College football recruiting: USC, Florida State among teams navigating muddy waters in early signing period
Checking in on how the approaching early signing period is impacting programs with coaching uncertainty
National Signing Day has always been a pivotal day in measuring and predicting the success of a college football program. But ever since the NCAA instituted an early signing period in December, the stakes of the day have heightened for programs in transition.
Postseason coaching changes are inevitable. In the past, those changes could be made with plenty of time to make up ground before February. Now, with upwards of 75% of the pool of FBS signees ending their recruitments in December, coaching changes and lingering job security questions can cripple a recruiting class and put a program in a hole unlike anything we saw with the previous system.
With the December signing period only two weeks away, we give you the recruiting outlook of a few programs in coaching transition or uncertainty that face some unique challenges.
USC has been recruiting with what was perceived to be a lame-duck coach off of an underwhelming 2018 season throughout the 2020 recruiting cycle. This is expected to be a relatively small class for USC, and 247Sports ranks the Trojans at No. 67 nationally in the team recruiting rankings. That's not going to cut it regardless of the circumstances. As of this writing, Clay Helton's future at USC remains in doubt but is trending positively. The holding pattern regarding Helton's tenure over the last two years and the decision at hand has cut into USC's recruiting clout and neutered a recruiting heavyweight.
If and when Helton is retained, expect a spike in commits with players like four-star wide receivers Gary Bryant Jr. and LV Bunkley-Shelton both poised to commit with some clarity. You could also see USC make a run at four-star safety Jordan Morant, a Michigan commit who is monitoring some assistant coach movement himself. But ultimately, even if this USC class climbs from its current status at 11 commits and finishes near 20, it would take a furious finish for the Trojans to even approach the top 25 under Helton during this cycle. There's also this: Texas appears to be in pursuit of offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and were Harrell to leave after Helton is retained, that could trigger another hurdle for USC to overcome this cycle.
If USC were to make a change, depending on the weight class of the hire (think Urban Meyer or James Franklin), you could see USC's ceiling rise significantly, even within a limited window. This is trending towards a band-aid class in a year of uncertainty.
Currently ranked 18th nationally, Florida State is recruiting at an adequate level given the transition underway. There have only been three decommitments since Willie Taggart's firing and the rest of the class remains in wait-and-see mode. With 17 commits currently in the fold, Florida State has room to creep up to 25 with a full class. It is looking increasingly unlikely that Florida State has a coach in place before this weekend, one of two key official visit weekends remaining before signing day. Assuming a hire is made by the weekend, a new coach would have plenty to address.
During his two recruiting cycles at Florida State, Taggart failed to sign a quarterback out of high school. It's a damning statement but at least he left a good one behind in Sandalwood High School QB Jeff Sims. He's considered a leader within the class and he would be the primary priority for the new coach not only to ensure he gets to Tallahassee, but as a means of stabilizing the rest of the class. Taggart also failed to sign an offensive skill player in the 2019 cycle, so that is likely to be a target area for the new staff as well. However, the biggest hole left by Taggart is also the biggest hole he inherited: offensive line. Taggart failed to get the line fixed quickly and a new staff may be wise to mine the junior college and transfer market to find some immediate relief at an area that has plagued the Seminoles for three seasons.
Most importantly, Florida State just needs to get the recruiting engine humming again. It's been over a month since Taggart was fired. The current staff has been forced into stall mode as it waits out a new hire, and every day that passes is another missed opportunity to address the roster holes in Tallahassee.
Chris Petersen has built his programs at Boise State and Washington on "OKGs," or Our Kind of Guys. He's recruited to his culture and prioritized character. He's elevated Washington's recruiting reputation, but in recent years it has felt like the Huskies hit their collective head on a recruiting ceiling. Perhaps it's the contrast against the pace and energy of Mario Cristobal's recruiting efforts at Oregon, but where a top 20 class once looked like an upgrade at Washington now looks like a governor on what the Huskies can accomplish in the national context.
With the announcement that Jimmy Lake has taken over as the head coach at Washington, you may see a similar burst in recruiting energy that you saw at Oklahoma when Lincoln Riley was handed the keys from Bob Stoops. Riley turned recruiting up a notch and results on the field followed. Lake has a similar youthful, energetic approach with a competitive fire. Don't be surprised if you find Washington creep up towards Oregon's recruiting pace with Lake at the helm.
Lake's promotion solidifies Washington's standings with all of its defensive commits and it could help the Huskies get a guy like former commit and four-star defensive back Jacobe Covington back in the fold. You could see a boost on the offensive side of the ball as well, but that's where some uncertainty creeps in. Until Lake offers clarity with his offensive coordinator spot, others will continue to try to poach four-star WR Jalen McMillan. And one of Washington's top targets, former USC TE commit Jack Yary, is scheduled for an official visit and may need some answers before committing. Assuming those answers aren't far behind, a recruiting bump is more likely in 2020 than a dip.
You can criticize plenty about the Chad Morris tenure at Arkansas, but you'd certainly have a tough time dismissing recruiting as a point of emphasis for him. Despite a bad first year on the field, Morris brought in a top 25 class and went on to see a big chunk of that group contribute right away. He had the Razorbacks off to a respectable start to the 2020 cycle as well before the season started to go south. As we stand now, Arkansas is ranked 116th in the 247Sports team recruiting rankings and it has seen 12 decommitments this cycle, eight of those coming since Morris' dismissal.
With only six commitments remaining in the class, whoever takes over as head coach will have probably the biggest hill to climb of any incoming regime. Consider that Arkansas isn't a state that produces enough homegrown talent to fill out a class, much less whether this kind of storm. Predictably, Arkansas has lost all eight of its Texas commits that Morris, a former Texas high school coach, had accumulated. More problematic is that Morris had landed a big solution to his quarterback conundrum in the form of his son, Chandler Morris, one of the most prolific passers in Texas. Chandler now looks likely to land at Oklahoma.
So as a quick recap, nearly 80% of the total expected FBS college football signees are projected to be off the market by Dec. 20. Arkansas, with only two weekends remaining to host recruits before the early signing period, has yet to hire a coach. As a program, Arkansas has to lean on out-of-state recruiting, only has six prospects currently committed and needs to find a quarterback. Good luck.
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