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Big Ten Spotlight: Grading the Early Signing Period

Emeka Egbuka
Emeka Egbuka

Midwest Analyst Josh Helmholdt is handing out grades to Big Ten recruiting classes following the Early Signing Period for the class of 2021. Considering the challenges all coaches had to deal with while recruiting during a pandemic, there is plenty of praise to go around for teams throughout the conference.

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MORE NSD: The Farrell Awards | What to look for during the rest of the Early Signing Period | Farrell's thoughts on NSD | Winners and losers from National Signing Day | Analyzing the team rankings | How every team announced commits on Twitter | The 10 biggest flips | More team rankings topics after Friday | Five teams poised for late signing period | Biggest surprises of NSD | Sting factor

NSD COACH INTERVIEWS: USC's Clay Helton | Oregon's Mario Cristobal | Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin | UNC's Mack Brown

CLASS OF 2021 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | Position | Team | State

CLASS OF 2022 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | Position | Team | State

COVERAGE: Rivals Transfer Tracker | Rivals Camp Series

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ILLINOIS

Samari Collier
Samari Collier

Analysis: Illinois is accustomed to being at the bottom of the Big Ten team recruiting rankings, but at least this year they have an excuse. The Fighting Illini dismissed head coach Lovie Smith the weekend before the Early Signing Period opened. When you consider that the remaining staff was still able to sign 14 of the 16 prospects who were committed before Smith’s firing, that is an impressive retention rate.

Among the 14 prospects signed last week are three-star Texas quarterback Samari Collier and offensive tackle Brody Wisecarver, who is a top-10 ranked prospect in Missouri’s 2021 class. This is not a class that will turn Illinois around, but it gives the next head coach a foundation to build on.

Grade: B

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INDIANA

Donaven McCulley
Donaven McCulley (Nick Lucero / Rivals)

Analysis: Indiana signed the fewest players of any Big Ten program last week, and that is a situation the Hoosiers will have to address at some point. I understand they were limited on scholarship availability, but eventually your roster will pay the price if that yearly depth is not replenished.

There are some pretty exciting pieces in this small group, however, starting with four-star quarterback Donaven McCulley, the highest-ranked prospect the Hoosiers have signed in the Rivals era. They also signed a four-star in Florida cornerback Larry Smith III and surrounded McCulley with more pieces at running back, wide receiver and tight end.

Grade: B

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IOWA

Connor Colby
Connor Colby (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Analysis: Iowa currently has the No. 6 ranked class in the Big Ten, but each of the schools ranked ahead of them have at least two more players signed than the Hawkeyes do. The quality of this group is strong, even though the numbers are lower than usual.

Offensive line is where the strength of this class lies, with three players – Connor Colby, David Davidkov and Beau Stephens – rated four-stars. The Hawkeyes also bring in talent at the skill positions and have versatile athlete prospects, like Cooper DeJean and Zach Twedt, who could fill in at several positions depending on need.

Grade: B+

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MARYLAND

Demeioun Robinson
Demeioun Robinson (Rivals.com)

Analysis: Mike Locksley almost instantly brought Maryland into the top half of the conference from a recruiting perspective, and is taking advantage of the program’s Washington D.C.-area location. Three of the top four rated players in the class are local products, including Rivals250 linebacker Demeioun Robinson.

The Terrapins made late news by flipping Rivals100 Jacksonville linebacker Branden Jennings from conference-foe Michigan on Signing Day. Locksley and Co. bolstered their defensive line depth with this class, and also bring in four tight end prospects.

Grade: B+

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MICHIGAN

Donovan Edwards
Donovan Edwards (Brandon Brown / TheWolverine.com)

Analysis: Questions about the long-term future of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan did not sink the Wolverines’ 2021 recruiting efforts. Although the class did see a couple commits flip to other schools on Signing Day, Michigan was able to hold onto a couple others and add Rivals100 running back Donovan Edwards to the Big Ten’s No. 2 ranked recruiting class.

Four-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy is the headliner, but the Wolverines also bring in top 100 talent at wide receiver, linebacker, tight end and on the offensive line. Cornerback and defensive tackle remains positions of need that were not adequately addressed.

Grade: A-

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MICHIGAN STATE

Charles Brantley
Charles Brantley (Rivals.com)

Analysis: Mel Tucker had his hands full with this recruiting class when he was brought in last February after every other team was well into their 2021 recruiting game plan. Signing a class that currently ranks top 30 nationally and in the upper half of the conference, then, is a tremendous feat.

The defense adds four stars Ma’a Gaoteote and Charles Brantley, while the offensive line gets New Jersey four-star Geno VanDeMark. The 18 prospects signed last week go a long way toward filling the roster gaps following the coaching change. This class goes to an “A” if Rivals100 lineman Rayshaun Benny signs in the late period.

Grade: A-

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MINNESOTA

Avante Dickerson
Avante Dickerson

Analysis: The extended dead period should have affected Minnesota as much as any school in the country, because they rely on the summer and official visits to get kids on their campus. P.J. Fleck has a history of smashing recruiting expectations, however, and that occurred again with this 2021 class.

Nine of the 17 prospects Minnesota signed last week committed in the months of April and May, and several of those prospects never visited the school. This class will be better if Minnesota can see things through and sign four-star Omaha cornerback Avante Dickerson, who was one of those spring commits but did not sign last week. Considering their challenges, though, Fleck and Co. did an admirable job with this class.

Grade: B

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NEBRASKA

Teddy Prochazka
Teddy Prochazka (Nate Clouse)

Analysis: Similar to Wisconsin, Nebraska relies on official visits to get kids on its campus because they just don’t have a lot of talent within driving distance of campus. The Cornhuskers, though, sign what is currently the fourth-ranked class in the Big Ten in part because they hit on a high rate of “backyard” talent. Nine of the 19 prospects who signed with Nebraska last week reside either in-state or in bordering states, which is a notably higher percentage than recent classes.

Two of those prospects – tight end Thomas Fidone and offensive tackle Teddy Prochazka – rank among the top 100 overall prospects in the class.

Grade: A-

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NORTHWESTERN

Mac Uihlein
Mac Uihlein (22nd Century Media)

Analysis: It is not unusual to see Northwestern sign a small class, though 14 total prospects is small even by their standards. There are several individual additions that are important, though. The Wildcats beat out Big Ten recruiting powers Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State for four-star offensive tackle Caleb Tiernan last March, then added the state of Illinois’ No. 1 ranked prospect, linebacker Mac Uihlein, a few days later.

Big running back Anthony Tyus III saw his rating bumped following an impressive senior season, giving Northwestern three four-stars in their 2021 class.

Grade: B

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OHIO STATE

Emeka Egbuka
Emeka Egbuka

Analysis: The length that Ohio State raced out to a lead in the 2021 team recruiting rankings, it looked like they would never be caught. Alabama and Nick Saban reminded to never count out the Crimson Tide as they overtook the Buckeyes this fall, but this Ohio State class is still ridiculously talented.

The class is anchored by three five-stars, including Emeka Egbuka, the No. 1 ranked wide receiver prospect who committed just days before the Early Signing Period opened. Considering the rest of the conference signed just one five-star combined and Ohio State signed 24 percent of all four-stars in the conference, the Buckeyes are extending the talent gap.

Grade: A

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PENN STATE

Landon Tengwell
Landon Tengwell (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Analysis: The pandemic probably affected Penn State recruiting more than any other school in the conference. The Nittany Lions have shown in recent years to be strong spring recruiters, so the slow start to 2021 recruiting was not a big concern. Big spring visits were set, but when the coronavirus spread shut down recruiting visits Penn State lost all that momentum.

They did manage to sign 15 players in the early period, including Rivals100 offensive tackle Landon Tengwall and four-star brothers Kalen King and Kobe King out of Detroit. This group currently sits as the eighth-best class in the conference, though, lower than Penn State is used to finishing.

Grade: C+

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PURDUE

Yanni Karlaftis
Yanni Karlaftis (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Analysis: Purdue did not sign the Big Ten’s lowest-ranked class, but only because Illinois fired its head coach the weekend before National Signing Day. After back-to-back top 30 classes, this 2021 group fell way behind expectations and currently ranks outside the top 75 classes in the country.

The Boilermakers did not have any prospect higher than a 5.6 Rivals Rating in the class until hometown four-star Yanni Karlaftis committed on the first day of the Early Signing Period. The class not only lacks talent, but depth, with just 14 prospects total signed last week.

Grade: D+

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RUTGERS

Aalijah Clark
Aalijah Clark (Rivals.com)

Analysis: Greg Schiano’s first, full recruiting class after coming back to Rutgers features prospects from states as far away as Colorado, Florida and Illinois, but also looked to re-establish the Scarlet Knights’ in-state recruiting cachet.

Nine of the 21 prospects who signed in the early period with Rutgers hail from the state of New Jersey, including four-stars Aalijah Clark and Khayri Banton. The class exits the Early Signing Period ranked ninth best in the Big Ten, but it is a good start and addresses several needs as Schiano looks to rebuild the Rutgers program.

Grade: B-

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WISCONSIN

Nolan Rucci
Nolan Rucci (Ryan Snyder/Blue White Illustrated)

Analysis: The highest-ranked class that Wisconsin has ever signed is also the third-ranked class in the Big Ten for 2021 coming out of the Early Signing Period. This class started almost two years ago with the commitment of in-state offensive tackle J.P Benzschawel, one of eight four-stars to sign with the Badgers.

Wisconsin then signed just its third five-star prospect of the Rivals era in Pennsylvania native Nolan Rucci. Paul Chryst and his staff do such a good job at retention that they usually have to sign smaller classes than their Big Ten brethren, but this group already numbers 21 prospects, more than any of their previous four classes.

Grade: A

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