The Buckeyes arguably have the best class in the Big Ten heading into national signing day with almost half of its current commitments in the ESPN 150; a signing on February 6 by ESPN's No. 1-rated quarterback Terrelle Pryor (Jeannette, Pa.), a once OSU lean, would push it toward the top in the country. A strong class by Ron Zook last year raised some eyebrows around the country after his consecutive two-win seasons; this year's Illinois class might be comprised of more top-to-bottom quality and a trip to the Rose Bowl has silenced his recruiting critics. Rich Rodriguez has to be pleased with the prospects he inherited from Lloyd Carr that fit his explosive spread system and is trying to give Pryor the keys to run it. While Penn State landed its traditional great linebacker class, it lacks playmakers with speed and have many thinking Joe Pa has lost his recruiting touch. In part one, a look at the top six teams from 2007:
Schools in order of 2007 finish
Signing day storylines: Holding firm at the No. 4 spot in the latest release of our class rankings, it is hard to ignore the premium talent currently committed to Ohio State. Back-to-back BCS National Championship losses has done little to deter many of the country's elite prospects away from Columbus, and this year's class represents its on-field success far more than last February when the Buckeyes landed at No. 20 on our final rankings.
The Buckeyes currently have 18 total prospects heading into signing day with close to half claiming spots in the ESPN 150 and an impressive 11 holding Scouts Inc. grades of 80 or higher.
Offensive tackle was perhaps OSU's biggest positional need in this class with the graduation of Kirk Barton and the anticipated departure of Alex Boone; let's just say the position was filled in a big way with 6-foot-6, 290 pound Michael Brewster (Orlando, Fla./Edgewater) , 6-foot-7, 299-pound J.B. Shugarts (Spring, Texas/Klein) and 6-foot-7, 308-pound Mike Adams (Dublin, Ohio/Coffman). While the future line appears to be sturdy, the Buckeyes could use blue-chipper behind it after Todd Boeckman graduates. The much-heralded Terrelle Pryor (Jeannette, Pa.), ESPN's No. 1-rated quarterback prospect, could be the guy, but the once Buckeye lean now appears to be looking hard at Michigan and Oregon.
Defensively, the Buckeyes will be thin at linebacker in the next few years, particularly on the outside, but the position has also been addressed with Etienne Sabino (Miami/Dr. Krop) and Andrew Sweat (Washington, Pa./Trinity), two of the best and quite possible most versatile backers in this group.
Top Prospect: Sabino is an impressive physical specimen with the linebacker skills to step into Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis' shoes in 2009 and maintain his great production. The No. 1-rated inside linebacker prospect and No. 18 overall player in the country is a rare athlete with the size and power to fill at the point of attack and the speed and sideline-to-sideline range to chase down faster ball carriers. At 228-pounds, the Florida native is extremely explosive in the short-area and can close on the football as fast and hard as any linebacker in this class. Has the versatility to play both the middle and strong side.
Class highlights: Arguably one the better offensive lines assembled in the Class of 2008 and maybe in the past few years. Brewster, who also projects at center, Shugarts and Adams sit at No. 2, 3 and 8 on our tackle board, and although their size and tenacity standout right away, it is hard to ignore their ability to work up to the next level. Running behind the blocks of granite during his career in Columbus could be Ohio native DeVoe Torrence (Massillon, Ohio/Washington), a wild card in this class. The ESPN 150 athlete flashes the strong downhill running form that fits well in OSU's power running schemes but could be equally effective chasing down backs at linebacker.
Another highly-touted prospect who could move the chains on offense is Jake Stoneburner (Dublin, Ohio/Dublin Coffman), ESPN's No. 5 ranked tight end prospect. More polished as a lean, 6-6 receiver than an in-line blocker at this point, Stoneburner possesses perhaps the best hands and catch radius in this tight end class.
Joining Sweat and Sabino on defense and possibly at linebacker is Nathan Williams (Wash. Courthouse, Ohio/Miami Trace), a physically-impressive hybrid with great vertically-attacking speed who could be developed at defensive end. In the secondary, Sabino's Dr. Krop teammate Travis Howard (Miami/Dr. Krop) is the No. 10 corner in the country and possesses great athleticism, fluidity and upside as a defensive back prospect.
Could see the field in 2008: Sabino, Sweat, Brewster (if he's 100%), Adams, Torrence, Stoneburner (in certain packages).
Signing day storylines: Around this time last year, Ron Zook's impressive class after consecutive two-win seasons raised some eyebrows around the country. Conversely, a Rose Bowl Illinois team this year may not have landed any 2008 prospects in the mold 2007's No. 1-rated defensive end Martez Wilson or No. 3-rated receiver Arrelious Benn, but the Zooker has displayed his recruiting touch once again with quite possibly a far more balanced and deeper class. Led by ESPN 150 corner Patrick Nixon (Jacksonville, Fla./Middleburg), the Fighting Illini boast 15 prospects rated at 77 or higher on the Scouts Inc. scale compared to last year's six.
Despite landing Benn in 2007, Illinois will lack good receiver depth the next few years and filled some of that void with Alfred Jenkins (Jacksonville, Fla./Terry Parker), a potential playmaker at the next level, and Cordale Scott (Cleveland/Glenville), a smooth, big-play possession receiver. ESPN 150 6-foot-3 receiver Kenny Tate (Forestville, Md./DeMatha Catholic) is also looking strongly at Champaign as well. Look for Deries Hodge (Harrisburg, Pa./Milford), an explosive power-back currently prepping at Milford Academy, to get some carries next year with Rashard Mendenhall declaring early for the NFL draft.
Our one concern is the loss of Jeremy (J) Leman at middle linebacker and the lacking depth behind him. Justin Staples (Lakewood, Ohio/Saint Edward) and Nate Palmer (Chicago/Simeon) are serviceable outside backers but not the answer in the middle.
Top Prospect: Illinois went into Florida for Nixon and stole a good one. One of the most versatile defensive back prospects in the country, Nixon possesses great upside for the next level with his room for physical development and natural tools to mold as at the position. Despite his lack of ideal bulk, this kid will come up and pop you while providing sufficient run support. In coverage, he displays the quick feet to mirror in man-to-man and the great range needed in zone. Could be employed at safety or corner and provide his future defensive coordinator with great scheme versatility.
Class highlights: Not an overly flashy class with just one ESPN 150 member, but six top-30 positional prospects show the overall depth of talent that will complement the handful of elite blue-chippers currently on the Illinois roster. The skill positions were emphasized in this class after last year saw a focus on the offensive and defensive lines.
Nixon and Jenkins are excellent prospects on the perimeter. No. 16-rated athlete Jack Ramsey (Chicago/Neal F. Simeon) could develop behind Juice Williams at quarterback but also possesses the open-field speed and quickness that to get on the field early at another skill position. Tight end Hubie Graham (Scranton, Pa./West) is the No. 14 ranked prospect at the position in 2008 and the well-balanced, highly coveted prospect is a big land for Zook out of Pa.
Defensively, Tavon Wilson (Washington, D.C./Woodrow Wilson) should pair up with Nixon and give co-defensive coordinator Curt Mallory two physical corners on the outside. Defensive end Corey Liuget (Hialeah, Fla.) needs some polish but could be a sleeper and develop into a force across from Wilson with his good blend of size and explosiveness off the line. Whitney Mercilus (Akron, Ohio/Garfield) is another end to keep your eye on in Champaign with his good get-off and overall athleticism on the edge.
Could see the field in 2008: Nixon, Hodge and Jenkins.
Signing day storylines: Lloyd Carr certainly established a top-15 class before announcing his retirement, but the big question for Wolverine fans is whether recently hired Rich Rodriguez can add some weapons before signing day to fit his explosive spread offense run at West Virginia. ESPN's No. 1-rated quarterback prospect Terrelle Pryor's dual-threat skills would fit perfectly in that system, but even without his presence, Rodriguez certainly has to be pleased with the present class he was left to finish despite a tumultuous 2007 season in Ann Arbor. The overall roster may be is ill-equipped for the spread -- hence the transfer of quarterback Ryan Mallet -- but the 2008 offensive class has some impressive weapons.
With the Mike Hart era over, the Wolverines needed a back and Rodriquez could have found his next Steve Slaton in Sam McGuffie (Cypress, Texas/Cy-Fair). Equally elusive on the outside and filling the playmaker void left by Mario Manningham is fellow ESPN 150 prospect receiver Darryl Stonum (Stafford, Texas/John Foster Dulles). Brandon Moore (Trotwood, Ohio/Madison) lacks good in-line blocking skills, but his athleticism in space at 6-6 frame should fit in nicely with the spread system that isolates tight ends on linebackers.
To succeed in the Big 10 you have to be able to stop the run and one of the nation's finest in that statistical category in 2006 showed vulnerability in 2007. Inside linebacker is an area in need of young physical talent, and while Michigan boasts a few prospects with perimeter skills, it currently lacks a good run stuffer in this class. It should also be noted outside 'backer Marcus Witherspoon (Absecon, N.J./Holy Spirit) is shopping his great range to Tennessee and Christian Wilson (McKees Rocks, Pa./Montour), who was projected to play offense prior to Rodriguez' arrival, is looking at North Carolina.
Top Prospect: From what tackle Dann O'Neill (Grand Haven, Mich.) showed us as an Under Armour All-American, he could have Wolverine fans forgetting about Jake Long in a few years. A bold statement, but we think this kid possesses that type of rare talent. He is massive and physical but possesses deceptively good feet for a 290-pounder who will only get bigger and stronger. The tenacious attitude to go along with his strong run blocking skills is present. A potential complete package in Ann Arbor once he polishes up as a pass protector.
Class highlights: The aforementioned offensive skill prospects (McGuffie, Stonum and Moore) who fit Rodriguez' scheme are exciting, equally impressive are the up-front prospects with the ability to block in space. Guard Kurt Wermers (Crown Point, Ind.) needs some size, but he can pull, move in space and get hand placement -- key attributes for a lineman in a zone running scheme. Tackle Elliot Mealer (Wauseon, Ohio) has tight end experience and the natural quickness that should be highlighted when he slides inside to tackle and is asked to pull and track down linebackers in space. O'Neill played and excelled in a similar scheme at Grand Haven High School, so we expect a smooth transition as well.
We talked about the need for an inside run plugger, but the Wolverines certainly have some versatile athletes for newly appointed defensive coordinator Scott Shafer to employ on the outside. Aside from Witherspoon and Wilson, J.B. Fitzgerald (West Windsor, N.J./Plainsboro) is also a fast-attacking perimeter playing who could see his good size and vertical speed slide down to end during his career in Ann Arbor. Covering those guys upfront is Mike Martin (Redford, Mich./Catholic Central), a thick, disruptive defensive tackle with all the physical tools needed to be productive at Michigan. The quality in the defensive secondary improves as well with smaller yet feisty corner Boubacar Cissoko (Detroit/Cass Technical) at corner.
Could see the field in 2008: O'Neill, McGuffie, Stonum.
Signing day storylines: Bret Bielema's second season at Wisconsin may not have produced a 12-1 record, but with the injuries it is tough to view 9-4 as a disappointment. There do not seem to be any significant prospects wavering in this class. Building off 2006's success and the program's rich tradition of winning, the Badgers actually head into signing day with a class a bit deeper in top-half quality than last year but maybe still not indicative of its perennial on-field success.
Much of last fall's struggles stemmed from a disappointing defense that led the Big Ten in 2006; four top-25 positional prospects should help. Defensive end was the most glaring need for this class, and Under Armour All-American Tyler Westphal (Menasha, Wis.) was a huge pickup.
Top Prospect: Westphal showed he belonged in elite status with his performance at the UA Game. His pass-rush skills, overall athleticism and quickness off the edge matched what we saw on film, but this time it was against some of the better offensive tackles in the country. He'll need to add considerable bulk to stop the run and hold his base at the point of attack, but he possesses a long, rangy frame for future physical development and his best days as a football player are definitely ahead of him. Westphal showed versatility at tight end during his high school career as well.
Class highlights: Landing Westphal and the state of Wisconsin's top player for the third consecutive year is a good sign, but a commitment from Leonard Hubbard (Springfield, Ill./Sacred Heart-Griffin), the No. 7 player out of Illinois, may prove just as beneficial. Hard to find a more explosive player in the short-range than this No. 13-rated inside linebacker. Hubbard generates power very quickly between the tackles and is a fierce hitter. Already tipping the scales at 230, this kid has the frame to pack on 10 pounds of additional bulk to help his strength and durability blowing up fullbacks during his Big Ten career, which projects to be very productive. Joining Hubbard in the front seven is 6-7 defensive end Anthony Mains (Naples, Fla./Golden Gate), another under-the-radar prospect dripping with upside if Wisconsin can be patient with his physical development.
The sleeper trend continues into the Badgers' offensive class with quarterback Curt Phillips (Kingsport, Tenn./Sullivan). Mechanics need some polish but Phillips possesses the size, arm strength and athleticism sought after in elite prospects; dual-threat abilities could open things up a bit more in Madison with Phillips at the helm.
Wisconsin is in need of a punter in this class with Ken Debauche and Paul Standring graduating, and it snagged a good one in Bradley Nortman (Brookfield, Wis./Central).
Nortman needs some mechanical polish but possesses a strong leg, good hang time and -- most importantly -- is used to the cold elements.
Could see the field in 2008: Hubbard.
Signing day storylines: PSU is currently at a crossroad on and off the field. While its 2008 recruiting class shines with talent in particular areas of need like linebacker, it lacks the overall talent once seen in traditional Nittany Lions' classes. One ESPN 150 prospect compared to Pitt's four after its 5-7 record this fall is cause for much concern. Unfortunately, the stagnant class could stem from 81-year-old Joe Paterno still hanging in there and not offering the spark often needed to relate to the younger generation of prospects. However, tradition still sells and no one coach in college football represents more tradition than Joe Pa himself.
Top Prospect: Michael Mauti (Mandeville, La.) proved his No. 3 inside linebacker ranking during his senior season and against national competition at the U.S. Army All-American Game. The ESPN 150 prospect plays the game as fast and physical as any linebacker in this class and could be the best pure run stopper in 2008. He is compactly-built, layered with great bulk but is still deceptively quick pursuing between the tackles and shows a great closing burst to the football. This kid should continue the tradition of great Penn State linebackers and could quickly replace some of Dan Connor's production.
Class highlights: Linebacker U should continue for the next four seasons. Aside from Mauti, the Nittany Lions stole a great one from the Buckeyes in Ohio native Michael Zordich Jr. (Youngstown, Ohio/Cardinal Mooney), one of the more instinctive and well-rounded backers in this class. His teammate Brandon Beachum (Youngstown, Ohio/Cardinal Mooney), is reportedly committed to play running back in Happy Valley, but we project his straight-line, short-area speed is more suited at linebacker.
On the outside, Michael Yancich (Washington, Pa./Trinity) could be overshadowed as a prospect by his linebacker teammate Andrew Sweat (Washington, Pa./Trinity), but Yancich is a bit more fluid and is a sound 'backer in his own right. The run support continues at safety with D'Anton Lynn (Celina, Texas), ESPN's No. 10 ranked safety prospect and one of the better down-the-in-box high-point players in this class.
It is good to see a potential playmaker in PSU's offensive class; recently committed receiver A.J. Price (Reston, Va./South Lakes) should offer outstanding big-catch potential during his career.
Could see the field in 2008: Mauti and Price (red-zone packages).
Signing day storylines: While most Hawkeye fans could still be hurting from the Western Michigan loss, the Iowa coaching staff has been working hard to put together a solid recruiting class to join its young team with a lot of promise heading into next fall. As long as Kirk Ferentz is at the helm, Iowa should continue to bring in good prospects that my lack the ideal measurbales that garner elite status but fit his system well.
With that said, the talent in 2008 does not currently match the top-half quality signed in its No. 24-ranked 2007 class and is more reminiscent of 2006. Linebacker was a key area of need in our opinion with its young depth and the loss of Mike Klinkenborg and Mike Humpal. The Hawkeyes do not appear to have any solid prospects currently pledged or lined up for a commitment on signing day. Offensive line was a weaker position exposed in 2007 and also an area that has not seen much focus in this class.
Top Prospect: With Jake Christensen's struggles at quarterback, Iowa really needed to land a top prospect at this position and did with ESPN's No. 14-rated signal caller John Wienke (Tuscola, Ill.). The former Michigan commit possesses all the physical tools to develop in Iowa's system and should only improve as he refines his mechanics and accuracy. He possesses great size for a pocket passer with a powerful arm to make all the college throws. Needs some development but do not be surprised if this borderline ESPN 150 prospect sees the field early in his career.
Class highlights: Wienke will have an exciting target at receiver in DeMarco Paine (Saint Louis/Hazelwood East), a high-upside prospect with a good blend of deep ball speed and underneath quickness. Protecting Wienke upfront will be James Ferentz (Iowa City, Iowa), son of Kirk and a good player in his own right. ESPN's No. 10-rated center lacks some size to play up front in the Big Ten but is a technician like you would expect and comes off the ball extremely quick.
Secondary coach Phil Parker has to be pleased with the good run support skills and toughness possessed by committed prospects David Cato (Mansfield, Texas/Summit) and sleeper Shaun Prater (Omaha, Neb./Central), attributes that have represented his Iowa defensive backs.
Could see the field in 2008: Wienke.
Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school level. Tucker has served as a recruiting coordinator for two nationally ranked Division II colleges. Most recently, he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Merrimack College, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Division II playoffs.