Former Top CFB Recruits Running Out of Chances Ahead of 2022 Season
Top recruiting classes often turn into elite college football teams, but that doesn't mean every highly ranked prospect will hit it big.
Some never do. Others need time or a change of scenery. Several who were once some of the biggest names in recruiting have watched as their classmates were selected in the NFL draft or turned into college stars.
This year offers one more shot in the twilight of their collegiate careers.
In some cases, the players on this list have only shown flashes or been beaten out for jobs. Others have suffered injuries or shuffled schools. A couple have endured years at the same program and are prepared to battle for key roles.
To make this list, a player had to be a top-100 prospect on the 247Sports composite rankings in either the 2017 or 2018 classes. This might not be everybody's final season, but the clock is ticking on their time to prove themselves.
William Barnes, North Carolina Offensive Lineman
It hasn't been a huge deal for Florida schools to go into North Carolina to pull prospects recently, but the Tar Heels returned the favor during the 2018 class when they reached into Apopka, Florida, for William Barnes.
The offensive lineman was the nation's No. 53 player and was expected to become a difference-maker rather quickly for the Tar Heels.
It hasn't worked out that way, but after he stuck in Chapel Hill and developed, 2022 might finally be his year to prove he is worthy of that ranking. After all, sometimes it takes the guys in the trenches a little longer to develop.
Barnes joins a veteran group alongside Ed Montilus, Quiron Johnson, Brian Anderson and Asim Richards, who will vie to crack the rotation and replace three departed starters. The Heels have Jonathan Adorno, Miami transfer Corey Gaynor and talented incoming freshman Zach Rice who could factor in too.
Last year, the 6'4", 312-pound Barnes appeared in 12 games between special teams and the O-line. He made his first start at UNC against Virginia and logged a career-high 51 snaps against Pittsburgh, according to his UNC profile.
Thanks to the extra year, Barnes has two remaining seasons of eligibility, but opportunity abounds this year.
VanDarius Cowan, Maryland Linebacker
The long, winding road of VanDarius Cowan's collegiate career is set to make one final stop this season, when his legacy will be determined.
Will he remain a solid, long-time contributor, or will Cowan finally rise to stardom in 2022 with the Maryland Terrapins?
It's easy to get lost in the shuffle among all that talent in Alabama, but Cowan looked ticketed for a stellar career when he arrived as part of the 2017 recruiting class out of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as a 6'4", 226-pound athletic linebacker who was the No. 78 player nationally.
But he barely saw the field for the Crimson Tide and transferred to West Virginia, where he has battled injuries for much of the past three seasons, suffering back-to-back knee setbacks on his way to compiling 38 total tackles, including 6.5 for a loss and four sacks.
With one season of eligibility remaining, he will play for Maryland and head coach Mike Locksley, who was on Alabama's staff when Cowan arrived.
With Terrence Lewis and Branden Jennings transferring from College Park, the Terrapins needed linebacker depth. Cowan has a lot of upside, and he will have the opportunity to be a leader in his final year.
JT Daniels, Undecided Quarterback
JT Daniels' career hasn't gone the way experts expected, but there's still time for a redemption tour.
It's just a matter of where that will take place, as the graduate transfer remains in the portal. Perhaps the best signal-caller looking for a new home could make some team very happy, but he will have to stay healthy.
In 2018, Daniels reclassified when he graduated a year early and was a 5-star prospect and the No. 16 player in the class. He started as a true freshman for the USC Trojans and had flashes of brilliance.
When he was lost for the year to a knee injury in the season opener as a sophomore in 2019, Kedon Slovis took over, showed out and won the job the next season, leaving Daniels to transfer to Georgia.
Playing in nine games the past two seasons in Athens, Daniels completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 1,953 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. But he lost his job to Stetson Bennett, and the Dawgs won a national title with Daniels on the sideline. With Bennett returning in '22, Daniels is on the move again.
According to ESPN.com's Pete Thamel, he will choose between Missouri, West Virginia and Oregon State this spring, and while he has the talent to do big things, not going through spring football before his final two seasons of eligibility is a gamble at best.
If he proves he's still got that sizzle he had as a prospect, a bright NFL future could follow.
Hunter Johnson, Clemson Quarterback
Life is coming full-circle for Hunter Johnson in 2022. The real question, though, is why?
As part of Clemson's 2017 recruiting haul, the 5-star quarterback and second-rated passer in the country was expected to be a centerpiece. His career didn't materialize that way, though, as Johnson failed to beat out Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence and left the Tigers.
He spent the past three seasons at Northwestern, where he failed to seize that starting role. During his time with the Wildcats, the Indiana native completed just 51.9 percent of his passes for 856 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Now, rather than go somewhere where he could be the man during his sixth year, he's decided to finish his college career where he started it. Perhaps he wants to learn a little more under Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney before embarking on the next phase of his life. Maybe his love for the Tigers never faded.
According to The Athletic's Grace Raynor, "whereas Johnson entered Clemson as a 5-star prospect hoping to compete for meaningful reps, this time he likely understands he's here to provide depth, leadership and experience as an elder statesman of sorts before possibly starting a coaching career."
With DJ Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik the focus of the spring, Johnson is around in case things fall apart, and a security blanket is never a bad thing to have. But this is his final chance to break through and maybe get one more shot at some heroics where it all started.
Emory Jones, Undecided Quarterback
One should expect some transition among coaches and players at a proud program that has seen its share of recent struggles and is looking for an overhaul.
But Emory Jones' decision to leave Florida and reenter the transfer portal just two spring practices into this session after originally withdrawing from the portal to compete with Anthony Richardson and Jack Miller III is still puzzling.
The spring battle must not have been going well for the inconsistent dual-threat quarterback who was the No. 85-ranked player in the 2018 class.
Still, he has the skill set to be very good for somebody, even if he isn't the best passer. The Georgia native is a fifth-year senior, but he has two years of eligibility remaining thanks to the COVID-19 year.
Last season, when he got the reins from Kyle Trask, he completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. In his career, he has 3,347 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He also has 1,273 rushing yards and 10 more scores.
With new head coach Billy Napier at the helm, perhaps the Gators need a fresh start at the position, and Jones does too. It's possible the loser of the JT Daniels sweepstakes could go in Jones' direction, and there are other programs on the lookout for a guy with his skills too.
Thamel noted Arizona State, North Texas, Akron, Arkansas State and Rice as some teams with possible interest.
Khalan Laborn, Marshall Running Back
Florida State's downturn has various causes, including the failure to find the right head coach and some big recruiting misses.
Mike Norvell is trying to turn things around in Tallahassee, but he'll have to do it without a guy who was once thought to be a future star.
In the 2017 class, the Seminoles won a hotly contested recruiting battle for the nation's top-ranked all-purpose back out of Virginia Beach, Virginia. But Khalan Laborn never approached his 5-star rating.
With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Laborn left Tallahassee after playing under three head coaches to return closer to his home, landing at Marshall to play for head coach Charles Huff, a noted running back developer. He isn't going to a place where he'll be the featured back, either.
The Thundering Herd already have star sophomore Rasheen Ali to carry the load. Laborn could be a high-reward pickup if he can get things together. Despite having just one decent season at FSU (2019, when he had 63 carries for 297 yards and four touchdowns), he had a topsy-turvy career.
Laborn was dismissed from the 'Noles in 2020 for violating team rules, and despite reports he would play JUCO ball, he returned to Florida State and finished his degree in '21. Now, he's back on the field for one more chance to have a big season at a Group of Five program.
Lorenzo Lingard, Florida Running Back
The transfer portal giveth, and it taketh.
While the Florida Gators are losing Emory Jones (among others, such as linebacker Mohamoud Diabate), several former top prospects have found their way to the Swamp over the past few years, and one of them has a golden opportunity to prove he is a game-breaker this spring.
That would be Lorenzo Lingard, who was a 5-star player rated as the No. 25 prospect in the 2018 class when he committed to the Miami Hurricanes. The Florida native has blazing speed and is certainly big enough to be an every-down back in the SEC at 6'0", 205 pounds.
For whatever reason, though, he didn't break into the regular rotation while Dan Mullen was the coach. Now that Napier is around, that could change.
But the cupboard is full, even though opportunity abounds. Lingard is a redshirt senior with multiple years of eligibility remaining, but it feels like his clock is ticking on whether he'll ever be an offensive centerpiece.
Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis are off to the NFL draft, and with Nay'Quan Wright not participating in spring drills because of a leg injury, it's an ideal chance for Lingard to seize the job. With Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Montrell Johnson, former Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman and freshman Trevor Etienne around, it's no slam dunk Lingard gets carries.
He has talent and speed, but it feels like it's now or never.
Mark Pope, Jackson State Wide Receiver
The lure of Jackson State and head coach Deion Sanders is real.
Not only are the Tigers winning recruiting battles for elite players such as Travis Hunter and Kevin Coleman, but they're also landing some big ones in the transfer portal. Former Tennessee wide receiver Malachi Wideman has turned into a star, and he will have some company on the perimeter next year.
Former elite recruit Mark Pope is heading from Coral Gables to the HBCU powerhouse, where the Florida native will have a couple of seasons of eligibility remaining.
Unlike some of the players on this list, Pope—who was the No. 67 player in the 2018 recruiting class and a 4-star pass-catcher—has enjoyed some quality seasons with the Hurricanes. In 2019, he had 18 catches for 266 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Then in 2020, it looked like he was primed for stardom as he experienced a nice season with 33 catches for 403 yards and two more scores.
But things unraveled last year. According to CaneSport.com, Pope struggled with drops and consistency and couldn't get in the rotation, even practicing some at cornerback.
The 6'1", receiver has plenty of talent, and maybe away from the pressure of playing in front of the home folks and with Sanders helping mold him, he will recapture some of what made him a star prospect.
Brey Walker, Oklahoma Offensive Lineman
When Brey Walker was a 5-star recruit coming out of Moore, Oklahoma, in the 2018 class, pretty much everybody wanted him.
He stayed home to play for then-coach Lincoln Riley and the Oklahoma Sooners, and he looked like he would be a cornerstone of that O-line for years.
Walker hasn't caught on as quickly as the Sooners hoped. But with him just beginning to show promise, it could be considered an underrated victory for new coach Brent Venables that Walker withdrew his entry into the transfer portal that occurred when Riley left.
It's possible he can break through with a new regime coaching him. Walker appeared in 28 games across three seasons for OU and started in two games in 2019. The redshirt senior (now 6'6", 356 lbs) appeared in 12 games for Oklahoma last season.
Will he ever be more than just a special teams blocker and a reserve on the offensive line? As of now, he's probably a backup playing behind redshirt senior Chris Murray at right guard.
He will be in the rotation and could see a bigger contribution if he can manage his weight, settle into a position and impress the new staff. It would be a huge deal if he could at least be considered a reliable backup for the Sooners. Don't give up on him developing into a quality player yet.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.