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We Might Never Know Who 2021’s Best College Football Recruits Are

Opinions vary about how much college football recruiting matters, but it likely falls somewhere between irrelevant and all-encompassing. Each of the past 18 national champions has signed at least one top-10 recruiting class in the four years leading up to its title, but a highly ranked class guarantees nothing, which is how Appalachian State can rank 100th in a four-year weighted recruiting average but 29th in ESPN’s Football Power Index, and Arkansas can rank 25th in recruiting but 91st in FPI.1 The early part of summer is when programs build their futures by hosting recruits on visits, evaluating them at camps and seeing them at their high schools.

But the coronavirus pandemic has shut down those activities, along with everything else in college athletics, and the effects could be sweeping. Nike has canceled high-profile Elite 11 regional quarterback camps. Under Armour’s recruiting camps are postponed, too. The NCAA has mandated a recruiting dead period through June 30, and stay-at-home orders wiped out virtually all on-campus recruiting events.

COVID-19 has placed the rest of the 2021 recruiting cycle in flux, but any recruiting evaluation this far ahead of the early signing period in December is inexact. For the class of 2020, 49 players were not in any of the three major scouting service’s rankings2 during the week of July 22, 2019, but did appear in one of the final rankings. Fifteen prospects jumped by more than 100 spots in an average of the three rankings.

Some players made huge leaps their senior seasons

The 15 football players ranked in the class of 2020′s top 300 on ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports with jumps of at least 100 spots from last year

Aggregate rankings
Player Committed school In July 2019 Now Change
Jahmyr Gibbs Georgia Tech 339 83 +256
Edgerrin Cooper Texas A&M 339 157 +182
Van Fillinger Utah 339 162 +177
Marvin Mims Oklahoma 327 154 +173
CJ Stroud Ohio State 215 43 +172
Jalin Hyatt Tennessee 339 170 +169
Jimmy Calloway Tennessee 339 170 +169
Henry Parrish Mississippi 339 178 +161
Donell Harris* Texas A&M 199 51 +148
Josh Downs North Carolina 228 95 +133
Davin Vann NC State 339 232 +107
Loic Fouonji Texas Tech 339 234 +105
Eric Shaw South Carolina 339 235 +104
Alfred Collins Texas 160 58 +102
Ozzy Trapilo Boston College 313 211 +102

Players not among the 338 ranked in the top 300 of at least one of the three major leaderboards were assigned a ranking of 339.

*Harris reclassified from the 2021 class to 2020 in June 2019.

Sources: ESPN, RIVALS, 247SPORTS

When the dust settled on the 2020 class, the biggest riser was Jahmyr Gibbs, a running back from Dalton, Georgia. In the 247Sports.com composite rankings on Feb. 15, 2019, Gibbs was the 1,010th-ranked player in the country. At this time last year (May 31), he was 587th, and by the start of the season, he was still only 438th. But he opened his senior year by rushing for 420 yards and eight touchdowns on 23 carries, and he finished last season as a Sports Illustrated All-American, with 2,554 rushing yards and 40 touchdowns — the kind of explosion that makes everyone take notice. By Oct. 15, he was up to 300th in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, and now he is 178th on ESPN.com, 70th on Rivals.com and 44th in the 247Sports.com rankings.

A breakout season like Gibbs’s is not uncommon, but this fall, a season like that may not be possible. States across the country are all facing questions about whether the 2020 high school football season can go on. Some coaches in California have even discussed moving part of the season to next spring, which could be after signing day. With college camps and on-campus visits also canceled for much of the year, the recruiting rankings next spring could look much like they do today — which, as we know, would not account for potential player improvement. Had he not played 11 games last fall, Jahmyr Gibbs would remain unknown to most of college football outside the state of Georgia.

“These guys that are five stars and have been committed since eighth grade, it’s not going to affect those kids,” Dalton coach Matt Land told me this week. “But there’s so many kids that are not those kids, that are one-star, two-star, three-star kids, that earn these scholarships because they have 2,000 yards on the year or they have 11 interceptions on the year. And they’re not going to have those numbers, potentially, because they’re not going to have those games.”

Gibbs’s rise didn’t change his college decision. He committed to Georgia Tech on May 25, 2019, and signed there in February despite late interest from Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Florida. But many fortunes do change as the rankings fluctuate over the course of a season. A year ago, quarterback CJ Stroud’s most recent offers had come from Baylor, New Mexico, Kansas and Washington State; since then, the four-star California recruit has vaulted from No. 860 to No. 41 in the 247Sports.com composite rankings and signed with Ohio State.

A slower recruiting cycle could mean that midtier schools hold onto their overlooked prospects, which is telling, because right now the 2021 team rankings show a number of anomalies: No. 2 Tennessee, No. 4 North Carolina, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Iowa, No. 20 Georgia and No. 46 Alabama. Those rankings may be misleading, as they value not just average player rating but also the number of players committed to a school at that time. Georgia and Alabama recruits so far are averaging ratings of over 94 on a 100-point scale; if those schools fill out a class with the same average player rating, they’ll end up in the top five — and push out other schools that look good right now.

But North Carolina, for example, may be in the top 10 for good. Mack Brown’s program already has 14 commitments, including 10 four-star prospects. Some of them could surely change their minds, but 13 of the 14 commits are in-state players, and if the coronavirus continues to shut down or limit travel into the fall, recruits may be unable to visit campuses as usual and hesitant to pick a school far from home. “You love your family, you’re wanting everybody healthy,” Brown told the Associated Press. “So I do think that this is encouraging people to stay closer to home.” California defensive end Korey Foreman, the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, initially committed to Clemson but has reopened his recruitment in part because of the long distance.

College football has come to be defined by a measure of near-certainty: The elite programs3 routinely sign elite recruiting classes,4 and those recruits have routinely developed into elite players. But the coronavirus brings an infusion of uncertainty, the kind of force that could rearrange a hierarchy. Alabama coach Nick Saban, the pillar of reliability in college football, seems to have a grasp of what we’re in for the rest of the year: “We’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said, “and I’m sure it’s going to keep on changing.”

Footnotes

  1. A skeptic might note a direct correlation between how much emphasis a coach claims to place on recruiting and how strong his last class was. “What rankings don’t do though is crack their chest open and look at their heart,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said after signing the 25th-ranked class in 2017. When he signed the third-ranked class in 2018, he said, “This needs to be the new normal.”

  2. The ESPN 300, the Rivals.com 250 and 247Sports.com’s “Top 247.”

  3. Only 11 schools have made the playoff, and four — Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State — have done so more than once.

  4. Only Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State can claim a top-two recruiting class in any of the past four years.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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