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NSD Roundtable: Looking ahead to the Early Signing Period

The Early Signing Period in FBS football opens next week, bringing some closure to an odd recruiting year. Our team of analysts looks back at which schools handled recruiting during a pandemic well, and which did not, and also preview some of the big decisions we are expecting next week in this roundtable discussion.

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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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1. Which coaching staff has most successfully managed recruiting during COVID?

Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly (AP Images)

Adam Friedman, East Coast Analyst: Unfortunately, this pandemic has gone on for a very long time and a number of teams have made the most out of these difficult circumstances. Lately, the team doing the most they can during this extended dead period is Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have picked up seven important commitments since the beginning of October and only lost one (David Abiara) and that was due to a legal issue. Notre Dame now has a recruiting class that ranks inside the top 10 due to their overall efforts in the last three months.

Adam Gorney, National and West Analyst: Over the last few months, it has to be Oregon. Mario Cristobal and his staff could not have kids on campus to see all the glitz and glamour, all the stuff that sells some kids on the Ducks, and Oregon was not even playing except for the last few weeks. Still, the Ducks landed two players from Utah, including new five-star lineman Kingsley Suamataia, landed two four-stars out of Maryland, including receiver Dont’e Thornton, Jr., and went to North Carolina for an athlete they like in Jabril McNeill. Recruiting to the Pacific Northwest is tough enough; doing it during a pandemic is next to impossible, yet Cristobal and his staff got some major national names without visits.

Josh Helmholdt, Midwest Analyst: The elimination of recruiting visits should have hurt Minnesota more than most schools because they do not have a strong talent base in close proximity. Yet, the Gophers are set to sign their best class of the last decade. P.J. Fleck and his staff were ultra-aggressive in the early stages of the COVID shutdown and gained a wave of spring commitments, many from prospects who had never set foot on their campus. A few of those prospects would decommit, but the majority of this class committed to the Gophers in April and May, including four-star defensive backs Steven Ortiz and Avante Dickerson.

Chad Simmons, Southeast Analyst: How can you not say Alabama? They are usually strong when they get kids into Tuscaloosa and host them in person, but this time Nick Saban adapted to the situation, and has Alabama on track to sign the No. 1 class. The three five-star and 15 four-star commitments give the Crimson Tide a comfortable lead in the Rivals.com Team Recruiting Rankings.

Sam Spiegelman, South Central Analyst: Alabama. It's easy to note that the Tide are holding tight to the nation's top class, but in an otherwise extremely atypical year for recruiting purposes -- one without legitimate visits or one-on-one conversations with head and assistant coaches -- Nick Saban has landed some of the best offensive linemen in the nation, flipped a quarterback committed to his home-state team and dipped into different areas of the country like Florida and California and made some noise. It should come as no surprise to learn that Saban's staff overcame COVID-19 concerns to assemble an elite recruiting class, but when you look at the quantity and quality of players in the haul it speaks volumes for Alabama's reputation, tradition and tactics.

2. Which coaching staff least successfully managed recruiting during COVID?

Friedman: The easy answer here is Tennessee. The Vols are losing commitments left and right and, whether they're pushing them out or not, Jeremy Pruitt and his staff aren't replacing them with prospects of equal or greater talent. Losing Hudson Wolfe really hurts, but so do the decommitments from players like Terrence Lewis and Damarius McGhee.

Gorney: I love Gary Patterson as a coach but what’s happening with this TCU recruiting class? After finishing with five-star running back Zachary Evans in 2020 and then landing LSU transfer Marcel Brooks, another former five-star, it looked like the Horned Frogs would have some momentum in the 2021 class. But TCU is almost dead last in the team rankings and eight commitments this late is not only the lowest in the country but really hard to believe.

Helmholdt: I am not sure whether to chalk up Purdue’s recruiting ineptitude this year to COVID or something more. Following back-to-back top-30 recruiting classes, Purdue has the Big Ten’s lowest-ranked class in 2021. They have no commitments rated higher than 5.6 and have yet to land local legacy Yanni Karlaftis despite a lengthy recruitment. The good news for Purdue, though, is that 2022 has gotten off to a better start with Rivals250 quarterback Brady Allen already locked in.

Simmons: On the other side of Alabama, you have Auburn. They have struggled to this point. You look now at Auburn is No. 51 in the Rivals.com Team Recruiting Rankings. They’ve lost some battles we are used to seeing them win with home-state prospects this cycle. They do have a chance to close strong next week, so Auburn will likely move up in the rankings, but it will not be close to the top 10, where they want to be.

Spiegelman: Florida State has suffered some hiccups in Year 1 for Mike Norvell, which could certainly be expected. Perhaps the biggest gaffe was losing Rivals250 signal-caller Luke Altmeyer late in the recruiting cycle as well as some other notable in-state talent to rivals. With that in mind, Florida State remains in a good position to add several quality players down the stretch and is putting itself in a good spot with underclassmen nationwide.

3. Which upcoming Early Signing Week commitment is most intriguing?

Donovan Edwards
Donovan Edwards (Nick Lucero/Rivals.com)

Friedman: It will be very interesting to see if Rivals250 No. 1 prospect Maason Smith does pick LSU, the favorite, Georgia, or another school. The Louisiana native has been leaning towards LSU for some time but this commitment will be an indicator of how much prospects are actually concerned with the allegations and potential NCAA penalties that could come with them.

Gorney: Donovan Edwards is really one of the most interesting ones. Michigan and Georgia seem to be battling it out for him and it would be a huge loss if Jim Harbaugh cannot keep him home playing for the Wolverines. But there is also now some chatter that Notre Dame could be making a major run as Edwards loves the offensive line tradition in South Bend and he could be another weapon in the Irish backfield. I’ll say he picks Michigan but this one seems to be getting close.

Helmholdt: This Donovan Edwards recruitment feels a lot like the Mike Weber recruitment in 2015. In that one Michigan was in a tight battle with rival Ohio State, but most assumed the Wolverines would win out in the end. Weber went with the Buckeyes on Signing Day, however, and I could see Edwards also leaving the home-state school at the altar. Even if Michigan is able to sign Harbaugh to an extension, there is still uncertainty with the direction of that ball club and the Wolverines have not had a running back drafted since Mike Hart in 2008. Edwards is a mid-year enrollee, so he does not have to deal with the backlash of turning down the local school. I have predicted Georgia here. The Notre Dame momentum seems too little too late and Oklahoma looks likely to land five-star Camar Wheaton.

Simmons: Xavian Sorey is one for me. He has been stuck on Alabama, Florida and Georgia for some time, but he doesn’t do interviews, he has multiple staffs feeling decent about their chances, and he is not going to drop any hints before he signs Wednesday. He is hosting Florida one more time this weekend, and he does have some Gator fans in the family, but the school with the most buzz is Georgia, and that is who I predict he signs with.

Spiegelman: Bryce Foster. While “The Mountain” will have five hats on the table, the five-star guard has been largely connected to Texas A&M and Oklahoma. As we've inched closer to the Early Signing Period, both teams seemingly have plenty of momentum heading into this reveal. Foster has visited Oklahoma multiple times this year -- before and during the pandemic -- and the Sooners' staff, including Lincoln Riley and Bill Bedebaugh, has him on a schedule to potentially be a first-round pick and 2024 Olympian. On the other hand, Foster is an Aggie legacy with family ties to Texas A&M. Offensive line Josh Hensen has done a terrific job with his personnel this season and the team's success has Foster's attention. My gut says it'll be Oklahoma, but it's difficult to discount Texas A&M and the legacy ties.