COLLEGE STATION (AP) — Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was happy to see his signing class ranked eighth by a national recruiting website.
His enthusiasm was dampened when he realized the Aggies were considered only fifth-best in the Southeastern Conference.
"We're still playing catch-up in the SEC," he said. "We're getting there but we've still got a ways to go ... we're going to need a couple more of these classes to really get to where we need to be."
The Aggies signed 23 players on Wednesday, adding them to the nine players who enrolled in the spring.
Texas A&M added some new targets for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel after losing several receivers to graduation. The group is led by Ricky Seals-Jones of Sealy, Texas, the nation's second-rated receiver by Rivals.com.
A converted quarterback, Seals-Jones was injured for most of this season. He ran for 1,245 yards and 15 scores and threw for 761 yards and eight more touchdowns in 2011. The versatile player also starred on defense as a junior, and had five interceptions and 68 tackles.
The Aggies also signed five other receivers to plug into Sumlin's high-powered offense.
"I think our style of play helped attract a lot of guys, and also our history of offensive football, not just last year playing in the SEC," Sumlin said. "People had doubts about if it was going to work. I think now people have a better understanding of our offensive philosophy ... and that certainly helped."
Texas A&M went 11-2 in their first season in the SEC after moving from the Big 12, its first 11-win season since 1998. Manziel led the Aggies to a win at top-ranked Alabama, and became the first freshman to win the Heisman and A&M's first winner since 1957.
Sumlin knows that success helped improve his recruiting haul this season.
"It's a combination of a lot of things," he said. "Everything matters. Moving to the SEC is part of it, but not just being in the SEC but being able to compete and win some meaningful games in the SEC. Our brand is expanded particularly with our exposure in the SEC. Because of that people were able to see our style of football and we were able to sell our university instead of coming in cold."
The Aggies also shored up their defensive front by adding six linemen or ends on Wednesday. Dallas Kimball tackle Justin Manning leads the group after piling up 76 tackles, 11 sacks and 18 tackles for losses this season. Texas A&M also added Carthage, Texas, tackle Isaiah Golden, who had 76 tackles, 32 tackles for losses and forced four fumbles as a senior. They'll be joined by 6-foot-6 defensive end Daeshon Hall of Lancaster, Texas, who had 83 tackles and 23 sacks in 2012.
"That was a real emphasis this year," Sumlin said of adding depth on the defensive line. "One year into the SEC, it is very obvious to me that this is a line of scrimmage league. For us to be a program that we want to be we need to increase our size and increase the profile of our team height-wise and with depth."
The Aggies also picked up a couple of solid quarterbacks in Kenny Hill and Kohl Stewart, despite Manziel having three years of eligibility remaining. Hill earned Associated Press player of the year honors after throwing for 2,291 yards and 20 touchdowns and running for 905 yards and 22 scores for Southlake Carroll, Texas.
Hill's father is former major league pitcher Ken Hill, who spent 14 years playing for several teams including the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers.
Stewart threw for 2,535 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for Houston St. Pius last season. That performance came after he threw for more than 3,100 yards in both his sophomore and junior seasons.
The two are also baseball standouts, but Stewart, who is a pitcher could be a high draft pick.
Sumlin has spoken with Stewart about his options, and told him he'd be fine with him playing baseball and joining the Aggies later like Brandon Weeden did at Oklahoma State.
"Our conversations have been that would love to have him here, but there's nothing wrong with being Brandon Weeden," Sumlin said. "If he wants to go play, we'll still have a place for him when he's 25."
Alabama polishes off top class with key pickups
Alabama coach Nick Saban insists he doesn't get swept up in the signing day drama of recruits' televised announcements and last-minute change of hearts.
"But I must admit I didn't sleep real good last night," Saban said.
Everything turned out just fine for the Crimson Tide on Wednesday when the program that has won three of the last four national championships wrapped up a 25-player recruiting class that was a consensus No. 1 in the country.
The Tide's 25-player class that includes seven players already enrolled featured a focus on runners, defensive backs and pass rushers to help better defend spread offenses.
Five-star defensive linemen A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, who could play defensive end or outside linebacker, were among six players who were rated as a five-star prospect by at least one recruiting service.
Allen was rated as the No. 11 player nationally by 247Sports, while Scout.com ranked Robinson as the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle and the fifth-best player in the nation at any position
It's no coincidence that Alabama's only loss last season came against Texas A&M's spread offense.
"I think we added fast-twitch pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category as being a higher priority because of more spread offenses, more athletic quarterbacks," Saban said. "The same things that NFL teams are talking about when they play against RGIII or (Colin) Kaepernick or the guy from Seattle (Russell Wilson) who are athletic and run the ball. We have to be able to adapt to that level of athleticism, and that means we have to be more athletic to do that."
Alabama didn't lose any commitments on signing day and got afternoon pledges from Robinson, a former Texas pledge, four-star defensive tackle Dee Liner and four-star running back Alvin Kamara.
The Tide landed four running backs and three players apiece on the defensive and offensive lines and at linebacker and secondary. There were few Wednesday surprises, though safety Antonio Conner chose to sign with Mississippi.
"We only have so many spots to get them, so we feel really good about the guys that we were able to attract here," Saban said. "It tells you sort of the reality of recruiting that things will happen this way. You can't get every player. It's not going to happen."
He won't get any sympathy from his coaching peers with another impressive haul.
Offensively, Alabama added one of the nation's top wide receivers, Robert Foster, and tailbacks in Derrick Henry, who is already enrolled.
Henry is a Florida running back who was named national player of the year by the Maxwell Football Club and Parade magazine. He broke Ken Hall's 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 yards after gaining 4,261 yards as a senior.
Tailback Eddie Lacy is skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft, leaving T.J. Yeldon to take the frontman status in the backfield behind quarterback AJ McCarron. Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler are returning from injuries while Kenyan Drake got some experience as a freshman.
Saban took issue with the contention that Alabama has such a loaded backfield.
"To have really good depth at running back you need five really good players, and three guys usually play a lot," he said. "I know in your little fantasy world that you put these guys' names down but there are circumstances. I think several of the guys that we recruited are going to have lots of opportunities to contribute next year."
Foster, who is from Monaca, Pa., was a five-star prospect by Scout.com and 247Sports, which rated him the nation's top receiver.
Tight end O.J. Howard was the No. 7 overall prospect by Rivals.com out of Prattville, Ala. Like Henry and quarterback Cooper Bateman, he's already in school.
Auburn High School linebacker Reuben Foster signed two days after committing to Alabama. He has a tattoo of Auburn's logo on his right forearm but added the name of cousin Ladarious Phillips above it. Phillips, a former Auburn player, was killed in a shooting last June.
Foster took to Twitter Wednesday to apologize for acting like "the brat I was" at times.
"He really felt bad in some ways by the way he handled his recruiting," Saban said. "I also think that all the media attention sometimes can affect these guys in maybe not the most positive way. At the same time, I think that Reuben would like to please everyone. I think he learned in this process that that's very, very difficult and probably impossible to do. That's probably what he feels bad about.
"But that he does like to please you is probably one of the reasons that he is a very good competitor."
Bateman, who's from Utah, showed the range of Alabama's recruiting.
"It says a lot about Alabama that a guy from Utah is willing to come this far because he fell in love with it that much," he said.
-- John Zenor
Bielema adds 22 in first signing class at Arkansas
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema walked into Wednesday's signing day news conference wearing a sweat suit and flip flops, hardly looking like a coach worried about last-minute recruiting drama.
Twenty-two names of prep standouts were on the recruiting board to Bielema's right, all having already sent in their national letters of intent. It was the empty 23rd spot that held all the suspense.
That spot was reserved for one of Bielema's top targets, running back Alex Collins, who verbally committed to the Razorbacks on Monday night. The Florida standout canceled a news conference early Wednesday at which he was expected to sign with Arkansas, and he had still not signed with the school by late afternoon.
Bielema couldn't comment directly on Collins because he had yet to sign, but he did say he hoped the recruiting class would "grow by one in the next 24 hours." The former Wisconsin coach also did his best to go with the flow on a day that has become anything but predictable.
"It's national signing day," Bielema said. "You're going to get surprises, good and bad. You're going to get curveballs thrown at you that you have to adjust to. The thing that's neat about the signing period is this: It's a day when you have to adjust and adapt. There (are) things that are going to come up."
With or without Collins, Bielema had nothing but praise for the class he and his new staff with the Razorbacks put together since his hiring on Dec. 4. The group included some of the state's top prospects and a host of offensive linemen — with the intent on quickly rebounding from a 4-8 season marred by last spring's firing of coach Bobby Petrino.
The class was ranked No. 26 by Rivals.com, 12th in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference. It included a national, and international, feel — with signees from as far away as Hawaii, New Jersey and even a punter from Australia.
Three of the signees, without Collins, were from Florida — a recruiting hotbed Bielema often targeted while with the Badgers. It was also an area very familiar for Arkansas linebackers coach Randy Shannon, who previously was the head coach at Miami for four seasons.
"We kind of just built this recruiting class off of past relationships, not only with recruits but also with high school coaches throughout the country," Bielema said. "So, it was really a culmination today of a lot of different scenarios, a lot of different stories working together to get to where we are."
Five of the Razorbacks signees came from the junior-college ranks as Bielema looked for immediate improvement for a team that was last in the SEC in pass defense last season, allowing 285.8 yards per game through the air. They included safety Tiquention Coleman and cornerback Carroll Washington, who like the other junior-college transfers are already enrolled and will go through spring practice.
Another transfer, Johnathan McClure, was one of four offensive linemen signed by Arkansas — an area of desperate need. The Razorbacks were last in the SEC in rushing offense last season, averaging just 118.7 yards per game on the ground, but Bielema expects several in the group to compete for immediate playing time.
Arkansas had plenty of help in securing its class from a handful of in-state signees who committed to the school even following Petrino's firing and throughout the transition between interim coach John L. Smith and Bielema.
One of those was quarterback Austin Allen, one of three players to sign with the Razorbacks from neighboring Fayetteville High School. Allen and teammates Brooks Ellis, a linebacker, and Alex Brignoni, a safety, each worked tirelessly to build bonds with many of their fellow recruits on official visits — a move that paid off in the form of tight end Hunter Henry and offensive guard Reeve Koehler, among others.
Henry, listed as the 4th-best tight end in the country by Rivals, committed to Arkansas in July. The Little Rock standout admitted to wavering during the difficult season for the Razorbacks, especially while waiting on the announcement of who the long-term head coach would be, and he said schools such as Alabama, Vanderbilt and Georgia continued to recruit him throughout.
Bielema's first phone call after being introduced as Arkansas' coach was to Henry, a move that paid off.
"I needed to make sure whoever the staff was the right fit for me, and if it wasn't, then I needed to go somewhere else," Henry said. "But everything worked out in the end, and I feel like everything's falling into place now."
Allen, who was also recruited by Oklahoma State, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, also said Bielema's "laid-back" approach was a key factor in his decision to stick with Arkansas — where his older brother, Brandon, already is already a quarterback and his father, Bobby, is the school's director of high school operations.
"Once I met (Bielema), it was a big relief," Austin Allen said. "He was in flip-flops and had reggae music on, so I felt comfortable with him and it was a fun time."
Arkansas had a difficult time recruiting while facing an uncertain future under Smith. With Bielema and his staff on board, however, the class came together quickly — even with Wednesday's bit of suspense surrounding Collins.
"I think (this class) is absolutely amazing," Razorbacks offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "It truly is. We got in there, I don't know when it was, about the middle of December, and we hit the ground running and haven't stopped since."
-- Kurt Voigt
Auburn's Malzahn loads up on defensive line
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is known for his offense, but made the biggest splash on the defensive line with his first recruiting class.
Defensive tackle Montravius Adams and end Elijah Daniel both announced on Wednesday that they'd play for the Tigers, joining the group's highest rated signee Carl Lawson on the front line.
"In this league you win on the offensive and defensive lines, and the defensive line was a focus," Malzahn said. "The three guys we have, we feel like are three of the best in the entire country. Coach (Rodney) Garner's a great coach and he's going to have three guys that have a chance to help us immediately."
The 23-player class also included a signing day pickup in four-star running back Johnathan Ford, a former Vanderbilt commitment. The strong finish vaulted Auburn into a No. 10 finish according to Rivals.com, 11th by 247Sports and 13th by Scout.
Carver-Montgomery four-star quarterback Jeremy Johnson led three signees at the position and the Tigers signed four wide receivers. Along with the defensive line, those spots in the offensive backfield were huge needs for a team that ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in total offense and 13th in yards allowed per game.
The need for immediate help led Malzahn to bring in six junior college transfers, three of them already enrolled.
A big objective was to get more physical.
"I told our staff in the very first staff meeting we had that we needed to find football players that are going to be Auburn-type, tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar guys," Malzahn said. "I really feel like for the most part we did that."
The Tigers added offensive lineman Deon Mix, a former Mississippi State commitment, on signing day but had loaded up on blockers in the past two classes. This time the emphasis was on the opposite side of the line for a defense that struggled to stop the run and generate much pass rush, even with junior defensive end Corey Lemonier, who declared for the NFL draft.
Garner supplied a boost with previous relationships to both Adams and Daniel before leaving Georgia for his alma mater.
The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Adams is a five-star tackle who had 34 stops behind the line as a senior at Dooly County High School in Vienna, Ga.
"I think this is going to be my eighth year coaching college," Malzahn said. "I don't know if I've seen a bigger, athletic guy than him. I really feel like the sky's the limit with him. Coach Garner had a great relationship with him. That really helped get him here."
Daniel was ranked the No. 3 defensive end and 27th-best prospect by 247Sports.
"Pass rushing was one of our big needs, and this guy can really do it," Malzahn said.
Malzahn also cited Lawson's continued commitment as a key after prospects like five-star linebacker Reuben Foster and four-star defensive tackle Dee Liner — who both signed with Alabama — withdrew their pledges following coach Gene Chizik's firing.
"When a lot of guys went south and went other ways, he hung in there with us," Malzahn said. "He provided the stability on the defensive side to have the class that we did. "
He said Johnson, Alabama's Mr. Football, fulfilled a similar role on offense. He could compete with junior college transfer Nick Marshall, a former Georgia signee, and returnees Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace for the starting job.
Marshall passed for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns last season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College, while rushing for 1,095 yards and 19 scores.
Johnson is also a basketball standout, but Malzahn said he will concentrate on football as a freshman.
"I know his goal is to be the starting quarterback here and what it takes to be a starting quarterback in college, especially in this conference, it takes a lot of focus," Malzahn said. "But he is a very good basketball player."
-- John Zenor
Florida signs five WRs, goes heavy on both lines
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's signing class was heavy at a few positions. None more important than receiver.
The Gators landed one of the nation's top recruiting classes Wednesday, a 28-player group that included seven defensive linemen, five offensive linemen and five receivers.
The additions back up coach Will Muschamp's philosophy of building along the lines of scrimmage. They also show how eager the Gators were to upgrade the team's receiver position.
Alvin Bailey, Ahmad Fulwood, Marqui Hawkins, Demarcus Robinson and Chris Thompson were among those who signed national letters of intent, giving Florida its deepest — and probably most needed — receiver contingent since 1997.
"You've got to improve," Muschamp said. "When you say filling needs, you talk in terms of depth and talent. And those are the two things you've got to be able to address. I think we've taken a step forward in both situations. We've improved our depth and I think we've improved our talent, (added) some guys that can come in and compete."
The Gators need help.
Florida lost two of its top four receivers from last season. Starter Frankie Hammond graduated and tight end Jordan Reed, who led the team with 45 receptions, left early for the NFL. And considering the Gators had three wideouts among their top 11 pass-catchers, it was clearly an area of concern.
The newcomers should bolster the position, maybe even immediately.
"We'll find out in August," Muschamp said. "It's hard to say. I mean, it's hard to ever say. Y'all know my philosophy: The closer you are to the ball, the harder it is to play as a freshman. It's just the game's a lot faster, a lot bigger. The further out, wideout is obviously a place, corner, where you can play because your natural instincts take over and the game's a little slower on the perimeter as opposed to when it gets closer."
Robinson, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Fort Valley, Ga., is considered the best of the group. He enrolled last month and will take part in spring practice that begins in March.
Robinson caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior at Peach County High.
Bailey, a 6-foot, 170-pound slot receiver, had 40 receptions for 658 yards and nine scores as a senior at Armwood High in Seffner.
Fulwood, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound Jacksonville native, caught 88 passes for 1,821 yards and 34 touchdowns the last two seasons at Bishop Kenny High despite playing through injuries.
And Fulwood's size will be a nice addition for a team that had five scholarship receivers — and none taller than 6-1.
"It's always a matchup issue when you have bigger receivers that can run vertically down the field and he certainly can," Muschamp said. "He's got tremendous ball skills down the field."
Hawkins and Thompson could take more time to develop.
Still, Florida hasn't had a group of receivers with this much promise in years. The much-ballyhooed 1997 class included Travis Taylor, Darrell Jackson, Brian Haugabrook, Steve Shipp and Mike Gipson. Taylor and Jackson went on to have decent NFL careers. Shipp ended up as one of the program's biggest busts. Haugabrook played sparingly in four seasons, and Gipson moved to defense.
The Gators have been thin at receiver for years.
They've only had one receiver catch more than 40 passes in a season since Percy Harvin in 2008. And none of the team's recent wideout recruits — most notably Chris Dunkley, T.J. Lawrence, Ja'Juan Story, Javares McRoy and Stephen Alli — panned out in Gainesville.
The Gators are hoping for more from Bailey, Fulwood, Hawkins, Robinson and Thompson, especially considering the team's passing offense ranked 114th last season.
"All of those (receivers) and everybody we signed in this 28 will have an opportunity to contribute to our football team, and they'll determine how much," Muschamp said. "I tell them at every home: 'You're the one that will determine how much you play. Not me.'"
-- Mark Long
Georgia signing class more about depth than stars
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — The Georgia Bulldogs had a lot of prospects to show off Wednesday. Just not some of the names the fans wanted to see.
Coming off a season in which it came up 5 yards short of playing for a national title, Georgia unveiled the largest signing class of the Mark Richt era, a staggering 32 prospects bolstered by 13 players who've already enrolled in Athens after graduating early from high school and junior college.
It figured to be one of the top-ranked groups in the country, but there was plenty of grumbling among the red and black faithful about the ones who got away, the so-called five-star recruits who get the fan base all pumped up.
The prospect generally considered the best in the nation, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Grayson High School in suburban Atlanta, followed his older brother to Mississippi instead of signing with the school that is less than an hour's drive away. The Rebels, who are coming off a 7-6 season, also landed another player near the top of Georgia's wish list, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil from Lake City, Fla. Finally, there was top-rated linebacker Reuben Foster, who picked defending national champion Alabama over Auburn and the Bulldogs.
Richt, not surprisingly, said he was happy with the players he landed.
"I really don't have any disappointments right now," said the coach, who attended a news conference just four days after having hip-replacement surgery. "As far as I'm concerned, we got the number one class in America. We took care of business in the areas we needed. We got guys who are very, very talented and are excited to be here. Our job is to develop them into a great football team. That's what matters the most."
With plenty of needs to fill, especially on the defensive side, the Bulldogs focused heavily on building their numbers at a variety of positions. They signed eight defensive backs, six linebackers and a trio of defensive tackles who all clear the scales at more than 300 pounds. The newcomers will help fill the voids left by the departure of stars such as Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins.
"Different people have opinions on where people rank and that kind of thing," Richt said. "We know as coaches that we got a great class that we're proud of and very excited about. Somebody invented these rankings, decided to rank the players and make a big deal about it. The reality is what happens when we hook it up and play Clemson (in the season opener). That's what our fans care about the most."
The lead-up to signing day was marred by off-the-field issues.
Longtime recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner left to take a coaching job at Auburn, his alma mater. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will reportedly have an interview with the New Orleans Saints this week, the latest in a series of potential NFL jobs he's been linked to over the last two years. Finally, there was Richt's ailing hip, which required surgery last Saturday. He had intended to wait until after signing day, but bumped up the operation so he could attend a Southeastern Conference coaches meeting next week.
"I knew it was a dead period. I couldn't physically go anywhere anyway," Richt said. "We're allowed to make X-amount of calls. I really could do the same things from my home on the telephone that I could sitting in my office. I felt it was the best thing to do to go ahead and have the surgery."
Grantham wouldn't address his interest in the Saints job. He would only say he's happy at Georgia and expects to be coaching the Bulldogs defense next season.
"I'm not going to respond to all the rumors and innuendos because it's very difficult to do that all the time," he said. "So I'll just leave it as it is."
Georgia has some key weapons on offense coming back next season, including quarterback Aaron Murray and running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Not surprisingly, they were light on recruiting those positions, signing one quarterback (early enrollee Brice Ramsey from Kingsland, Ga.) and a pair of running backs. The main focus on that side was receiver (four signees, plus two other players listed as athletes) and four linemen to bulk up the guys in the trenches.
Among the highest-rated players landed by the Bulldogs: defensive back Tray Matthews of Newnan, Ga.; linebacker Tim Kimbrough of Indianapolis; defensive end Leonard Floyd of Eastman, Ga.; and offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow of Marietta, Ga.
Everyone in the class is eager to show they're just as good — or better — than the ones who didn't come to Athens.
"This is the class we got. This is the class we want," said offensive lineman Aulden Bynum, another early enrollee out of Valdosta, Ga. "If you don't want to be here, you don't need to be here."
J.J. Green of Kingsland, Ga., said there's no reason this group of Bulldogs can't keep up the success of the ones who came before. Georgia has won two straight SEC East crowns and just missed playing for the BCS championship last month, losing to eventual national champ Alabama 32-28 in a thrilling conference title game.
"Just because you're a three-star guy, that doesn't mean you can't ball out and beat a five-star guy out," said Green, who can play receiver and other positions. "We're going to be out there playing with a chip on our shoulder."
-- Paul Newberry
Kentucky signs 22 recruits, 11 from Florida
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Mark Stoops' first Kentucky recruiting class shows he still has some pull in Florida.
Convincing two talented in-state players to stay home and help the rebuilding process also demonstrates Stoops' appeal in Kentucky.
Half of Kentucky's 22 signees announced on Wednesday are from Florida. That's a significant haul from the Sunshine State, which the former Florida State defensive coordinator promised to scour in his quest to lift Kentucky back to respectability following a 2-10 season.
Landing locals such as Louisville Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher and Franklin County (Frankfort) wide receiver Ryan Timmons also matters to Big Blue Nation. Hatcher, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, backed out of his commitment to USC to sign with Kentucky; Timmons, a 5-10 wide receiver, announced he would play for the Wildcats on Tuesday.
Stoops considers the quality of this group as pretty good work, considering he replaced Joker Phillips just over two months ago.
"It was a group effort," Stoops said of whirlwind recruiting effort. "The staff, that's a big part of it. The first year it's important when you hire guys that they have some connections, so that's a big part of it, guys with relationships that they have had either with players or with coaches.
"We feel we have an awful lot to sell. I would like to thank the BBN, tremendous support. I think our recruits felt their presence, they felt the support of the fan base, so there are a lot of things that go into it. But great effort by our staff, great work ethic and they did a fantastic job."
While other Southeastern Conference schools had recruiting classes rated higher than Kentucky's, Rivals.com considers the Wildcats' group their best ever. Players such as Hatcher and Timmons were rated as four-star recruits, and Hatcher's decision to switch from USC to the Wildcats was viewed as a coup considering the program's moribund recent history and overall lower profile compared to other SEC schools.
One of Stoops' goals was changing that impression in recruiting and the effort landed the Wildcats a dozen offensive players in trying to improve one of the SEC's worst units last season. That group includes four linemen with three from Florida, but the biggest of the bunch is 6-8, 305-pound Justin Day from Aiken, S.C.
Kentucky's defensive line was also beefed up with the addition of Jacob Hyde, a 6-2, 330-pounder from Clay County High School in Manchester. That unit included two from Florida — Regie Meant of Cape Coral and Alvonte Bell of Miramar — and junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith (Greenville, Ala.), who enrolled this semester and will practice this spring.
"There are a lot of great players that come out of Florida," Stoops said of recruiting in his former state. "It's probably the way it fell because of our relationships with some of them. So I don't know if it would be the exact percentage in the future but I'm not going to put any limitations on it. There is a lot of talent down there but we're going to work extremely hard to hit everybody we can within a four, five, six hour drive from Lexington."
Stoops' philosophy was borne out in a recruiting yield that expanded beyond Kentucky and Florida.
The Wildcats signed three players from Ohio including safety Marcus McWilson from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown. Initially committed to Nebraska, McWilson backed out to join Stoops, a fellow Mooney alumnus.
"I asked Marcus the whole time, 'What's it feel like to be the second best player to play at Cardinal Mooney High School?,'" Stoops joked.
Kentucky's signings of Day and Smith demonstrated Stoops' ability to reach into SEC territory, an approach that also attracted kicker Austin MacGinnis (Prattville, Ala.).
But Stoops' landing of Hatcher and Timmons was considered a significant step forward for Kentucky since many standout recruits have gone elsewhere. And it might explain why the coach couldn't contain his glee in starting his head coaching career with two "dynamic" recruits.
"He's a home run threat every time he touches the ball," Stoops said of Timmons. "He's very versatile, has a tremendous family, great person, great student, joy to be around and was very high priority for us."
Of Hatcher, the coach added, "You know the importance of recruiting the best players in the state. With Jason we signed three players from Kentucky and Jason was important in a lot of ways. ... He gives us great credibility in moving forward."
-- Gary Graves
No. 1 recruit Nkemdiche picks Mississippi
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's stunning recruiting class included the nation's consensus No. 1 overall recruit, one of the top receivers and one of the best offensive tackles.
The Rebels had such a good day that even LeBron James was impressed.
"Ole Miss ain't messing around today," the Miami Heat star wrote on Twitter.
Yes, it was quite a day for a Southeastern Conference program that's usually an also-ran on the field and in the recruiting rankings. But on Wednesday, second-year coach Hugh Freeze and the rest of the Rebels were the talk of the college football world.
The 28-player class centers around Robert Nkemdiche, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end from Loganville, Ga., who was the No. 1 recruit in the country according to Rivals.com, Scout.com, ESPN, CBS Sports and 247Sports.
He'll be joined at Ole Miss by receiver Laquon Treadwell (Crete, Ill.) and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, Fla.), forming the foundation for a consensus top 10 class nationally.
"The biggest vision we have is to do something new and fresh," Freeze said during Tuesday's press conference at the school. "To convince a group of young men to come together, want to be different, and to do something different and fresh at a place that might not be the norm. To upset the apple cart, so to speak."
Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell are all 5-star recruits according to Rivals.com. The Rebels also landed nine 4-star recruits, including safety Antonio Conner (Batesville, Miss.) and offensive tackle Austin Golson (Prattville, Ala.).
Nkemdiche had been on several programs' wish list for more than a year, but family ties gave Ole Miss the inside track. His brother Denzel Nkemdiche plays for the Rebels and led Mississippi's defense with 82 tackles, including 13 for a loss last season.
"I do think (this class) has the possibility of being a program changer," Freeze said. "But it's all on paper right now. We'll have to start managing expectations right now because we're still in the second year of our journey, but I do think we took a huge step forward today toward getting to where we all want to get, and that's competing for an SEC West championship."
Robert Nkemdiche went on an official visit to LSU last week, but when it was all said and done, he signed with the Rebels, donning a red Ole Miss hat after he made the announcement.
"I feel like it's the right place for me," Robert Nkemdiche said during his press conference. "I feel like they can do special things and they're on the rise. I feel like going to play with my brother, we can do something special."
Freeze led Ole Miss to a 7-6 record last season, improving from a 2-10 mark in 2011.
When Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Tunsil announced their decisions, the Ole Miss coaching staff celebrated. Freeze credited his assistant coaches and players for doing a great job selling the program throughout the year.
Ole Miss doesn't have the pedigree to usually recruit toe-to-toe with the likes of Alabama, LSU and other Southeastern Conference powerhouse programs. But at least on paper, the Rebels have a class that measures up quite well with the nation's best.
"I feel like he's a good man, he's special," Robert Nkemdiche said of Freeze. "I feel like he's a man of his word. I respect him a lot and I feel like he has good things coming."
Denzel Nkemdiche said he and his mother pushed hard for Robert to choose Ole Miss, but ultimately the decision was his. Denzel said his individual success at Ole Miss — along with the big improvement for the program this season — were important factors in Robert's choice.
"The feeling right now is unreal," Denzel Nkemdiche said from Robert's signing. "It's real hard to explain. I'm glad it's over. I wanted him to make the right decision that he wanted to make and I wanted him to feel comfortable with the decision he made because he's going to be where he's going to be for the next three years. I'm glad he's going to be there with me. I'll be able to look after him and take some care of him and we'll be able to win the national championship together."
-- David Brandt
Mississippi State brings in 20-player class
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi State signed a recruiting class of 20 players on Tuesday, including heralded defensive end Chris Jones.
The Bulldogs landed Jones, who is from nearby Houston, Miss., after a hard-fought recruiting battle with rival Mississippi. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive lineman was a relative unknown a year ago, but shot up the recruiting rankings following a stellar senior season that included 160 tackles and 14 sacks.
Mississippi State was one of the few schools that recruited him before he became such a hot commodity, and that early confidence was rewarded when the Bulldogs were able to fight off several other suitors over the final weeks and sign him.
Jones is a 5-star recruit and the No. 2 defensive end recruit in the country according to Rivals.com. The Bulldogs also landed two 4-star players — receiver Fred Ross (Tyler, Texas) and quarterback Cord Sandberg (Bradenton, Fla.). Ross is a Parade All-American while Sandberg is also considered an outstanding baseball prospect.
Mississippi State's signing class doesn't have a ton of marquee names, but fifth-year coach Dan Mullen has never been a big fan of recruiting rankings.
"A lot of people say Chris Jones might be the No. 1 player in the country," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "Six months ago, he wasn't on any of your lists."
Jones could be the next in a growing line of quality Mississippi State defensive lineman. Fletcher Cox, Pernell McPhee and Josh Boyd have all been very productive under Mullen, which is one reason the Bulldogs have had three straight winning seasons. Cox was a first-round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles last season while McPhee just helped the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl.
Mullen said Ross is a receiver who could play right away because of his skill level and the team's current lack of depth. The 6-1, 200-pounder picked the Bulldogs over Oklahoma State and could help take the place of departed seniors like Chad Bumphis and Chris Smith. He was one of six receivers the Bulldogs signed and Mullen said several could contribute quickly.
"There's going to be some spots open," Mullen said.
At 6-3 and 215 pounds, Sandberg has good size for an SEC quarterback and the Bulldogs are excited about his future. But he's such a good baseball player that there's some worry he'll be selected early in the Major League Baseball draft and elect to play professionally instead of coming to Starkville.
Mullen said it was a good problem to have. There's also the possibility Sandberg could play both football and baseball at Mississippi State.
"From getting to know Cord and his family, that's a win-win situation, Mullen said. "If he gets drafted high (in the MLB Draft) and goes in the first round, hey, I'm happy for him. That's a big deal."
The Bulldogs also added three defensive backs in an effort to help rebuild after losing Thorpe Award winning cornerback Jonathan Banks to graduation.
South Carolina signs another low-key top 20 class
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina had a low-key signing day Wednesday, which is just fine with coach Steve Spurrier as his team comes off back-to-back 11-win seasons.
"If you don't have a very good season, you need something to get the fans excited for next year, "Spurrier said. "I've never tried to overhype it."
South Carolina signed 21 players, one short of the maximum the Gamecocks could sign after losing three scholarships because of NCAA violations. For the second year in a row, there was no huge catch, just a number of three-star and four-star recruits.
"We didn't get a lot of PR today, but that's OK. It's a good, solid bunch of guys, excellent group. May turn out to be one of best groups, who knows? Who knows, until we kick it off and start playing."
South Carolina signed four linebackers, including perhaps their most heralded recruit, Skai Moore out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The position was the team's most important need — all three linebackers that started the Outback Bowl win over Michigan were seniors.
Wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Steve Spurrier Jr. said it was an easy sell to recruits.
"Your opportunity to play and come play right now is as good as it gets," Spurrier Jr. said.
The Gamecocks signed five offensive linemen despite losing just one starter. The unit has struggled even as South Carolina has competed in recent years for the Southeastern Conference title.
Spurrier also picked up another quarterback in Conner Mitch, who enrolled in school in January. Spurrier said the last few days he has been he has been happy to look out his office window the last few days and see the recruit from Raleigh, N.C., throwing passes. Mitch is a pro-style pocket passer. Spurrier would like to redshirt him, but there is always the possibility he might find his way into a quarterback controversy sooner rather than later with the Head Ball Coach.
"He's a young man who likes football and likes throwing it around," Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks didn't sign any specialists or wide receivers. Spurrier Jr. said they would have made an offer to a great receiver if they had a chance. And Spurrier indicated he thinks South Carolina has talent at the position that hasn't reached full potential.
"This spring would be a wonderful opportunity for those young receivers that haven't done much here yet," Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks again picked up a top 20 class. Rivals.com ranked South Carolina 16th in the nation, with ESPN ranking the class 17th. The rankings are in the lower half of the SEC, but Spurrier noted that most of the SEC's top ranked classes, like Mississippi's surprise stellar class, were on the other side of the league in the Western Division.
''We were we watching that TV today and saying, 'Man I'm glad we're in the Eastern instead of the Western side,'" Spurrier said.
-- Jeffrey Collins
Missouri announces 20-member signing day class
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A year ago, Missouri coaches huddled around a television on signing day, listening intently on whether they would be able to nab Dorial Green-Beckham, one of the best recruits in the country.
This year's class was much more of a ho-hum affair.
Chase Abbington highlighted the Tigers' 11 in-state recruits, part of a 20-member class the school announced Wednesday. A 6-foot-2, 205-pound tailback from O'Fallon, Mo., Abbington rushed for 939 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, adding 10 catches for 142 yards and another touchdown to lead Fort Zumwalt South High School in scoring.
Having so many Missouri signees has been a rarity for Pinkel, who is preparing to coach his 13th season for the Tigers. In five of its past seven classes, the school signed more players from Texas than from any other state.
Pinkel says he's content with Missouri's recruiting despite signing the smallest class in the Southeastern Conference and one that doesn't feature any household names.
"We never look at any rankings. It's never happened," he said. "We do what we do. And I think over the years, it's proved that it's worked in a very, very positive way for us in recruiting to bring players in here that can help us win a championship."
After finishing its inaugural season in the SEC with a disappointing 5-7 record, Missouri made a few staff changes, promoting Josh Henson to offensive coordinator and Andy Hill to quarterbacks coach. Dave Yost, hired to coach inside receivers at Washington State, voluntarily left the Tigers and ended his 17-season relationship with Pinkel, who admitted that he had to get through the "void" left by Yost.
Twenty-seven returning players and three signees on Missouri's roster still hail from Texas, but the team is shifting its recruiting focus to the Southeast after leaving the Big 12 last year. Pinkel said he assigned one assistant coach to recruit Georgia and two to recruit Florida, but three coaches remain in Texas. The school signed one player each from Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida, and three from Texas.
Pinkel says the transition will be similar to when he started recruiting in the South when he arrived at Missouri in 2001.
"It wasn't like that when we were here 10 years ago; nobody even knew us," he said. "It's constantly building relationships, it's getting out there, it's winning, it's all those things. And I think that we're going to do the same thing."
One thing the school had to overcome was the end of its school-record seven consecutive bowl seasons. Hill acknowledged that not reaching a bowl game could have affected recruits' confidence in Missouri, and that other schools could use the fact against the Tigers. That didn't stop the school from signing Chase Daniel after its last losing season in 2004; Missouri won 32 games from 2006-08 with the Heisman Trophy finalist starting at quarterback.
"The bottom line is, if you get the right guys and you bring the team back together and they compete together and all that, then you're back talking about going to bowls," Hill said.
Hill will benefit from having both incoming quarterbacks, Trent Hosick and Eddie Printz, enrolling a semester early as they adjust to the program before fall camp. Hosick attended high school in Kansas City, Mo., and Printz did so in Marietta, Ga.
"When you start football practice in August, when really it's for real with the upcoming games on the line, then you're trying to compete," Hill said. "You're not just trying to learn, just trying to get your feet underneath you."
Henson says Missouri needs to move on from last season, but he hopes to apply the lessons learned to this year's team. He took solace in the Tigers' play on the road against Florida and Tennessee late in the season, saying that there was no "unknown" factor this year.
"I think there's that factor of just experiencing and learning, and you get to that point to where it's just football," he said. "It's a better brand of football, no doubt. But it's just football. And I think confidence-wise, I felt good the way we ended the season."
Aside from new competition, the Tigers struggled to keep finding replacements last season for their decimated offensive line. The team's projected starters on the line heading into fall camp made only 30 of a possible 60 starts during the season. All five missed time rehabbing from injury, while left guard Travis Ruth missed the entire season because of a torn left triceps tendon.
The Tigers signed three offensive linemen and six defensive linemen, but Pinkel joked that "we needed like 20 offensive linemen and 20 defensive linemen."
Ultimately, wherever and whomever Missouri recruits, Pinkel noted that former players are the best salesmen the Tigers have.
"I think that ultimately what sells our program, whether it's in Dallas or it's in Kansas City or St. Louis, is your players that go back home to their high schools, and they graduate and they've had success and they win and they go to bowls. That's the biggest selling that you're going to get."
Jones' arrival changes look of Vols' signing class
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Butch Jones hasn't coached his first game at Tennessee yet, but he already has received his first taste of the rough-and-tumble world of Southeastern Conference football.
Jones' staff rallied late to get Tennessee a recruiting class ranked in the top 30 nationally Wednesday by most services, yet those same services also had this class in the bottom half of the SEC.
"Everything is competitive in the SEC," Jones said. "Every day you go to work, it's fourth-and-1 for the Super Bowl. Our coaches understand it."
Only nine of the 21 recruits in this class had committed to Tennessee before the Vols hired Jones away from Cincinnati on Dec. 7. Eight players who committed to Tennessee under former coach Derek Dooley switched to other schools after he was fired.
Eight members of Tennessee's class were previously committed elsewhere. That list includes tight end A.J. Branisel (Cincinnati), defensive end Malik Brown (Syracuse), quarterback Joshua Dobbs (Arizona State), athlete Malik Foreman (Vanderbilt), wide receiver Ryan Jenkins (Clemson), athlete Lemond Johnson (Auburn), running back Jabo Lee (East Carolina), offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman (Cincinnati). Brown and Dobbs made Signing Day switches.
"A lot of times when you're late in the process, you tend to maybe offer scholarships out there and you look back in time and wish you would have kept," Jones said. "We were extremely selective in the process. We had a formula for the type of player we needed to attract here in Knoxville."
The Vols hoped to add more star power this week.
Vonn Bell, a consensus five-star defensive back who plays for Rossville (Ga.) Ridgeland but lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., announced Wednesday he had chosen Ohio State over Tennessee. 247Sports national recruiting analyst Barton Simmons noted that Bell had grown up a Tennessee fan.
"I think there's no way to sugarcoat it," Simmons said. "That one stings."
Other near misses included consensus five-star defensive end Carl Lawson as well as linebacker E.J. Levenberry. Both considered Tennessee late in the recruiting season before sticking to their original commitments, as Lawson signed with Auburn and Levenberry chose Florida State.
"In the short time since he was hired, they became finalists for a lot of good prospects," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "That in itself will lead to some momentum next year."
This class should fill holes in the passing game that were created when quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter chose to enter the NFL Draft after their junior seasons. Their departures had left Tennessee's roster with only two scholarship quarterbacks and without any wideouts who caught more than 13 passes last year.
Dobbs, rated a four-star recruit by most services, threw for 3,625 yards and 29 touchdowns while also rushing for 419 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall at Alpharetta (Ga.) High. Riley Ferguson was the quarterback for two state championship teams at Matthews (N.C.) Butler. MarQuez North, rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 2 receiving prospect, was one of four wideouts to sign with Tennessee.
"Trent Dilfer is a great friend of mine and he texted me and said, 'We feel you have the best recruiting class in terms of quarterbacks in the country,' " Jones said.
The Vols' challenge in future recruiting classes is to keep Tennessee's best high school players.
Tennessee signed one of the top 25 prospects in the state of Tennessee as rated by Rivals.com last year. This year, the Vols signed only one of the top six prospects in the state according to the 247 Composite, which averages the ratings of all the major recruiting services. The highest-rated player from the state to sign with the Vols was Memphis White Station defensive end Jason Carr.
"We have to own the state of Tennessee," Jones said. "We're the one institution that says Tennessee. We have to own our state. There's an onus on us to recruit the state and an onus on those prospective student-athletes to want to come to Tennessee and represent their state."
That will become one of Tennessee's biggest tasks as it puts together its 2014 class while trying to reverse the fortunes of a program that has produced three straight losing seasons.
"I think the 2014 class will be - you hate to say it - but a make-or-break class," Farrell said. "Everybody in the SEC gets three years. If you don't do well in three years, you're gone. In three years, you've got to get it done. That means your first full recruiting class is the most important one. 2014 will tell the tale for them on the recruiting trail."
Jones' staff believes they will benefit from having a full year to recruit.
Jones took over Tennessee's program just two months ago. He didn't formally name any assistants until mid-December, giving this staff little time to complete its recruiting class. Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said it was like trying to erase a 28-0 deficit with five minutes left in the game.
"We've got a great head coach, and he's a great closer," Thigpen said. "We just ran out of time. I think next year when we've got 365 days... it's going to make a difference."
-- Steve Megargee
Coach Franklin makes more history for Vanderbilt
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — James Franklin has been promising that he's just getting started at Vanderbilt. Now the coach has followed up the best season since 1915 by landing a recruiting class rated in the top 20 for the first time in the program's history.
Vanderbilt signed 26 players Wednesday, and a final commitment from linebacker Zach Cunningham helped push the Commodores to No. 19 in the ratings by Rivals.com. Even with that success, Vanderbilt still ranks seventh among Southeastern Conference teams and just ahead of Tennessee. Still, Franklin and his coaches are bringing in the type of talent that the Commodores hadn't seen in, well, ever to compete in the SEC.
"That's going to be very important for us to do consistently year in and year out," Franklin said. "We're excited about it. We still have a long way to go. This is two recruiting classes that we've been able to put together that we feel good about. There's teams in this league been doing this for 80 years. So we still have some progress that we have to make, and we're making it. All you can do is get better today."
Vanderbilt went 9-4 last season for the program's best record since 1915, and the Commodores finished off by winning the Music City Bowl for a seventh straight victory that is the longest winning streak in the SEC. That success translated almost immediately as Franklin topped a signing class rated 29th nationally by Rivals a year ago with this class featuring 13 players on offense, 12 on defense and a kicking specialist.
Scout.com rated Vandy's class 20th, while 247Sports.com had the Commodores at No. 35. Barton Simmons, national recruiting coordinator for 247Sports.com, said he still thinks Vandy's class is even better than a year ago as Franklin and his coaches keep topping themselves.
"They missed on a couple of guys late, so they haven't quite gotten over the hump to be able to really compete for an SEC championship on a recruiting level, but they definitely look like they're here to stay as far as contending for that Top 25 (in recruiting rankings)," Simmons said. "As soon as they land a Leon McQuay, a Jalen Ramsey or someone like that, at that level in the future, that could really get them to be in position to be able to truly compete with anyone in the country."
For Franklin, the recruiting rating matters only from a perception standpoint. It helps signal that Vanderbilt is bringing in players that fit not only academically at Vanderbilt but also physically in the SEC where he said they look and perform like everyone they're playing against. He noted all the players in this class had national offers and all had multiple SEC offers.
"Times have changed, and I think that's a real positive for us," Franklin said.
Vanderbilt got plenty of attention Wednesday with Jordan Cunningham, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound receiver from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., announcing on national television that he chose Vanderbilt over offers that included Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida State and Stanford. The final commitment to announce was the other Cunningham, the 10th-overall player in Alabama according to 247Sports.com, picked the Vandy hat instead of Auburn, Tennessee or Oregon.
Even with receiver Jordan Matthews back for his senior season, the Commodores signed five receivers and three tight ends, including tight end Brandon Vandenburg from College of the Desert Community College. He's a rare junior college transfer to the SEC's lone private university, but Franklin expects the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end to compete immediately on the field as well as the classroom with a "perfect GPA."
Vanderbilt also features five defensive backs and four defensive linemen, including end Landon Stokes whose father Fred played 10 years in the NFL. With starting quarterback having used up all his eligibility, the class includes two quarterbacks in Chad Kanoff of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Johnny McCrary from Decatur, Ga. McCrary enrolled in January after choosing from offers including Tennessee, Georgia, Ohio State and Mississippi State.
This is Franklin's third recruiting class overall since he was hired in December 2010. He said they're still trying to fill some holes but he feels confident they're improving their size and depth. He pointed to the offensive line where they had seven players on scholarship last spring and will have 15 this spring.
"We keep raising the bar," Franklin said.
-- Teresa M. Walker