This week's edition of On The Recruiting Trail tackles the following hot topics:
1. Jucos bolster programs' needs 2. The homestretch of recruiting calendar 3. A lull in Lincoln 4. Irish eyes are watching
December Juco Battles: Many top programs stay on the lookout for players at the junior college level who may be able to come in and fill an immediate need on the depth chart.
Beginning Wednesday, we saw several December graduates sign with their new schools. Just who came away with some of the big catches?
Look no further than Rocky Top for perhaps the most impressive impact signings, although it involved only two players. Tennessee managed to invade California and ink a pair of the nation's top 10 juco prospects in the form of five-star Orange Coast College defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona and five-star City College of San Francisco offensive tackle Albert Toeaina. That's more than 600 pounds of new Volunteer muscle sure to make their presence felt in 2004.
Meanwhile, Texas Tech pulled off a major coup of its own by reeling in three highly-regarded prospects from California's Reedley College. Five-star quarterback Robert Johnson headlines the talented trio. He was widely regarded the top juco signal caller in the nation after passing for 2,245 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Now he gets to step in and take over the reigns from record-setting B.J. Symons in Mike Leach's pass-happy attack. Look out.
The Red Raiders also signed four-star linebacker Sylvester Brinkley and three-star defensive tackle Charles Glover. Two more Reedley players, defensive tackle Marcus Campbell and safety Dwayne Slay, were also committed to Tech, but have yet to sign. As many as nine jucos could land in Lubbock by the start of the 2004 season.
Kansas State is always a major player in the juco battles, and this year was no different. The Big 12 champs signed four dandies in the form of four-star California cornerback Maurice Porter, three-star Kansas wideout Yamon Figurs, three-star California safety Bret Jones and two-star California athlete Jesse Martinez.
Nick Saban is putting together another top five class at LSU, and may wind up contending for his second straight recruiting championship in February. If the Tigers finish No. 1 again, they can thank a pair of high-profile jucos.
Four-star Mississippi cornerback Mario Stevenson signed with the Tigers on Wednesday, giving them a lock-down cover man to help fill the shoes of the departing Corey Webster. They were also expecting to get a signature from four-star Kansas linebacker E.J. Kuale.
One newcomer to the juco route this season was Kentucky. The Wildcats don't typically sign many juco players, but this year was an exception out of necessity.
Rich Brooks' squad is coming off a three-year bout with probation, and the team's overall depth has suffered. They addressed some of those concerns by signing four jucos out of California, including three-star wide receiver Scott Mitchell. He'll have a chance to step into the Wildcats' passing attack after they lost their two leading receivers from 2003 - Derek Abney and Chris Bernard.
They also landed three-star tight end Jamir Davis, two-star defensive end B.Jay Parsons and three-star offensive lineman Ernie Pelayo out of the Golden State. The Wildcats went to Kansas to reel in three-star linebacker Cedric Koger.
These players are expected to report to their respective schools in January and will be able to participate in spring drills, making them likely candidates to be big contributors during the 2004 season.
The Homestretch: The finish line is in sight. At the end of this weekend, there are a mere 45 days remaining in the 2004 recruiting race.
As coaches position themselves for the stretch run, there are a few important dates you should know.
On Dec. 22, a "dead period" begins in which no contact is permitted between coaches and prospects, either in person or by phone. This period is in place to give the players and families - not to mention the coaches and their loved ones - a chance to spend the holidays together and take their minds off the recruiting race for a while. It lasts through Jan. 1 and is re-enforced on Jan. 5 through Jan. 8.
On Jan. 2 through Jan. 4 and once again on Jan. 9 and 10, a "quiet period" is in effect. During this time, coaches are permitted to have in-person contact, but only on their college campus.
The "contact period" resumes on Jan. 11, and that's when the race hits full-stride. Coaches are permitted one phone call per week and up to three total contacts with each prospect through Jan. 31. The contact can include up to seven staff members, including the head coach, but his interaction with an individual recruit is limited to one during the period.
On Feb. 1 another "quiet period" is recognized before giving way to the "dead period" from Feb. 2 through Feb. 5. National Signing Day is Wednesday, Feb. 4.
The race is on.
A Lull In Lincoln: While Nebraska fans eagerly await an announcement on who will succeed Frank Solich as head coach, the Cornhuskers' recruiting efforts are currently in a holding pattern.
The Huskers haven't had a commitment in more than a month now, and several of their 13 previous verbals are reportedly re-evaluating their decisions after watching Solich get fired with a 9-3 record this season.
The backlash was particularly strong from one of Nebraska's highest-rated prospects, Georgia quarterback D.T. McDowell.
"I'm still committed to Nebraska, and I don't know if that's going to change," he said. "If coach Solich goes to another college, I would sure hope they would recruit me
"Right now, I just hope they bring in a good coach. They better bring a good one in that wins right away. He better win a national title in his first year, or they're going to fire him. I'm still shocked they did that to coach Solich after he won nine games this year."
Despite the turmoil, there have been a few positive Nebraska recruiting stories in recent days. Two of Florida's top-rated offensive linemen -- Calvin Darity and Danny Muy -- made official visits to Lincoln and reportedly came away impressed, even without a head coach in place. Same for another Florida star, athlete Joe Manning.
Not coincidentally, Bo Pelini, the Huskers' interim head coach, is a strong recruiting presence for Nebraska in the Sunshine State.
Irish Renew NBC Deal: Notre Dame has always benefited from its national visibility and profile as arguably college football's most tradition-rich program.
This week's announcement that the university has renewed its television contract with NBC through the 2010 season means the Fighting Irish will continue to be front and center in the homes of prospects from coast to coast.
Never underestimate the importance of that arrangement. It helped Ty Willingham reel in the nation's No. 12 recruiting class in 2003, a group that included players from 14 different states.
Notre Dame has eight commitments heading into this weekend, and six are from states representing almost every corner of the nation. No doubt many of those players - and the ones who will be signing with the Irish on Feb. 4 - grew up watching those NBC broadcasts.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The U.S. Army All-American Game is the best annual showcase of the nation's top prep talent. University of Florida quarterback Chris Leak was last year's MVP, and players such as Adrian Peterson, Rhett Bomar, Fred Davis and DeMario Pressley will be battling for that honor this year.
Rivals.com will be bringing you extensive coverage of the event with three full-time staff members reporting from San Antonio, Texas. The game will be held at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 3 at the Alamodome and broadcast live on NBC.