Senior College Football Columnist

Mailbag: Top prospects making public demands and Penn State recruiting

Nkemdiche reportedly wants Clemson's Dabo Swinney (right) to give his teammate a scholarship, too. (US Presswire)

Here is this week's mailbag. As always, send your questions to me via Twitter to @BFeldmanCBS:

From @Mike_Cohn: So Nkemdiche is dangling his scholly to get his boys into Clemson. Teammates are all 2nd tier players. Worth it for Clemson?

If Robert Nkemdiche is as special as college coaches and recruiting analysts say, then he probably is worth it for Clemson, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday, to offer his teammate safety Ryan Carter. If Dabo Swinney does that, then Nkemdiche says he will be a “done deal” for the Tigers. True difference-makers are rare. No matter what you thought of Cam Newton or a Nick Fairley, their impact on Auburn was huge. Look at the impact Sammy Watkins made for Clemson last season. Watkins had a key role, as a true freshman, saving Swinney's job, which was very much in jeopardy. Also landing such a coveted prospect is a big statement for any program. Now, what else this statement may make about Swinney and Clemson is where it really gets interesting. After all, they are not the first program to get tied up in some package deal. Those have been going on for years, but no doubt this is the biggest ‘ask' on record by a No. 1 recruit.

Nkemdiche said the primary reason he picked Clemson over LSU and Alabama, among others, was because the Tigers already had commitments from his two his Grayson teammates, RB Wayne Gallman and DB David Kamara. Also, earlier this week, formerGrayson QB Nick Schuessler decided to give up his football scholarship to Mississippi State to be a preferred walk-on at Clemson (Nkemdiche has lived with Schuessler's family at times).

The only person missing in the Grayson-to-Clemson pipeline is Ryan Carter, according to Nkemdiche.

Carter already has offers from Ole Miss and a handful of other FBS programs, although it's no stretch to think that the Rebels offered him to help their cause with Nkemdiche. Ole Miss offered Ryan Carter a scholarship the day after Nkemdiche committed to Clemson. “If Clemson doesn't offer Ryan, it would make me look at Ole Miss a little more, it would,” Nkemdiche told the AJC. “It's very important that I have my boys with me.”

This is some bold talk for a recruit, but as I pointed out on Twitter, as eye-popping as this may seem for a kid being so blunt in the media, this is apparently where the game of recruiting is at right now. Nkemdiche knows he has leverage. He has it until the second he faxes over his Letter of Intent on National Signing Day. He knows coaches and schools will twist themselves into all sorts of positions to try and land him. So how much will they twist?

Back to the original question: is he worth all of this? Think about how many guys in a 25-man signing class often have minimal impact in their college careers. If you have 15 significant contributors (guys who end up as starters at some point) and one of them ends up as a three-time All-American and No. 1 overall draft pick, that's a very good class. If Nkemdiche's buddies prove to be nothing more than special teamers, but are decent character guys and not headaches, and he is that special, he's going to be worth it . . . to certain schools because of how much better he may be than what they may line up there at defensive end instead. The tricky part here is the sense of entitlement that you may be signing up for by green-lighting this move.

Coaches now have to spend time, as Urban Meyer used to say, 'de-recruiting' once a celebrated recruit arrives in the program. How much could that affect your locker room? A lot. I know a lot of coaches who cringe at what they thought of a kid, and how they wooed him only to regret it just a year later. Be careful of what you wish for, right? Yet, those same coaches still often do the same thing the following year regardless of their experience. Only Swinney can decide on whether Nkemdiche's make-up and that of his buddies is worth this kind of roll of the dice. He has a better feel for the kid than we do.

The sublot here is also intriguing: There are numerous examples of schools sweetening deals to land touted prospects, whether that means trying to bring on board the recruit's teammate, his brother, a high school coach or even his girlfriend. Who does the initiating of those details is murky. Does the school offer those things up, or is it the recruit making the college jump through the hoops?

With so much attention now paid to recruiting by fans, the media, by other college coaches and, of course, by the kids and their families, this has gotten to be an often awkward high-stakes game of poker. If Nkemdiche floated this to Clemson off-line, maybe the Tigers balk and this is the kid's way to putting them -- and other programs -- on notice. He's putting things on the table. Now everyone can see how Clemson is going to respond. If the coach doesn't jump, then Nkemdiche may go look over at Ole Miss, which already has his brother on the roster. What makes this situation even thornier is you know that a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds are paying close attention. What will next year's No. 1 recruit ask for?

From @DanKiesel: Why would any recruit go to penn state? They are building a good class. How?

Change often gives a program a jolt in recruiting. New energy and new ideas tend to get people excited, whether that's fans or recruits. You're seeing that at Texas A&M this year as well as at Arizona and Ole Miss. Of course, the Penn State situation is different from those others because of the taint of an unprecedented college scandal connected to former coach Jerry Sandusky and how the university's leadership allegedly handled things. That story isn't going away any time soon.

To see the Nittany Lions ranked among the nation's top 15 in early recruiting rankings for the Class of 2013 in light of all of that is impressive. Bill O'Brien and his staff are clearly doing a good job of selling the evolution of the Penn State program while also playing up his offensive pedigree. A big key for Penn State was getting one of the country's highest-ranked QB prospects, Christian Hackenberg, to commit early.

Hackenberg praised the school's “tradition” and told reporters he believes that O'Brien is going to “revolutionize” this program. It also sent a message to other top recruits, making it an easier sell. Recruits often get influenced easily. The rationale: If Johnny Bluechip thinks “there is something special about to go on there, I probably should consider that place too.” That was evident when, a few weeks after Hackenberg committed, Penn State landed Adam Breneman, arguably the top-ranked tight end in the country. Normally, it shouldn't be a shock that Penn State could reel in a touted tight end from Pennsylvania, but given everything surrounding this school, it is noteworthy. But O'Brien has shown he can recruit, and having a track record utilizing tight ends the way he did in New England with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez is a good chip in his pocket.

These days, your best recruiters often are the recruits themselves and that sounds like it's been the case with this Penn State class, as Breneman and Hackenberg explained to Eastern Football Recruiting.

“Christian and I have taken the role of being the leaders of this class,” said Breneman. “It takes a different kind of player to be part of this and we want to be difference makers.

“If you look on Twitter under the hashtag “Restore the Roar” – that's us and that's what we want to do. We're not done yet, our goal is to have a top five class.”

“There's a new energy with the program,” said Hackenberg, who was born in Tamaqua, Pa. and grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania before moving to Virginia. “Coach O'Brien has brought that and he's the biggest reason I'm going to Penn State.”

Neither Hackenberg nor Breneman are concerned what others think or say about the program. They have formed their own ideas. “Outsiders don't understand what it means to be a Penn Stater,” Breneman said. “I grew up as a Penn State fan and had to separate that when making my decision. I've gotten some hate mail and heard all the nasty comments and jokes. But those people just don't get it. One guy will not tear the university down.”

On Thursday, the Harrisburg Patriot-News ran a story with the headline: Penn State football recruits using Jerry Sandusky scandal as motivation. The story noted that, “Mere hours before CNN, citing emails exchanged by three former university officials in 2001, dropped the latest bombshell in the Sandusky saga, Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah became the 14th member of O'Brien's first full recruiting class.”

“We're building our own relationships, and nothing is going to get in the way of our goals,” Hackenberg said. “I really don't have any comment on that whole situation. That's the same for a lot of us. That wasn't us in any shape or form. That was the last staff. And, to be honest, we're sort of using it as motivation.”

Apparently, many kids are buying in on that. Remember, people have great capacity to compartmentalize. They see something that happened but didn't directly affect them and they just move on. Does it matter to them that there will be million-dollar civil suits swirling for years around Penn State? Doubtful. Or that the legacy of Joe Paterno is going to be debated for a very long time going forward? Again, doubtful. Those things may deter some recruits or some parents of recruits, but clearly not everyone is going to feel that way. Now, if the NCAA were to get involved, taking issue with the university's (and its athletic department's) handling of the Sandusky case, then it might be a different story. We'll see if things change then.

From @heathterry: why do the polls picking USC to win it all seem to ignore the sanctions inflicted lack of depth? What champ only needed a QB?

The Trojans staff prepared well for the sanctions by front-loading their recruiting classes and using the appeal process to give themselves time to load up. They also appear to have hit on an extremely high percentage of their recruits of late. I'd put USC's first 50 players up against any other program in the country. It's not just that USC's starting group is so strong, but now the Trojans have the kind of competition at key places where it makes a difference in practice and on special teams, which should help alleviate some of the fourth quarter struggles they've been dogged by the past two seasons when the team has worn down.

The positions where programs tend to most get perilously thin -- the O-line and in the secondary -- is where USC is now quite deep. The Trojans' have a solid, experienced first five on the line. Behind them are four guys who have already competed for reps on the two-deep the previous season, plus three blue-chip incoming recruits. In the defensive backfield, they have two all-American candidates in CB Nickell Robey and safety Tim McDonald, along with three other corners who shared the spot across from Robey. At safety, there are two other guys with extensive experience in Jawanza Starling and Drew McAllister. Former top recruit Josh Shaw, a transfer from Florida, and Gerald Bowman, the No. 1 rated JC transfer, also will push for playing time. That's quality depth.

The Trojans' two thinnest areas are at tailback, where they have Curtis McNeill, a 1000-yard back and speedy D.J. Morgan, which make for a strong first two. USC's depth here already took a hit here when its big back Tre Madden was lost for the season in the spring with a knee injury. USC's third tailback, Buck Allen, is another former blue-chipper (aren't they all though?). Who knows if USC can actually count on him if the Trojans have to give him significant reps?

There would be similar concern if USC lost one of its three best defensive tackles (among the trio of George Uko, J.R. Tavai and Antwaun Woods). That would prompt the Trojans to count on Christian Heyward and/or Cody Temple, a pair of redshirts or slide Greg Townsend Jr. or Leonard Williams, their two biggest ends, inside.

No question, Lane Kiffin has depth concerns, but so does every other coach in the country. There isn't a program in the Top 25 that wouldn't be hobbled if it had some bad luck and lost, say, its' top two guys at a key position or its QB was sidelined. But if you actually look at what USC has at each position, the Trojans are pretty stacked.

From @huskyraven: Hey Bruce, how does the new playoff affect the chances for undefeated teams from non-AQ conferences to win a Nat. Champ.?

It's too soon for us to say with much certainty since we still don't know the selection process in detail or who will be on the Committee. I suspect teams from those non-AQs will be very long shots to make it into national championship contention, because the more information that gets released about the inner workings of the new post-season, the more it feels like some similar politics to the old BCS ways. However, if a Boise State or say a USF or Louisville runs the table, they still probably have a better shot to play for a title than any non-AQ would've in the old BCS format, where only the top two teams made the cut.

Would a Boise non-conference schedule that was highlighted by BYU and Ole Miss be enough to convince skeptics from the SEC, Big 12 or Big Ten, doubtful, but we'd have to see what the other candidates resumes look like.

From @fcbadboy: Am I being unreasonable in my expectation that UF will win the East?

No, with a defense as athletic as Florida's, the Gators have a decent shot to win the East if one of their young QBs—Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel--blossoms this fall and can be consistent. That's a pretty big if considering how shaky those true freshmen were last year playing for a team still adapting to a new system. They will be better in 2012. The question is just how much better?

The Gators don't need their quarterback to be Andrew Luck to win the division, but they need significant improvement over what they had there since Tim Tebow left town. They need their QB to avoid turning the ball over, and consistently find open receivers and make accurate throws on time. Both were around 47 percent on completions last year. That needs to improve at least 10 percent in 2012.

Part II of this process: The Gators were 113th in turnover margin. In 2008, when they won the national title, they were No. 2 in the country. Since then, they've fallen from there to No. 24 to no. 47 before really plummeting last year. Obviously, they need to cut down on the mistakes and put the heat on rival offenses to make more of their own.

They also need to develop a running game. That's an issue that probably hasn't gotten enough attention when people examine the Gators. Will Muschamp wants a physical running game. Last year, they were just 73rd in the country in rushing. That kind of production is unacceptable for any team that aspires to be a physical running team. Worse still, against the best defenses they faced: LSU, Alabama, Georgia and FSU, they averaged under 45 yards rushing per game. A more seasoned O-line should help a lot, but do they have a legit SEC back to slash at elite defenses? We'll see if Mike Gilleslee is the answer. Sophomore Mack Brown also reportedly showed some good things in the spring. If neither steps up early, freshman Matt Jones may get a long look.

I like the Gators personnel on D. Fifteen of their top 16 tacklers from last season are back, although one of the most gifted of that bunch, DE Ronald Powell will be sidelined for at least a chunk of the year with a torn ACL. UF also has an excellent kicking game.

The SEC schedule isn't that ominous. The Gators don't have to face Alabama or Arkansas. They get LSU and South Carolina at home. We should have a good sense on how legit the Gators SEC East title hopes are by the end of Week Three. It's not like UF will face any Top 20 teams by then, but the young QBs will have had to play at Kyle Field and Neyland Stadium in Week Two and Week Three. That'll be a huge game for the Vols and coach Derek Dooley. It's also a pretty big one for Muschamp. This isn't a make-or-break season for him, but if they can't come out 3-0, some heat will build on the second-year coach. Folks don't have a lot of patience down there after Urban Meyer's run. Their toughest game at someone else's place in conference is probably this game at Tennessee.

My hunch is UF is an 8-4 caliber team this season. I'm still sticking with my pick of Georgia. The Dawgs D is a bit better than UF's and they have the more reliable QB, but there is enough talent in Gainesville to make them a serious threat.

From @gfish405: What would it take for a program from the MAC to have sustained success like Boise State? Is it coaching? Talent?

Both, but more the former than the latter. The biggest thing with Boise is that the Broncos, for all of their turnover on the coaching staff in terms of coordinators, they've been able to keep Chris Petersen.

I look at a strong MAC program such as NIU and wonder if the Huskies have another double-digit win-season like they did in 2011, how long can they keep Dave Doeren? The gap between the bigger schools and the “mid-majors” has only widened in terms of the bowl/playoff structure and coaching salaries. I think Petersen is an aberration. He and his family are very comfortable in Boise. He's seen how it worked out—or didn't work out—for previous Broncos head coaches who have left for, as he explained it to me once, “bluer pastures.” I am very skeptical other coaches in MAC programs will see it that way though. The gap seems to be too wide.

Could a Houston become the next Boise State? Perhaps. I know from having a lot of conversations with Tony Levine that he really does want to be there for a long time. He wants his young kids to be rooted in that city and not bounce around. Levine's staff is doing a good job recruiting. They're based in one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the nation. They pulled off the biggest coup on Signing Day when UH beat Notre Dame for blue-chip WR Deontay Greenberrry. That's the kind of thing that can get the attention of other recruits.

 
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