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College Football and College Basketball Writer
At this time last year, college football’s early signing period devolved into a hailstorm of commitment flips, changed decisions and 25th-hour recruiting pitches thanks to a series of coaching changes at blue blood programs. New faces at Notre Dame, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon and USC kickstarted the sport into a hysteria the likes of which hadn’t been seen for quite some time.
Thus far, the 2022-23 coaching carousel is far milder. There were plenty of mid-tier jobs that changed hands with Nebraska, Auburn, Wisconsin, Purdue, Cincinnati and Louisville opting for program reboots, but the only landscape-changing move came when Colorado hired the magnetizing Deion Sanders.
[Related: Grading every college coach hire]
Such tameness meant Wednesday’s flurry of activity lacked the kind of jaw-dropping move Sanders orchestrated last winter when he flipped the No. 1 player in the country, Travis Hunter, to Jackson State after a longstanding verbal commitment to Florida State, which happened to be Sanders’ alma mater.
Deion Sanders explains why he’s the best recruiter
But no early signing period is dull, just like no recruiting class is complete on the first day of action. So here’s a guide to everything that happened across the country on Wednesday and what it means for the sport moving forward:
The new guys
In a year when the coaching changes were far less explosive, the names that rang loudest were Sanders, Matt Rhule at Nebraska and Luke Fickell at Wisconsin.
The timing of when those dominoes fell meant each coach had less than a month to familiarize themselves with prospects already committed to the institution they just joined, evaluate the talent still up for grabs in the recruiting ecosystem and decide which roster holes to plug immediately with experienced players from the transfer portal — all while putting together a coaching staff and learning the ins and outs of their new environments.
Let’s see how they did:
Colorado: As of Wednesday evening, Sanders had compiled the No. 43 recruiting class in the country, a group comprised of 16 high schoolers and six collegiate transfers. The group includes two four-star prospects and 13 three-star prospects from the high school ranks, and there will certainly be more additions through the portal in the coming months. Sanders’ biggest recruiting win was to flip four-star running back Dylan Edwards from Notre Dame. Edwards, who is the No. 11 running back in the country, decommitted from the Irish earlier this month and signed with the Buffaloes on Wednesday. Sanders also secured the signature of four-star wideout Adam Hopkins, who was previously committed to Auburn for the last three months. The most noteworthy addition through the transfer portal is Sanders’ son, Shedeur, who is expected to be Colorado’s starting quarterback next season.
Nebraska: A glance at Rhule’s first class offers a pretty clear indication that his immediate priority was to keep the best in-state products at home. Eight of the 21 prospects Rhule signed are from Nebraska, which is as many as the Cornhuskers inked in the last two years combined. The headliner is four-star athlete Malachi Coleman, the No. 84 overall prospect and the top player in the state. Coleman was verbally committed to the Cornhuskers prior to Rhule’s arrival only to decommit and explore his options the last few weeks. He was scheduled to visit Michigan but bailed on that trip in favor of seeing what Sanders was building in Colorado, and in the end, he re-committed to Nebraska. Rhule has also plucked some high-major talent through the transfer portal by signing players from Texas A&M, Florida, Baylor and Georgia Tech. His first class ranks 31st nationally.
Wisconsin: Even though the Badgers have been far more successful than Colorado and Nebraska in recent years, Fickell’s decision to hire an offensive coordinator in Phil Longo — whose pass-happy offense is the complete opposite of Wisconsin’s traditional power running game — means his roster overhaul might be the most difficult. He’d received just 14 letters of intent and one transfer signee by Wednesday evening for a class that ranks 61st nationally and 12th in the Big Ten ahead of only Indiana and Purdue. Interior lineman James Durand (No. 341 overall, No. 16 IOL) and athlete Braedyn Moore (No. 342 overall, No. 17 ATH) give Fickell a pair of four-star prospects, but just three commitments from players in the top 650 nationally shows how far he has to go in remodeling the program.
Adjusting the pipeline
From a recruiting perspective, much of the conversation surrounding Michigan over the last few months focused on the surprising disconnect between the program’s overwhelming success on the field, where the Wolverines have won 25 of their last 27 games, and a modest batch of commitments for the 2023 cycle.
[Related: Why Michigan’s success has yet to be a game-changer with recruits]
Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team navigated the first day of the early signing period without a prospect ranked in the top 100 of the 247Sports Composite and secured just three players in the top 180: four-star edge rusher Enow Etta (No. 116), four-star running back Cole Cabana (No. 169) and four-star wide receiver Karmello English (No. 180).
Nonetheless, Michigan dominated recruiting headlines in the buildup to Wednesday’s national feeding frenzy because of its highly effective — and highly unexpected — foray into the transfer portal by securing seven commitments in the span of two weeks. The list includes former Nebraska linebacker Ernest Hausmann, the No. 2 player in the 247Sports transfer portal rankings, and five others in the top 100: ex-Arizona State offensive lineman LaDarius Henderson (No. 12), ex-Coastal Carolina edge rusher Josaiah Stewart (No. 33), ex-Indiana tight end AJ Barner (No. 45) and two ex-Stanford offensive linemen in Myles Hinton (No. 54) and Drake Nugent (No. 87).
An influx of seven players from other schools in a single recruiting class dwarfs the number of transfers Michigan has signed in recent years. Harbaugh brought in three transfers for the 2022 recruiting cycle, headlined by eventual Rimington Award and Outland Trophy winner Olu Oluwatimi from Virginia, but only two of them earned consistent playing time. The year prior, in 2021, former Morgan State and Jackson State wideout Daylen Baldwin was the lone transfer with meaningful snaps among four newcomers, one of whom left the program before the season even began.
The majority of players who’ve transferred to Michigan during the Harbaugh era arrived in Ann Arbor as graduate students to circumvent the university’s reputation for rarely accepting undergraduate academic credits. But Hausmann, who played one year at Nebraska, and Stewart, who played two seasons at Coastal Carolina, represent departures from that trend. A source within the football program said graduate students remain the easiest pool of players to enroll, but that younger underclassmen — meaning athletes who haven’t yet accrued significant numbers of credits — can also be pushed through the system. The source also said there may have been a touch more leniency from the admissions office than the Wolverines experienced in prior seasons.
Such success in the transfer portal blunted some of the shortcomings in Michigan’s group of high school commitments. The Wolverines held the No. 1 crop of transfers in the 247Sports rankings on Wednesday evening and the No. 16 overall recruiting class.
Change of heart
De-commitments, re-commitments and flips are nothing new in college football. Signing day surprises are as old as the fax machines recruits use to transmit their letters of intent.
But the implementation of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation has pumped renewed fascination into a familiar concept. Now, every last-minute commitment or straddling of the multi-school fence is met with social media speculation about who ponied up the better financial package and which school has the most aggressive NIL collective.
No early signing period is decommitment-free, but the legal flow of money from boosters to recruits has reframed the concept in a whole new light. Here’s a rundown of this year’s most noteworthy flips and what they mean for the schools involved:
CB Kayin Lee: The No. 209 overall prospect and No. 25 corner in this year’s class had been committed to Ohio State since June before changing gears and signing with Auburn, whose new head coach, Hugh Freeze, put together a class that ranked 20th nationally on Wednesday evening despite accepting the job less than a month ago. Lee, who hails from Georgia, became the third-best prospect in Auburn’s class and one of four signees ranked in the top 250.
On the flip side, Lee’s departure represented a rare recruiting misstep for Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, but this year’s haul is well-positioned to offset the defection. The Buckeyes signed two cornerbacks and a safety rated higher than Lee and assembled their 12th top-10 class in the last 13 years. The group ranks fifth nationally and includes seven top-100 players.
QB Dante Moore and CB Caleb Presley: The unpredictable recruitment of Moore, a five-star quarterback from Detroit, included a final change of direction Monday evening when he backed off his verbal pledge to Oregon in favor of conference foe UCLA. Moore’s decision stemmed in part from the loss of offensive coordinator Kenmiami-ny Dillingham, who left the Ducks to become the head coach at Arizona State in late November. The Bruins quickly pounced by flying Moore to Los Angeles for a late visit and then signing a player who ranks as the school’s third-best recruit since 247Sports began tracking commitments in 2000.
Presley, a Seattle native, remained committed to Oregon through Wednesday afternoon before reversing course to sign with Washington, his hometown team and the Ducks’ archrival. The No. 166 overall prospect and No. 19 corner became the highest-rated player in head coach Kalen DeBoer’s recruiting class as a school known for producing excellent defensive backs inked another promising young player.
Despite losing two elite prospects, Oregon finished the first day of the early signing period no worse for wear. Head coach Dan Lanning put together one of the more impressive recruiting days in recent memory by flipping five-star safety Peyton Bowen from Notre Dame, getting a commitment from five-star edge rusher Matayo Uiagalelei, flipping four-star quarterback Austin Novosad from Baylor and replacing Presley with an even higher-rated corner in four-star Daylen Austin, who decommitted from LSU.
The Ducks’ class climbed to seventh nationally and first in the Pac-12.
S Peyton Bowen and RB Jayden Limar: Losing Bowen was a significant blow for Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman as the Fighting Irish traversed a relatively tepid day. Bowen was the top player in Notre Dame’s recruiting class (No. 14 overall) and was viewed as the No. 2 safety in the country behind Alabama signee Caleb Downs. He was Freeman’s only five-star commit and would have been the program’s highest-rated defensive back since 2000. Two other safeties signed with Notre Dame on Wednesday in Adon Shuler and Ben Minich, but both are rated outside the top 300 nationally.
Limar became the second four-star running back to decommit from the Fighting Irish after Dylan Edwards (No. 186 overall, No. 11 RB) reneged on his verbal pledge earlier this month. Edwards became the first high-profile flip for Sanders by signing with Colorado, while Limar, who is the No. 276 overall prospect and the No. 17 running back in the country, also moved to the Pac-12 by committing to Oregon.
Their defections dropped Notre Dame’s class to ninth nationally and left four-star Jeremiyah Love (No. 68 overall, No. 5 RB) as the only tailback in the bunch.
Still on the board
It’s easy to forget amid the excitement of the early signing period that it is, in fact, just the early signing period — a 72-hour window in which most prospects cement their college choices.
Some players yet to sign on the dotted line will do so in the coming days after continuing to survey the landscape. Others will wait until the regular signing period opens in February before finalizing their decisions. Either way, the social media messages and NIL deal-brokering that define recruiting are certain to continue.
Here are some prospects to watch for the rest of this week and beyond:
CB Cormani McClain: The No. 2 overall prospect and No. 1 corner from Lakeland, Florida, has been verbally committed to Miami since late October. McClain was expected to sign with the Hurricanes in the early signing period — photos of a Miami-themed cake at his high school made the social media rounds — but his mother squashed those plans with a social media post that said nothing would be happening on Wednesday. Around that time, whispers of a late recruiting push from Sanders and Colorado began to surface. It’s unclear if or when McClain plans to make his final decision, but a report from The Athletic on Wednesday afternoon suggested Miami remains confident in securing his signature despite the unexpected murkiness.
ATH Nyckoles Harbor: Another five-star prospect, Harbor made clear his intention to bypass the early signing period and extend his recruitment through February — if not longer. Harbor is the No. 16 overall recruit in the country and the No. 1 athlete thanks to his rare combination of size (6-foot-5, 245-pounds) and blistering speed (10.22 seconds in the 100-meter dash). His goal of running track and playing football at the next level has produced a unique recruitment with Michigan, Maryland, South Carolina, LSU and Miami believed to be among the primary suitors. It’s unclear if he will play offense (wide receiver/tight end) or defense (edge rusher) in college.
[Note: Return to FOX Sports on Thursday for an in-depth story on Harbor’s recruitment and the challenges he’ll face while trying to compete in both sports.]
TE Duce Robinson: The Phoenix, Arizona, product has drawn comparisons to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray because of his dual-sport talents in football and baseball. Robinson is a five-star tight end rated the No. 17 overall prospect in the country and has his choice of blue-blood scholarship offers, though reports indicate USC and Georgia are the front-runners. At 6-feet-6 and 225 pounds, Robinson is also a well-regarded power hitter who has a chance to be selected in the 2023 MLB draft. Like Harbor, he doesn’t plan to make his collegiate decision until February.
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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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