Former Top College Football Recruits Down to Their Last Chance in 2017-18

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2017

Former Top College Football Recruits Down to Their Last Chance in 2017-18

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    Da'Shawn Hand has found it difficult to crack Alabama's starting defensive line.
    Da'Shawn Hand has found it difficult to crack Alabama's starting defensive line.Butch Dill/Associated Press

    For some college football fans, the first Wednesday in February is akin to a national holiday. It’s national signing day, the first day that recruits can sign a national letter of intent with the program of their choice. Class rankings are assigned. Five-star signees are celebrated. Every head coach meets their recruiting needs, and fans are certain that the new arrivals will carry them to a league or national championship.

    Only, it’s not that simple. Sure, a number of highly rated talents turn that promise into production on the field and lead their new teams to glory. But some recruits never live up to high expectations, and others take a bit longer than expected to get on the field and make a significant impact.

    There were plenty of those players in the classes of 2014 and 2015. While some of their classmates are off to the NFL or on pace for an early pro entry, they’re at their second schools or struggling to crack the starting lineup.

    Here's a look at 10 recent top recruits who could be on their last chance at stardom over the next two years. Recruiting rankings for the classes of 2014 and 2015 were provided by Scout.com.

Auburn DT Byron Cowart

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    Can Byron Cowart make an impact on Auburn's defensive line?
    Can Byron Cowart make an impact on Auburn's defensive line?Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Recruiting info: No. 8 overall player, No. 2 DE in class of 2015

    What’s gone wrong: Cowart had all the markings of a star when he signed with Auburn. He was 6’4”, 265 pounds and a strong, fast, powerful defensive end. But it simply hasn’t worked. He has struggled to get on the field, making six tackles and six quarterback hurries as a freshman and six tackles and one forced fumble as a sophomore. Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell told AL.com’s Tom Green last fall that his struggles are surprising.

    "I've seen him play this year where he should have been in position to make plays, but he's one step behind, so he's trying to arm-tackle a guy when he should be right there," Farrell said. "I think that's something that drives coaches nuts, especially when you have so much talent at the end position, where you can just plug in another guy. I don't know why. I have no idea."

    What needs to change: Cowart has a chance at a fresh start of sorts this spring. He has moved from defensive end to defensive tackle after gaining about 15 pounds of muscle.

    Cowart is competing to replace graduated Montravius Adams with junior Andrew Williams and sophomore Derrick Brown.

    This might be his last chance to grab a starting role with Auburn, although he could fit in at end as well. Cowart must play smarter and use his powerful frame more efficiently to move into the starting lineup and become a valued contributor.

DT Breiden Fehoko

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    Breiden Fehoko is looking for a new opportunity following two seasons at Texas Tech.
    Breiden Fehoko is looking for a new opportunity following two seasons at Texas Tech.John Weast/Getty Images

    Recruiting info: No. 24 overall player, No. 5 DT in class of 2015

    What went wrong: Fehoko was a strong Texas Tech legacy with two older brothers who’d played in Lubbock before him. He was one of the nation’s top defensive tackle recruits and started every game of his Red Raider career but never made a huge impact. As a sophomore, he made 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He announced in January that he will transfer from Tech and has two seasons of eligibility remaining following his transfer season.

    What needs to change: Fehoko needs to find a home where he can contribute in a more consistent fashion. He has not picked his next program but will visit Auburn, Georgia, Louisville, LSU and Ole Miss before making a final choice, per SEC Country. It is important for him to find a destination that needs help on the defensive line where he can make an immediate impact once he is eligible in 2018 if he has hope of living up to his recruiting hype.

UAB LB Clifton Garrett

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    Clifton Garrett is looking for a fresh start at UAB.
    Clifton Garrett is looking for a fresh start at UAB.Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Recruiting info: No. 24 overall player, No. 1 MLB in class of 2014

    What’s gone wrong: Clifton Garrett arrived at LSU with plenty of promise as the nation’s top middle linebacker recruit but barely saw the field as a freshman in 2014. He had shoulder surgery before beginning his Tigers career and played in just three games and didn’t record a tackle. He transferred following the season and wound up at Arizona Western College, then signed with UAB, which will return to the FBS this fall following a two-year layoff.

    What needs to change: UAB is an appropriate destination for Garrett, who, like the Blazers’ program, is getting a fresh start. He will have the chance to be a starter and a leader away from the white-hot spotlight in Baton Rouge and lend veteran experience to an undermanned roster still working its way back to full strength. Garrett will have two years of eligibility remaining, and if he is healthy, he’ll make an impact in Birmingham.

Alabama DE Da'Shawn Hand

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    Da'Shawn Hand is ready to break out as an Alabama senior.
    Da'Shawn Hand is ready to break out as an Alabama senior.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Recruiting info: No. 12 overall player, No. 3 DE in class of 2014

    What’s gone wrong: Playing at Alabama can be rewarding, but it can also be frustrating. Nick Saban and his staff recruit as well as anyone in football, and while that is a positive for fans, it can make life difficult for those hoping for easy playing time. Nothing has come easy for Da’Shawn Hand.

    Hand has struggled to crack a loaded defensive line rotation which has featured the likes of Jonathan Allen, Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson. Last fall, the 6’4”, 280-pound junior had 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. For his career he has 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He simply hasn’t had the playing time to establish himself.

    What needs to change: Remember in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when slacker Jeff Spicoli tells teacher Mr.  Hand: “If I’m here, and you’re here, doesn’t that make it our time?” Well, this is Mr. Hand’s time at Alabama. He’s at the head of the rotation as a senior, and he’ll get every chance to start and establish himself.

    Hand is an athletic freak who might just need time to blossom to wreak havoc on opposing offensive tackles. For Da’Shawn Hand, it’s now or never at Alabama. He just needs to translate the hype into production, at long last.

Tennessee DT Kahlil McKenzie

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    Kahlil McKenzie hasn't lived up to expectations at Tennessee.
    Kahlil McKenzie hasn't lived up to expectations at Tennessee.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Recruiting info: No. 1 overall player, No. 1 DT in class of 2015

    What’s gone wrong: Big things were expected of Kahlil McKenzie at Tennessee. The class of 2015’s top overall recruit, per Scout.com, McKenzie was expected to have an immediate impact on Rocky Top. It hasn’t quite happened that way.

    The 6’3”, 325-pound defensive tackle played in all 13 games as a freshman, making 14 tackles and a sack. Last fall, he played in seven games, starting one, before his season ended due to a torn pectoral muscle. He made just 12 tackles. Twenty-six tackles in two seasons is not what Volunteer fans expected from such a prized recruit.

    What needs to change: Entering his junior season, it’s time for McKenzie to put up or shut up. He has the size, agility and overall pedigree to make a big impact, but he hasn’t done so thus far. This fall, he needs to prove that he is healthy and put together a strong every-down effort to stay on the field and become a force in the trenches for a Volunteer defense that could certainly use it.

Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray

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    Kyler Murray is positioning himself to become Oklahoma's next starting quarterback.
    Kyler Murray is positioning himself to become Oklahoma's next starting quarterback.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Recruiting info: No. 37 overall player, No. 4 QB in class of 2015

    What’s gone wrong: Kyler Murray appeared to be a natural fit at Texas A&M. It was his father’s alma mater, and the younger Murray possessed dazzling dual-threat skills, capable of making things happen with his legs or his arm.

    But like multiple recent Aggie quarterbacks, it didn’t work out for him in College Station. He emerged as the starter midway through the 2015 season, throwing for 686 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

    But Murray didn’t play in the season’s final three games and joined fellow QB Kyle Allen in transferring following the season. He wound up at Oklahoma and will be eligible this fall.

    What needs to change: First of all, Murray needs to be patient. Two-time Heisman finalist Baker Mayfield is back for his senior season and is entrenched as the Sooners’ starter.

    Murray is battling Austin Kendall for the backup role as Mayfield’s heir apparent and dazzled in the spring game, completing nine of 13 passes for 144 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown. He’s on track to be a major difference-maker over his final two seasons in Norman.

Ohio State CB Kendall Sheffield

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    Kendall Sheffield hopes Ohio State is a better fit for his talents.
    Kendall Sheffield hopes Ohio State is a better fit for his talents.Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

    Recruiting info: No. 9 overall player, No. 2 CB in class of 2015

    What’s gone wrong: Alabama continually stacks talented recruiting class after talented recruiting class in Tuscaloosa, so a little attrition isn’t all that surprising. But Sheffield failed to get on the field as a freshman, taking a redshirt season, and he then transferred during the 2016 preseason, winding up at Blinn (Tex.) Junior College.

    He is a highly skilled cornerback who can also return kicks and has said little about the motivation for his departure. But with the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey ahead of him last fall, Sheffield clearly felt more comfortable elsewhere.

    What needs to change: For players with Sheffield’s talent, there’s always a second chance. He signed with Ohio State over Texas A&M in January and should have an opportunity there after the Buckeyes lost starting corners Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley to the NFL draft. Now, it’s a matter of merging a big chance with his obvious talent and becoming a starter as a sophomore.

Jacksonville State RB Roc Thomas

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    Roc Thomas is hoping for a happy ending at Jacksonville State.
    Roc Thomas is hoping for a happy ending at Jacksonville State.Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

    Recruiting info: No. 14 overall player, No. 3 RB in class of 2015

    What’s gone wrong: Roc Thomas was one of the most heralded backfield recruits in the class of 2014, rated ahead of Dalvin Cook and Bo Scarbrough by Scout.com. But he never found consistent carries in Auburn’s backfield.

    He rushed for 475 total yards and three touchdowns in two years, adding 17 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown while flashing versatility. Thomas struggled with injuries as a sophomore and transferred to FCS Jacksonville State following the season. He rushed for 803 yards and seven touchdowns for the Gamecocks.

    What needs to change: Thomas has one more chance to impress NFL scouts, and he can get their attention with Jacksonville State, an FCS power. With the graduation of quarterback Eli Jenkins and tailback Josh Clemons, Thomas could be the offensive centerpiece and enjoy a true breakout season as a senior.

Ventura College QB Ricky Town

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    Ricky Town has been nomadic in two seasons as a college quarterback.
    Ricky Town has been nomadic in two seasons as a college quarterback.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Recruiting info: No. 99 overall player, No. 9 QB in class of 2015

    What’s gone wrong: Town was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks in the class of 2015 and was considered a poised passer with a solid arm. But he has yet to find a college home. Town signed with Southern California but transferred before the season even began, winding up at Arkansas. He never cracked the Razorbacks’ depth chart and didn’t play in 2016, transferring to Ventura (Calif.) College following the season.

    What needs to change: Town has talent, but he just needs to play. After washing out at a pair of Power Five programs, it might be tough to get another high-major landing spot. But if Town is productive this fall, he could find a place to play in 2018 and have two years of eligibility remaining, perhaps at a Group of Five program. But first he needs to prove himself and put some passes on film for scouts.

Miami DT Gerald Willis

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    Gerald Willis has yet to find consistency at Miami.
    Gerald Willis has yet to find consistency at Miami.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Recruiting info: No. 28 overall player, No. 6 DE in class of 2014

    What’s gone wrong: Gerald Willis arrived at Florida as one of the nation’s top defensive end prospects. However, Willis was underwhelming on the field and had serious temper issues off it, as documented by PalmBeachPost.com's Matt Porter. He was dismissed from the Gators’ program following his freshman season (14 tackles, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery) and wound up in south Florida at Miami.

    Last fall, he played in nine games and made 19 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. But he was suspended for the season opener and missed the Russell Athletic Bowl after “failing to meet the standard of team expectations.” Willis enters his junior season in need of overall stability.

    What needs to change: Willis has had multiple disciplinary incidents at both of his stops and must prove he can be trusted off the field before he produces on it. He’s moved to defensive tackle and is competing with Kendrick Norton, Richard McIntosh, Anthony Moten, Jon Ford and Tyreic Martin and Ryan Fines for playing time in the Hurricanes’ tackle rotation.

    Willis has talent with athleticism and power. But he needs to show coaches they can count on him to earn playing time and put up the statistical lines he’s capable of.