8 recruits who can change football programs

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As the early signing period for high school and junior college football players begins Wednesday, it’s worth remembering that no single player will make or break a program.

That doesn’t mean some recruits don’t matter more than others — at least temporarily. If only for narrative, momentum and good will, getting one certain player (or a couple players) can help determine or define a program’s long-term fortunes.

This is a year when the rich will once again get richer. Alabama is expected to sign the No. 1 class in the country, followed by some order of Ohio State, Georgia, Oregon and Clemson.

So instead of focusing on that, here’s a look at some players — and the teams that need them — to watch this week.

LSU and Maason Smith

Maason Smith, a defensive tackle from Terrebonne High School in Houma, Louisiana, is the nation’s No. 1 prospect according to Rivals.com. He’s a combination of brute strength and unlikely agility who can terrorize opposing quarterbacks wherever he goes.

He’s scheduled to announce at 4:30 ET on Wednesday and his list of potential spots is believed to be down to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Miami and …. local school LSU.

It’s the instate program that needs him the most. A year ago, everything went perfectly for LSU and coach Ed Orgeron — a 15-0 national title season; a Heisman for quarterback Joe Burrow, who went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft; and a top-four recruiting class.

This year, not so much. LSU is currently just 4-5, including a 55-17 humiliation at the hands of Alabama. A number of players opted out of the season. Star freshman tight end Arik Gilbert may transfer.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron looks on during a game against Arkansas on Nov. 21. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron looks on during a game against Arkansas on Nov. 21. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

LSU is always going to have talent, but one way to change the buzz around the program is to land Smith. He hails just down in the Bayou and not far from Larose, where Orgeron grew up. As a point of pride, no program in America wants to lose the No. 1 recruit when he hails from its state. This is a guy LSU should get.

Watching him leave for, say, Georgia, would just be one more blow to the Tigers this year. Signing Smith however would maintain the wall around the state and add to what is currently sixth-ranked recruiting class. That would give Coach O something to build off going into a critical 2021 season.

USC and Korey Foreman

Before a pandemic altered everything, USC coach Clay Helton occupied possibly the hottest seat in the sport, with games against both Alabama and Notre Dame looming. Instead, almost everything got canceled and now the Trojans are 5-0 heading into Friday’s Pac-12 championship game.

Helton will be back next season.

Even better, he might be back with Korey Foreman, a defensive end from Centennial High School in Corona, California — the No. 3 prospect in the country according to Rivals. In USC’s heyday, when it dominated Southern California recruiting, a talent such as Foreman would have been secured long ago.

At least they still have a chance because this is simply a guy USC has to get. In recent years, national powers have been raiding California for talent and Foreman looked like another one when he originally committed to Clemson.

He backed off of that, however, and is officially undecided (he’ll announce Jan. 2). Clemson is still in the mix, as is LSU, Georgia and Arizona State. So too is USC, and if Helton can land the best player in L.A., it could bode very well for his future as well because Foreman might start a mini flood of local talent staying local.

Sweating out a five-star from down the road is never ideal for a coach, but considering many had Clay Helton fired by now, he’ll take playing for a conference title as the potential favorite for a game-changing defensive lineman.

Notre Dame and Deion Colzie

Deion Colzie, an athletic, four-star wide receiver, isn’t the highest-rated player who will sign with the Irish on Wednesday, although he’s considered a good one. He is representative, however, of both how Brian Kelly has continued to lift the program to national contention and the importance of the program’s unique independent status.

Colzie hails from Athens, Georgia, and in September of 2019 he was on an official visit to Georgia when the Bulldogs hosted the Irish. The Bulldogs won, 23-17, in an electric atmosphere. It turned out Colzie was impressed most with Notre Dame though and 15 months later he’ll sign with the Irish.

Because of its independent status (other than this year’s temporary join-up with the ACC), Notre Dame has the flexibility to play in highly anticipated games all over the country each season. No other major program enjoys that advantage. As such, the Irish can recruit all over the country — their 24 commits hail from 14 states.

Colzie is one of them, a guy that otherwise would have played in the SEC, perhaps at his hometown school, who instead chose the Irish because they came to him before asking him to come to them.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly adjusts his headset during a game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 24. (AP)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly adjusts his headset during a game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 24. (AP)

Oklahoma and Camar Wheaton

Well, it could be Camar Wheaton, running back from Garland, Texas. Or it could be Bryce Foster, offensive lineman from Katy, Texas. Or it could be Tristan Leigh, offensive lineman from Fairfax, Virginia.

It’s all three, really. Each is a five-star recruit (ranked No. 8, 14 and 17 nationally by Rivals). All three are considered to be leaning toward Sooner coach Lincoln Riley.

Maybe no program has learned the difference between being very good and being a true national contender in a more direct manner than Oklahoma. The Sooners have made four playoff appearances and lost them all, three by double digits. OU is good. It just isn’t good enough to compete with the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world.

The only way to change that is by getting better players. Adding these three to what is a decent (12 four-star recruits) class would go a long way to that goal. And since both Wheaton and Foster hail from Texas, where the arch-rival Texas Longhorns reside, it can be a double win. Four star OL Savion Byrd from Duncanville, Texas, may also jump in.

If so, Riley has the kind of class he needs in Norman. Lose them (there are plenty of contenders) and 2021 falls short.

Michigan and J.J. McCarthy

J.J. McCarthy is a firm Michigan commit, which is very good news for coach Jim Harbaugh. He doesn’t need any added uncertainty.

Rivals has McCarthy as the No. 41 prospect in the country and an elite pro-style quarterback. Most other sites have him as a five-star. He hails from outside Chicago, but he spent the last two seasons at IMG Academy in Florida, a school Harbaugh has so prioritized in recruiting that he once staged a spring practice there.

Michigan went just 2-4 this season and while Harbaugh is expected to return for 2021, he needs a dramatic turnaround to last much longer. The critics are out.

His previous five seasons in Ann Arbor have been good, but not good enough. If there is one reason, it’s a failure to secure an elite quarterback to build the program around.

The reason is a mystery. Harbaugh himself played QB at Michigan and then 14 seasons in the NFL. He later coached Andrew Luck (Stanford) and Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers). It seemed like talented young quarterbacks such as McCarthy would have been flocking to play for him. They haven’t.

Is McCarthy finally that guy? Is he good enough to start as a freshman for the Wolverines? He may have to be. That’s a lot to ask of a teenager, but for Jim Harbaugh, that’s where he is at right now, his program in desperate need of a spark.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team's NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stands on the sideline during the first quarter of the team’s NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

Cincinnati and Chamon Metayer

Chamon Metayer, a defensive end from North Miami High School, is a four-star recruit who was previously committed to the University of Miami. He’s a bold-face, out-of-state name for a Bearcats recruiting class that is ranked No. 29 nationally per Rivals.

Cincinnati has been a good program for a while and is currently unbeaten and ranked No. 9 in the playoff rankings. It’s never put together a recruiting class this strong — its average class rank the previous decade was 60.7.

Whether that translates to more victories or even a breakthrough into the playoff remains very much uncertain. However, coach Luke Fickell has shown little interest in leaving the program. He simply keeps plodding away and building it up. This class shows some very good recruits are buying into that.

Texas A&M and Tunmise Adeleye

Jimbo Fisher has the Aggies ranked fifth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, so the program is surging.

However, for A&M to ever reach its full (and considerable) potential, it needs to use its numerous advantages and SEC membership to dominate in-state recruiting in general, and in the nearby Houston area in particular. This is especially true while the University of Texas is treading water.

Right now just two of the top 20 recruits in Texas, per Rivals, and none of the top four in the Houston area, are committed to A&M. Ohio State, Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU and USC are coming in and grabbing highly regarded Texans.

It’s not that A&M is struggling in recruiting. Far from it. It almost always does well and currently has the No. 12 class nationally.

However, adding Tunmise Adeleye, a ferocious pass rusher and national five-star who was once committed to Ohio State, sure would help. Adeleye’s high school in suburban Katy is just over an hour drive from College Station, so maintaining a foothold in the area is an added bonus. It would also keep him from a SEC rival — Florida or Alabama are among the other finalists.

There are few, if any programs, with more potential than Texas A&M. One in-state recruit, even one this good, won’t get them there, but it does help remind everyone that local stars don’t need to leave because there is a SEC program with the national championship coach right down the road.

Kansas State and Jake Rubley

Jake Rubley is a four-star quarterback from Colorado who was recruited by LSU, Penn State, Texas A&M, Colorado, Michigan and others. He will sign Wednesday with Kansas State. Yes, Kansas State.

The Wildcats are the perennially overachieving program filled with two- and three-star (at best) guys. It hasn’t signed any Rivals four-star recruits, let alone an out-of-state quarterback, since 2017. Some of that is due to location — Manhattan, Kansas, isn’t swimming in local talent. K-State tends to win anyway, though.

Enter Rubley, who picked the Wildcats early and hasn’t wavered. The big attraction is coach Chris Klieman, who is in his second season at K-State. Klieman previously won four national titles at FCS North Dakota State and helped develop Carson Wentz into the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NFL draft. As an added bonus, Rubley’s father has known Klieman for decades.

In the end, the personalities meshed. What Kansas State lacked in six-figure stadiums or palm trees on campus, it made up for in coaching and opportunity.

So the Wildcats, who usually do more with less, have a quarterback of the future who may have more and more to give. That’s a nice recruit to sign.

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