National Signing Day 2021: Grading Every Top 25 Team's Recruiting Class

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 2, 2021

National Signing Day 2021: Grading Every Top 25 Team's Recruiting Class

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    With college football's national signing day on the horizon Wednesday and the vast majority of the prospects in the 2021 class already signed or committed, it's important to see just how 2020's top teams did in this recruiting cycle. 

    COVID-19 threw a major wrench into a shortened season that saw some Cinderella programs emerge like Cincinnati, BYU, Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Louisiana. Those teams provided a lot of fun, along with some upstart Power Five programs like Texas A&M, Northwestern and Iowa State.

    Though the usual suspects like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Notre Dame grabbed the biggest headlines, there was some exciting parity everywhere but at the top of the rankings.

    This year's recruiting proved the rich do indeed get richer. But how did those other teams fare?

    Here is a glimpse at the grades for the recruiting classes compiled by all of the final Associated Press poll's Top 25.

25-21. Buffalo, San Jose State, Ball State, Miami, USC

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    Ethan Hyman/Associated Press

    25. Buffalo Bulls: C-

    It's difficult to grade Lance Leipold's group, considering this is the highest (No. 96) the Bulls have been ranked since 2014 when they cracked the top 100. But it's still seventh in the MAC and not going to turn many heads.

    With Jaret Patterson heading to the NFL, watch out for Aljay Henderson to get carries early, and this class of 17 players (so far) will try to overachieve the way the outgoing group did.

          

    24. San Jose State Spartans: D-

    Another class that isn't all that exciting is Brent Brennan's Spartans' class of just 12 players. Despite winning the Mountain West and being one of the most fun teams in the country, it hasn't parlayed into quality recruiting classes.

    Instead, the class is like Brennan's other ones, ranked No. 120 and 10th in the Mountain West. Pro-style quarterback Walker Eget will try to take over the reigns after Nick Starkel and Nick Nash leave.

           

    23. Ball State Cardinals: C+

    This is Mike Neu's best class at the program, and obviously, winning the MAC championship over Buffalo is paying some dividends. But just how many? The Cardinals are still ranked just 92nd, which is good for fifth in the league.

    The positive news is that is the best class the program has brought in since '17. Is it good enough? Two top-1,000 prospects is OK for a MAC team, and dual-threat quarterback Kiael Kelly and running back Rico Barfield could be an awesome duo in the future.

           

    22. Miami Hurricanes: A

    This is exactly the kind of class coach Manny Diaz needed to pull together after an excellent step forward in 2020. The season didn't end the way the 'Canes hoped, but there was still a lot of excitement, and they've turned the momentum into the ACC's second-ranked class and the nation's No. 12 group.

    The way they've pounded the transfer portal will supplement the team with stars, and getting 5-star talent like Leonard Taylor and James Williams bodes well for the future, along with the heir to D'Eriq King in Jake Garcia.

            

    21. USC Trojans: A+

    Coach Clay Helton's job in this year's recruiting class is about as good as the men of Troy could've hoped, and it may get better if Raesjon Davis comes to Los Angeles.

    After an awful recruiting campaign in '20, Helton has assembled a top-10 class (No. 8) that is on the heels of Oregon's in the Pac-12. It features the nation's top-ranked player in Korey Foreman, two difference-making quarterbacks in Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss, and playmakers on both sides of the ball.

20-16. Oklahoma State, Texas, North Carolina, Liberty, Iowa

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    20. Oklahoma State Cowboys: B-

    Don't be alarmed by coach Mike Gundy's No. 37-ranked recruiting class. This is right in his wheelhouse.

    Every season since 2017, the Cowboys' final ranking has fallen between 30-40, and, this year, it's good enough for the third-best class in the Big 12. Gundy is known for getting system fits and developing them well. This group shouldn't be any different.

    Four-star defensive tackle Aden Kelly and receiver Bryson Green are the highlights.

           

    19. Texas Longhorns: A-

    There was never any concern about Tom Herman's recruiting, and before he was fired, he'd assembled another strong group. New coach Steve Sarkisian is trying to round out the talent with elite players like running back LJ Johnson, but this group is firmly in the top 20 at No. 17.

    Athlete Ja'Tavion Sanders is the star of the bunch, and there are electric defensive athletes all over the class, which is vitally important for a team needing a boost on that side of the ball. Sark will provide the oomph on offense.

             

    18. North Carolina Tar Heels: A

    One of the most pleasant surprises about Mack Brown's takeover in Chapel Hill and the program's quick surge into the national conversation is just how thorough he's been at keeping top in-state talent at home.

    That happened yet again in this cycle, as UNC is pulling in yet another banner group, ranked No. 14 nationally, highlighted by players who are staying close to home. All but four of the 18 commits hail from North Carolina, including the top nine. Stars like Keeshawn Silver and Drake Maye stand out.

           

    17. Liberty Flames: D

    Hugh Freeze is known as being a great recruiter, but this year's class isn't as good (at least not yet) as last year's, which made it into the top 90. The Flames have the nation's No. 106-ranked class, and it's also not very big, with just 14 players.

    Freeze will get the most out of this group, and there are nice pieces like 3-star Khristian Zachary, who is a top-450 player, and another top-1,000 player in outside linebacker Kaci Seegars. But there just isn't a lot of depth of talent.

               

    16. Iowa Hawkeyes: A

    This class should have all Hawkeyes fans excited. It's currently ranked No. 21 nationally, which means it's the best class coach Kirk Ferentz has signed since a No. 6-ranked class in 2005. It's just the second top-30 class since 2008, and it's loaded with potential difference-makers.

    Seven 4-star prospects are a big deal for Iowa, and they feature a loaded offensive line class with David Davidkov, Connor Colby and Beau Stephens, along with athletes such as Cooper DeJean, Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson. This class is deep and versatile and a major win for Ferentz.

15-11. Louisiana, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Indiana, BYU

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    Tommy Gilligan/Associated Press

    15. Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns: C

    Coach Billy Napier's program has led the Sun Belt rankings the past two seasons, but barring a last-minute surge, it won't this year. Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State are both ahead of them in the conference rankings.

    Still, it doesn't do anything to damage what Louisiana is used to. The Ragin' Cajuns are ranked 81st nationally after being 77th and 82nd the past two years. They've got one top-1,000 prospect in receiver Robert Williams. Will it be enough in a class of 16 to keep them near the top?

            

    14. Coastal Carolina Chanticleers: C+

    Though the Chants are just two spots ahead of Louisiana in the rankings and one spot ahead in the conference rankings, they got a better letter grade because the school hasn't ever recruited at this level. Coach Jamey Chadwell has turned the huge '20 season into fruits on the recruiting trail.

    They're ranked 79th nationally, but that's 20 spots better than last year and 42 spots ahead of the year before that. They have two top-1,000 players in outside linebacker Zemarion Harrell and defensive end Josaiah Stewart.

            

    13. Florida Gators: A

    Coach Dan Mullen's Gators could close with some big names on the trail, but it's already been yet another big season for them, as they stand on the cusp of another top-10 class. The past two hauls have been ranked ninth, and this one is 13th, but that's nothing disappointing.

    The group of 23 players is highlighted by 5-star cornerback Jason Marshall, but the nation's top-ranked JUCO player, Diwun Black, is also in the class, along with 12 total 4-stars.

            

    12. Indiana Hoosiers: D-

    It was a memorable season for coach Tom Allen, whose Hoosiers finished 6-2 and stayed on track, even after quarterback Michael Penix Jr. was lost for the season. Unfortunately, it's not translated on the recruiting trail at all.

    Indiana is ranked 63rd nationally, which is worse than last year's 57th and a far cry from the No. 36 class from two years ago. The Hoosiers are 12th out of 14 Big Ten teams and feature just two top-300 players, including 4-star dual-threat quarterback Donaven McCulley. This isn't what IU fans hoped for after such a strong year.

                

    11. BYU Cougars: C+

    BYU's 72nd-ranked recruiting class is the team's best since 2017, and though the Cougars aren't going to scare a lot of Power Five teams with the group, 16 players have signed, and this is not a bad class at all for the small size.

    Coach Kalani Sitake's class has four players in the nation's top 1,000, and along with brothers Elia and Enoka Migao, the class includes big-time defensive end Logan Fano, a handful of athletes and is loaded on developmental defensive talent. It's going to be interesting to see if the Cougars can keep up the momentum in the post-Zach Wilson era.

10. Northwestern Wildcats

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Northwestern Wildcats are not known for their recruiting prowess. They have stringent academic standards, and coach Pat Fitzgerald is known for more of a rugged, defensive style that thrives on developing players.

    They also have done well recently in the transfer portal and are going that route again this year with South Carolina quarterback transfer Ryan Hilinski and Kansas receiver Stephon Robinson set to head to Chicago.

    That's good, because this year has been a little disappointing on the recruiting trail. This is the worst class Fitzgerald has put together rankings-wise since 2017, and the Wildcats currently have a group of just 15 players ranked 11th out of 14 Big Ten teams and No. 52 overall.

    There are a few bright spots, with top-400 players Mac Uihlein, who is a 4-star linebacker, and 4-star offensive tackle Caleb Tiernan, but that's all the 4-stars in Fitzgerald's group.

    Running back Anthony Tyus III and defensive end Najee Story could get on the field early, too, but this class won't wow anybody with its depth and talent. Still, at Northwestern, it's about getting the type of guys who match Fitzgerald's toughness and who can grow and learn in the system.

    Grade: D

9. Iowa State Cyclones

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Much like is the case at Northwestern, Iowa State's Matt Campbell is not known for putting together great classes.

    That's the case again this year, as the Cyclones' haul of 19 players so far actually is down a bit in the rankings from the previous two years. They're currently 53rd nationally after back-to-back No. 46 classes, and though that's not far off, Campbell is going to have to continue to prove he's a developmental wizard.

    Iowa State is ranked seventh out of 10 Big 12 teams, proving it's difficult to recruit to Ames.

    The Cyclones have just two players ranked in the top 600 prospects in the nation, which are 3-star tight end Tyler Moore and 3-star athlete Eli Sanders. The class is pretty balanced offensively, defensively and features a few athletes.

    Iowa State fans don't get their jollies on national signing day. They'll have to wait and see if Campbell can turn this next group into a team as good as this year's.

    Grade: C-

8. Cincinnati Bearcats

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Luke Fickell is in no hurry to leave the Queen City, and it's obvious why. He has a great thing going for the Cincinnati Bearcats, which won the American Athletic Conference, finished eighth nationally and nearly beat the Georgia Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl.

    The Bearcats are recruiting very well, and they're going to finish first in the AAC again this year with a group of 24 prospects that currently ranks 43rd nationally, right in line with the No. 41 haul from a year ago.

    Fickell can be very selective with what head coaching job he wants to take and when he wants to take it, as he is running the top Group of Five program in the country.

    Though this class has no 4-star players, all 24 players have signed letters of intent, and the group includes 10 players ranked in the nation's top 1,000.

    Athlete Chamon Metayer and Bryon Threats lead the group, and there are other quality players like linebacker Jack Dingle and defensive linemen Zeiqui Lawton and Robert Jackson. It's another defense-heavy class, and the group will be led by Mike Tressel after Marcus Freeman left for Notre Dame.

    This is the type of class that can help Cincinnati build an AAC dynasty. 

    Grade: A-

7. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Say what you want about the fact Georgia coach Kirby Smart has yet to win the big one as the head coach at his alma mater, but he's built a sturdy, top-level program that is going to compete for SEC championships every year.

    That gives you the opportunity to compete for national titles, too.

    Smart doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon because of his ability to recruit as well as anybody in the country. UGA is currently third nationally after winning last year's recruiting title, and this class is loaded with top-shelf talent, too.

    Amarius Mims is the class jewel, a 5-star offensive tackle anybody would be happy to have anchoring the line, and he will be protecting 5-star quarterback Brock Vandagriff in the future, too. Elite playmaking linebackers Xavian Sorey and Smael Mondon should be spotlighted on defense, too.

    This isn't Smart's best year on paper in recruiting, but it's still an elite haul that includes 13 players ranked in the nation's top 200. The four players mentioned above are all 5-stars, and UGA just continues to not only pull in Peach State talent but build a national brand, too.

    Smart has things rolling downhill in Athens. 

    Grade: A+

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Even when Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley is not putting together a class heavy on numbers, it's still filled with elite players.

    The group of 16 players in the 2021 class is ranked 10th nationally and good for the best in the Big 12.

    When you combine that with all the good work the Sooners are doing in the transfer portal, including landing a trio of former Tennessee Vols in offensive tackle Wanya Morris, running back Eric Gray and defensive back Key Lawrence, it's easy to see why they keep producing on the field.

    The '21 class is highlighted by 5-star signal-caller Caleb Williams, but stud receivers like Mario Williams, Billy Bowman, Cody Jackson and Jalil Farooq are the latest in the stable of offensive playmakers Riley builds every year.

    The class is deep in other places, too. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch will have quality pieces like Clayton Smith, Kelvin Gilliam, Ethan Downs and Nathan Rawlins-Kibonge to help outfit a unit that got significantly better in 2020.

    Grade: A

5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Tony Tribble/Associated Press

    Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly hasn't put together a top-10 class since 2018, but this year's group of Fighting Irish newcomers is going to finish there (currently ranked ninth) barring some last-minute changes. 

    More importantly, it's a massive class filled with quality players. Notre Dame's class includes 27 prospects, including 12 4-star players. 

    As Ian Book heads to the NFL, the Irish will build on a team that made the College Football Playoff by trying to replace offensive playmakers everywhere and the guys who will block for them, too. The offensive line was addressed in this class with Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler leading the way.

    Four-star dual-threat signal-caller Tyler Buchner was a major pull out of the state of California, and there are playmakers at receiver coming like big-bodied Deion Colzie and sleek playmaker Lorenzo Styles Jr.

    Defenders like Tennessee linebacker Prince Kollie and Missouri defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio provide staples for new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, and there are a lot of reasons to like Notre Dame's best class on paper in years.

    The Irish are trying to take that next step to win a national title.

    Grade: A

4. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Coach Jimbo Fisher is paid the big bucks for a reason, and he got the Aggies on the cusp of the College Football Playoff in 2020 and is looking to push through and make it in.

    That's not easy when the SEC West is the home to the past two national champions in Alabama and LSU.

    But the way Fisher is recruiting means Texas A&M should be right back in the mix, even without Kellen Mond at quarterback. The Aggies are currently seventh nationally, which puts them right on the fringe of being an A-plus.

    This class does not quite have the top-end talent to get that "+" by its letter grade, but the Aggies still have one 5-star in Shemar Turner. He's joined by elite pass-rushers such as Tunmise Adeleye, Marcus Burris, Elijah Jeudy and Jahzion Harris.

    Dual-threat quarterback Eli Stowers will vie to replace Mond, and receiver Shadrach Banks and other top-100 players like offensive linemen Bryce Foster and Reuben Fatheree, safety Kendal Daniels and plenty of other 4-star prospects mean yet another huge group of prospects for Fisher.

    If the Aggies can close the deal on 4-star running back LJ Johnson and beat Texas out for him while doing so, this would be an A+ class.

    Grade: A

3. Clemson Tigers

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Now, we start the "rich get richer" part of the program.

    Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has built the type of culture with the Tigers that recruits itself, and that's the reason he has such great classes every year. When he's able to keep around coordinators like Tony Elliott and Brent Venables, that helps, too.

    Though the Tigers fell just short of the national championship game, losing to Ohio State in the semifinals, they've been a staple in the College Football Playoff, and kids gravitate toward that type of success. They have the nation's No. 5 recruiting class again this year, best in the ACC.

    Swinney's team is likely done for the cycle in a smallish class of just 19, but it's still heavy on talent. All-purpose running back Will Shipley is a 5-star who could step in and immediately start for an explosive offense, and offensive lineman Tristan Leigh will be a three-year stalwart for the offensive line, too.

    The Tigers also signed playmaking defenders such as Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Barrett Carter and Payton Page, along with elite tight end Jake Briningstool.

    This is yet another talented and deep class for Clemson, even if it didn't reach 20 prospects. This is how you continue a dynasty.

    Grade: A+

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Most years, the class Ryan Day has assembled for the Ohio State Buckeyes would run away with the national recruiting crown.

    They are probably going to have to settle for second, but it's an unbelievable class, nonetheless.

    The group includes 5-star defensive end Jack Sawyer, along with other players ranked at the top of the star system such as guard Donovan Jackson, running back TreVeyon Henderson, receiver Emeka Egbuka and quarterback Kyle McCord.

    If the Buckeyes can land the nation's third-ranked player in J.T. Tuimoloau, for whom they currently lead the Crystal Ball rankings, they can close the gap between them and the top-ranked Crimson Tide. Another player who could commit to Ohio State is 4-star linebacker Raesjon Davis, who would be a big boost, too.

    But don't just focus on the 5-stars. There are playmakers all over the field and at every position for Day, who must replace a lot of talent in quarterback Justin Fields, running back Trey Sermon and others along the offensive front.

    The Buckeyes are elite and have as good a roster as anybody in the nation, and they are only adding to it with this class. It's loaded.

    Grade: A+

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Nick Saban is the undisputed king of college football, and it's partly because he is the undisputed king of college football recruiting.

    The national champion Alabama Crimson Tide are at the top of the standings every year, and you can trace their success all the way back to winning in living rooms throughout Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa.

    This year is no different.

    UA has put together one of the best recruiting classes ever on paper, after ushering out a group in the 2017 class that is probably the best, most decorated group ever assembled.

    This 2021 class has beef at the top with offensive linemen like JC Latham, Tommy and James Brockermeyer and defensive linemen like Damon Payne. There are star pass-rushers like Dallas Turner, an elite cornerback in Ga'Quincy McKinstry and a pass-catcher in Jacorey Brooks, who looks college-ready.

    This class features seven 5-star players and an astounding 16 players in the nation's top 150 prospects. It's deep and dynamic, and a bunch of these players could find their way onto the field in 2021. 

    It's the best class in college football.

    Grade: A+

              

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247 Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.