Pleasant surprises -- the stars the recruiting gurus overlooked
In the weeks between bowl games and National Signing Day, it’s all about recruiting. Rankings and commitments and 5-star prospects are the biggest news of the day. But recruiting isn’t the only thing that matters. Sure, the game is more about Jimmys and Joes than Xs and Os. Sure, top-ranked recruits are good bets to star. But sometimes, the stars come from a ways down the recruiting list. Here’s an under-the-radar recruit who has become a significant contributor for each SEC team.
A 3-star recruit at Alabama is like a lingerie model in a powerlifting contest. They know that such things exist, but why are they here? Jacobs ranked 19th of Alabama’s 24 recruits — the 464th best player in America per 247Sports. All he did was rush for 567 yards for the national runner-up as a true freshman. Jacobs’ speed and vision will take him from a relative nobody to a guy playing on Sundays.
Pulley was the 186th-ranked recruit — in FLORIDA — in 2015. The 3-star cornerback has steadily worked his way up the depth chart, and in 2016 he broke up 15 passes for the Razorbacks and was fifth on the team with 47 tackles. He’ll be a fixture in the Arkansas defensive backfield now.
Davis was ranked 21st of Auburn’s 28 recruits in 2015. He was a 4-star player, but was toward the bottom of that group. All he did was make the all-SEC freshman team in his first year and follow that with 46 tackles and 10 passes broken up in 2016. Several higher-ranked players now sit behind Davis.
Chark was among the handful of lower-ranked recruits in LSU’s outstanding 2014 recruiting class. While he hasn’t turned out to be better than Leonard Fournette or Jamal Adams, he has fared quite well for a 3-star recruit who was the 451st-ranked player in the class. Chark caught 26 passes for 466 yards and three scores in 2016, and will likely fare better in 2017 with better QB play. Not bad at all.
A 3-star recruit who was ranked at the bottom of his class, Woods has worked his way into an increased role in the Ole Miss secondary. In 2016, the sophomore was second on the team with 63 tackles and led the squad with three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He’ll be counted on in 2017 to help resurrect the awful Rebels’ defense.
Mississippi State—Nick Fitzgerald
A 3-star recruit who was the 139th-best player from the state of Georgia in 2014, Fitzgerald was basically an unknown. Dan Mullen indicated after the 2016 Egg Bowl that he battled UT-Chattanooga for the recruit who has become his starting QB. In 2016, Fitzgerald passed for over 2,400 yards and 21 scores, and rushed for another 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s likely to replicate that production in 2017.
Texas A&M—Donovan Wilson
Wilson was A&M’s lowest ranked player in the 2014 class. Rated as the 119th best SAFETY in the class, he was third-team All-SEC in 2015; in 2016, he totaled 59 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Quit a catch for Kevin Sumlin.
Zuniga was the No. 631 recruit in 2015. That said, he’s been a consistent pass-rusher for the Gators, racking up a team-leading five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in 2016. Zuniga starred in a situational role this year; next year he’ll see the field even more.
Unlike most UGA recruits, Davis was far off the radar. Unranked by 247Sports, he went to Georgia and has become one of the better defensive backs in the SEC. In 2016, Davis had 54 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Scouts might have missed out on Davis out of high school, but the NFL will be watching his senior season.
Ranked outside the top 1,000 players in the class of 2015, Baity was a 3-star recruit tabbed as the 144th best player in the state of Florida. However, in two seasons at UK, he’s become one of the better young cornerbacks in the SEC. In 2016, he had 42 tackles and broke up seven passes, intercepting three more. He and fellow late-bloomer Chris Westry are a pair of dynamic, if originally overlooked, playmakers at corner.
Mason was the 133rd-best player in Georgia in 2016. He was a 3-star recruit aligned toward the bottom of a forgettable Missouri recruiting class. And then, as a true freshman, he had 47 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns. Playing opposite senior-to-be J’Mon Moore, Mason will probably have an even better 2017 campaign.
South Carolina—Deebo Samuel
The 820th-ranked player in the 2014 class, Samuel has impressed Carolina coaches since his first days on campus. In 2016, he led the team with 59 catches for 783 yards. With Jake Bentley at QB for an entire season, Samuel might become the next 1,000-yard target in the SEC.
Kelly was the No. 538 player in the class of 2015. He looked like an afterthought in the Tennessee backfield behind Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, but after Hurd left the team, Kelly ended up with 630 yards rushing and five touchdowns in 2016. With Kamara bound for the NFL, Kelly might be the feature back for UT in 2017.
Blasingame was well outside the top 1,000 players in the 2014 class, and was the 128th-ranked safety that year. Two years later, he had 449 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground alongside Ralph Webb. Blasingame will likely split carries with Webb in ’17 and is the presumptive starter for 2018.
Rankings from 247Sports.com