Darkest before dawn
'Bama, Miami and ND rebound, plus recruiting awards
Posted: Wednesday February 6, 2008 7:40PM; Updated: Thursday February 7, 2008 3:03PM
Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free -- and anyone sick of going 5-7.
Traditionally, Signing Day has been an occasion for the rich to get richer. And while such reigning royalty as Florida, Georgia and USC all sit among the top 10 in the rankings, the undeniable story of this 2008 recruiting season was the staggering success of three downtrodden programs -- Alabama, Notre Dame and Miami -- that went a combined 15-22 last season.
While the final standings could still be affected by the now-indefinitely delayed decision of a certain Pennsylvania quarterback, three major services -- Rivals.com, Scout.com and SuperPrep -- all dubbed the Crimson Tide winners of the 2008 recruiting derby Wednesday, with the Irish and Hurricanes not far behind.
"These tradition-rich, glorified programs have all shown that tradition is more important than recent performance," said SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace. "All these programs have hit depths recently you wouldn't expect them to see, but now they're all rebounding hugely because they have better people in charge."
Alabama is coming off consecutive 6-6 regular seasons, has won exactly one SEC title in the past 15 years and hasn't remotely sniffed a national championship since its 1992 crown. Its past five signing classes (a couple of which were limited by NCAA sanctions) were rated between 16th and 43rd nationally by SuperPrep.
And yet, one would hardly call the Tide's recruiting ascendancy this year surprising. If anything, it's exactly what was expected of Alabama 13 months ago when it shelled out $32 million to bring in Nick Saban, whose recruiting prowess at LSU set the table for the Tigers' 2003 and '07 national championships. Signing Day pledges by Rivals.com's top-ranked receiver, Julio Jones, and No. 3 linebacker, Jerrell Harris, took an already impressive class over the top.
Unlike what many anticipated, however, Saban did not do it by tapping into his old Louisiana connections -- only one member of the entire 31-player class hails from the Bayou State. Instead, 'Bama dominated its own turf, signing 18 in-state players, while reaching into other pockets throughout the South.
"This is the best year for in-state talent in Alabama in a decade, and [Saban] got most all of them," said Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell. "You combine that with the ability to go out of state and fill some needs with a great in-state class, and you've got the No. 1 class in the country."
One area Alabama desperately needed to beef up was its defensive line, and it did just that with Rivals.com's No. 4 defensive end, Michael Williams, top-20 defensive end Glenn Harbin and four-star defensive tackle Kerry Murphy. If you recall, Saban's first full recruiting class at LSU included two elite D-linemen, Marcus Spears and the late Marquise Hill, who played key roles for his 2003 national title team.
While it may be a couple of years before these players make their impact felt on the field, it certainly sends a strong message within the state: That Auburn's unprecedented string of dominance over its arch-rival (six straight wins) may soon be coming to an end. Just two years ago, the Tigers signed seven of Rivals.com's top 12 player in the state; this year, the Tide landed nine of the state's top 12; Auburn: none.
"Regardless of what you think about recruiting rankings, there's no question Nick Saban has turned the table of power [in that rivalry]," said Wallace. "The Alabama team that takes the field next few years will be different talent-wise than anything we've seen recently."
Protecting home turf was also the key for another second-year coach trying to reverse his program's fortune: Miami's Randy Shannon.
The 'Canes closed with a vengeance Wednesday, nabbing Rivals.com's No. 2 safety Ramon Buchanan (who was previously committed to Florida), No. 3 cornerback Brandon Harris, top-15 receiver Tommy Streeter, top-20 offensive lineman Benjamin Jones and top-20 defensive tackle Jeremy Lewis. All but Buchanan were South Florida natives.
Miami's backyard is arguably the most fertile talent-producing area in America, and schools across the nation attempt to poach players from it every year. In recent years, they'd succeeded, and the 'Canes, not coincidentally, plummeted.
This year, however, Shannon nailed down a staggering 10 of the top 12 players in Miami-Dade County, including seven from prep power Miami Northwestern. Eighteen of Miami's 23 signees hail from neighboring counties Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
"That was the first focus for [Shannon] when he was hired," said Farrell. "Larry Coker was still recruiting South Florida kids but for whatever reason wasn't doing it as his first priority. Randy Shannon, being a member of those national championship teams and being a South Florida native, he said, 'We're going to start here.' "
Miami's crop includes what Wallace calls, "One of the most incredible linebacker classes I've seen" -- Arthur Brown, Marcus Robinson, Jordan Futch and Sean Spence are all ranked among Rivals.com's top 15 outside linebackers, and Buchanan could wind up at linebacker as well.
"[This class] is the foundation we believe can get us going in the right direction," said Shannon.
For all Saban and Shannon achieved this recruiting season, Notre Dame's Charlie Weis may have trumped them both by pulling off a near-Hurculean feat: Keeping in tact a top-three recruiting class while enduring the worst season (3-9) in school history. "The most impressive class to me of all of them is ND, simply because they were so bad [last season]," said Farrell.
Weis got the ball rolling early, with 18 of his eventual 23 signees committing by the end of last summer. What's remarkable is that only one player defected (albeit a biggie, five-star defensive tackle Omar Hunter, who signed with Florida) despite watching the Irish get destroyed on a near-weekly basis last fall.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to these young men ... because as we know, our performance on the field [last] year was far below expectations and far below average," said Weis. "From coast to coast, these guys were getting hammered by their peers and school, by their communities, by staffs across the country, and they held tough."