Recruiting is a marathon, not a sprint. Many of the biggest fish of the class of 2019 were reeled in months before top prospects were first allowed to send in their national letters of intent, which officially bound them to their school of choice. To get a top quarterback or a five-star talent, coaching staffs often need to plant the seed of an offer years in advance. And when signing day finally arrives, undecided players can swing their toss-up decisions on the most subtle factors.
It’s far too early to make hard-and-fast judgments on much of the 2019 recruiting cycle, with the traditional signing day far off in early February and weeks of nationwide player movement ahead before then. Georgia emerged from the 2018 early signing period as the runaway winners; fast-forward a year, and two of the top 10 prospects in the Bulldogs’ banner 2018 class—five-star quarterback Justin Fields and four-star tight end Luke Ford—have reportedly explored a transfer in recent days. That’s just one of many reminders that we’re years away from getting the true measure of these signing classes’ value.
Below, we take a quick look back and examine the positive and negative storylines that may go on to define an action-packed three days, as well as a few cases where the jury’s still out.
Alabama, of course: Most recruitniks could have guessed that the Crimson Tide would pull in the nation’s No. 1 class for the seventh time in the past nine years, given that they haven’t lost since last year’s Iron Bowl and attacked the recruiting trail with a renewed vigor after Georgia usurped them atop the class rankings last year. Still, take into account the margin of victory (no other school has anything close to 22 four-stars in its class), the staff turnover Nick Saban had to manage (losing both coordinators after the 2018 season and seeing Maryland hire first-year OC Mike Locksley) and the finishing flourish (five-star RB Trey Sanders and five-star OT Evan Neal donned crimson caps during Wednesday’s national TV coverage) and you have a class that represents an emphatic restoration of order. After losing the Kayvon Thibodeaux sweepstakes on Saturday and seeing five-star safety Daxton Hill flip back to Michigan on Wednesday morning, Alabama didn’t waver and ended up where it almost always ends up.
Oregon’s 2019 hype train: Speaking of that Kayvon Thibodeaux sweepstakes, the former Alabama staffer at the helm in Eugene made a big splash in securing the Pac-12’s best class. In addition to beating out the Crimson Tide, Florida and Florida State for the Oaks Christian (Calif.) defensive end whom ESPN and Rivals considered the top recruit in the class and 247Sports ranked No. 2, the Ducks’ 2019 haul includes the highest-rated cornerback ever to sign with Oregon (Mykael Wright) and the highest-rated linebacker ever to sign with Oregon (Mase Funa). For his part, Thibodeaux passed Haloti Ngata as the highest-rated signee in Oregon history. If quarterback Justin Herbert turns down the NFL (his younger brother Patrick, a tight end, sent in his letter of intent on Wednesday) for a final year playing for his hometown team in Eugene, the Ducks will spend all offseason carrying the burden of the Pac-12’s 2019 playoff expectations.
Jimbo Fisher: Texas A&M fired Kevin Sumlin (and hired Jimbo Fisher) because the Aggies have been snakebitten in their efforts to break through an eight-win ceiling of slightly-above-average football in recent years. A Gator Bowl clash with NC State on New Year’s Eve will determine whether they get to nine wins, but Fisher’s wins on the recruiting trail should tide fans over in College Station for the offseason. Texas A&M brought home the No. 3 class in the 247Sports composite rankings, nabbing two five-stars in offensive tackle Kenyon Green and defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal and holding off a late push by Georgia to keep quarterback commit Zach Calzada in the fold. In the 365-days-a-year battle to one-up the rest of the SEC West and a certain school in Austin, the Aggies have to be satisfied with this haul.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the most surprising team in the top 20 of the class rankings, softening the sting of a 2–10 season with a group that includes five already signed four-stars and three more four-star “hard commits”, according to 247Sports. Four of those eight four-stars are receivers: three wideouts and tight end Hudson Henry, the younger brother of the Chargers’ Hunter Henry. Chad Morris’s first squad didn’t have the horses to hang with SEC competition; expect a more fully stocked spread offense in year two.
Most of the new coaches: Last year’s recruiting cycle turned Willie Taggart, Scott Frost, Jimbo Fisher and other recent hires into guinea pigs for navigating the inaugural early signing period on a massive time crunch. With a few glaring exceptions—Scott Satterfield at Louisville and Les Miles at Kansas still have a lot of work to do, and Mike Locksley has an uphill battle to create momentum at Maryland—it appears that 2019’s first-year head coaches were taking notes. Setting aside Ryan Day’s work to keep Ohio State’s recruiting class respectable (more on that below), Colorado, Georgia Tech and Texas Tech all either held essentially steady or slightly improved upon their 2018 class rankings.
Freshman QB hype: There may still be a newcomer who steps into the starting quarterback role at a prominent program in 2019 and thrives immediately, but it would be an upset if any of this year’s freshman QBs replicates the early dominance that Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence have displayed in the past two years. Oklahoma signee Spencer Rattler was the only passer to earn a five-star 247Sports composite rating, and several of the four-star QBs just behind him are stepping into situations where a clear 2019 starter is in place—not that that fact has stopped precocious freshman talents in the past.
Miami’s momentum: Mark Richt pulled in the No. 8 class in the country a year ago, positioning the Hurricanes as Clemson’s best ACC challenger after their 11–0 start to the 2017 season. But the three-game losing streak that ended that season spilled over into this fall, a 7–5 campaign during which Miami’s offense took a nosedive as Richt flipped between ineffective quarterbacks Malik Rosier and N’Kosi Perry. This week, Miami saw two of the three top Florida signees from Lakeland High School pass up Canes caps for Gators ones on national TV, then saw offensive tackle Evan Neal leave a Miami cap on the table when he signed with Alabama. If top wideout Jadon Haselwood picks Miami on Jan. 5 (Oklahoma and Georgia are also in the mix), the complexion of this class changes; as it stands, the Hurricanes sit outside the top 30 and well behind Florida and Florida State’s own imperfect classes. It could be an interesting offseason in Coral Gables.
The Pac-12: The conference that endures more jokes than any other Power 5 league took the expected flak for claiming just three of the top 50 recruits in the 247Sports composite rankings so far, but it may be wise to let the rest of the cycle play out before making any sweeping statements. The handful of top California recruits that decided to wait until February to sign—four of the top five, with Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux the lone early signee—all will give Pac-12 schools one last look, and with a few more signings USC should be able to rise from No. 21 and give the Pac-12 four top-20 teams, more than the Big Ten, Big 12 or ACC can boast.
Georgia: The Bulldogs pulled away from Texas A&M to secure the No. 2 class in the country, including 2019’s top inside linebacker (Nakobe Dean) and 2019’s top outside linebacker (No. 1 overall prospect Nolan Smith, but those victories were overshadowed by the ongoing Justin Fields transfer saga. If the jewel of the best class in school history doesn’t last more than a year in Athens, it would unquestionably curb the celebration over this year’s star-studded haul.
The Big Ten East: Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State entered this week bunched together in the top 15 of the class rankings, and all three ended up with positives to take away from the early period. Michigan flipped Daxton Hill from Alabama to secure their lone five-star and sits eighth in the class rankings; Penn State landed IMG Academy (Fla.) four-star RB Noah Cain from a host of southern challengers and hung onto a top-10 spot; Ohio State beat out Michigan for top strongside end Zach Harrison and emerged as the favorite to land Fields. Expect more slugfests between the leaders of one of the nation’s deepest divisions in 2019.