Big Ten Spotlight: Five big late signing period questions
While the early signing period dominates the late signing period from an action and drama standpoint now, there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered heading into the late signing period, which kicks off Feb. 6. Here are five big questions to answer out of the Big Ten.
WHO EMERGES AS CONFERENCE CHAMPION?
This is the most compelling story line left in the 2019 class for the Big Ten, not only because it is a tight race that, theoretically, four different programs could end up winning, but also because the likelihood that Ohio State does not win this title for the ninth straight year is high.
Michigan exited the early signing period with the Big Ten’s highest-ranked class and now leads with total of 2,460 points. Penn State, however, is not far behind after a pair of commitments from defensive lineman Smith Vilbert and D'von Ellies brings the Nittany Lions to 2,415 points. The Nittany Lions 20 prospects signed in this class while Michigan has 27 prospects in their 2019 class.
Nebraska currently sits in third place with 2,165 points and 26 prospects committed or signed. It is a busy month of visits in Lincoln and the Cornhuskers already landed one four-star in Noa Pola-Gates. Ohio State is fourth at 1,959 points, and although they only have 16 prospects counting toward that total right now, the scenarios that would allow them to leapfrog the three schools ahead of them in February appear far-fetched.
CAN MIKE LOCKSLEY GENERATE OPTIMISM AT MARYLAND?
While Ohio State has a case to make, no Big Ten program has had a more difficult year than Maryland. The hiring of Mike Locksley in December, though, has given the Terrapins a chance for a fresh start. With his first season still more than seven months away, recruiting will be the first measuring stick for the Locksley era in College Park. That should come as welcome news for Maryland’s new head man because Locksley has been considered one of the best recruiting assistant coaches going back at least to his days with Illinois when he helped the Fighting Illini land prospects like Arrelious Benn and Vontae Davis.
Locksley’s task with this 2019 class, though, will not be easy. The Terrapins exited the early signing period with the Big Ten’s lowest ranked class and signed just six prospects. Any time a coaching change occurs, there are holes in the roster that need to be filled in order to satisfy the new schemes being employed, so getting additional prospects signed in February is crucial. Locksley has taken his time building a coaching staff, though, which means Maryland has fewer resources to recruit with than its competition. This cannot just be a throwaway class for Locksley, though, if he has expectations of getting things turned around at Maryland any time soon.
WILL THE BIG TEN LAND ANY OF THE TOP REMAINING PROSPECTS?
Overall the Big Ten did not recruit the 2019 class as successfully as it did the 2018 class. The current average class ranking for the conference in 2019 is No. 35, compared to No. 37 in 2018, which also saw two teams finish in the top five nationally. But, those numbers could improve if member institutions are able to secure some of the top remaining prospects in the 2019 class still on the board. The problem is, there are not many with whom Big Ten programs are prominent players.
Penn State is involved with the most top-end talents still on the board. Maryland is making a strong play for Rivals100 defensive back Nick Cross, but it looks like Penn State will get his last official visit and the DMV-area prospect is still committed to Florida State. Penn State is also battling Ohio State for Rivals250 offensive guard Doug Nester, who is still committed to the Buckeyes but did not sign. Virginia Tech is trying to play spoiler with Nester, though, and get him to play in the ACC. Another Rivals100 prospect, Mark-Antony Richards has a Penn State target, but after the Nittany Lions secured Noah Cain on the first day of the early signing period, it is not clear how strong they are still pursuing Richards.
WHICH PROGRAM IS MOST ACTIVE IN THE LATE PERIOD?
Although the early signing period saw 85 percent of four and five-star prospects sign letters of intent, several programs are still working the recruiting trail hard for the 2019 class. Penn State, as we mentioned earlier, is pursuing a Big Ten team recruiting title with several top targets still on the board, and Maryland desperately needs to sign additional bodies in this class. Other programs, though, have not slacked since the early period and are putting in plenty of work this month.
Somewhat surprisingly Iowa has re-energized its 2019 recruiting efforts with a focus on the defensive line. With 20 prospects signed in the early period, it looked like this class was just about sewn up, but there could be as many as 3-4 more added on the defensive line in this class or through transfers. The most active in the Big Ten, though, is Nebraska where Scott Frost is still working to craft the roster to fit his scheme needs. At last check there were eight prospects scheduled for official visits this month, including three-stars Demariyon Houston and John Bivens, who took their visits this past weekend.
DOES ILLINOIS LOOK TO REPLACE JEFF THOMAS?
Although their numbers in the 2019 class are low, the Fighting Illini were making noise on the transfer market, getting former Rivals100 prospects Jeff Thomas and Luke Ford, along with Oklahoma graduate A.D. Miller, to transfer into the program. Then, early last week Thomas decided he was not going transfer to Illinois, even though it had already been announced, and would return to Miami.
With just a few weeks left before the late signing period one of the questions for Lovie Smith and his staff is whether they replace Thomas with a prospect in the 2019 class. Thomas was such an explosive player who could change the game in both special teams or on offense. There are not many like him left in this 2019 class, though maybe a guy like Demariyon Houston or La’Vontae Shenault.
Illinois signed some explosive players in December, Rivals100 athlete Isaiah Williams being most comparable when it comes to Thomas and his game-changing ability. The plan with Williams, though, is to start him at quarterback, while fellow four-star Marquez Beason is expected to start at cornerback, with offense a possibility down the line. Miller is a guy who started 10 games and caught 21 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns during his career at Oklahoma, so he provides depth at the position, and another 2019 signee, Kyron Cumby, has the explosiveness to help right away in the return game.