ESPN’s national recruiting director Tom Luginbill spoke with media members this afternoon to preview the upcoming early signing period (December 18-20). Luginbill will be on hand for ESPN’s extensive National Signing Day coverage which begins on Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 10 a.m., on ESPN2.
THE MODERATOR: Welcome to the ESPN’s early national signing day preview with National Director Tom Luginbill.
TOM LUGINBILL: Welcome. This is our 14th year now, I guess, of doing this call and preparing for this day. Instead of having one show for 11 straight hours, we split it into two, which makes it a lot more fun.
If you guys are aware, you may or may not be, this is the third year of the early signing period. The first season saw roughly 72 percent of the class sign FDS letters of intent. Last year it was just under 76 percent.
I would anticipate it being at least 76 percent, if not higher. A year ago 260 out of the ESPN 300 had signed during this 72-hour window. There are roughly 2200 players that will sign an FDS letter of intent in one given recruiting class. You’re looking at a pretty significant portion of the group being tucked away. And then all of a sudden January rolls around and you prepare for the residual signing day as I’ve kind of started to call it.
As always, our focus at ESPN is to break down these classes, break down the players. We’re not so much into the circuit and who is going where, who is doing this, who is doing that. It’s really more about projecting forward — what do the players mean to the classes, what do the classes mean for the program and who is getting stronger, who is making strides, who is trending upward, as we’ll spend throughout the day trying to examine, of course, all of the Power 5 conferences and some of the top groupings of the program as well.
Q. Wanted to ask you about both Texas and Texas A&M. Texas, what you’re seeing from them kind of trying to finish the class out with the challenge of having, going through two vacant coordinator job searches right now. And A&M and the sort of momentum you’re seeing, if any, in Jimbo Fisher’s second full class after the transition period.
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, the question about Texas as it relates to coaching staff turnover, I think, is always an important one. I think one of the ways that the coaches, the head coaches across the country have really tried to combat this is by ensuring that there’s more than one established relationship from a coach/player status in the sense that you’re going to have your area coach, you’re going to have your position coach, your coordinator, your head coach are all going to have established lines of communication with each individual player, so if you do lose one coach or two coaches, you don’t lose the entire relationship with the player. That’s very, very important.
And successful staffs in recruiting are now structured that way to protect themselves. I think, most importantly, for Texas, is this is about player development and maximizing what you’re getting out of these players. This is the second class in a row for Texas that has been very strong after a disappointing year on the field. 13 of the 17 verbal commitments that are expected to sign on Wednesday are in the ESPN 300, including two quarterbacks, which is very, very important.
So I don’t think you’ll see a significant issue with the coordinators being up in the air right now because I think the other remaining coaches on the staff will be able to hold that together, as I mentioned, with other established relationships that have already been set.
As far as Texas A&M is concerned, I think it’s always very, very important to capitalize on momentum in recruiting which they had a year ago, which they seem to continue to be investing in, both at the quarterback position. And I think in the offensive line is their biggest area of where they had to address needs. It’s a team that could not run the football, is a team that was forced to rely on its quarterback almost solely.
And where I see the inroads being met in this class is in the offensive line. I think that’s very, very important to see the growth of this program get better in those areas.
Q. It appears like Dan Mullen is recruiting at the level necessary to win championships now. Based on what you’ve seen of this class, would you agree?
TOM LUGINBILL: I do agree. And it’s interesting you ask that question about Florida, because I feel like their fan base doesn’t feel like they’re recruiting to that level or to that caliber of player. And my answer to that, as it relates to Dan Mullen, is you could make an argument that there have been very few coaches in the last decade of college football that have been as good at player development and identifying not only the best player but the right player given who they are as Dan Mullen has.
Whether that was at Mississippi State in identifying and playing the quarterback that nobody else is recruiting, or now being at Florida where you have an opportunity to cast a wider net, getting into homes of some kids that maybe you wouldn’t have been a shot at while you were at Mississippi State.
I always stop at the notion of why are we not going after this guy or that guy. I’m looking at how the team is being formulated right now. We place a premium on four positions of significant value — defensive line, offensive line, quarterback and defensive corner. If you look at Florida’s class right now, of their top ranked players in the class I could go down, what, eight deep and it’s the top five defensive ends, the top five defensive tackles, a top 10 corner, a top 15 offensive tackle, a top seven dual threat quarterback, a top 15 defensive tackle. Those are all positions of premium value.
I think they’ve really hit the ground running in this cycle. Back-to-back successful seasons on the field certainly ramp that up, but I always tell Florida fans put faith in the fact that this guy has won with players that other people didn’t recruit. So if you see he’s recruiting somebody, you might want to buy in first.
Q. Georgia could be assembling another top 5 class. I want to ask you much of the class is from out of state. What do you make of how they’re putting it together with guys like Milton from California and Sherman from Washington D.C., and other places besides Georgia, a lot of them?
TOM LUGINBILL: I think the most success that you have out of your state, or, excuse me, you have on the field, the wider net you’re capable of casting because you become more of a national brand. And I think that’s happened under Kirby Smart probably more so than it had the past 13, 14 years. You have greater advantages being in the stage of Georgia, but you also have challenges because you have to ward off all the suitors. And it’s like all the chums are in the state of Georgia. And all the sharks are bordering it.
I had a conversation with Kirby Smart when he first took the job. There’s this notion you’ve got to keep all the best players within your program and at home. Well, that’s impossible to do.
Really what you’ve got to do is keep the right ones at home. You can’t let a Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence or some of these other guys go off somewhere else and be stars, and then you sign and make choices to take other guys in the state that didn’t pan out. It’s about making the right choices.
I look at this class, you’ve got the number one ranked offensive tackle in our minds, he’s an in-state kid. When you look at the caliber of player, in terms of overall ranking, and as I referenced premium positions, they’ve gone and identified guys at these positions that in their mind are difference makers.
So, if that kid responds to an overture and he’s outside of your immediate footprint, then you’ll pursue him no different than if he was inside your state. I think that’s where Georgia, in this particular cycle, feels like there’s some needs that can be met at some key spots.
Texas is another state that they’ve decided to dip into. Not all that they’re in Louisiana or even DC for that matter, because when Kirby was at Alabama they hit that region really hard.
I just think it’s more about identifying where they can find the best player, and if that player has interest they’ll treat him as if he’s an in-state kid.
Q. Jordan Burch and Arian Smith, Georgia targets. They’re going to announce on Wednesday. What’s your impressions of them?
TOM LUGINBILL: Jordan Burch, I think is a difference maker, an edge pass rusher that has a very high ceiling for development. He’s going to be one of those players that I think is going to be a 265 pounder here in the next couple of years, very quickly which, to me, is something that’s going to make him very, very difficult to deal with off the edge over the course of time. Who is the other player you asked about?
Q. Arian Smith?
TOM LUGINBILL: Arian Smith is one of those guys, in our mind, that could play a variety of roles. He could play as a corner, play as a wideout. Were going to try him out in the Under Armour Game on both sides of the football.
In our opinion the value that you have to be able to play on both sides of the ball, all that does is give coaches more options which ups your value as a player.
Q. Wanted to kind of get your evaluations of Alabama’s recruiting class. They got back on top last year, number one. This year it’s like them and Clemson seem to be going back and forth. A defensive heavy classes. What do you make of what they’ve compiled so far?
TOM LUGINBILL: What you see where Alabama sits right now, and it’s similar to what Clemson has going on, they continue to corner the market on the positions that they’ve got to have to improve their areas of deficiency. Now what are they?
Well, maybe they haven’t been the pass rush team that they would like to be or maybe that they were when Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams were playing off the edge.
So what do they do? They go out and target a Chris Braswell or target a William Anderson. Even some of the outside linebackers in this class, Demouy Kennedy and Quandarrius Robinson. Both guys, particularly Robinson, are guys that are likely going to grow into being a pass-rush type player. Robinson is 6’5″, 215. He’ll be 235 pounds and next thing you know he’s going to be coming off the edge.
I think the focus of Alabama, when you look at this class, a couple of things: Have to address on the offensive side of the ball projected losses early to the NFL. You have to prepare in advance of that. I think they’ve done it at quarterback. They’ve done it at wideout.
And where do they need to improve on the defensive side of the ball? It’s on the edges on the outside to create pass rush. I think that’s what stands out about this class.
Q. You mentioned some of the offensive guys. It’s really defensive-heavy class. How important were the guys that they did get on offense, couple of offensive linemen, Bryce Young — if he does what they expect him to. How important are those guys to this class?
TOM LUGINBILL: They’re critical and I think the quarterbacks is even more critical if Tua Tagovailoa decides not to come back. So you have to recruit like he’s not coming back. If he does, then you deal with that at a later time. But you have to recruit in advance of knowing — when I say that, this is in advance a year ago. They started this thought process prior to him even playing this year.
And so if that ends up happening and now all of a sudden you’ve got a rotation where you bring in a potential difference maker at quarterback, you may need him but you’ve also created an environment of competition by adding more people to the position because you knew you had to because somebody was going to leave early.
So what happens at quarterback at Alabama I think it’s to be determined but the fact they made a preemptive strike is what counts.
Q. My question is about Michigan. How would you rate their class or evaluate their class and how it stacks up to the rest of the Big Ten in 2020?
TOM LUGINBILL: We’ve got them sitting right inside the top 10 right now. Ohio State as well. Penn State is just in front of them at No. 8. Ohio State is sitting there at No. 2.
This is a class that is, by and large, by the end of Friday night, going to be, if things go as planned, for the most part going to be done, which the coaches are going to love because then they can focus on junior day and the 2021 class and really get a five- to six-week head start outside of bowl season and moving forward.
One of the things that stood out to me about this class, and I do think it’s important, is there are some skilled athletes in this class that fits more of the, quote/unquote, speed and space of what they’re trying to be on offense. You may say, they have really good receivers on offense. But all their receivers, whether it’s Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones, whether it’s been Nico Collins, all those guys are big, physical, 50/50 ball pass catchers. They don’t have a lot of jitterbug type guys that can take the ball on a five-yard slant, turn it into an 80-yard touchdown.
So, guys like A.J. Henning, guys like R.J. Moten, who could play on either side of the ball, you’ve got some players, Andre Seldon is projected at corner, but he’s vastly undersized. He could be an option at slot. Roman Wilson is a 5’11”, 167-pound wideout.
So the point I’m making there is they seem to have gone a little smaller in terms of the shift of their offensive personnel to help them be more explosive within the passing game of their offense.
I think they were trying to implement a scheme where maybe they didn’t necessarily have that type of player to maximize what the scheme is capable of being.
So it’s a strong class top to bottom. Not going to have a lot of room left. And so we’ll see where it goes coming out of the end of this 72-hour period.
Q. There’s only one top 100 player, no five stars. Is there any concern that they didn’t land any elite-level prospects in this class?
TOM LUGINBILL: I think you’ve got to define “elite level.” To me Braiden McGregor, A.J. Henning, Blake Corum, Andre Seldon, Jaylen Harrell — those guys are in the upper tier. They’re in the top 10 or top five players, in some instances top 15 at their respective positions nationally.
So I’ll address that since you brought it up, but I find it to be very interesting. You’ll notice we’re a little bit different than some of the other outlets there when it comes to five-star grades. The reality is there’s not as many five stars as people think there is. If there were there would be 25 true freshmen dominating college football every fall, but there’s not. The reality is the more five stars you give out, the lower the ceiling.
And you’ve got to give some time to these kids to be graded highly, but also have (indiscernible) to continue to develop. And you’ll notice we put a lot of guys on the upper end of the four-star spectrum, just teetering on that five-star area because we want to see if they can grow into that at the next level.
You give them a five star, you give 50 guys a five star, there’s nowhere to go but down. I think the caliber of player that Michigan brought into this class is more than sufficient and strong enough to compete against their competitors.
Q. Kind of, as far as Michigan State is concerned, kind of the typical Mark Dantonio class. Looking at it, how you evaluate it and the top players in there?
TOM LUGINBILL: As you say that, the typical Mark Dantonio class, there’s this (indiscernible) that they do this with two-star players. It’s really not true. I’ve gone back over the years and I hear people say that.
And, yeah, are they’re going to have a lot of three-star players? Sure they are. But they’ve also got a lot of four-star players, far more than people have probably given them credit for. But they’re a player development program. It’s not to take on a negative connotation. I think what’s held them back a little bit this fall is just the disappointing season on the field. A lot of the negative publicity in regards to the coaching staff and what they’re going to be offensively and where do things stand with Mark Dantonio.
That’s not going to change his approach. They know what they are. They know who they’re not. They know the type and caliber of player they’re going to target it.
With 20 verbal commitments, I’d probably say half of those guys are upper-echelon, three-star, top-level players. But I don’t see verbal commitments from four-star players just yet. That might happen as they round out their class either now or the first Wednesday in February. But to me it’s a typical class.
I think Jordon Simmons, the running back, a really good player out of the state of Georgia, they dipped in and cast a wider net into other states. Cal Haladay out of Pennsylvania, a middle linebacker, really good player. Darius Snow, out of Texas, another outside linebacker.
So I like this class. I just don’t think it has maybe as many upper-echelon kids we’ve seen in the past. And that may be as a result of the results on the field.
Q. The slight coaching staff changes with a new coordinator this year, some new stuff offensively they’re running. I know there’s questions about what that coaching staff will look after the season, but did you see anything different in the players they targeted? I know there’s four receivers in the group right now in terms of offensive philosophy?
TOM LUGINBILL: You know, I really haven’t. It’s not as if all of a sudden they’ve targeted a different body type or they’ve gone after a different type of player in terms of what they’re asking the guy to do.
I think it’s been pretty much status quo. They’re going to be a physical run-the-football play-well-up-front type of team that’s going to have complementary players on the perimeter. And that’s kind of who they are and always been. I haven’t seen a shift in philosophy.
Q. Could you talk about OU’s recruiting class and where they rank in your standings? And if you can also comment on the four-star defensive players that you’ve seen in that draft class that were recruited?
TOM LUGINBILL: Sure, absolutely. I think the one thing about Oklahoma’s class that’s really important is the continued emphasis to get better in the offensive line and to add difference-makers on the defensive side of the football.
It’s no secret the difference between Oklahoma and some of the other competitors in the College Football Playoffs, and it’s on the defensive side of the ball. I thought they made real strides a year ago with their freshman class.
I think the best player on their team right now on the back end is probably a true freshman corner. And when you look at where they’ve addressed areas, they’ve got Reggie Grimes, I think is a difference maker at outside linebacker, play-right-away type of guy.
Talk about five stars, we’ve given him a five-star grade. Perrion Winfrey, defensive lineman, I think, can come in, give immediate help along the defensive front.
The offensive line, which I think this year was a bit down in comparison to the last two to three years. Key top 10 players in the offensive line, including another top 20 player in Anton Harrison.
So you’ve got another defensive tackle in Josh Ellison at the junior college ranks. They’re really I think trying to come up with — they know they’ve got some very talented young players that have played a lot of football in the middle and back end of their defense. They need to get better and more disruptive and more physical in the front four of their group.
And I think by adding some junior college guys that can be immediate help, then you start to supplement that with some high school players. And they’ve got some space to gain come Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
And I’d like to see them do it with more of an increased emphasis on defense, because that’s how they’re going to close the gap between them and the team that they’re expected to be in the College Football Playoffs.
Q. What does Penn State have to do to close the gap with Ohio State, how narrow is that gap, and what do you especially like about their class?
TOM LUGINBILL: Well, they’re one of those people right now that’s going to be hanging on, signing their guys and sitting back and watching everything for the next six weeks thereafter, because they’re pretty much going to be done.
I think they’ve got to continue to do what they’ve done in the last couple of classes. And you get a Micah Parsons and you get some of these players that have made an impact for you along the defensive front, and they’re continuing to do that, because (indiscernible), outside linebacker Curtis Jacobs, Cole Lavar, defensive tackle, all those guys are top 10, top 17 players in their position. Everybody wants to compare themselves to Ohio State.
In order to close that gap, you have to beat them or become competitive with them in their areas of strength. Well, where is that? It’s in the defensive front, offensive front and at corner. We’ve seen that from Ohio State and we’ve seen that to be a very successful formula.
I don’t think the gap between the two of them is all of that wide. I think the difference is depth, what is the drop-off between one guy and the next guy, if you’re rotating from series to series or play to play. And if you’re going to talk about closing a gap, I think that’s where the conversation begins.
And the only way to do that is through successive recruiting classes where you’re bringing in multiple numbers at defensive end and defensive tackle and at linebacker so that you minimize that drop-off when you’re rotating players on and off the field.
I think when you look at Clemson, you look at Ohio State, Alabama has been in that kind of conversation, Georgia, LSU. Clemson is the best example of it. Clemson has all those front guys on defense from a year ago. And those guys playing right now, they all came back. They’ve been the same team. And I think that’s kind of the goal of everybody. And so that’s how you close the gap. It’s the caliber of player that Penn State’s going to have access to. It’s how many you get that closes the gap.
Q. Follow-up on Penn State. How would you assess their quarterback recruiting over the last couple of years? And where are they headed in terms of getting like that elite quarterback who maybe can take them to a playoff kind of team?
TOM LUGINBILL: Unfortunately, (indiscernible) right now. James Franklin deserves a lot of credit. He’s the guy that first identified Justin Fields. And it was a satellite camp in Georgia, and verbally committed as a sophomore.
The longer you have a quarterback committed to you, the further away he is from your footprint, the harder it is to sign. It’s like having a 500-pound marlin on the line but he’s 500 yards away. And it is a struggle. You have a lot of people nipping.
I think Sean Clifford, considering the first year that he had, I think he surprised some people. Thought he had some really key moments but also had some very youthful inexperience moments, which is to be expected.
You’re also take a look for a guy, Trace McSorley was a dynamic player. I think that they probably want to be similar to the intangible traits of what Sean Clifford and Trace McSorley both are, but maybe as athletic, if not more, than what Trace McSorley was, so that you really kind of change the dynamic of how a team has to defend you. If they’re really scared of your quarterback’s legs and what that player can do to cause you problems.
Now is Micah Bowens that answer right now? Time will tell. Really good athlete. Sub-4.5 kid. Can run. Can do a lot of impressive things. We’ll find out over time. He’s certainly going to be the best athlete of the quarterbacks that they’ve targeted over the last four or five years.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.