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Signing Day Thoughts

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Signing day is over and done with and there were no last minute losses like last year. Everyone is on board, with the one surprise being a project with a major upside. Needless to say, that’s not the surprise we expected. The major targets we had our eyes on at the end all went elsewhere, most notably Michael Buchanan. As expected, this was the worst recruiting class in the Big Ten if you follow the recruiting sites.

Positives of this class:

Speed – It may take awhile for some of these guys to get to the field, but the fact many of them have blazing speed will get them there faster. Antavian Edison, Ishmael Aristide, Eric William, Josh Johnson and Al-Terek McBurse are all burners that could get on the field early because of the speed factor alone. Johnson, Edison, and Aristide are each listed as athletes, so it remains to be seen what position they will end up in. I would like to see one of them develop into a kick/punt returner. We haven’t had a decent punt returner since Anthony Chambers left and the kick return game struggled this year after being a major strength in 2008.

Defensive line depth – The Big Ten is always going to be a conference with strong running games. That was blatant this year when Kory Sheets had one of the best rushing seasons in school history, yet he might have been the fifth best back in the league. Because of that, strength and size among the defensive line will always be important. Antwon Higgs, Eric McDaniel, surprise Kevin Pamphile looks to be good pickups. Pamphile is interesting. He has a ton of upside, but it will be awhile before we see it since he has barely played football.

Quarterbacking – I like Rob Henry. It looks like he is very mobile and has an excellent arm. Najee Tyler could be a sleeper as well. Neither of these players will likely play for a couple of years because we do have some experience at the position. Joey Elliott will be in line to start with Justin Siller being right there. Siller has three years left too. Henry and Tyler will likely battle Caleb TerBush for third string duties. It is a good thing these guys will have a chance to develop for a few years rather than play right away.

Negatives of this class:

Linebackers – Shouldn’t this have been a position of need? All we heard about last year was how thin we were there. We never did develop depth, and Anthony Heygood is gone. We clearly can’t rely on Jason Werner to ever be healthy, so in a way matters are worse now. I realize that most of our top targets here went elsewhere, but certainly we could have gotten someone. The only linebackers we got were Antwon Higgs and Dwayne Beckford, but he was a holdover from last year. My original thoughts on the Beckford situation can be found here, and I still believe he was delayed because the high school screwed up in submitting the paperwork and Purdue screwed up in assuming everything would be fine.

It is just disturbing that we didn’t make this area more of a focus in recruiting. Linebackers are an even bigger key to big Ten defenses than the defensive line. Our defense has been terrible for years now and the glaring deficiency has been at the linebacker position. Until this area improves dramatically we will continue to struggle. Unfortunately, that improvement still looks to be a year away.

At least Higgs is already on campus and will be participating in spring football. That gives him a huge boost towards contributing right away.

Star Power – This is what everyone initially measures classes on and our performed horribly. We were last in the Big Ten and in the bottom half nationally. We got out-recruited by football powers such as Indiana and Duke. Yes this is a strong Florida class. Some would argue, as Boiled Sports pointed out, that a Florida 2 star is as good or better than an Indiana 3 star. That remains to be seen. The bottom line is that we will rely on a number of guys to contribute in 2009 that would probably redshirt if things were better. This can be feast or famine. It can hinder their development or it can cause them to grow up in a hurry and make them great players in 2-3 years. Because so many guys will play early things could be very bright… in 2011.

Recruiting is a crapshoot and ratings often mean nothing. A trained ape could recruit four and five star talent to Notre Dame, but they haven’t been a legitimate threat to win anything of note for decades. Coaching makes a huge difference, and unfortunately that is a huge question mark for us too. I do like that we went in the direction of Florida and solidified recruiting lines by getting Gary Nord as our offensive coordinator.

The only reason I think 2009 can mark a return to a bowl game is that we play a weakened schedule. If we beat the two MAC teams at home and beat another overhyped Notre Dame team we suddenly need just three conference wins. As weak as the Big Ten is, we can get those. Getting these guys to surprise will be key to that, however.

If you listen to the party line every two star kid is a sleeper or a diamond in the rough. There are enough positives with many of these kids to thinks that is partially true. Some players like Ishmael Aristide suffered injuries that forced them to miss a good portion of their senior years. That would have likely led to a higher ranking. We’ve had our most success with classes like this one, so we had better hope it comes through again.

Offensive Line – A key issue last season was depth on the offensive line, especially once injuries began to mount up. Only Trevor Foy and Justin Kitchens appear to be recruited as linemen, and as usual they are likely headed for a redshirt year to gain weight and experience. That means no immediate help and we have to rely on last year’s redshirts to come in and provide depth. This is disturbing because coach Hope is an offensive line guy. He built our great Rose Bowl line and has sent many guys to the NFL. Will there be enough improvement among those players already here to make a difference?

Final Thoughts

Obviously, this is a developmental class. It’s true measure won’t be known for a couple of years yet. The key to our current struggle is that we are still waiting on classes to develop as far back as 2006. You cannot make headway in a conference like the Big Ten when that happens. We’ve dipped into a vicious recruiting cycle where results on the field have produced subpar classes, so results on the field then get worse. There has to be a breakout with one subpar class to get things looking better again. The 2009 class has the potential to be that group, but only if the players we ask to play this coming season can make a difference.