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Hats Off, America: It’s National Signing Day Superlatives Time

The best stunts, worst flops, most classically Jim Harbaugh and Lane Kiffin moments, and much more from the annual recruiting bonanza

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

National signing day, the annual exercise in which aspiring unpaid athletic department interns sport flat-brimmed hats on national television, simultaneously matters a great deal and very little. The whole process is overblown, critics say, because of the absurdity surrounding the player announcements, and because talent development, coaching, and program fit all play major roles in determining a player’s outcome. After all, a former walk-on just scored the game-winning touchdown in the national championship.

Yet while Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow received minimal recruiting shine, consider who else was involved in that play: Five-star quarterback Deshaun Watson rolled to his right to counter pressure from five-star linebacker Rashaan Evans, while Renfrow used a pick set on five-star cornerback Marlon Humphrey to escape coverage by five-star corner Tony Brown.

The quality of a recruiting class counts, is the point; rare is the program that contends for a title with a subpar recruiting base, and rare is the team that squanders a class full of four- and five-stars. With the 2017 signing day now complete, we can apply that lesson to find — surprise! — that Alabama, Ohio State, and Michigan are poised for at least a few more seasons of success. And the world spins madly on.

Those five-star factories weren’t the only schools in the news on Wednesday, though, nor were their future All-Americans the only players making headlines. There are plenty of other superlatives to hand out. Hats away!

Best Skill-Position Replacement

Dalvin Cook sits atop the Florida State record book for career rushing touchdowns, career rushing yards, and single-season rushing yards (where his 2015 and 2016 campaigns hold the top two spots). With the two-time All-American headed to the NFL, though, the Seminoles could use another 5-foot-11, near-210-pound five-star back who won a state player of the year award as a high school senior.

Meet Cam Akers, Rivals’ no. 2 running back and no. 3 overall recruit and about as perfect a replacement as Noles coach Jimbo Fisher could dream up. A dual-threat quarterback in high school, Akers is transitioning to running full time, and although his rushing style differs from Cook’s — more powerful and less shifty; he reminds recruitniks of Ezekiel Elliott — he projects to make a similar impact in Tallahassee.

Alabama recruit Najee Harris — the no. 1 back — might have a loftier ceiling than Akers, but the Crimson Tide will bring back players who contributed 99 percent of their rushing yardage last season, meaning FSU’s Akers is a better bet to dazzle from day one.

Best Non-Hat-Based Clothing Stunt

At his announcement ceremony on Wednesday, four-star linebacker Levi Jones stood up on the dais and unzipped his jacket to reveal a blue Gators shirt. The crowd clapped and hollered. “Y’all better chill,” Jones warned.

They chilled, and the hollers turned to gasps as Jones pulled off the Gators top to reveal his ruse. He had dressed in a nesting doll of team attire, with Gators on top of Seminoles on top of Trojans, who, a few millennia after being victimized by their namesake horse, are probably relieved to be the beneficiary of such a hidden trick this time.

Even though Jones’s ceremony ended with him putting on a cardinal USC hat in more traditional signing day ceremony fashion, I applaud his creativity in involving other elements of his wardrobe in the process. I hadn’t seen someone shed so many layers with so much suspense since Sammy the Dead Rat tried to commit to the Wayside School.

Most On-Brand Signings

Five-star Stanford commits Walker Little (6-foot-8, 305 pounds) and Foster Sarell (6-foot-6, 315) are two monoliths posing as men. Watching these two offensive tackles manhandle high school defenders half their size is one of the joys of this class’s set of highlight reels.

The average starting tackle in the NFL this season measured 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds, and Little and Sarell are already there as teenagers. They certainly fit with the ethos at Stanford, where coach David Shaw would run between the tackles every play if he could. Cardinal football is at the point where a 10–3 season with wins in a bowl and against USC feels like a disappointment, and with two massive new bookends on the line, Stanford should soon be back in Pac-12 contention.

Strangest Video Announcement

As far as meaningless signing day superlatives go, this one’s relatively important and necessitates a set of minirankings.

Third place: K.J. Britt, Auburn

This video inspires many questions. Why does Britt assume the bulldog is from Georgia rather than Mississippi State? Why do Florida and Georgia think they can secure a commitment by sending mascots to negotiate, when Auburn is smart enough to send a nonanthropomorphized person involved with its program? And most importantly, can we get that last adorable kid on Auburn’s sideline next year instead of the actual Gus Malzahn?

Second place: Anthony McFarland, Maryland

The four-star DeMatha (Maryland) athlete did his best Ryan Seacrest impression — you’ll find out who’s eliminated … after the break — last week, teasing fans with nearly a minute’s worth of Snapchat emoji before announcing his decision to stay in state and join the Terrapins.

We should have known Miami was out of the running when he used a tornado image to represent the Hurricanes. Meteorological accuracy is important. Maybe McFarland can learn from fellow four-star running back and Maryland commit Cordarrian Richardson, who launched a weather balloon into space to point to his campus of choice.

First place: Cesar Ruiz, Michigan

With the modern proliferation of DVR and Netflix, it’s surprising that Ruiz, the top-rated center in this year’s class, even knows what an infomercial is. His commitment to Michigan seems like a responsible choice, though, not the least because early on in the infomercial-slash-announcement video, the Auburn “representative” appears to flaunt NCAA laws by offering Ruiz the gift of “unlimited toilet paper.” The Tigers should’ve sent kid-Malzahn instead. Much cuter than Charmin two-ply.

Most “Jim Harbaugh” Jim Harbaugh Moments

Over the weekend, four-star receiver Oliver Martin became the fourth blue-chipper at his position to commit to Michigan. Jim Harbaugh was understandably excited. So he celebrated by plopping himself, maize-and-blue polo and khakis and all, into a pool.

The performance was a tad disappointing, though — while Harbaugh’s whoop was passionate enough, his half-hearted splash seemed far from the fanaticism we’ve come to expect from the Michigan coach. His feet barely even left the ground when he jumped in. What happened to attacking pools with enthusiasm unknown to mankind?

On signing day itself, the Wolverines hosted their second Signing of the Stars event with The Players’ Tribune, which fit with Ruiz’s infomercial theme in that it involved over-the-top excitement and awkward rhapsodizing about Michigan football. The program has more money than it can spend, so we can only expect these annual celebrations to grow in production value in the coming years.

Most Impressive Recruiting Class

In addition to Akers, Florida State won commitments from the country’s top two defensive linemen — tackle Marvin Wilson and end John Kaindoh — giving the Seminoles three of Rivals’ top five players. Ohio State picked up six five-stars, USC seemed to close with every target it sought on signing day, and Florida shot up the rankings with a robust finishing sprint.

As usual, though, no team could compete with Alabama, which came into the week with a comfortable lead for the no. 1 class and added four more blue-chippers in a 24-hour span. The Crimson Tide’s class includes three five-stars on the offensive line alone; only six other classes have that many five-stars total.

Alabama’s dominance permeated every position unit and grouping. Its blue-chippers include Harris and dual-threat quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the backfield, four receivers and two tight ends, all those offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, four linebackers, and three members of the secondary. Oh, plus the country’s top-rated kicker as a cherry on top of Bama’s blue-chip sundae.

Amid all the faxes, though, Alabama lost room for top-100 recruit Jarez Parks, a defensive end who incorporated the Eiffel Tower into a preproduced commitment video before delaying his official announcement due to Bama’s scholarship crunch. Parks reportedly plans to grayshirt, meaning he will receive a delayed scholarship and enroll next January. It’s easy to chuckle and claim “Bama!” at the school’s inability to find space for a four-star defender, but spare a thought for Parks, who was in tears after seeing his future plans upended at the last minute.

Saddest Power Five School

I almost took Ole Miss out of this spot after it added a plethora of players on Wednesday. Then I saw this quote from coach Hugh Freeze, and the Rebels stayed put. The ongoing NCAA investigation into Freeze’s program had a clear effect on Ole Miss’s recruiting efforts this year, as top players — like Akers, who grew up in the state — rejected the Rebels because of that uncertainty.

Just last year, the Rebels’ class ranked eighth nationally; in 2013, it ranked seventh. On this signing day, though, Ole Miss’s class ranks seventh — in the SEC West. Fresh off their first bowl-less year in Freeze’s tenure, the Rebels profile as this year’s reminder that college football success is cyclical; they’re just six years removed from an 0–8 record in the SEC, and without the continued churn of new talent, they’ll be hard-pressed to compete with Mississippi State and Arkansas on the field, let alone the five-star overlords in Alabama.

Honorable mention to Cal, whose coaching drama led to only 14 commitments and the worst class of any Power Five school. With the 74th-ranked class, Cal managed its worst result in the Rivals era (since 2003) and wound up behind East Carolina and UTSA.

Palmetto State (Mus)Champ

Sure, Clemson just won a national championship while South Carolina lost in a bowl game that doesn’t even have a sponsor. And yeah, Clemson just stampeded South Carolina with the largest margin of victory in the intrastate rivalry’s 108-year history. And all right, Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp has just one winning regular season in five years coaching at Florida and South Carolina, while Tigers coach Dabo Swinney’s career winning percentage is equal to Woody Hayes’s.

But fear not, Gamecocks faithful: The state’s top high schoolers are yours! Muschamp was an ace recruiter while not delivering on the field at Florida, too, and he garnered commitments from the Palmetto State’s top six players this year, including three four-star pass catchers for young quarterback Jake Bentley. South Carolina narrowly edged out Clemson in the overall rankings as well, 17 to 22, in what might be the ultimate example of winning the battle but losing the war.

Most Pleasant Surprise

D.J. Durkin’s first full recruiting cycle at Maryland was an unqualified success, as the Terps put together the no. 16 class, tying their best ranking in the Rivals era. Part of the Terrapins’ shine came from plain quantity, as only three teams (besides service academies) added more players than Maryland’s 29. Yet Durkin also achieved by targeting athleticism across the field — from running backs to athlete-designated hybrid players to rangy defensive backs.

The Terps largely secured their home territory, with 20 recruits coming from the area between Virginia and New Jersey, and nabbed their first blue-chip quarterback since 2006. For Maryland’s sake, here’s hoping that Kasim Hill works out better in College Park than the last guy, who didn’t play a single snap before transferring.

Honorable mention to Georgia, which was quiet on signing day itself but had spent the preceding months solidifying an impressive class. Of the top seven teams in the final rankings, six played in a New Year’s Six Bowl last season — and the seventh was the Bulldogs, who tapped into their state’s rich vein of high school talent to great effect. Eight of the state of Georgia’s top 14 prospects faxed letters of intent to Athens, and overall, 18 of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees hail from the Peach State. Like Durkin, Kirby Smart was in his first full recruiting cycle, and he flexed his inner Nick Saban in collecting the no. 3 class. The state’s strong year continues.

The Inaugural ‘La La Land’ Award for Most Polarizing Discussion About Los Angeles

New UCLA offensive lineman Stephan Zabie thinks the city is great.

New South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw feels differently.

Saddest Non-power School

In a cosmic sense, it’s fitting that an aero-themed town like Houston has produced a series of stars shooting through the college football coaching ranks. In the past decade, the Cougars’ head job has propelled Art Briles (Baylor, and hopefully nowhere else ever again), Kevin Sumlin (Texas A&M), and now Tom Herman (Texas) to higher-profile jobs in the state.

I can’t begrudge Herman moving to his alma mater and one of the richest programs in college sports, but his jump has had the deleterious side effect of stripping some of Houston’s luster. For one, while new Cougars coach Major Applewhite is no Bill Belichick when it comes to social media, he still is less effusive than his predecessor. His Twitter presence consists mostly of retweets and bland platitudes rather than Herman’s loud GIFs.

On signing day, the Cougars fared poorly even compared to their mid-major peers. After they signed three blue-chippers last year to grab the best class ranking of any Group of Five school, Houston slipped behind 10 such schools this year, with only one four-star to brag about. Herman even swiped three former Cougars commits for the Austin campus. More like #HTownBeingTakenOver.

Most Interesting College Football News Out of Florida

When The Ringer last checked in with Lane Kiffin, Megan Schuster sorted the new Florida Atlantic coach’s past decade of headlines into peaks and valleys. Unsurprisingly, Kiffin has made more news in just the past week.

Valley: After Kiffin pulled a scholarship offer from a linebacker who had committed to FAU under the previous administration, that player’s high school coach told Kiffin he wouldn’t discuss any of his other players. That’s a bit of a problem, considering that Booker T. Washington High is a national power that has sent multiple graduates to FAU in recent years.

Peak: Who needs recruits from nearby when players on the opposite coast are available? On Wednesday, talented junior college receiver DeAndre McNeal spurned UCLA to commit to FAU instead.

Valley: Everything about this apparent hype video. Kiffin looks like the guy who lectures about safety equipment in VHS tapes for middle school science classes, with the added bonus that he’s squinting into the Boca sun the whole time. He makes this face when saying the words “what an exciting time”:

Peak: As I wrote this section, I was struggling to think of another Kiffin peak when I asked Megan, resident Kiffinologist, for her thoughts. “He’s taken a lot of L’s in the past week,” she wrote, and I remained stumped. Eight minutes later — look at him, always running a bit late — Kiffin himself delivered. Definite peak.

Due to a production error, the final few paragraphs of this piece were originally not included on this page.