Alabama LB signee Rashaan Evans
The 2014 edition of national signing day in the books, and once again, the SEC dominated headlines, with boatloads of talented athletes signing with programs from the conference.
Seven of the top nine classes in the nation went to the SEC, with Alabama chiming in at the top spot in the 247Sports team rankings with a mind-boggling six 5-star prospects and 21 prospects with four or more stars.
Across the state, Auburn loaded up with defensive talent and instant-impact offensive stars who could shine right away on the Plains.
What were some hits and misses of the 2014 recruiting classes? Our picks are in this slideshow.
It's not often that Alabama needs immediate help defensively from a recruiting class, but it did this recruiting cycle. It got that help in the form of several top-tier prospects who should make their marks in Tuscaloosa sooner rather than later.
Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey—two 5-star cornerbacks—signed with the Crimson Tide, with Brown enrolling early. That's big news, because while Alabama finished second in the SEC in pass defense with 180.3 yards per game in 2013, it was exposed at times by teams that could move the ball through the air.
Brown and Humphrey could immediately fill needs at cornerback after Deion Belue moved on and head coach Nick Saban used a revolving door of corners at the No. 2 spot all season.
On top of that, the Crimson Tide nabbed outside linebacker Rashaan Evans out of Auburn High School. The 6'3", 220-pounder is ultra-athletic and a perfect fit to combat the up-tempo spread offenses that the Crimson Tide sometimes struggle with.
Toss in 5-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, who is a prototypical 3-4 defensive end who can excel against the run or the pass, and Alabama either filled holes or replenished depth in several key areas of the defense.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp took a big step this offseason when he hired Kurt Roper to replace Brent Pease as the Florida Gators' offensive coordinator. The change signified a philosophical shift for the Gators' head coach, who came to Florida touting a pro-style, ball-control system.
That's a step in the right direction, but this recruiting class doesn't necessarily reflect that change.
Florida has been one-dimensional out of choice and necessity over the last few seasons thanks to a noticeable absence of bona fide playmakers at wide receiver, and there weren't many in this class.
J.C. Jackson was the only wide receiver in this class with four or more stars. But at 5'10", 180, he could flip to the defensive side of the ball and play cornerback in Gainesville.
Florida held a commitment from 6'3", 193-pound 4-star wide receiver Ermon Lane earlier in the recruiting process, but it lost the star to Florida State shortly before national signing day.
The Gators finished the season ranked ninth in the nation in the 247Sports team recruiting rankings, but this class signifies that the more things change, the more things stay the same for Muschamp.
Auburn surprised the college football world with a remarkable rebound in 2013, going from 3-9 to 12-2, and came within 13 seconds of winning the BCS National Championship. Not bad, especially considering the Tigers defense finished 12th in the SEC in total defense (420.7 YPG) and 13th in pass defense (257.7 YPG).
Help is on the way in the form of a top-notch recruiting class that's loaded with defensive talent.
Tre' Williams will compete for playing time right away at either linebacker spot in Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense. Andrew Williams, Justin Thornton and DaVonte Lambert will bring depth to a defensive line that thrived with depth a year ago; Derrick Moncrief transferred from junior college and will get a chance to start at safety right away; and Nick Ruffin, Stephen Roberts and Kalvaraz Bessent will bring much-needed depth to the cornerback spot.
It's a class that fulfilled essentially all of Auburn's needs, both immediate and long-term—specifically on the defensive side of the ball, where head coach Gus Malzahn needed all the help he could get.
One of the biggest questions facing Bret Bielema when he jumped from Wisconsin to Arkansas after the 2012 season was how would he handle recruiting, which is much more of a "contact sport" in the SEC than it is in the Big Ten. He answered by hiring a talented group of assistants who are well-versed with the battles along the SEC recruiting trail.
It didn't pay off in his first full class.
The Hogs posted the nation's 30th-ranked class (No. 11 in the SEC), lost key recruiter Charlie Partridge when he became the head coach at Florida Atlantic and posted a class that's loaded with 3-star talent.
Bielema wants to play LSU- and Alabama-style football, but he is doing so at a talent and depth gap that is as wide in the Grand Canyon and getting wider. That won't cut it.
Sure, the Hogs could catch lighting in a bottle and contend for the division every once in a while by developing players in house. But he's not going to be consistently successful in the SEC doing that. Big, fast, physical linebackers, defensive linemen and offensive linemen who are ultra-athletic typically have four or five stars attached to their names coming out of high school.
Ole Miss was the talk of the town last year after notching a top-10 class that included No. 1 overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche.
Head coach Hugh Freeze had nearly the same success during the 2014 cycle, minus the top-ranked player and hype.
The Rebels chimed in at the No. 16 spot in the team rankings, with nine 4-star players and one 5-star player, according to 247Sports' rankings. The fact that Freeze was able to add much-needed depth to last season's class is important, but more so because he was able to do it without much fanfare.
“I hope we can redshirt more kids than we were able to the last two years,” Freeze said in quotes released by Ole Miss. “That’s a sign we’re headed in right direction and getting kids more maturity before they have to hit the field. Last year, we had some top-heavy guys that got a lot of attention. We were also able to evaluate correctly guys like Evan Engram and Derrick Jones. This class, we might be better top to bottom.”
That means solid classes aren't surprising anymore, they're expected.
Tennessee became this year's Ole Miss, coming out of seemingly nowhere to secure one of the most surprising classes of the 2014 cycle. The Vols signed 33 prospects, including 14 early enrollees, many of whom will make an immediate impact on Rocky Top.
The most notable of those players is running back Jalen Hurd. The 6'3", 230-pound 4-star athlete has the size to be a bruiser between the tackles but speed to burn outside. He enrolled early to continue his rehab from a shoulder injury and get a jump start on his college career.
Junior college transfer offensive tackle Dontavius Blair should get a good look at winning one of the two vacant jobs on either end of the Vols' offensive line, Josh Malone and Von Pearson should join Marquez North in a talented and rebuilt wide receiving corps and 12 new members of the program are defensive players who had four or more stars attached to their names during the recruiting cycle.
That'll work wonders for head coach Butch Jones as he looks to get the program back to a competitive level in 2014.
Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason
It's a difficult task for any first-year head coach to put together a solid class with a few weeks of recruiting between getting the job and national signing day, but it's especially difficult at a place like Vanderbilt when the face of the program doesn't have a prolonged track record of success leaves.
Derek Mason did what he could.
He kept 4-star safety Emmanuel Smith committed and flipped 4-star defensive end Nifae Lealao from Stanford to Vanderbilt after getting the job, but this was a hastily thrown-together class that was gutted after former head coach James Franklin bolted to Penn State.
It doesn't always have to be like this, and it likely won't for Mason.
He has the same kind of energy as Franklin and surrounded himself with a solid staff. But he jumped into a tough spot and managed the best he could.