Rivals.com football recruiting analysts weigh in on topics in a roundtable format.
Who was the most pleasant surprise to you during either Army Bowl Week or Under Armour Week?
Mike Farrell: DT Ondre Pipkins heading to Michigan. He was impressive in size, he was so athletic for a big man that it blew me away and he was such a nice, high character kid as well. I haven't seen a defensive tackle that big with the ability to move like that since Haloti Ngata years and years ago.
Adam Gorney: Mine would be Zach Banner. I have seen the massive offensive tackle numerous times in camp settings and on film but seeing him work out for an entire week against some of the best defensive linemen in the country really convinced us that he has special upside. This time last year Banner was nowhere near the player we saw at the Army game. It's because of his work ethic and determination to be the best that has made Banner one of the nation's top offensive tackles. If he continues to improve, he could be a special player in the next few years and definitely have a professional career ahead of him. He has improved so much over the last year and we expect him to get even better because Banner is one of the players in the class that truly gets it.
Josh Helmholdt: I spent all week covering the East team, and several players on that squad surpassed the expectations I had for them coming into the week. One was Charlotte (N.C.) Phillip O' Berry linebacker Nick Dawson. I had seen Dawson a year before at the Army Junior Combine and it was obvious he was talented, but he was really raw at that stage of his career. In the year that passed, Dawson became an impressive looking 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, and his game has become very refined. He was the top-performing true linebacker on the East during the week.
Chris Nee: Petersburg (Fla.) Lakewood defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.. Fowler Jr. had a down year as a senior, that included a suspension and missing multiple games due to a disagreement with his coach, but he returned to his old form in Orlando, for practices, and also had a good showing in the game. Fowler Jr. is one of the most talented players in the country when he plays up to his full potential, and he once again showed that.
Keith Niebuhr: I'm going with two kids from Mississippi - center Devon Desper and defensive tackle Issac Gross. Desper was a player I saw recently at the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic, but I think he really stepped up his game at Under Armour. He's a big, strong, humble guy who seems to take direction well. I think in time the Mississippi State commit will become a very solid college player. Gross, an Ole Miss commit, really impressed at Under Armour, primarily because of his quickness at the snap and his overall hustle. He's one of the smaller tackles out there, and this is a major concern moving forward, but he's a very good player. I really like that both displayed terrific attitudes.
Brian Perroni: We had heard a lot about all the top offensive tackles in the West region but the one guy that was not talked about as much as the others was Zach Banner. That changed during the Army week, though, as the mammoth 6-foot-9, 310-pound lineman manned the left tackle spot. He proved that he was more than just a big body and he certainly belongs in the discussion about the elite tackles in the class.
What team do you expect to be the biggest surprise when the 2012 signing class is in the books?
Mike Farrell: I'd say Texas A&M. The Aggies didn't have a good season, they fired their coach in the worst way and still they are pushing for top 10 national status in our team rankings. I know the SEC jump helps, but when you look at the schools at the top of our rankings they seem to stand out as the one that is a surprise, as Clemson was a year ago.
Adam Gorney:California is at No. 10 in the team rankings and, if things go its way in the next couple weeks, could shoot even higher. That would be the biggest surprise to me just because all the teams in front of the Golden Bears are national powerhouses. Five-star defensive end Aziz Shittu, four-star defensive end Arik Armstead and a host of other prospects are still in play for Cal so it could really finish strong. On the other hand, USC is still pushing five-star Ellis McCarthy and other teams aren't backing off some prospects, so it could be interesting in the final weeks.
Josh Helmholdt: I continue to be amazed at what James Franklin is doing at Vanderbilt. Already a top 25 recruiting class, the Commodores are recruiting on par with most of their SEC counterparts. In the years that I have been covering the process, Vanderbilt has been relegated to recruiting the leftovers from other BCS programs. This year, though, it is beating out the likes of Georgia, Notre Dame and even in-state counterpart Tennessee for high three-star and four-star prospects. Franklin has also shown that he can recruit outside the Southeast, going to Texas, the East Coast and the Midwest to successfully recruit top athletes.
Chris Nee:Florida is going to have a strong closing. Despite the mediocre season on the gridiron, the Gators seem to have a good amount of momentum as we hit the home stretch. With a huge visit weekend coming up, they have a real shot of finishing very strong and adding a lot of talent to help turn things around in Gainesville.
Keith Niebuhr: To me, the obvious answer is Vandy. Right now, we're looking at a top 25 class that has good players across the board. Let's be real: Who would have guessed this would happen 12 months ago? There are teams that have done better than expected, but this is the biggest "surprise" and quite frankly I don't even think it's close.
Brian Perroni:Baylor is doing a great job in the wake of a 10-win season and a Heisman Trophy winner. The Bears secured a big commitment when Brian Nance pledged to them during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and will likely see an even bigger one soon in four-star defensive end Javonte Magee. Art Briles has also landed Rivals250 speedster Corey Coleman in this class as well. Baylor is on track for its highest-ranked class ever and, should the team prove it can continue to succeed even without RGIII next year, it could be the first of many top classes.
What is the most intriguing recruiting storyline to you over the next month or so?
Mike Farrell: Where will Stefon Diggs end up? I would guess he's the player who still has the most schools on his list, truly has no favorite and I think this will continue after National Signing Day as Jadeveon Clowney and others in recent years. He could end up anywhere from Maryland to USC with about eight schools in between that could also land him.
Adam Gorney: It has to be the players at the top and where they're headed, namely Dorial Green-Beckham, Eddie Goldman, Darius Hamilton, Stefon Diggs and whether Mario Edwards switches his commitment or not. Green-Beckham gave no real indication at the Army Bowl where he's headed and Diggs could wait until after National Signing Day to make his choice. Goldman and Hamilton have not decided yet, either. National Signing Day always brings a bunch of intriguing storylines but those have to be near the top.
Josh Helmholdt: This year there appears to be more assistant coaches shuffling between programs within a region or even within their own conference. A big move in the Midwest recently went down when Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton left Notre Dame to take jobs on Urban Meyer's staff at Ohio State. These are two high-profile programs that recruit many of the same players. In many cases, recruits' relationships are stronger with the assistant coach that recruited them or their position coach than they are with the head coach, so assistant coach departures can have bigger impacts on certain recruits than even a head coach leaving. We'll see if any of these assistant coach movements will have an effect on recruits in the final few weeks before National Signing Day.
Chris Nee: Since being hired in Columbus, Urban Meyer has been a man on fire when it comes to pursuing top-tier prospects. The Buckeyes are trying to get some of the nation's best on campus this month, including some standouts already committed elsewhere. When the dust settles in early February I expect Meyer to steal someone big from another national power. Who it is going to be? That's the bigger question.
Keith Niebuhr: It has to be Dorial Green-Beckham. He's the No. 1 player in the country and I get the feeling from afar (I'm not close to his situation) that at least three schools think they have a realistic shot here. This battle should provide plenty of drama. I've got my popcorn ready.
Brian Perroni: The obvious one will be the recruitment of the nation's top prospect - wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. He does not do many interviews and did not want to talk about individual schools in San Antonio at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, so most of what is being bandied about right now is conjecture. Arkansas fans feel they have a very good shot of landing him and he will likely take an official visit to Fayetteville later this month. Texas fans are starting to get cautiously optimistic as well. Oklahoma has been one of the teams to beat since the beginning as well. Since Green-Beckham does not plan to announce until signing day it will be a wild ride full of rumors and speculation over the next month.