This article is part of our Freshmen Preview series.
Signing Day Roundup
Signing Day came and went without a ton of fanfare as many of the top recruits finalized their commitments on early Signing Day back in December. That's not to say that Signing Day didn't have its own drama. We had a five-star flip his commitment to a rival, we had some down-on-their-luck programs turn things around, and we had some blue bloods fall flat on their face (looking at you, Florida State and USC).
In this article, I'll give some quick hits on the winners and losers from this recruiting cycle. After that, I give a position-by-position breakdown of incoming freshman who could make impacts in 2019.
Jeremy Pruitt was known as an ace recruiter when he got to Rocky Top but it can be tough to catch up when you're competing against other elite programs in your own division, let alone conference. When your own state generally lags behind in blue chip talent compared to what Georgia, Florida, and Alabama have in their respective backyards, it's even tougher. This is to say Pruitt and his staff deserve immense credit for turning in No.12 overall class and selling recruits a program that is still airing out the stench from the Butch Jones era. The Vols had young players get valuable experience in 2018 and now bring in a 2019 crop that features two of the best offensive tackles along with plenty of other future impact players. Perhaps most important for Big Orange Nation morale is the fact that the Vols won several recruiting battles against rival programs.
In a similar vein to Tennessee, the Razorbacks face an uphill battle within their own division and lack the in-state resources to simply play catch-up by getting the players in their own backyard. And, like Tennessee, Arkansas didn't let those factors prevent it from locking in its best class in years. There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between those programs. Arkansas is still cleaning up its own mess from the Bret Bielema era while getting the right pieces in place to fit Chad Morris' system. Morris had to scramble to salvage the 2018 class, so this is the first recruiting haul on which he can really be judged – and he crushed it. 11 of the 23 commits are four-stars and nine of the 23 are already on campus. It'll take some time for Arkansas to fully get itself in gear and start competing in the West, but this is an encouraging start. Arkansas has a real pulse for the first time since 2015 in my opinion.
Those who feared a recruiting drop-off when Willie Taggart left for Florida State weren't paying attention. Coach Mario Cristobal has long been a force on the recruiting trail since his days as an assistant at Alabama and it was his recruiting chops that brought in the top-rated class in the PAC-12 and the No.7 class overall. In fact, it's the best in Oregon history.
Oregon already has a ton of returning talent, headlined by quarterback Justin Herbert, but some of the highly touted pieces in this class will be able to get on the field and contribute as the Ducks push to reclaim the PAC-12 North Title and more. Kayvon Thibodeaux, an edge defender out of California, is the No.2 overall player in the class and is already enrolled. You can expect to hear his name early and often this fall. In addition to players like Thibodeaux, Cristobal has stockpiled the trenches to give Oregon a roster construction that looks more SEC than PAC-12. The Ducks will be able to play bully ball better than anyone in the conference this season. Yes, better than Stanford. Oregon is back and maybe better than ever.
More Winners: Quick Hits
Texas, No. 3 Overall: Herman has really found his footing in Austin.
Texas A&M, No. 4 Overall: Jimbo seems to be enjoying life in Aggieland and the resources that come with it.
Florida, No.9 Overall: Dan Mullen gets a bad rap as a mediocre recruiter but you wouldn't be able to tell that from this year's haul. It helps that Florida State and Miami are down, but this is a strong class nonetheless.
Nebraska, No. 19 Overall: The question when Scott Frost arrived was how well he could overcome the recruiting barriers that come with the Nebraska program. Well, two years in and two Top 25 classes later and we have a Husker program that's ready to compete.
North Carolina, No. 32 Overall: Old Man Mack Brown's still got it, apparently. With all the heat UNC caught with the route it took with this hire, it was crucial for Brown's first class to be a success. Mission accomplished, especially with the Sam Howell flip from Florida State.
Baylor, No. 35 Overall: Matt Rhule continues to do an excellent job instilling a much-needed culture change within the program. This class isn't rated as high as Baylor's 2018 haul but it's not far off and it features some star power.
Florida State, No. 16 Overall: I thought Willie Taggart was a good recruiter?
USC, No. 20 Overall: Being 20th in the nation and still landing in the Losers column shows you how good USC usually has it. This class was an abject disaster for the Trojans.
UCLA, No. 44 Overall: Seriously, what is Chip doing?
West Virginia, No. 48 Overall: It was going to be an uphill battle with the late coaching change. Still, losing out on the state's only Five Star prospect in the 247 era stings.
Illinois, No. 63: I thought part of the whole Lovie Smith deal was that he was going to be good at recruiting? No?
Louisville, No. 73: Yikes.
From a Who They Are On Signing Day perspective, this quarterback class isn't oozing with star power. We're not going to have a Trevor Lawrence or a Justin Fields in the top two spots every year, but this class is light on projectable early stars relative to recent years. For reference, the class of 2018 had six quarterbacks ranked inside the 247 Sports composite top 50 (3 DT, 3 PRO). This year? There are two dual-threat quarterbacks and one pro-style quarterback ranked in their Top 50. Now that I've totally sold you on these guys, let's take a look at this year's crop of quarterbacks and how they fit with their respective schools.
The top-rated quarterback, Spencer Rattler, heads to Norman where he's ticketed for backup duties behind grad transfer Jalen Hurts. Rattler, ranked No.11 overall, lit it up at the All-American Bowl and looks like he can be a future starter at Oklahoma once Hurts is gone. Well, assuming Oklahoma doesn't go out and get the best grad transfer on the market again next year.
While the top-rated quarterback may be blocked from getting on the field this year, North Carolina's Sam Howell (No.3 dual-threat) has a puncher's chance. Howell is the gem of Mack Brown's first recruiting class at North Carolina and was a longtime Florida State commit before becoming one of the biggest flips of this cycle. Howell is already enrolled and will go through spring practice, which greatly helps his odds at winning the job this fall. Considering the new coaching staff and how underwhelming the rest of UNC's quarterback group looks, Howell profiles as arguably the best bet among Power 5 freshmen to start this year.
Another contender from that group is Wisconsin's Graham Mertz. A longtime commit, Mertz fended off offers from other top programs and kept his pledge to the Badgers. He's a Kansas native so the jump in competition will be significant. However, that didn't seem to bother him at the All-American Bowl where he threw for a record five touchdowns. He's already at Wisconsin and, like Howell, doesn't have the highest bar in the world to clear as far as competition goes. Alex Hornibrook and Jack Coan are better than what Sam Howell is dealing with in Chapel Hill, but the point stands. Wisconsin is on the brink of being a playoff caliber team but has been let down by quarterback play ever since Russell Wilson left. If Mertz is as-advertised, it wouldn't be shocking to see him take the reins at some point in 2019.
Arizona State quietly put together a strong class this year, and early enrollee quarterback Jayden Daniels is the centerpiece. Ranked as the No.2 dual-threat quarterback and No.35 player overall, Daniels has the talent to compete right away and his presence for spring practice only helps matters. The depth chart ahead of him isn't overly imposing, either. That said, for how well Herm Edwards has acclimated to modern college coaching, I'm still not so sure he'd turn the keys over to a true freshman quarterback right away.
This year's running back class packs a punch with several players looking like early contributors even at big programs.
Leading things off for me is John Emery, who signed with LSU this fall after previously being committed to Georgia. He is the No.2 rated player from the state of Louisiana and the No.2 rated running back in the nation. The difference between him and composite No.1 Trey Sanders (Alabama) is negligible, and Emery has the much clearer path to playing time.
There wasn't a bona fide future NFL running back in its backfield for what feels like forever. Senior Nick Brossette kept the streak of 1,000-yard rushers alive but he did so on 4.3 YPC. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (4.5 YPC) looks to be a rotational piece at best. On the other hand, Emery is well-built (5-11, 206) and explosive back that looks like he can be a three-down contributor in 2019. Emery will be the best running back on the roster the second he gets on campus.
Looking elsewhere, Penn State continued its success in getting star running backs on campus with Devyn Ford (No.6) and Noah Cain (No.8). And with Miles Sanders heading to the NFL, there
will be carries up for grabs in 2019. A big roadblock for this duo could be Ricky Slade, a rising sophomore who appeared in this space last year as the clear next-in-line guy behind Sanders. Slade is proof positive that James Franklin doesn't mind playing freshmen if they're ready, as evidenced by Slade's appearance in nine games. He ran for a strong 5.7 YPC and took six of his 45 carries to the house as a freshman. Look for Slade to push for 200 carries this year and limit the amount of work Ford and Cain get, even if they are effective when they get on the field.
Going off the beaten path a bit we have the No.26-rated running back in Breece Hall, who is already enrolled at Iowa State. ISU lost David Montgomery and his 257 carries to the draft, and while Brock Purdy will eat up some of the rushing share, there is a lot up for grabs in this Cyclones backfield. Hall isn't the only running back in this class for Iowa State with Jirehl Brock also there, but Hall being an early enrollee that gets to go through spring practice gives him a major leg up. Considering Hall (6-0, 215) really only has Kene Nwangwu (4.03 YPC) and Johnnie Lang (3.59 YPC) in his way, he's earmarked as an under-the-radar freshman that could make a mark in 2019.
RB Quick Hits
Jerrion Ealy (RB3) is a major boon to Ole Miss' 22nd-ranked recruiting class. He's the most talented running back the Rebels have had in some time. There are questions whether he'll follow through with his football pledge or wind up going the baseball route, as he reportedly ranks as the 18th overall amateur prospect by MLB.com. Keep an eye on this one, but if he sticks with football, the Rebels will find a way to get him on the field.
Austin Jones (RB9) is heading to a Stanford program that showed how badly it needs its run game to click in order to succeed last year. Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett are gone, and the likes of Trevor Speights and Dorian Maddox have been middling at best to this point. Rising sophomores Justus Woods and Cameron McFarlane are potential roadblocks to Jones seeing the field, although Jones has the talent to at least keep tabs on as fall camp unfolds.
Zach Charbonnet (RB4) is getting some buzz right now as a highly touted back with great size (6-2, 215) that is already enrolled at Michigan. Tack on the fact that Karan Higdon is gone, along with Chris Evans' murky standing, and it makes sense to be bullish on Charbonnet. I advise pumping the brakes a bit, though. Coach Jim Harbaugh hasn't been shy about using a deep backfield rotation before, and the likes of Tru Wilson and Christian Turner showed some promise last year. If Evans gets his academic issue resolved and he gets reinstated, that's one more major roadblock between Charbonnet and seeing regular playing time.
RB12 Isaiah Spiller enters a situation at Texas A&M where one of the program's all-time greats, Trayveon Williams, left early for the NFL Draft. He is no doubt talented, but Texas A&M already has promising players like Jashaun Corbin and Vernon Jackson in its backfield. Spiller is also not early enrolling, so he might be looking at a rotational role at best in 2019.
The running back class is strong, but this receiver class is on another level. Last year's crop of freshmen set the bar high with the likes of Justyn Ross, Jaylen Waddle, Amon-Ra St. Brown all shining despite going to programs that already had loaded and established receiving corps.
This year we've got four 5-star talents (Jadon Haselwood and Theo Wease, Oklahoma; Garrett Wilson, Ohio State; George Pickens, Georgia) and eight receivers in the top-50 overall. In an era where more and more teams are running three- and four-receiver sets all the time, we're seeing a rise in freshmen making big impacts.
Let's start with Oklahoma's dynamic duo. Haselwood isn't just the top-rated receiver in the class, he's the No.4 overall player. 247 Sports hasn't had a receiver rated this high since Dorial Green-Beckham in the class of 2012.
Hey, he could've been good.
Back to Haselwood, he's an absolutely dominant player with a blend of size (6-2, 198), speed (4.57 reported 40-time at The Opening), and hands to be a Day 1 star. Haselwood's chances of starting Week 1 opposite CeeDee Lamb are strong considering that he has already enrolled at OU. Fellow recruit Theo Wease is no slouch, either. Wease (6-3, 202) is the No.3 receiver and No.21 overall player in the class out of Allen, Texas and he possesses WR1 upside in his own right. He may not be as quick-twitch explosive as Haselwood, but his size, length, and body control will make him a nightmare for undersized corners. 247 compared Haselwood to Keenan Allen and Wease to Allen Robinson. Not a bad haul for a Sooners team that is already rich at the skill positions.
Garrett Wilson is the No.2 rated receiver and yet he's not getting quite enough publicity in my opinion. The Austin, Texas native is a big get for Ohio State in a transition year as far as its coaching staff is concerned. Wilson doesn't have that ideal WR1 size like the Oklahoma guys, checking in just under 6-foot and he'll need to add some weight to his 175-pound frame. Unfortunately, he won't have the spring semester to get on Ohio State's strength and conditioning program nor will he have the benefit of spring practice. Still, Wilson's talent coupled with Ohio State's roster attrition at the position should give him a fighting chance at seeing a role early.
A look at Wilson's high school tape and his dominant, two-touchdown performance against blue-chip talent in the All-American Bowl shows you a player who won't have much of a learning curve once he arrives in Columbus. As for the Buckeyes' receiver depth, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin are both off to the NFL, leaving just under 30 percent of last year's target share up for grabs. If Wilson gets up to speed quickly, he'll be a factor in 2019.
Rounding out the five stars is George Pickens, who flipped his commitment from Auburn to Georgia on Signing Day. He lands in a spot where there's a good chance for quick upward mobility given that Georgia is replacing its entire starting receiving corps from 2018. On the field, Pickens has the look of a five-star player. He's big, he's fast, he dominates when the ball is in the air. The issue here, as outlined by Seth Emerson of The Athletic is that there is concern Pickens won't qualify academically right away. The counter-argument is that Georgia wouldn't have used one of its two remaining scholarship spots going into Signing Day on a player they thought would wind up academically ineligible. We should know get some more clarity on Pickens by fall camp, and if he is good to go, expect him to see the field as an outside receiver.
With the five-stars accounted for, let's look at the rest of the big-time and potential impact freshman receivers.
Surprise, surprise: Clemson pulled in two of the top-10 receivers with Frank Ladson (6-3, 190) out of Miami and Joe Ngata (6-3, 205) out of California. The reigning national champions are returning a scary amount of talent, especially at receiver, so both Ladson and Ngata will have an uphill climb at seeing consistent roles in 2019. Look for these two to start making names for themselves at Clemson in 2020.
I'll get to this in greater detail later, but Treylon Burks (6-3, 225) is the gem of an Arkansas recruiting class that was one of the biggest surprises in the country, checking in at No.23 overall. Burks was the top player in the state and rightfully so. He's one of four receivers in this Arkansas class as coach Chad Morris forges ahead in trying to get the right pieces to fit his offense. Trey Knox and Shamar Nash – both four-stars – are two of those receivers who enrolled at Arkansas this spring. It's difficult to handicap which of those three will have the most impact as a freshman given that Burks is the highest rated but the other two will have a significant leg up in experience in the offense. In any case, the Arkansas freshmen should be on your radar in the lead-up to the season in Year 2 for Chad Morris.
Purdue quietly kept chugging along with the best class to date under Jeff Brohm, checking in at No.25 nationally. David Bell is the name to earmark for fantasy. A 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver that was the runner-up for Indiana Mr. Football, Bell held offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan State along with several other Big Ten programs. Rondale Moore is obviously the guy for the Boilermakers, but Brohm is not shy about getting his best players on the field regardless of seniority, and it's also worth noting that much of the production behind Moore last year is now gone.