National Signing Day has changed.
The Early Signing Period for the 2022 recruiting class opened Wednesday, an event that has taken most of the drama out of NSD in February. This is the first signing period in the Name, Image and Likeness Era, too.
Deion Sanders emerged as the top story by bringing cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2022 according to 247Sports.com, to Jackson State. That’s right, Hunter chose an FCS school over Florida State, Georgia and Auburn. So Sanders is the undisputed winner at Seminoles coach Mike Norvell’s expense.
MORE: Sanders to Florida State in the future?
Despite that unexpected turn, the same-old college football powerhouses dominated this cycle. Georgia, Alabama and Texas A&M reeled in loaded classes for 2022. There were 29 FBS coaching changes in 2021, and some of those programs struggled to keep up.
MORE: Signing Day tracker | How schools announced signees
Sporting News looks at the winners and losers:
Winners: Texas A&M and Texas
Georgia and Alabama remain fully-operational, but the Aggies are catching on with Jimbo Fisher. Those three programs are the only ones who landed more than two five-star recruits.
Quarterback Conner Weigman (Bridgeland, Cypress, Texas) is the center of a loaded class that also featured three more five-star recruits in defensive linemen Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy (Lakeland, Fla.) and Walter Nolen (Powell, Tenn.) and receiver Evan Stewart (Liberty, Frisco, Texas).
This is Fisher’s best class to date, and that should pay off in the SEC West arm’s race. Texas A&M was inconsistent on the field this year in an 8-4 season, but the Aggies did beat Alabama 41-38.
Texas, meanwhile, is at least recruiting like a SEC school under Steve Sarkisian.
The Longhorns, which had the No. 15 class in 2021, bumped back into the top-10 with a strong showing. Texas landed 11 in-state prospects with four stars or more less than week after Quinn Ewers, who would have been a five-star quarterback in this class had he not reclassified, transferred from Ohio State.
Speaking of that, four-star defensive back Terrance Brooks (Little Elm, Texas) flipped from Ohio State. Given the Buckeyes’ success in Texas under Urban Meyer and Ryan Day, that’s a significant flip.
Five-star tackle Kelvin Banks (Summer Creek, Humble, Texas) is the anchor of the class, but Ewers will have some elite targets in four-star Brennan Thompson (Spearman, Texas) and Xavion Brice (Seguin, Arlington, Texas), who flipped from Oklahoma.
The Longhorns are coming off a disappointing 5-7 season. Former coach Tom Herman had three straight top-10 classes from 2018-20. Will Sarkisian get more out of this class on the field?
Loser: Florida and Miami
The Gators and Hurricanes have classes that rank No. 75 and No. 77, respectively. That is perhaps the most-stunning development in 2021.
The Gators have just two five-star recruits in the last five classes. Dan Mullen’s departure left little time for Billy Napier to salvage a class that had just eight commitments coming into the day.
Miami fired Manny Diaz and hired Mario Cristobal from Oregon. Cristobal built solid classes with the Ducks and should be able to follow the model with the Hurricanes, but both of these programs better deliver in this next class.
That’s because Florida State, despite losing Hunter to Jackson State, had a much-better class than either the Gators or the Hurricanes. Five-star safety Sam McCall (Lake Gibson, Lakeland, Fla.) highlighted that group.
Winner: Ohio State
The Buckeyes lost to Michigan and failed to make the CFP for the first time in three seasons under Ryan Day.
And that’s … OK?
As long as this recruiting brilliance continues. Ohio State responded to that loss by hiring Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. The Buckeyes then reeled in another top-five class that was better than Penn State and Michigan.
The two best pieces in this class are in-state products, too. Five-star linebacker C.J. Hicks (Alter, Dayton, Ohio) and defensive back Sonny Styles (Central, Pickerington, Ohio) could be instant-impact players in Knowles’ defense. The Buckeyes added to the quarterback room with four-star Devin Brown (Corner Canyon, Draper, Utah).
Day has pinned down top-five classes in three straight cycles, and there has not been a drop-off since Urban Meyer retired.
Riley’s departure led to a string of decommitments, and Venables did his best to salvage the class. Brice flipping was one of those moves.
It’s still a top-10 class, but it did not feature a five-star recruit. The Longhorns and Aggies had better classes, and that’s the competition with the pending move to the SEC.
Any good news? Four-star receiver Jayden Gibson (West Orange, Winter Garden, Fla.) was one of the top recruits in this class, and Venables did a masterful job recruiting the state of Florida when he was at Clemson. Keep an eye on how well the Sooners do in the Sunshine State in the next cycle.
Mark Stoops stayed on as head coach. Coordinators Liam Coen and Brad White also stayed put. The Wildcats are recruiting like a top-10 program. That’s impressive in the SEC.
Stoops continues to recruit at the midpoint of Big Ten and SEC country with great success.
Five-star tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin (Charleston, Ind.) is the anchor of another strong class that featured players from 11 different states. On Wednesday, Kentucky went north and landed four-star defensive tackle Deone Walker (Cass Tech, Detroit).
This cycle also landed four-star edge rusher Tyreese Fearby (Perry Traditional Academy, Pittsburgh) and four-star receiver Barion Brown (Pearl-Cohn, Nashville). Stoops’ extension means the Wildcats will continue to build on that steady success.
The Tigers slipped out of the top 10 after a 9-3 season in 2020, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney replaced longtime coordinators Brent Venables and Tony Elliott with Wes Goodwin and Brandon Streeter, respectively. Swinney also was outspoken on the concept of paying players before the Name, Image and Likeness era started.
Will those threads tear at the Dabo dynasty?
We’ll meet this narrative halfway. North Carolina had the highest-ranked class in the ACC, and this broke up a run of four straight top-10 classes for the Tigers. Even South Carolina is gaining traction under coach Shane Beamer.
Clemson still won its last five games and will bounce back with the help of those loaded classes. The Tigers’ average recruiting class in the CFP era ranks at 9.6, so one year outside the top 10 is not a deal-breaker. Four of the top-five prospects in South Carolina still chose Clemson, including four-star cornerback Jeadyn Lucas (Mauldin, S.C.) and four-star receiver Adam Randall (Myrtle Beach, S.C.).
It’s one cycle, but it’s something to watch closely in 2022.