Hope springs eternal on signing day
If recruiting really is the lifeblood of any college football program, then welcome to Transfusion Day.
On Wednesday, high school football prospects across the country will sign national letters of intent with their favorite colleges, with many of them doing it on TV and in packed gymnasiums and school cafeterias from coast to coast.
It's the day defending BCS national champion Auburn begins to rebuild its roster, after losing Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton, All-American Nick Fairley and many other stars from a team that finished 14-0 in 2010.
Teams like Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and LSU hope they'll add a player or two who might help put them over the top in 2011.
Wednesday is the day when new coaches, such as Florida's Will Muschamp and Michigan's Brady Hoke, start putting the first marks on their programs, and it's a day when coaches, such as Ole Miss' Houston Nutt and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, can only hope they signed enough talent to spark a quick turnaround.
College football's usual suspects -- Alabama, Florida, Florida State, USC and Texas -- are expected to sign many of the country's best recruiting classes once again. Traditional powers such as Notre Dame and Nebraska are back in the mix, and upstarts such as Oklahoma State and Stanford carried the excitement from 2010 onto the recruiting road.
Some of the sport's heavyweights had to work harder than usual this recruiting season.
Texas is coming off its first losing season under coach Mack Brown, who responded by overhauling his coaching staff with six new assistants, including coordinators on both sides of the ball.
Georgia is also coming off its first losing campaign under Mark Richt, who might have the hottest seat among SEC coaches when the 2011 season kicks off in seven months.
North Carolina and USC, which both overcame a boatload of off-field distractions to finish 8-5 in 2010, face uncertain futures because of NCAA investigations. The Trojans have already been hammered by the NCAA with four years' probation, and the Tar Heels are currently being investigated for improper contact with agents and academic fraud.
Yet, when the dust settles on Wednesday, the aforementioned programs are expected to sign classes that will rank among the best in the country.
"Most of the kids who are committed to Texas grew up wanting to be Longhorns," ESPN Recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg said. "Most of the kids Georgia has committed wanted to be Bulldogs, and most of the kids USC has wanted to be Trojans. Everybody's going to have a down year. These schools will always flex a lot of muscle in recruiting, and at the end of the day it's going to be the usual suspects."
Even for the downtrodden, national signing day brings renewed hope and energy. College football recruiting might be an inexact science, but an infusion of young talent and new faces can sway momentum heading into spring practice and the offseason.
Even a program like Texas can use a shot in the arm every once in a while.
"It's reinforced to me the power of this place and that we've won enough and they know we'll win again," Brown said.
Georgia, Texas and USC are in enviable positions because they're located in states with fertile recruiting grounds.
Of the 22 high school players who have committed to sign with the Longhorns on Wednesday, 21 of them attend Texas high schools. The Longhorns' class includes seven players ranked in the ESPNU 150, including No. 2 running back Malcolm Brown of Cibolo, Texas, and No. 1 cornerback Quandre Diggs of Arlington, Texas.
Athlete Josh Turner of Oklahoma City, Okla., is the only out-of-state recruit who is currently committed to sign with Texas.
"These kids were 5 years old when I got to Texas," Brown said. "They've seen us win every year. They grew up wanting to attend Texas and wanting to be a part of this program."
Richt also has benefited from a banner crop of home-grown recruits. Richt has a 96-34 record in 10 seasons with the Bulldogs, but his teams went only 14-12 over the past two seasons.
Richt hopes this recruiting class can turn the Bulldogs back in the right direction. Starting last spring, Richt tried to persuade Georgia's best high school players to join the Bulldogs as part of what he calls a "Dream Team."
"When you started watching film and looking at the great players in the state, you went, 'Wow!'" Richt said. "It just started looking like a super strong class. I thought if we could get most of those guys, it would really be a 'Dream Team.' We were just basically dreaming about getting a great class and if you could handpick them, this is what it would be."
Georgia's class is currently ranked No. 9 in the country by ESPN Recruiting. Of the Bulldogs' 23 committed players, 18 are home-grown products. Georgia has commitments from No. 2 defensive end Ray Drew of Thomasville, Ga., and No. 1 tight end Jay Rome of Valdosta, Ga.
Isaiah Crowell of Columbus, Ga., the No. 1 running back prospect in the country, will choose between Alabama and Georgia on Wednesday.
"A lot of guys just really love Georgia, period," Richt said. "I think a lot of young men get excited about the opportunity and feel like they can come in and make an impact. I think a lot of people out there see what we're about and see how we do it and they want to be a part of it."
USC, which recruited the entire country under former coach Pete Carroll, has devoted more of its efforts inside California under Lane Kiffin. As part of their NCAA punishment, the Trojans were banned from playing in bowl games in 2010 and '11 and will lose 30 scholarships. The school is appealing the sanctions.
"This year has been easier because we know what [the penalties] are," Kiffin said. "As much as we were disappointed in the penalties, it was a relief to know what it was and what we're dealing with. It has hanged over SC for so long and been used against SC for so long."
Kiffin said some rival coaches even read the Trojans' NCAA penalties to recruits "line by line."
"That's a new set of challenges," Kiffin said. "There are a lot of crazy things happening as we get closer to signing day."
Still, the Trojans have somehow assembled a recruiting class that ranks No. 4 nationally, according to ESPN Recruiting. The Trojans have secured commitments from No. 1 wide receiver George Farmer of Gardena, Calif., and No. 1 athlete DeAnthony Thomas of Los Angeles (who visited Oregon over the weekend and might be wavering on his commitment to USC). The Trojans also are still in the hunt for ESPNU 150 prospects Marqise Lee of Gardena, Calif., and Christian Heyward of San Diego.
"I think it speaks volumes for the power of SC," Kiffin said. "It's an extremely powerful place, regardless of these other things [such as] no bowl game or probation. That doesn't change the fact that you get a degree from a private school like SC and get to play football at SC."
For many recruits, tradition and the name of the front of a jersey still outweigh everything else.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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