National Signing Day 2018: Every Top-10 Team's Most Important Recruit
In a perfect world, incoming recruiting classes would be made up entirely of prospects who will use their first year or two adjusting and developing before producing and excelling in later seasons. In reality, college football teams need many of these newcomers to make an impact right away.
Even the best teams in the country need to rely on first-year players to step in and make meaningful contributions, either to fill holes left by departing stars or to become part of a rotation at a heavily used position. Each year, it seems like more and more freshmen are being thrown into the fire.
Using the final Associated Press Top 25 from the 2017 season as a guide, we've picked out one recruit from each of the top 10 teams who is most important to those teams' continued success. This isn't necessarily the top-rated signee, but rather the one who you're most likely to be hearing about when the 2018 season begins in late August.
No. 10 Auburn: ATH Joey Gatewood
Height/weight: 6'4", 232 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 49th
Is he Auburn's next great quarterback, coming from the high school ranks instead of junior college or the transfer route like most others under coach Gus Malzahn? Might he be used as a hybrid offensive player, a ball-carrying tight end of some sort?
Or could he end up being a defensive end, which is what he looks like at first glance? The possibilities are endless with Joey Gatewood, a massive, physical player who has so many tools that he might as well be known as the Tigers' Swiss Army knife.
Jarrett Stidham is Auburn's quarterback for 2018 with Malik Willis expected to be the backup after getting a few snaps as a true freshman last season. If Auburn wants Gatewood on the field this fall, it may be at a different position than QB, but if not he should be in line to run the offense in 2019 and beyond.
No. 9 TCU: S Atanza Vongor
Height/weight: 6'1", 200 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 189th
Nick Orr spent the bulk of the last three seasons as TCU's starting safety. He intercepted nine passes in his career with a team-best three in 2017. His graduation leaves a significant gap in the Horned Frogs' back line, one Atanza Vongor will have a shot at plugging.
An early enrollee, Vongor is the No. 16 safety in his class. His skill set makes him operate like a cornerback in terms of coverage abilities, but he loves to hit as well.
There's a chance Vongor could end up moving up to linebacker at some point, much like coach Gary Patterson has previously done with safeties Travin Howard and Montrel Wilson.
No. 8 Penn State: DE Micah Parsons
Height/weight: 6'3", 235 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 5th
Penn State has made it all the way back from the scholarship restrictions that came with its NCAA sanctions and is now incredibly deep. The exception is at middle linebacker, where the Nittany Lions must replace their starter (Jason Cabinda) and backup (Brandon Smith), who are graduating.
Micah Parsons is rated as the second-best weak-side defensive end in the 2018 recruiting class, but he's on the small side for that position at the college level. Penn State plans to move him inside to linebacker, per LandOf10.com's Tyler Donohue, where he could be an immediate starter if he can handle the transition well.
"He's a rare mix of size and speed, so if he learns the defense and the linebacker position, it will be impossible to keep him off the field," Andrew Rubin of the Daily Collegian wrote.
No. 7 Wisconsin: ATH Aron Cruickshank
Height/weight: 5'9", 155 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 508th
Wisconsin usually takes a standard offensive approach built around the run game and a massive offensive line with passing thrown in to keep the defense honest. It's rare that the Badgers have someone on the field who is a threat to break off a big play or turn a short catch into a long gain.
That may change in 2018 with Aron Cruickshank, who was a quarterback and wide receiver in high school but will focus on pass-catching at Wisconsin. A track and field star as well, his speed and ability to stop and start without losing any momentum will make him a highlight-reel hero.
The Badgers bring back plenty of receivers for 2017, but Cruickshank is going to be in the mix, possible in an H-back type of role, since he can get carries similar to Jazz Peavy in 2016.
No. 6 UCF: LB Eriq Gilyard
Height/weight: 5'11", 225 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 498th
Scott Frost didn't turn UCF from winless to unbeaten in two years with top-tier recruits, and new coach Josh Heupel isn't likely to be stealing big names away from college football's blue bloods, either. Instead, he'll have to develop underrated prospects into stars, much like Frost did with quarterback McKenzie Milton, who was rated No. 1,161 in the 2016 class.
Eriq Gilyard,the 32nd-best outside linebacker prospect in the country, picked the Knights over North Carolina State in October. His upside is something new UCF defensive coordinator Randy Shannon can mould into a something special.
Shaquem Griffin, who was UCF's third-leading tackler and its top tackle-for-loss producer with 13.5, has graduated. Gilyard could step in and take his spot right away.
No. 5 Ohio State: APB Jaelen Gill
Height/weight: 6'1", 182 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 30th
The H-back is Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's baby. It is a hybrid position that figures heavily into the Buckeyes offense. Parris Campbell handled that spot in 2017, and his return means it's his for another season, but you can never have too many versatile weapons to get yards on the ground or excel out in space.
Jaelen Gill is the No. 2 all-purpose back from the 2018 class. He may start out first as a slot receiver before moving to the H-back role once he's added bulk.
"All indicators suggest Gill has the physical tools to be a factor quickly in a role that was created for players with his tools," LandOf10's Austin Ward wrote.
No. 4 Clemson: QB Trevor Lawrence
Height/weight: 6'6", 208 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 1st
Kelly Bryant had a good-but-not-great season as Clemson's starting quarterback in 2017, and the job is his to lose next season. Holding onto that gig won't be easy with Trevor Lawrence coming on board with a hype train that is hard to ignore.
Lawrence "just has it," 247Sports notes on his recruiting profile, adding that he "has all the traits you look for in an elite signal caller."
That doesn't guarantee he'll be playing in 2018, though, not with Bryant entering his senior year and 2017 5-star signee Hunter Johnson having completed 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns in mop-up duty last season.
Clemson has three passers who most other schools would kill for, and if anything, Lawrence's presence will ensure the other two give their best efforts.
No. 3 Oklahoma: OT Brey Walker
Height/weight: 6'7", 320 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 29th
All-American Orlando Brown protected Baker Mayfield's blind side for three years, and now both are off to the NFL. It's almost a given that Kyler Murray will succeed the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, but it's not as clear how Oklahoma will handle its open left tackle position.
Brey Walker may be the answer. The No. 4 offensive tackle in the 2018 class already has the size to start in college, and it will ultimately come down to how he fares during training camp.
"I'm hoping to go in and possibly take his spot,” Walker said of Brown, per DieHards. "I know that's going to be some really big shoes to fill, but I'm hopeful to be as good as he was."
It's possible that Bobby Brown, who was the starting right tackle in 2017, could move to the left and allow Walker to begin his career on the right side before eventually moving into his natural spot.
No. 2 Georgia: RB Zamir White
Height/weight: 6'1", 220 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 9th
Two of Georgia's three best running backs in school history are Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who just left, so there is a ton of ground production to replace. D'Andre Swift, whoo ran for more than 600 yards as a true freshman, is the heir apparent. But the Bulldogs showed in 2017 that they want to run as much as possible, and the best way to do that is with several capable rushers.
Zamir White is the top-rated running back in the 2018 class, but he will head into college still dealing with a torn ACL that shortened his senior year of high school. If he can complete a successful rehab, he should be in the mix to play as a true freshman.
"The rehab is going great," White told 247Sports' Kipp Adams. "Six weeks in, I feel like I will really be ready to go by fall, mid-camp."
No. 1 Alabama: CB Saivion Smith
Height/weight: 6'1”, 175 lbs.
Recruiting ranking: 2nd (JUCO)
Alabama must replace its entire starting secondary, a group that helped the Crimson Tide intercept 19 passes and break up another 66. Opponents completed just 53.8 percent of their throws against Alabama in 2017. There are some strong returners, like Trevon Diggs and Jared Mayden, but experienced depth will be an issue.
Enter Saivion Smith, the top-ranked junior college recruit for 2018. He played a year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College after starting his career at LSU, where he played in 2016 before transferring. He was a top-50 prospect in the 2016 class.
"I think any time you get a guy that's played in major college football games before, [he] probably knows a little more about what it takes, probably has a little more maturity,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said, per 247Sports' Charlie Potter.
Smith, who got to work out with Alabama during playoff preparations, could end up starting or find himself in a nickel corner role.