The SEC West presented both pleasant surprises and utter disappointments during games this past fall. We are seeing similar trends on the recruiting trail.
Most savvy football fans knew it would be only a matter of time before head coach Nick Saban would have the Tide rolling, but to challenge for a national title in just two years was beyond everyone's expectations. Ole Miss proved its upset of Florida was no fluke. The Rebels went on to finish the season 9-4 and secure a second-place finish. After the 2007 season, it appeared Sylvester Croom finally had the Mississippi State Bulldogs heading in the right direction, but he resigned in November shortly after an embarrassing 45-0 loss to Mississippi in the most lopsided Egg Bowl in 37 years.
Tommy Tuberville saw a similar fate. His Auburn program with lofty goals finished worse than .500 and was dismantled by Alabama in the Iron Bowl. And the biggest letdown might have come from the defending national champion LSU Tigers, who mustered only three wins in conference play.
Still, LSU head coach Les Miles isn't frowning headed into signing day. His program claims the top recruiting class in country. Arkansas may be the wild card of the division. The wins didn't add up in Bobby Petrino's first season in Fayetteville, but we feel the Razorbacks' 5-7 (2-6 conference) record is not indicative of where the program is heading, particularly when you look at the Hogs' young talent and current top-25 recruiting class.
It didn't take Nick Saban long to turn around the Tide in Tuscaloosa, and their solid performance this past season was a direct result of his staff's recruiting efforts. Many of Saban's upper-tier prospects in his first full recruiting season greatly contributed to Alabama's run at a national title, including 2008 Under Armour All-American Julio Jones. Alabama may once again have a banner signing day with the inking of a few top uncommitted prospects in this class. Two No. 1 positional prospects, RB Trent Richardson (Pensacola, Fla./Escambia) and OT D.J. Fluker (Foley, Ala.), are already on board. Richardson should immediately challenge RB Mark Ingram for reps. He has a supreme blend of size, speed and power as a downhill back. The massive Fluker could be inserted into Andre Smith's left tackle spot. (Smith has declared for the NFL draft.)
Although Fluker is a superior run-blocker, we have concerns his feet might not be ready to play against quicker SEC edge rushers. Handing the ball off to Richardson and keeping defenses honest with his strong arm as a pocket passer will be ESPN's No. 4 quarterback prospect A.J. McCarron (Mobile, Ala./Saint Paul's Episcopal). The defense also got a boost with the pickups of two top-10 positional prospects, 3-4 inside linebacker Nico Johnson (Andalusia, Ala.) and defensive tackle Chris Bonds (Columbia, S.C./Richland Northeast). Johnson really has it all for an inside linebacker: size, speed, lateral agility and toughness. The overall top-to-bottom quality in this class is very impressive.
Top prospect: A top-ranked 100-meter sprinter and power lifter in Florida, Richardson is a violent runner who has the strength to pound it between the tackles and the perimeter speed to turn the corner and go the distance. He possesses great size with his compact, thickly built frame, and is very strong throughout his upper and lower body. An ideal fit for the Tide's system, Richardson could be a workhorse in Tuscaloosa.
Don't be surprised if The Tide sign the remaining top-three uncommitted Alabama prospects: corner Dre Kirkpatrick (Gadsden, Ala.), receiver Kendall Kelly (Gadsden, Ala.) and outside linebacker Tana Patrick (Stevenson, Ala./North Jackson).
Despite their losing record in the first year of the Bobby Petrino era, the Razorbacks are recruiting well, particularly in-state. Petrino has aimed to keep the top prospects within Arkansas' borders, and it shows. Arkansas landed three of the state's top five prospects, led by No. 3-rated cornerback Darius Winston (Helena, Ark./West Helena Central). The Razorbacks added speedy corner David Gordon (Tulsa, Okla./East Central), who is ranked as the No. 12 cornerback in the country.
The Razorbacks also have been busy in Texas. They have seven prospects from the Lone Star State, including sleeper RB Knile Davis (Missouri City, Texas/Thurgood Marshall), who could develop into a productive, high-carry back for the Razorbacks. The class also includes former Arkansas prep star RB Broderick Green, who transferred back home from USC.
Top prospect: Winston, the top-rated prospect in the state, has all the physical tools you seek in a corner. He is tall and fast with very fluid hips, a combination that doesn't show up too often. The versatile corner has the skill set and ability to shine in press, off-man and zone coverages. Winston is physically ready to make the next step, so expect him to see some early snaps in Fayetteville.
Don't be surprised if Davis becomes one of the more productive college backs in this 2009 class. He fell under the radar because he made limited snaps as junior after fracturing his collarbone but is a very strong downhill runner who will surprise you with his top-end speed.
A once top-15 class has imploded since Tommy Tuberville's resignation in December. But new head man Gene Chizik still inherited some quality prospects, particularly on offense. The quickness, speed and playmaking ability of skill players such as WR Brandon Heavens (Bessemer, Ala./Bessemer Academy) and athlete Travante Stallworth (Leesville, La.) will enhance this roster at a position in need of young depth. Philip Lutzenkirchen (Marietta, Ga./Lassiter) is one of the more athletic pass-catching tight ends in the country. Auburn traditionally has recruited well on defense, and it shows in this class. Terrence Coleman (Mobile, Ala./Williamson) can provide some pressure as a speed rusher and has great upside. Athlete Izauea Lanier (Gordo, Ala.) was Chizik's first commitment in his return to The Plains, and he is a very underrated skill player with the versatility to play both safety and receiver.
Top prospect: Stallworth seems solid with the Tigers, and he can flat-out run. He is very elusive and a home run threat once he gets into space. He played everything at Leesville High School, including quarterback, but that happened because he was the team's best player and the coaches wanted the ball in his hands on every snap. But Stallworth lacks great size and will be a wide receiver or corner at the next level. He appears to have huge upside as a return specialist because of his quickness and top-end speed.
Don't be surprised if Auburn doesn't fare much better on the field in 2009 with the improvement of the rest of the SEC West programs.
It's amazing what winning a national championship will do for a program's subsequent year of recruiting. The Tigers head into signing day tied with Texas for the most ESPNU 150 commitments, and their class is defined by speed and athleticism. They have raided the state of Texas for some of the better prospects in the country, including ESPN's top-rated safety Craig Loston (Aldine, Texas/Eisenhower), a Clemson defector, and No. 1 athlete Russell Shepard (Houston/Cy-Ridge). Shepard eventually could be the answer at quarterback thanks to his electrifying dual-threat skills, but he could be employed first at any number of skill positions. Newly upgraded No. 4 DT Joshua Downs (Bastrop, La.) could develop into a disruptive force in Baton Rouge, and defensive line was a position we thought needed to be addressed by the Tigers. Top-10 defensive tackle Chris Davenport (Mansfield, La.) leads the way among the Tigers' in-state recruits, along with fellow top-100 prospect CB Janzen Jackson (Lake Charles, La./Barbe). Michael Ford (Leesville, La.) will be a legit high-carry back for LSU.
Top prospect: Shepard dropped from the top overall spot to No. 3 after the Under Armour All-American High School Football Game but still may be one of the better athletes we have seen in recent years. This elite prospect has exceptional speed, initial burst and change-of-direction skills. He continually is out to prove he can remain at quarterback, but he still has a ways to go in the passing game department to warrant the No. 1 overall ranking. Les Miles and his coaching staff will have to find a role for Shepard next season. He is too good not to see the field, whether at quarterback, slot receiver or wideout.
Don't be surprised if The Tigers land Downs' high school teammate and ESPN's No. 1 receiver prospect Rueben Randle (Bastrop, La.) and retain the top class on signing day.
As if his on-the-field success weren't enough of a statement to the rest of the SEC this fall, Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt is quietly building an impressive class in his first full recruiting season. The Rebels have done a good job plucking some impressive skill prospects out of Florida. Korvic Neat (Hallandale, Fla.) and Rodney Scott (Cross City, Fla./Dixie County) are explosive Sunshine State products when the ball is in their hands, and they will add dynamic presence to Mississippi's offensive roster in the fall. On defense, Ole Miss added a pair of good-sized, well-rounded safeties in Dele Junaid (Fort Bend, Texas/Hightower) and Frank Crawford (Miami/Gulliver). Nutt, the 2008 SEC Coach of the Year, has assembled a very deep class with the Rebels' best top-to-bottom quality in recent years.
Top prospect: The latest twist in ESPNU 150 end Craig Drummond's (Chicago/ Morgan Park) recruitment has the top-rated defensive prospect from Illinois headed to Ole Miss. This is a major pickup for the Rebels. We felt they needed an infusion of talented youth on the edge, and Drummond certainly can provide that. He has great size, a long wingspan and excellent reach. Drummond could help Ole Miss quickly as a run-stopper with his ability to use his hands and create great separation.
Don't be surprised if Nutt and the Rebels make a push for a top-25 class on signing day. The program has not accomplished such a feat since 2006.
Recently hired head coach Dan Mullen inherited a solid class, including one ESPNU 150 prospect from Sylvester Croom, and Mullen quickly hit the trail and landed some gems of his own. The former offensive coordinator for the national-champion Florida Gators split time between two schools upon his hire in December, but he made a huge splash on the trail once he officially became a full-time coach in Starkville. Mullen's biggest recruiting achievement was landing Chad Bumphis (Tupelo, Miss.), the state's top-rated athlete and the No. 120 prospect in the ESPNU 150. Bumphis could serve as a Percy Harvin in the new head coach's system. Fellow top-10 Mississippi athletes LaDarius Perkins (Greenville, Miss./St. Joseph) and Dennis Thames (Louisville, Miss.) joined Bumphis with pledges. Look for the versatile, quick-footed Perkins to serve in a similar role as Bumphis. Under Armour All-American running back Montrell Conner (Monroe, La./Ouachita Parish) is still the Bulldogs' top commitment heading into signing day in a quietly strong class from top to bottom.
Top prospect: Conner could be a workhorse in Starkville. He is physically gifted with a great blend of size and straight-line speed. We project he will develop into a high-carry guy with the downhill strength and deceptive burst to earn productive yards after contact and wear down a defense. This physical specimen is a bit stiff in the hips, though. If he can't make the transition to running back in Mullen's system, expect him to play linebacker for the Bulldogs.
Don't be surprised if Mullen lures a few more weapons to his spread offense like current Miami commit WR Jamal Reid (Mayo, Fla/Lafayette).
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.