another successful year on the field in 2008 could start to make Bearcat football recruiting a topic around this basketball campus.
Top prospect: While Cincinnati sports an explosive offense, it is actually a defensive prospect that heads the current commit list for the Bearcats. Cornerback Dominique Battle (Delray Beach, Fla./American Heritage-Boca-Delray) is a good addition out of the Sunshine State. A talented two-way player in high school, his speed and size will be best suited on defense. He has fluid hips to turn and run with receivers and the speed to recover if he makes a mistake. He is competitive and tallied 58 tackles and seven interceptions as a senior.
Class highlights: While one former Notre Dame quarterback landed at Big East school Connecticut, the other landed at Cincinnati as Demetrius Jones (Chicago) transferred to the Bearcats. They also have verbal commitments from two prep quarterbacks in Travis Kelce (Cleveland Heights, Ohio) and Brendon Kay (Marine City, Mich.). The offense has also added a good receiver in Lynell Payne (Marlton, N.J./Cherokee), a good-sized target with soft hands and long arms and a promising running back in George Winn (Detroit/University of Detroit Jesuit), a slashing, north-south runner with good hands to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. Safety Quincy Quetant (Orlando/Timber Creek) has great instincts and a playmaking.
Could see the field in 2008: Cornerback Battle, wide receiver Payne and running back Winn.
Signing day storylines: For a while South Florida was in the college football spotlight at 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. That high would be followed by a three-game losing streak and crash back to reality. While national championship hopes were dashed the quick start served an important role as the still building program got national attention and served notice that it can be a serious contender in the Big East.
Located in prospect-rich Florida, the Bulls have begun to separate from other in-state programs like Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Central Florida and slowly close the gap with big three Miami (FL), Florida and Florida State.
Few teams have done a better job of identifying good talent passed over by the bigger schools and reeling them in. Often time the Bulls will take a guy who may lack the ideal size or speed for a traditional power program, but is a pure football player, like a QB Matt Grothe. With a continued good eye for overlooked talent and an increased awareness among highly-rated prospects, South Florida is poised to become the team to beat in the Big East.
It's current solid class could possibly add some good late additions as prospects like Miami Northwestern teammates WR Tommy Streeter and guard and Miami commit Brandon Washington are looking at the Bulls.
Top prospect: South Florida landed one of the more underrated prospects in the 2007 class in running back Demetris Murray (Buford, Ga.). This 2007 Georgia Class AA offensive player of the year and all-state selection could become a steal. He is a big back with good home-run speed. He finds seams, attacks and explodes upfield. He is tough to bring down and can wear down defenses over the course of a game. He needs to become more patient and allow holes to open and plays to develop, but once he makes some adjustments to his game at the college level, he could really open some eyes.
Class highlights: This class is Florida heavy with 15 of 17 in-state commits. Besides Murray, the other Georgian is DT Cory Grissom (LaGrange, Ga./Troup County). His size allows him to play some defensive end and tackle, but he is at his best as a three technique where he can be disruptive. The top in-state prospect for the Bulls is safety John Lejiste (Delray Beach, Fla./Atlantic Community). A high school teammate of highly-rated safety prospect Karnell Hatcher, Lejiste is a fine prospect in his own right. He is athletic and offers the versatility to play some corner or safety. Wide receiver Daniel Bryant (Tallahassee, Fla./Lawton-Chiles) has good upside to be a downfield threat. Offensive tackle Josh Garvin (Lakeland, Fla./Lake Gibson) is one of those kids lacking ideal size to attract bigger programs but could develop into a fine tackle or guard in college. Junior college linebacker Kion Wilson (Jacksonville, Fla./Pearl River C.C.) already signed, but the Bulls did lose a promising defensive end commitment to Wisconsin in Anthony Mains (Naples, Fla./Golden Gate).
Could see the field in 2008: Running back Murray, wide receiver Bryant, defensive back Lejiste, a kicker and any of the junior college additions.
Signing day storylines: It is a bit easier to get let down when expectations are raised, which Greg Schiano has done during his tenure at Rutgers. Shockingly an 8-5 record was a disappointment compared to its 2006 season. Likewise, its 2008 recruiting class is a bit of a disappointment compared to its 2007 class.
Last year the Scarlet Knights proved able to defend their turf by keeping home two ESPN 150 prospects. This year the Garden state only boasts two ESPN 150 players altogether, but Rutgers has seen the state's top six prospects leave for other programs.
Losing star running back Ray Rice to the NFL makes a lost commitment from promising running back Onterrio McCalebb (Fort Meade, Fla.) sting a bit more. It needs to still do a better job of keeping high level in-state prospects like Will Hill (West Orange, N.J./St. Peter's Prep) close to home, but it is definitely focusing on tri-state area talent, as 11 of 14 commits hail from either New Jersey or New York.
Top prospect: Schiano has maintained a strong presence in Florida. Though this year he has only one verbal commitment from a Floridian, it is Rutgers' top-rated guy. Quarterback D.C. Jefferson (Winter Haven, Fla.), a big, athletic pocket passer, has kept it interesting for Rutgers coaches and fans. The No. 16-rated quarterback had de-committed from Rutgers after giving a verbal to SEC power LSU. After some consideration though Jefferson shocked many, including his high school head coach, and re-committed to Rutgers. Despite the topsy-turvy recruitment of Jefferson, Rutgers landed a good prospect from a physical standpoint. He reminds us some of former LSU quarterback Rohan Davey with more athleticism, and if he can improve his mechanics he could help to elevate the Rutgers passing attack after Mike Teel graduates.
Class highlights: After Jefferson it is two linemen standing out in this class. One is in-state offensive tackle Art Forst (Manasquan, N.J.), a big prospect who can create running lanes and help Rutgers keep its power run game churning. The other interesting line prospect is defensive tackle Scott Vallone (Melville, N.Y./Saint Anthony's), an undersized, but very productive defender. He will need to add bulk, but he has a good get-off and makes opponents work to try and block him. If he can quickly add some size, he could help a run defense that struggled some in 2007.
A prospect with more ideal size who can possibly offer some quick run support is linebacker Eric LeGrand (Colonia, N.J.). He is a tall, thickly-built kid who can be a good inside run stopper. Versatile, productive running back Rashad White (Teaneck, N.J.) could see some playing time with Rice gone. White lacks the ideal measurables to be a workhorse back but can help pick up yards in a variety of different ways.
Could see the field in 2008: Postgraduate wide receiver Keith Stroud (Brookyln, N.Y./Fork Union), linebacker LeGrand and running back White.
Signing day storylines: With the exception of Notre Dame, probably no team was a bigger disappointment in 2007 than Louisville. In fact the Cardinals may have been a bigger disappointment since many considered them a serious preseason contender for the national title. Louisville finished 6-6, missed a bowl game and head coach Steve Kragthrope was forced to make changes to his staff.
Recruiting has not gone great either, as the Cardinals lost a commitment from promising quarterback prospect Tino Sunseri (Pittsburgh/Central Catholic) to conference rival Pitt. While this is not a class headed for a top-25 finish it does have some have good commitments and the Cardinals are still in the running for some talented prospects like Under Armour All-American running back Aundre Dean (Katy, Texas). To quickly bounce back, Kragthrope and his staff have hit the junior colleges hard, signing eight.
Top prospect: For a program known for its offense, Louisville has snagged a talented nearby offensive player in Darius Ashley from the successful Saint Xavier program in Cincinnati. The running back was a 2007 Division I first team all-state selection, and while a bit undersized, he is a determined runner who should help Louisville move the chains once he adds some bulk. He rarely goes down on first contact, has good burst and can make something out of nothing. Ability-wise, Ashley fits the mold of the some of the talented recent backs Louisville has had.
Class highlights: The story of this class is the number of junior college additions. This move could help to plug holes and jumpstart the program but also be dicey. Any time a program relies heavily on junior college transfers, it runs the risk of having it blow up in their face.
As a former junior college player and coach, the JUCOs can be a wonderful way to fill immediate needs and supplement your roster, but they are no sure bet and do not always quickly acclimate. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
From the prep side of things Louisville gained a commitment from one the more violent, underrated offensive lineman in the country. Mario Benavides (Los Fresnos, Texas), a one-time Ole Miss commit, will bring a nasty streak to Louisville trenches. Damion Dixon (Port Allen, La.) is a tall, lanky receiver who can make some plays and be an asset in the red zone. Tight end Ryan Wallace (Bowling Green, Ky.) is solid in the run and pass game. He is a big target in the passing game, hauling in 48 passes and had seven touchdowns as a senior and his size makes him a promising blocker.
Could see the field in 2008: Any of the junior college transfers, running back Ashley and tight end Wallace.
Signing day storylines: If this article had teams in order of the best recruiting classes, Pitt would be at the top. The Panthers have the best shot among the Big East teams to finish with a top-25 class. In his three-year tenure, head coach Dave Wannstedt has established himself as a recruiting force in western Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas. A native of Pittsburgh and an alumni of Pitt, the former NFL head coach has really done an excellent job of selling Pitt history and the importance of roots. While he has recruited well, he has been unable to translate that talent into consistent wins. While he did a notch a huge upset win over rival West Virginia this year, the Panthers finished 5-7 and sixth in the Big East again.
Despite a lack of wins (16-19 in his tenure) Wannstedt has a contract extension in hand, likely a result of his recruiting ability. With the promise of stability, recruiting success should continue. If they can start to produce wins, the Panthers would also have on-field success to sell and could solidify themselves as the recruiting power in the Big East. It is time though for the talent to start resulting in Ws.
Top prospect: The Panthers battled some high-profile programs like Miami (FL) to land the talented Jonathan Baldwin (Aliquippa, Pa.). Baldwin's pledge once again showed Wannstedt has what it takes to keep top in-state talent. Also -- and more importantly -- Baldwin offers a player with the ability to provide productivity right away and help Pitt rack up some needed wins.
Baldwin at one time was the nation's No. 1-rated tight end but was changed to a wide receiver prospect and now is the nation's No. 8 receiver. It is likely he will at least start his career as a wide receiver, and that facilitated the position change. Despite a less glamorous ranking, Baldwin is an excellent talent and could develop into a Larry Fitzgerald-type target for the Panthers. If he does not pan out at receiver, he could still be an excellent tight end not only as a receiver, but also a blocker. Baldwin, the son of a former Pitt football player, is a safe bet to be a good one for the Panthers.
Class highlights: Besides Baldwin, running back Chris Burns (New Wilmington, Pa./Wilmington Area) offers promise. The Panthers already have the exciting LeSean McCoy, but Burns could offer a wonderful second option. He combines workhorse qualities with scatback, change-of-direction skills.
The offensive line also receives a boost with the addition of the big, athletic offensive tackle Luke Nix (Jefferson Hills, Pa./Thomas Jefferson). Wannstedt has recruited well, but Nix offers his best land yet at the offensive tackle position.
Pitt also landed talented in-state quarterback Tino Sunseri, the one-time Louisville commit. A coach's son and a gunslinger, this could prove to be a great pick-up a little down the road. Mike Cruz (Johnstown, Pa. / Bishop McCort) is a big tight end with deceptive athleticism who catches pretty much anything near him. The defense also recently got a good addition with the commitment of Shayne Hale (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway) a linebacker prospect who will likely develop into a defensive end. A pair of talented athlete prospects, A.J. Alexander (Altoona, Pa.) and Cameron Saddler (Monroeville, Pa./Gateway), have potential.
Could see the field in 2008: Wide receiver Baldwin, running back Burns, tight end Cruz, athletes Alexander and Saddler (in a variety of roles and special teams), Hale (likely as a back-up) and JUCO OC Rob Houser (Chico, Calif./Butte College).
Signing day storylines: This signing day Syracuse fans can rejoice in the fact that March Madness is only a month away. In his tenure head coach Greg Robinson has been unable to get anything significant going on the field or in recruiting. With a shallow local talent pool, few wins and little exposure, it has been hard for Syracuse to come even close to its past gridiron success. The approach of signing day does not offer much excitement or promise of late surprises; it looks like the Orange will again be at or near the bottom of the Big East recruiting classes.
Top prospect: A bright spot for Orange fans is the commitment of running back Averin Collier (Churchville, N.Y./Churchville Chili). This in-state back rushed for over 1,100 yards as a senior and had 15 touchdowns in just seven games. He has a stout build and good combination of power and elusiveness. He is at his best running inside and should be able to help Syracuse move the chains on offense. Collier is a good addition for an offense that ranked 118th nationally in rushing.
Class highlights: A pair of talented receivers, Trey Fairchild (Dublin, Ohio/Dublin Coffman) and Marcus Sales (Dewitt, N.Y./Christian Brothers), could come in and offer some punch to an offense that was 116th in scoring. Fairchild is a great fit as a hybrid WR/RB and someone who will compete and work to make things happen. The Syracuse class is big with 23 current verbal commitments, and hopefully the Orange can find some answers in that group.
Could see the field in 2008: Running back Collier, wide receivers Fairchild and Sales and anyone else who can help, as there is room for improvement in several areas.
Though it's struggled under Dave Wannstedt, Pitt is still recruiting the best in the Big East, write Craig Haubert in his conference overview.