National Signing Day 2021: Top Early Storylines to Follow
With most of the drama out of the way thanks to college football's early signing period, much of the excitement for the first Wednesday in February has been muted the past few years.
But there are still immediate difference-makers available, including the nation's No. 3 prospect.
While no big-name quarterbacks are waiting to be plucked, as Ohio State did last year with C.J. Stroud, nine of the top 250 players haven't committed.
Let's take a look at some storylines to watch before February 3's national signing day.
Can Ohio State Seal the Deal with J.T. Tuimoloau?
Defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau hails from Sammamish, Washington, but the prevailing thought is he'll head across the country to the Ohio State Buckeyes.
It's no guarantee, though.
Whoever gets Tuimoloau will get a college-ready star. He's a 6'5", 277-pounder who is nimble on his feet and plays like he's 30 pounds lighter. He is as close to a can't-miss player as there is in this year's class.
While the Buckeyes are a strong favorite, he is also heavily considering the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. Home-state Washington and coach Jimmy Lake could keep him in the area as well. Oregon and USC are in the mix too.
Still, this feels like a Buckeyes-Bama battle, just like the national title game, as 247Sports' Brandon Huffman recently noted.
Plenty of proverbial punches remain to be thrown in this recruitment, and while his relationship with Egbuka and the Ohio State staff will play a major role, so will all that hardware in Tuscaloosa. The biggest storyline of the late session is who will land Tuimoloau.
Who's Finishing 3rd?
The two teams standing at the end of the season are the two on top in the recruiting rankings, and it's hard to see anybody overtaking Alabama and Ohio State in the 2021 cycle.
As a matter of fact, Nick Saban has the No. 1 spot pretty much wrapped up.
But who will finish No. 3?
Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs, who won the mythical recruiting title last year, hold that distinction.
Clemson surged to fourth with the pledge of top offensive lineman Tristan Leigh, but the Tigers are finished in this cycle, so coach Dabo Swinney's team won't climb any higher.
LSU, Oregon, Texas A&M and USC still have several high-profile targets remaining and could make plenty of noise before February, but the duo to really watch is the Bayou Bengals and especially the red-hot Trojans (more on them coming up).
As always, late movement will occur, and where the final dominoes fall will have a big impact on the top of the rankings behind the Tide and Buckeyes.
Is USC's Late Juice Enough to Overcome Oregon in the Pac-12 Rankings?
In the '20 class, the USC Trojans could get no mojo working to climb into the top 50, and it was arguably the worst recruiting haul of the modern era for the traditional Pac-12 power. But Clay Helton's team showed signs of life on the field, going 5-1 in a COVID-shortened 2020, and the Trojans are showing out with recruits too.
No bigger splash will occur than the one top-ranked prospect Korey Foreman created when he announced he was staying in California to play for the men of Troy. Then, 4-star cornerback Ceyair Wright pledged, bringing the Trojans' class to eighth.
Can they overtake the No. 6 Oregon Ducks class for first in the conference?
The Trojans have their sights on 4-star linebacker and former long-time LSU commitment Raesjon Davis, who backed off his pledge to coach Ed Orgeron's Bayou Bengals in December and seems a strong possibility to stay home.
The Trojans and Ohio State Buckeyes are surging in his recruitment. The Ducks are also in the mix.
Davis told 247Sports' Greg Biggins:
"I grew up a USC fan and location is big for me. I want my family to come see me play and at a school like USC, I know they can. I just talked to coach Helton yesterday and I have a good relationship with guys like coach Orlando and coach Hutchings. I think the program is going in the right direction despite that loss to Oregon. I see some positives for sure and I think I could step in and play early there as well."
Grabbing Davis makes things even more interesting for the future of the program, as he would be a force in coordinator Todd Orlando's defense.
Steve Sarkisian Enters Good, Ol'-Fashioned Texas Battle for LJ Johnson
There's nothing like a good, ol'-fashioned Texas battle to get the blood boiling, and though the Texas A&M Aggies and Texas Longhorns no longer play each other on the field, they square off for prospects all the time.
That will be the case when two Saban disciples go nose-to-nose for one of the best players in the country and try to lure running back LJ Johnson to either College Station or Austin.
Jimbo Fisher's A&M assembled a brilliant season that had it on the cusp of the College Football Playoff, and though quarterback Kellen Mond is likely off to the NFL, there's still plenty of talent remaining.
Still, the Aggies could use a bruising, every-down back like Johnson.
The Longhorns found a future star in Bijan Robinson last year, and everybody should be excited about the running back's future. But after the national championship game coaching performance by former Alabama offensive coordinator and new Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian, who wouldn't want to play in that offense?
Combining Johnson and Robinson could be massive for Texas in turning things around.
While LSU and Florida State are also in the mix for the Cy-Fair High School running back, it feels like Johnson will land at one of the Lone Star State schools, given his ties to the area. And while he told 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong he's just getting to know Sark, the 'Horns will be a factor.
"LJ is very encouraged by the offense at UT and the offense at A&M," his father, Jonathan, said. "He loves what they're doing with running backs. They're both doing really great things with the running backs."
Other New Coaches Look to Round Out Classes
Sarkisian isn't the only one trying to put the finishing touches on a recruiting class.
Eleven head coaches have landed new jobs this season, and there's still uncertainty surrounding Jeremy Pruitt at Tennessee.
The SEC already has Bryan Harsin at Auburn, Shane Beamer at South Carolina and Clark Lea at Vanderbilt trying to salvage what have been subpar recruiting classes.
According to Rivals.com's Chad Simmons, the Gamecocks want to flip 4-star Tennessee commit Jordan Mosley, who likely won't be part of the Vols' class. Mississippi State is going hard after the wide receiver too. The Gamecocks could make a huge splash if they convinced Trevin Wallace to help fill out a linebacking corps in need.
Harsin also needs the 4-star Wallace, who is one of the best 'backers left in the cycle. Guys such as offensive linemen Austin Uke, Jordan Moko and running back Jaylin White would help the Tigers too.
At Illinois, Bret Bielema is trying to piece together a class with guys like defensive tackle Denver Warren, but it's an uphill battle to try to patch relationships Lovie Smith failed to establish with recruits. Andy Avalos has to round out a 68th-ranked class at Boise State that needs improvement too.
One of the least-discussed storylines is new Arizona coach Jedd Fisch's need to keep 3-star quarterback prospect Clay Millen in the fold.
"And I've been really impressed with coach Fisch," Millen told 247Sports' Brandon Huffman in December, mentioning he wanted to see how the Wildcats staff filled out before signing. "I can tell he's a really hard worker, and I believe he's going to be very successful."
Duo of Louisiana Pass-Catchers Coming Off the Board
Louisiana is always one of the most talent-rich states. While it isn't on the same level as Texas, California and Florida, it's entrenched in the second tier.
LSU's Orgeron has done a good job of keeping Louisiana natives in state, and he seems in good position to do so with at least one of the big-time playmakers left in the class.
The Bayou Bengals have several targets remaining, especially along the offensive front, but getting 6'4", 185-pound receiver Brian Thomas Jr. of Walker to stay home would be a major win. He has a final three of the Tigers, Texas A&M and Alabama, per 247Sports' Brian Perroni.
Though 247's Crystal Ball points 100 percent to Orgeron's team landing him, it's no guarantee the nation's No. 79 player will stick around. It's vital he does, and if that happens, it will give LSU five receivers in the 2021 class and five of the top six Louisiana players in the 247Sports rankings.
The Tigers also are in the running for Destyn Hill of Edna Karr High School, but the 4-star receiver's Crystal Ball points toward the Florida State Seminoles. The nation's No. 113 player hails from New Orleans, and he is considering LSU, FSU, Alabama, Oklahoma and Florida.
Either of those players would make several teams extremely happy. It will be fun to watch where the final two big pieces of the puzzle fall in a big year for star prospects in the Boot.
Sunshine State Splashes on the Way?
While Destyn Hill is a possibility for Florida State and Florida, plenty of other potential big-name players could sign with those teams.
The Gators had a big year but will have to rebuild the offense after quarterback Kyle Trask, tight end Kyle Pitts and others head to the NFL from that vaunted passing attack. But coach Dan Mullen has assembled an impressive class, and other talented players could still fall into place.
The most notable of those is Terrion Arnold, who is an instant-impact athlete and could star on offense or defense but is likely a megastar at safety. The Gators trended for him for a while, but Alabama and Georgia are coming on, and any of those could pick him up.
Arnold is a threat to start immediately, no matter where he goes.
Four-star Miami-based defensive tackle Savion Collins could wind up in Gainesville, too, which would be a big deal for the future of that front. UF is in the mix for several other players as well, such as 4-star Armwood athlete Charles Montgomery.
Mike Norvell's Seminoles struggled in his first season in Tallahassee, but they've hit the transfer portal hard with pickups of South Carolina's Kiel Thomas and Jammie Robinson, as well as Auburn running back D.J. Williams. Recruits are likely taking notice too.
While Ole Miss has to be considered the favorite for 4-star defensive tackle Tywone Malone, the 'Noles are in the picture. Ke'Travion Hargrove would be a great pickup at running back to go with Williams, but the 'Noles still have competition for the 4-star recruit.
It could be a big finish for both Sunshine State programs on the trail.
Can Lane Kiffin's Defensive Recruiting Resurgence Continue?
Lane Kiffin's first full recruiting class at Ole Miss exceeded expectations, exactly like his first season with the Rebels, who finished 5-5 and won the Outback Bowl.
The longtime media darling has become a trip to follow on social media and is a hit with prospects, just like he was in his days as the head coach at Tennessee and USC and as the offensive coordinator at Alabama.
But no matter how explosive the Rebels were offensively in '20, they were just as awful on defense, which is why Kiffin and Co. had to address the latter unit in recruiting.
And did they ever.
The Rebels were hardly on the recruiting radar in November, but they surged late and are 19th nationally. They have a handful of targets left, but there's no more important remaining recruit than New Jersey defensive tackle Tywone Malone.
The 6'4", 300-pound defender is a two-sport star who is also a standout on the baseball diamond, and he wants to play both sports in college. His finalists will allow him to do that, and whether he winds up with the Rebels, USC, Rutgers, Tennessee, Florida State or Texas A&M, he'll do big things on both fields.
The Rebels are the overwhelming favorite in the 247Sports Crystal Ball, though the Seminoles or Aggies could land the nation's No. 61-ranked player.
If Kiffin nabs Malone, he'll deserve an all-around A for his first year in Oxford. In any case, the Rebels' future appears bright.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.