The five-star ranking from Rivals.com has become arguably the most important designation in college football recruiting.
Those five stars represent excellence, dominance, the best of the best, and the head of the class. They are fought for and coveted by every prospect in a recruiting class.
For the class of 2013, nine players earned a fifth star while two lost the prestigious honor in what was a heated string of rankings meetings by the Rivals.com recruiting analysts.
"The five-star status has taken on a life of its own over the years," said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell.
"It's become such a badge of honor and sign of excellence that earning such status gains importance with each year. Last year we added six and dropped one in our final rankings but this year there was much more movement and a lot of back and forth. This has been an interesting recruiting year and one of the most intense final rankings I've been around."
Before we get to the newbies, Farrell took a quick look at the top 10.
"Robert Nkemdiche went bell-to-bell as our No. 1 and I wasn't sure that would happen. There were many candidates that had a chance to knock him off, but it just didn't happen and he earned it. He was outstanding at Under Armour.
"Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III made the strongest push up to No. 2 but really no one was discussed as the new No. 1, that's a testament to the talent of Nkemdiche," Farrell said.
"Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame) stayed the same, prospects such as defensive end Carl Lawson (Auburn), quarterback Max Browne (USC), wide receiver Laquon Treadwell (Ole Miss) and cornerback Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) all stayed in the top 10, while defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow (USC), running back Derrick Green and cornerback Jalen Ramsey (USC) all jumped into the top 10.
"But there wasn't a ton of movement. The real story here are the additions," Farrell said.
The highest-ranked new five-star is another cornerback as LSU commitment Tre'Davious White from Shreveport (La.) Green Oaks joined Hargreaves, Fuller and Ramsey.
White jumped 17 slots to No. 18 and earned that coveted extra star.
"There was thought of White being a five-star in the November rankings meetings but we held off," Rivals.com Southwest analyst Jason Howell said. "We had an idea he would state a very good case at the Army All-American game and he did just that," Howell said. "White had a strong week of practice in San Antonio. He plays fearless, he was physical and more than held his own with the biggest receivers in attendance. During the game he showed his abilities at cornerback, but it was his playmaking ability on special teams that really shined through on the national stage. There was no doubt at that point, the case was made."
Three defensive linemen also moved into the five-star club as Houston, Miss., defensive end Chris Jones, Placer, Calif., defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes and Memphis (Tenn.) Central defensive end Frank Herron made big jumps. The jump by Jones was the largest.
"For a player to jump from three-star status all the way to No. 20 in the nation is extremely rare," Farrell said. "That just doesn't happen, but this kid is special and he proved that. Todd Gurley went from a three-star to No. 42 in the nation last year during our final rankings release, but he fell short of five stars. (Jones) is obviously off to a great start in his career and we think Jones will have a great career as well."
Rivals.com Southeast analyst Kynon Codrington broke down what makes Jones special.
"Jones' major bump up in the rankings comes on the heels of his dominating performances at the AL-MS All Star Classic and Under Armour All-American Game. In addition to his showings at both events, he posted monster senior year numbers of 160 tackles, 45 for loss, and 14 sacks," Codrington said. "The Mississippi State commit has excellent size at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and great upfield speed. He reminds me of Julius Peppers with his wing span and athleticism, but he impresses with his run/pass recognition.
"Jones has a knack of getting in throwing lanes when he can't get to the quarterback and is a major disrupter along the interior."
Vanderdoes, meanwhile, did his work at the U.S. Army Bowl and jumped 11 spots to No. 21 in the country.
Rivals.com West analyst Rob Cassidy talked about why he finally earned his status.
"All eyes were on Vanderdoes from the moment he showed up at the Army Bowl. He de-committed from USC before arriving and the buzz built from there," Cassidy said. "All he did after that was turn in one of the week's most impressive, wire-to-wire performances despite being under a brighter spotlight.
"Vanderdoes handled the added media attention while showing out as one of the top players by absolutely bullying some of the best offensive linemen in the country. He was rarely contained on any snap and his athleticism for his size is impressive."
Herron also impressed at Army Bowl and the LSU commitment jumped 59 spots to No. 23 overall in the country.
"We expected to see a 6-foot-4, 235-pounder show up honestly and he looked every bit of 265 pounds and 6-foot-5," Farrell said. "And the way he moved, got off the snap, got after the passer and held the edge against the run was very impressive. He flashed at times and wasn't as consistent as some others so he's still raw, but his upside is amazing and once he gets to college and continues to improve he could be special."
Right behind Herron is Christian Hackenberg from Fork Union (Va.) Fork Union Military, a quarterback who has pushed for the status a few times this year.
After his performance at Under Armour following a solid senior year, Codrington broke down what makes him special.
"Hackenberg showed at Under Armour that he was the most consistent quarterback in attendance. He has good anticipation and when his timing is down he is superb. The Penn State pledge has above average arm strength to go with solid accuracy," Codrington said. "He should thrive working with Bill O'Brien at the next level. His release is effortless and his mechanics are very polished. He shows good pocket presence and understanding of his progressions and reads. His performance throughout the week and was head and shoulders ahead of the other quarterbacks and gave him the nod for the coveted fifth star."
Next up when it comes to additions is two linebackers in Plano (Texas) Prestonwood Christian standout Mike Mitchell and Wyomissing (Pa.) Area star Alex Anzalone.
"Mitchell's athleticism has been noted but there has been a lot of talk of Mitchell being nothing more than a combine phenom. But he continues to show he brings it all to the field," Howell said of the Ohio State commitment, who moved up 29 spots to No. 26 overall.
"Mitchell moved from defensive end to linebacker as a senior and was just shy of 200 tackles on the season. He was one of the more consistent linebackers throughout the Army All-American Bowl week and even when he does make a mistake he has the athletic ability to make up for it in a way others just cannot. His potential and his production make it hard to do anything but give him the five-star nod."
Meanwhile Anzalone, the Florida Gators commitment, moved 22 spots to No. 28 overall.
"If there was one player outside of Nkemdiche who stood out the most during Under Armour practices it was Anzalone," Southeast analyst Woody Wommack said. "Not only does he have tremendous physical attributes, but he's a cerebral player who drew continual praise from the coaching staff during the week in Orlando," Wommack said. "His athletic ability is almost underrated at this point, and he evidenced just how quick he is by tracking down speedster Keith Ford during the game to make a touchdown-saving tackle."
Rounding out the new five stars are offensive tackle Dorian Johnson from Belle Vernon, Pa., a Pitt commitment, and safety Vonn Bell from Rossville (Ga.) Ridgeland.
"Johnson drew the unenviable position of having to block fellow five-stars Lawson and Jones during practice sessions at Under Armour and he also faced off against Nkemdiche in the game and more than held his own," Wommack said. "He has long arms and is very strong, allowing him to make good initial contact and knock faster pass rushers off balance. His physicality will serve him very well at the college level, where he'll likely be relied on to be a bookend tackle.
"Bell is a guy whose star has been on the rise for past few months," Wommack said. "He capped off a great senior season by showing tremendous versatility in the defensive backfield at Under Armour. He's a rangy safety who can cover a lot of ground and he has the skill set to play cornerback if needed. His ability to adapt to different positions quickly will allow him to press for early playing time and no matter where his college coaches use him, he'll be a threat to make big plays."
As always, a few players simply didn't live up to their five-star billing when going against the best in the nation and clearly had to fall.
This year it was quarterback Shane Morris from Warren (Mich.) De La Salle and defensive end Dee Liner from Muscle Shoals, Ala.
"Morris still has the best arm of any passer I have seen in the 2013 class, but the quarterback position involves more than just being able to sling the rock," said Rivals.com Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt of the Michigan commitment, who dropped from No. 25 down to No. 81 overall.
"Morris has struggled with going through his progressions and throwing to his back side throughout and, as we saw at the Under Armour All-American Game, has not progressed in those aspects of the position. There is a lot we still like about Morris, but his deficiencies merited his drop down the list."
As for Liner, Codrington saw him twice for our final evaluation.
"Liner wasn't a big factor at either the AL-MS All Star Classic or Under Armour All-American Game. He looked around 270 (pounds) and we aren't sure if he is a DT or DE after seeing him in person on multiple occasions," Codrington said. "He has adequate size, but he will need to continue to add upper body strength if he slides down to tackle full-time. He has the agility to pull all four line spots, so he his versatility is a plus. However, outside of his initial quick first step he didn't stack up with the rest of the top-tier defensive linemen at the UAAAG therefore he had to slide down a bit."
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