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The Crock Pot: What recent NCAA rule changes mean for the SEC’s recruiting dominance

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Welcome to The Crock Pot, your one-stop shop for all the SEC news, notes, quotes and mishaps of the past week. Here’s what we’ve been stewing over …

Gather round, ye college football fans, and listen up as we break down the latest batch of rule changes to come rolling down NCAA Mountain.

Early signing day (pending conference commissioner approval)

On the surface, this feels like a win for recruits who know where they’re going to college — assuming they’re committed to a program with stability. The addition of a Dec. 20 National Signing Day, in addition to the one that already exists in early February, allows prospects to officially end their recruitment about six weeks earlier than they could have under the old system.

With just about three weeks between the end of the regular season and the early signing day, things could get chaotic for schools that fire coaches, or lose them to other job opportunities. This could result in more firings taking place in November, as the season winds down, as opposed to the first week of December. But you never really know how often that’ll happen in practice.

The early date would more likely affect coordinators and position coaches who find themselves on the move in December and early January.

High school players still weighing their options can still choose to delay signing a letter of intent until Feb. 1 as they could before. There’s technically nothing forcing prospects, but as we know, coaches can and certainly do put pressure on kids to make their decision when it best suits the school.

One can only assume that a handful of the country’s top prospects who don’t enroll early would choose to sign on Dec. 20. That obviously takes some of the drama out of January and February. Sorry, recruiting fanatics, but the day-long frenzy of signing day will be diluted from here on out.

As many have noted, this sweeping shift in the college football recruiting model will not take effect until the Collegiate Commissioners Association vote in favor of the changes in June. It’d be pretty surprising if that didn’t happen, though.

Early official visits

To compensate for an early signing period, the NCAA now allows juniors to take official visits between April 1 and the last Wednesday in June. The OVs cannot coincide with their participation in a school camp or clinic. Before, players couldn’t officially visit campuses until Sept. 1 of their senior year.

Some around SEC territory, such as Arkansas coach Bret Beliema, weren’t fans of this rule; some folks up north believed the SEC was trying to protect its recruiting turf by fighting the rule, which would ostensibly allow kids to visit places like Michigan and Ohio State when their schedules aren’t consumed by football season.

With an early signing date likely in place, however, adding early official visits makes a ton of sense and should in theory help both coaches and recruits get to know each other sooner.

Close associates

FBS schools cannot hire “people close to a prospective student-athlete” in the two years before or after he expects to enroll.

Ole Miss, for instance, hired Shea Patterson’s older brother Sean as an off-field analyst while Patterson was committed to the Rebels. Under the new rules, that hire would not be allowed.

The rule most affects high school coaches trying to make a jump to the college ranks, especially those who coach at schools that produce a high number of big-time prospects. Guys like Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee fall under this umbrella.

Gus Malzahn, who also got his start coaching high school football, voiced his displeasure with the change last week.

“This rule will in essence be a death sentence to any high school coach wanting to coach college (football),” Malzahn said. “It’s putting an end to it, and it’s not fair.”

So high school coaches will have a much, much tougher time jumping right to the FBS level. But there’s nothing stopping them from following the career arc of Phil Longo, who jumped from high school to D-III, then FCS and finally the SEC.

A 10th on-field coach

This change is the simplest, and maybe the most-needed. Alabama and other SEC schools have begun hoarding analysts and other off-field staffers to help out assistant coaches, whose workloads have grown by leaps and bounds as recruiting becomes a year-round task.

Recruiting should be the focal point for just about every team hiring that 10th assistant, too, because of how time-consuming it tends to be. As for how schools choose to shuffle the on-field coaching duties, you’ll probably see more special teams coordinators or defensive assistants split between cornerbacks/safeties and, in 3-4 schemes, outside/inside linebackers.

So long, satellite camps and two-a-days

The SEC finally wins its battle with Jim Harbaugh over the contentious issue of satellite camps, which quickly became the hot topic of the summer last year. The new rule requires that camps “take place on a school’s campus” or in facilities regularly used by the football program.

In addition, the camps and clinics are now officially limited to 10 days in June and/or July.

So the NCAA rightfully nipped this one in the bud before it got out of control — because you know everything related to football recruiting naturally trends in that direction. Coaching staffs get to keep what little summer downtime they have, too.

As for two-a-day practices:

  • “A single day may include a single, three-hour, on-field practice session and a walk-through”
  • “Three continuous hours of recovery are required between on-field practice and a walk-through”
  • “Activities such as meetings, film review, medical treatment and meals are allowed during recovery time

Old-school football fans and coaches probably don’t like this change. Given the legitimate health and safety concerns, however, it’s not hard to see why the NCAA passed this rule.

Bottom line 

The NCAA’s changes are significant, to be sure. But unless you’re a high school coach or a die-hard follower of the recruiting world, you probably won’t notice much difference outside of the early signing day.

Maybe the new rules make it easier for Southern football recruits to visit the Michigans, Ohio States and West Coast powers of the world. But let’s be real: The players those programs tend to target are elite, and the truly top-notch recruits with the most to gain make time to visit wherever they want regardless.

There is so much talent in SEC recruiting territory that, frankly, it’s surprising more don’t venture outside the region on the simple basis of opportunity. Recruits and coaches are drawn to SEC schools because of the league’s proud reputation. Will spring visits to Ann Arbor really change that? I think not.

The only true change we can expect — between the coaching carousel and the anticipation leading up to the early signing date — is a potentially very chaotic December in the days and weeks before Christmas.

If you’d like to read more NCAA rule jargon:

Look ahead: A big weekend for spring football games

Four SEC teams will hold their annual spring scrimmages on Saturday: Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee. Here’s info you need to know for each game.

A-Day (Alabama)

  • Time: 3 p.m. ET
  • TV: ESPN
  • Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium; Tuscaloosa, Ala.
  • Story to watch: Don’t expect to get any meaningful look at how the Crimson Tide offense might function under Brian Daboll. But the players who do and don’t get extended looks during the scrimmage could give us hints as to who’s adapting well to the new system. Running back in particular is now an insanely deep position for Alabama with the additions of Najee Harris and Brian Robinson. Jerry Jeudy seems to have a shot at early playing time, too.

G-Day (Georgia)

  • Time: 2 p.m. ET
  • TV: SEC Network
  • Location: Sanford Stadium; Athens, Ga.
  • Story to watch: Has the offense improved? Year 2 will be a critical one for coordinator Jim Chaney, particularly with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both returning as seniors. The offensive line and wide receiving corps were sore spots last year, and most folks are expecting Jacob Eason to take noticable steps forward this season. G-Day will provide Georgia fans their first glimpse at the progress, if it’s evident.

National L Club (LSU)

  • Time: 8 p.m. ET
  • TV: SEC Network
  • Location: Tiger Stadium; Baton Rouge, La.
  • Story to watch: Like Alabama, the Tigers entered this spring with a new offensive coordinator. Matt Canada’s Pittsburgh unit finished top 10 nationally in scoring, and fans are hoping he rights a ship that’s been listing for the last few seasons now. Derrius Guice is the unquestioned successor to Leonard Fournette, and Danny Etling seems like the favorite to emerge as the starting quarterback. Can Canada find the right formula at the other positions to help them succeed?

Orange & White (Tennessee)

  • Time: 4 p.m. ET
  • TV: SEC Network
  • Location: Neyland Stadium; Knoxville, Tenn.
  • Story to watch: Besides the growing list of injured guys who likely won’t play on Saturday, Tennessee has its ongoing two-man QB race between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano. Combine that with a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterbacks coach, and you’ve got an interesting recipe for the Vols in what should be a high-pressure season. Dormady “is believed to have a slight edge” over Guarantano right now, according to our own Mike Griffith, but the spring scrimmage could give us a better sense of how close those two really are in terms of progression and development.

Highlight of the week: Thrice is nice

Mississippi State outfielder Brent Rooker is having an incredible season — like 16 home runs through 38 games kind of incredible. That type of power is rare at the college level, but here’s Rooker slugging .957 as a junior.

Last week, he hit three ding-dongs in one game, and the reaction from his Bulldogs teammates was fantastic.

Sad tale of the week: Demetris Summers

If you don’t know the name, well, here’s a blurb from the “biggest SEC recruiting busts” article I wrote back in January:

Summers had it all: Parade All-American, 5 stars and a scholarship offer to play for his in-state Gamecocks. And while he led South Carolina in rushing during 2 unremarkable seasons, even attaining SEC All-Freshman honors in 2003, the team dismissed Summers after he failed a second drug test. He wound up in the CFL a few years later but was out of the league by 2010. Summers was charged with intent to distribute crack cocaine, having a gun illegally and driving under the influence in his hometown of Lexington in 2014.

Now 33 years old, Summers was sentenced to 8 years in jail on Friday after he reportedly pleaded guilty to manufacturing and distributing crack cocaine in Lexington County. Yikes. Add this one to the ever-growing pile of cautionary tales involving really good football players.

Headlines from around SEC Country

Final Word: Recruiting road trip

Alabama and Auburn fans, this might be of some interest: My guys Chris Kirschner (Tide recruiting beat) and Benjamin Wolk (Tigers recruiting beat) have embarked on a state-wide trek through the Heart of Dixie. It’s a cool idea, and I know those guys will get some insightful stories out of the trip. Follow them on Twitter @benjaminwolk and @Chris Kirschner.

The post The Crock Pot: What recent NCAA rule changes mean for the SEC’s recruiting dominance appeared first on SEC Country.

Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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Kentucky basketball recruiting: Could fast-rising Kira Lewis get next 2019 offer from John Calipari?

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky coaches have compared him to De’Aaron Fox. He’s lit up the Nike AAU circuit this spring. New scholarship offers arrive daily. So how is Kira Lewis just barely considered a top-100 recruit by most of the major services?

Simply put, it was an industry-wide oversight, and it will be corrected very shortly.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t have an opportunity to evaluate him prior to this spring,” said 247Sports scouting director Evan Daniels, whose site currently ranks Lewis the 96th-best prospect in the Class of 2019. “Now that I have, it’s safe to say he’s due a big bump.”

The 6-foot-3 Lewis ranks sixth in Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League in points per game (21.8) and fourth in steals per game (2.6) to go with 3.4 assists per game and 40 percent 3-point shooting through two weekends against some of the best players in America. Kansas just offered him a scholarship, well behind most of the SEC.

Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have already thrown their hats into the ring for the Hazel Green, Ala., native — as have Baylor, Clemson, Connecticut, Indiana, among many others — and now Kentucky is calling.

Wildcats assistant coach Kenny Payne dialed Lewis after a breakout first weekend in the EYBL last month and “was telling me about how he liked my game, my speed, which kind of reminded him of De’Aaron Fox a little bit and John Wall,” Lewis said. “So that was great to hear from him. He puts guys in the league — Coach Cal does and Coach Payne does — and it’s a guard school. They just let their guards play fast, up tempo. It’s great hearing from them.”

RELATED: Analysts predict most/least likely 2019 recruits to pick UK

Payne told Lewis that Kentucky plans to keep monitoring him this spring and summer. The Wildcats could be forgiven for jumping into his recruitment later than most. John Calipari has been busy trying to hoard all of the 5-star guards in this class.

Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Jalen Lecque, all top-15 overall recruits, have UK offers and some interest in reclassifying to play college basketball this fall.

Hagans is already committed to the Cats and widely expected to make that move to 2018. Maxey is considered a heavy UK lean — he’s announcing his commitment Wednesday — and might also enroll early. If both do that, there’s a good chance Lecque goes elsewhere.

Point being, Kentucky will still want to sign a point guard from whatever is left in the 2019 class when the dust settles. Lewis looks like an increasingly good option.

“He has game-changing speed, is a playmaker in transition and has the tools to be a good defender,” Daniels said. “He’s one of the breakout performers of the spring.”

So far, Kentucky has offered 10 players in the Class of 2019: No. 1 James Wiseman (center), No. 2 Vernon Carey (power forward), No. 4 Matthew Hurt (power forward), No. 7 Bryan Antoine (shooting guard), No. 8 Scottie Lewis (small forward), No. 9 Lecque (combo guard), No. 10 Hagans (point guard), No. 13 Maxey (point guard), No. 27 Keion Brooks (small forward) and No. 31 D.J. Jeffries (small forward) — with Hagans and Jeffries committed.

Who might be next? Lewis is an option, as is 6-foot-10 Bam Adebayo clone Aidan Igiehon. But what about Isaiah Stewart? He’s ranked the No. 14 player in the class and passes the eye test at a chiseled 6-foot-8, 243 pounds. He’s averaging 16.1 points and an EYBL-best 10.5 rebounds per game.

Stewart is getting close to cutting down his list of schools — Duke, Michigan State, Indiana, Louisville, Texas, Virginia and Villanova on the long list he’s trying to whittle — but he said it isn’t too late for Kentucky. If the Wildcats offer, he’ll listen.

“Kentucky came up earlier in the school year to visit with me,” the Rochester, N.Y., native said, “but I haven’t done much with them since.”

Even as the Wildcats are in strong early positions with their top two targets in the post, No. 1 and 2 overall Wiseman and Carey, the lack of interest in Stewart so far seems strange. He looks like a player who can make an impact from Day 1 in college and says everything Calipari likes to hear.

Asked to describe his ideal school, “I want to go somewhere where I can develop and grow, be coached and get better,” Stewart said.

Asked whether he has one eye on the NBA, “Oh, no, no,” Stewart said. “What’s weird is some schools pitch the one-and-done to me, but that’s something I’m not really worried about. I’m worried about coming into college and getting better and trying to win some games — hopefully a championship.”

Asked if he wants to be the man in college, “I’ve been in both situations,” Stewart said. “I’ve been in situations where I’m the main guy or I’ve been in situations where I’ve sort of got to share the show. I feel like I’m an easy player to play with.”

So what is Calipari waiting for? Chris Mack certainly couldn’t say. He’s been hot on Stewart’s heels since he was at Xavier and has only intensified the pursuit since taking over as the coach at Kentucky’s rival, Louisville.

“They just went to a bigger stage and they’re still recruiting me hard,” said Stewart, who was asked whether the Cardinals have a real shot at landing him. “I had a really good relationship with them back at Xavier, so yes.”

RELATED: Jeffries not swayed by Penny, trying to sway Wiseman

RELATED: Bam Adebayo told Vernon Carey UK the spot for 1-and-done 

RELATED: Could Keion Brooks be first Cats-Cards battle under Mack?

RELATED: Latest on top-10 teammates, UK targets Lewis and Antoine

RELATED: Did Cats discover Bam 2.0 watching Lewis and Antoine? 

RELATED: In-state star Tandy’s dad not holding breath for UK offer

RELATED: Mini Mash, son of Jamal Mashburn, making own name

The post Kentucky basketball recruiting: Could fast-rising Kira Lewis get next 2019 offer from John Calipari? appeared first on SEC Country.

Kyle Tucker – SEC Country

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Kentucky basketball recruiting: 5-star Tyrese Maxey intrigue about when, not where

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — As 5-star point guard Tyrese Maxey prepares to announce his college commitment Wednesday, there is not much mystery about where he’s headed. But there is quite a bit of intrigue about when he’ll enroll there.

While Maxey lists Texas, Michigan, Michigan State and Oklahoma State as finalists, Kentucky is an overwhelming favorite to land one of the most exciting playmakers in high school basketball when he releases a video commitment at 5 p.m. ET.

“What sticks out about Tyrese is just the ease with which he scores,” said 247Sports scouting director Evan Daniels, who logged a prediction of Maxey to Kentucky two weeks ago. “He’s very impressive off the bounce, can score at all three levels. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s aggressive, a really good defender who plays hard every play — but the best part of his game is his ability to put up points.”

The 6-foot-3 Maxey leads the Nike AAU circuit in scoring (24) and steals (2.9) through two weekends this spring. He also averages 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists and sank 14 of 30 3-pointers in four games two weeks ago in Indianapolis. Sound like something John Calipari could use this season?

That’s the part of Maxey’s announcement everyone will be most focused on Wednesday: Will he say definitively that he’s staying in the Class of 2019 or moving up and enrolling in college this fall?

After a few weeks of buzz — and even a significant tease from Maxey — that he will reclassify, there’s a growing rumble that he might just stay put. And contrary to Calipari’s hoarding desires, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the Wildcats, whose 2018-19 back court seems to be getting more crowded by the day.

Kentucky already has a commitment from the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2019, Ashton Hagans, who is expected to reclassify and enroll this fall. Maxey is ranked the No. 2 point guard in 2019 — he’s also the No. 1 player in Texas and No. 13 overall prospect in the country — by the 247Sports composite.

“Those two can definitely play together,” Daniels said. “Now Kentucky’s roster is going to consist of a lot more than just those two guys. What does that mean for guys like Quade Green and Immanuel Quickley [two other 5-star point guards on the roster this fall] and how do those four fit? But it’s a great problem to have, and it’s not necessarily one that’s new for John Calipari.”

The argument for Maxey to reclassify, as he’s noted himself, is that Calipari and Kentucky have made it work with an abundance of 5-star point guards in the same back court before — and because Maxey is a different type of player than Hagans, Green or Quickley.

“Very different,” Daniels said. “Tyrese is a true combo guard. You can play him on the ball, you can play him off, he can guard both positions. But the main thing is he can really score it. Now I’m not saying he can’t pass, but he can really score. Whereas, with Hagans, I think he needs the ball in his hands to be as effective as he can be, because he’s a true facilitator, set-up man, who can really distribute and pass.

“Like Maxey, [Hagans] can guard multiple positions on the floor, so there would be a lot of defensive versatility if they were playing together.”

But if not, if Maxey picks Kentucky but stays in his current class while Hagans heads to Lexington this summer, the Wildcats still would have a terrific foundation in the Class of 2019.

“Oh, it’s a tremendous piece to already have in place,” Daniels said. “And they already have some talent headed their way in that class in [top-30 small forward] D.J. Jeffries. So that puts them off to a strong start. And the truth is, the 2019 class is really bad overall, so to go ahead and get two 5-star guys locked in and ready to go is a big deal.”

Also of note: Jeffries is an AAU teammate of 6-foot-11 superstar James Wiseman, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2019, who was asked two weeks ago which other top players he’d like to play with in college and listed Maxey and Hagans.

“That never hurts,” Daniels said. “Now James Wiseman is not making his decision based on what Tyrese Maxey does, but we all know these top players like to play with other really good players, so that’s a nice bonus.”

The post Kentucky basketball recruiting: 5-star Tyrese Maxey intrigue about when, not where appeared first on SEC Country.

Kyle Tucker – SEC Country

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Kentucky basketball recruiting: Tyrese Maxey joins 5-star point guard parade, commits to Cats

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — We’re starting to think elite point guards really like John Calipari and Kentucky. It’s just a hunch, of course, but Tyrese Maxey on Wednesday became the 12th 5-star point guard to pick the Wildcats since Calipari arrived in 2009.

He’s the third in the last seven months alone, joining 2018 signee Immanuel Quickley and fellow 2019 star Ashton Hagans. Maxey and Hagans are ranked as the top 2 point guards in their class, and for both, the big question has been not where they’d go to college but when.

Maxey, the top-ranked recruit in Texas and the No. 13 overall prospect in the country, did not address the reclassification question during a video he shared on social media announcing his commitment to Kentucky over finalists Michigan, Michigan State, Texas and Oklahoma State. But he did announce those plans on a new blog for USA Today.

“I’m deciding to stay in my own Class of 2019,” Maxey wrote. “It came down to me just wanting to be a kid for my last year of high school.”

He added that it has been a lifelong dream to become a McDonald’s All-American — a prestigious honor for which reclassifying would’ve made him ineligible — and that he prefers to help build a recruiting class, rather than be a late addition to an already loaded one. (More on why that’s a significant statement in a moment.)

“I told Coach Cal my decision to stay in 2019 about a week ago, and he was fine with it,” Maxey wrote. “He’s always told me he doesn’t care when I come as long as I come there.”

 

Hagans’ AAU coach told SEC Country that Hagans will make his own reclassification decision in July, but he is widely expected to play for the Wildcats this fall. That means even without Maxey, Kentucky will have a pair of 5-star point guards — rising sophomore Quade Green is the other — plus 4-star shooting guards Jemarl Baker and Tyler Herro, not to mention incoming 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American wing Keldon Johnson.

Even with all that, Calipari was unabashed in his greed for guards on the recruiting trail this spring.

“Me and Coach Cal have talked about [reclassifying] multiple times,” Maxey told SEC Country last month. “He’s just saying it would be a great opportunity for me to be a part of this special team that he’s building. It’s going to be a lot of NBA talent in the building and it [would] be getting us all ready for the next level. It’s like an NBA practice every day.

“Coach Cal has had three 5-star guards on the roster before with Isaiah Briscoe, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, and he gets it done. And that’s not the first time he’s had it like that. He had Tyler Ulis, the Harrison twins, Devin Booker. That’s four 5-star guards on one team. He finds a way to make stuff like that happen and work, so you gotta trust him.”

Maxey is more of a combo guard — adept at playing on the ball or off — while Hagans is more a pure point guard, so 247Sports scouting director Evan Daniels said he thinks they could easily coexist in the same backcourt. But with Maxey staying in 2019, that’s a huge building block for that class.

The Wildcats already had a commitment from small forward D.J. Jeffries, ranked No. 31 in 2019, who is AAU teammates with No. 1 overall recruit James Wiseman. And Wiseman, who is uncommitted, has said he’d love to play in college with Maxey and Hagans.

Maxey is explosive getting to the basket, has deep 3-point range and leads the Nike AAU circuit in points (24.0) and steals (2.9) per game. He also averages 5.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game and is known to want — and make — game-winning shots with some regularity.

“What sticks out about Tyrese is just the ease with which he scores,” Daniels said. “He’s very impressive off the bounce, can score at all three levels. He’s tough, he’s physical, he’s aggressive, a really good defender who plays hard every play — but the best part of his game is his ability to put up points.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Calipari showed early and intense interest.

Kentucky’s coach conducted in-home visits with the South Garland, Texas, star on Feb. 9 and April 15 and hosted him for an unofficial visit in between, on Feb. 17.

“It’s exciting for a legendary coach like Coach Cal to want me to come play for his school and show what I can do and help lead a team to a national championship,” Maxey told SEC Country. “I trust him. I know he’s really good with point guards and getting us to the NBA.”

Calipari’s 5-star Kentucky point guards

2019

Ashton Hagans

Tyrese Maxey

2018

Immanuel Quickley

2017

Quade Green

2016

De’Aaron Fox

2015

Isaiah Briscoe

2014

Tyler Ulis

2013

Andrew Harrison

2012

Ryan Harrow*

2011

Marquis Teague

2010

Brandon Knight

2009

John Wall

* Harrow, an N.C. State transfer, was a 5-star prospect when he left high school.

The post Kentucky basketball recruiting: Tyrese Maxey joins 5-star point guard parade, commits to Cats appeared first on SEC Country.

Kyle Tucker – SEC Country

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Florida football: Recruiting a priority with early signing period closing in

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Florida Gators football is the No. 1 topic in Good Morning, Gators every day — but we cover news, notes and analysis from across the Gators sports world. Join us each morning to get caught up on everything you missed in the world of Florida football, recruiting, basketball and more.

Recruiting whirlwind continues

With the early signing period now just eight days away, Florida is continuing its strong push on the recruiting trail. In summary:

Taven Bryan going pro

Redshirt junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan on Monday declared for the 2018 NFL Draft. A budding star on the defensive line, Bryan has the potential to be a late first-round pick.

In other Florida football news

Basketball tumbles in the polls

After two losses last week, the Gators men’s basketball team dropped 15 spots to No. 22 in the AP poll, which was released Monday afternoon.

Gymnastics getting early recognition

The Florida gymnastics team will open the season as the No. 2 team in the country. The Gators are coming off a third-place finish at the NCAA Championships last season.

Let’s keep talking

Want to keep the conversation going? Hop over to our free Florida message board. Sign up now and join the discussion here.

What they’re saying on Twitter

Wide receiver Dre Massey:

Tight end Kemore Gamble:

Quarterback commit Matt Corral:

Miss a previous edition of Good Morning, Gators? Get caught up here.

The post Florida football: Recruiting a priority with early signing period closing in appeared first on SEC Country.

Jordan McPherson – SEC Country

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Mixed opinions: SEC coaches see ‘good and bad’ in early signing day, accelerated recruiting calendar

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The overhauled NCAA recruiting calendar and its new December signing period promise to significantly effect the SEC and the rest of college football in 2017. As proposed, prospects would have the option to sign from Dec. 20-22 instead of waiting for February.

The changes are so major, in fact, that not even coaches know what to expect, and the uncertainty makes it difficult to project how the early signing period will play out.

Based on what several SEC coaches said Monday during the spring football teleconference, however, we can draw a few conclusions.

  • Most SEC coaches like the early signing period, but they don’t like changing the recruiting calendar. Why? That forces teams to speed up their player evaluations. Some coaches also believe they would have less time to build relationships with their targets. That would certainly be the case for the 2018 recruiting class. An early signing period, however, could allow coaches to get a head start on future classes. So while December and January would’ve been spent mostly on that February’s signing class in previous recruiting cycles, now programs can dive right into the 2019 and 2020 classes during those months.
  • Most schools will probably pressure recruits to sign in December rather than wait until February. More than one SEC coach said prospects who delay their signing merely have a “reservation,” not a full commitment to the school. “I truly think it’ll call some people’s bluffs,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said.
  • Early December will be nuts. Players on top high school teams could be in the middle of deep playoff runs. They will also be studying for finals as they wrap up the fall semester. Coaching changes will be taking place, while other programs will be preparing for the College Football Playoff or New Year’s Six bowl games. “It’s a time when we’re not used to having that much intensity in recruiting,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said.
  • Recruits will continue to make commitments earlier and earlier. This could potentially hurt “late bloomers” who don’t emerge as SEC prospects until their senior years.
  • Late spring and summer, a relatively slow time for football coaches, suddenly become much busier as schools can now welcome official visits in April, May and June. This opens the door for, say, a West Coast 5-star to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Alabama in the spring, whereas before he would have had to wait until September. It also allows a 5-star Alabama recruit to visit Michigan for free. That could create an interesting dynamic. (Schools cannot cover the costs associated with unofficial visits.)

The major caveat underlying every coach’s opinion, however, was this: None of them can predict all of the effects these changes might have. There could be unintended consequences that nobody sees coming. But, at least for now, these are the breaks and programs will have to adjust; the payoff could be huge for coaches who adapt the best.

RELATED: SEC coaches love proposed redshirt rule change

Knowing that, here are thoughts from 12 SEC coaches about college football’s new recruiting rules.

Nick Saban, Alabama

“Evaluation is important. The sooner you have to make decisions on these guys, the greater opportunity you have to make mistakes. We’re trying to make sure we accelerate [the recruiting calendar] and do a great job in the evaluation process. I still think the summer, June is going to be a real important time for some of these guys. A lot of guys committing earlier and earlier. I’m sure the biggest fear with having an early signing day is that it would become the signing day, accelerate recruiting and make more guys take visits during the season. These things will probably be true. I don’t know that all those things are good things. I don’t know that accelerating the calendar, letting guys visit in the spring is all that good either.”

Ed Orgeron, LSU

“It’s going to be different obviously because of the manpower, the hours it takes for signing day. It’s a war out there. Now you have two of them. A lot of teams are going to be practicing for some very important bowls. So you’re going to have to balance your time between signing day and practice/preparation. It’s going to be a challenge, but it’s something that’s coming forward. So we’re going to have to compete to be the best at it, and I’m sure we’re going to do a good job of it.”

Kirby Smart, Georgia

“I’m very interested to see how this plays out. We’re dealing in a world we haven’t dealt in. When you have that, there’s usually things you haven’t thought of. Repercussions you haven’t thought of. It’ll be interesting to see who handles it best. You’re going to have some kids who want to sign early. You’re going to have others that don’t. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on kids not to sign from other schools, to wait and see what becomes available. In basketball, you only have a few signees a year. When you’re dealing in the 20s, or a high number of signees, it’s musical chairs sometimes.

“The biggest complication is you’re going to have guys having to make an intense decision possibly during a playoff run. With academics, finals are around that time. There’s going to be a lot of different pressures. There’s going to be a lot of pressure from the school they’re supposed to go to … It’s a time when we’re not used to having that much intensity in recruiting.”

Dan Mullen, Mississippi State 

“It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. One of the big things we need to look at is if a majority of kids are signing Dec. 15, that’s really going to affect how we do things in the future. Because that’s really going to become the signing day, more than an early signing day. It’s going to be interesting how the whole things shake out. Are prospects going to take more visits in-season or early December? Or are guys going to let the whole recruiting process play out and the early signing day be what it was designed for, which is for guys who know where they’re going to school?”

Jim McElwain, Florida

“There are guys that know where they’re going to go and want to go. The early signing period, it lets them get it off their plate. They don’t have to listen to all the stuff being slung around as it goes all the way to February. I think it’ll alleviate a lot of that stuff. It’ll really narrow the focus going into the February signing. You’ll know, ‘These are definitely the targets.’ I truly think it’ll call some people’s bluffs, both from the player side and the school side.”

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

“If a guy doesn’t sign in December, you know he’s not committed. He’s got a reservation. It’s got potential to really help everybody as a cost-cutting measure. By that time, our guys have usually committed. We’re not down to the wire except for a couple, maybe three guys. We spend the month of January basically spending money to see a guy every week. So I don’t know. If he doesn’t sign then, that clears the picture up. He’s not really committed to you.”

Will Muschamp, South Carolina

“I wish we had not changed anything in the recruiting calendar. I liked the recruiting calendar the way it was. But you’ve got to adjust to what we’re going to do. I don’t have any issue with it. It does help you with young men who are going to come to South Carolina no matter what, if they want to go ahead and get [signing] out of the way. A mid-year guy has the opportunity to have a signing day, so to speak.

“You find out in December if a guy’s committed to you. Because if he’s not signing in December, you better re-think your numbers at the position or continue to recruit, because you’re not really sure if he’s going to sign with you in February.”

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt

“It’s put in place to benefit student-athletes. It’s going to allow them to have a faster say getting the recruiting process done and over with. And really holding schools’ feet to the fire in terms of whether or not they’re actually committed to the student-athletes. For schools like Vanderbilt, it’s pros and cons. What’s good about it is you get a chance to figure out who’s in and who’s out. The tough thing is, I’m really just going off six [high school] semesters, versus seven semesters and having a better idea of where they stand academically.”

Barry Odom, Missouri

“I liked the setup we had. I understand why the changes were made. I don’t want to sit around and make excuses. That’s what it is now and we’re going to make the best of it. What we have done, I can see some benefit. I really like the part of the early signing period. I think there’s some benefit for that. I’m not overly excited about the early official visit periods because of all the things that have probably been mentioned around the country — just the effect it has on kids going into their senior year, the academic schedule that they have. We’re going to do a great job knowing where we are on certain kids, if they’re really committed or if it’s a reservation. You’re going to find out a little quicker.”

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

“I’m in favor of the early signing period. I think it’ll allow you to know exactly where you stand quicker with players. They will know where schools stand with them quicker. I think that could be beneficial for us. I’m not a fan of the early visits. I think you’re tripping kids before they’ve even had a sixth semester transcript. I wish that was not a part of it. I am OK with the early signing period. Originally my vote would’ve been to not change anything. But once it sounded like that’s the path we’re headed down regardless, signing in December is the best scenario.

“I want to know kids fit with us. That’s really important to me. The way it’s been expedited because of this is troubling to me a little bit. It could cause you to be a bit reckless. How fast are we really going to try to move? Are we going to lean toward making sure it’s the right fit?”

Mark Stoops, Kentucky

“There’s good and bad. If you look through the years, it certainly could’ve benefited us in certain ways. I think it’s good just as far as the early signing period, having that ability. As far as changing the calendar, when you package it together, I don’t think I was totally in favor of that. But you have to make do with the rules that were given to you.”

Gus Malzahn, Auburn

“I was fine with the way it was. Any time they do make a change, there’s always a learning curve that goes with it. I can probably answer that question better a year from now.”

The post Mixed opinions: SEC coaches see ‘good and bad’ in early signing day, accelerated recruiting calendar appeared first on SEC Country.

Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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Florida recruiting class takes big hit with Matt Corral de-commitment

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Florida Gators football is the No. 1 topic in Good Morning, Gators every day — but we cover news, notes and analysis from across the Gators sports world. Join us each morning to get caught up on everything you missed in the world of Florida football, recruiting, basketball and more.

Matt Corral flips commitment

The focal point of Florida’s recruiting class is no longer there. Four-star quarterback Matt Corral announced Thursday that he has flipped his commitment from the Gators to Ole Miss. Corral was scheduled to visit Florida this weekend, but the Rebels had an in-home visit with him Thursday and landed his pledge.

In other Florida football news

Volleyball playing for a national title

The No. 2 seed Gators volleyball team defeated Stanford 3-2 in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., and advanced to its second finals in program history and first since 2003. Florida will play fifth-seeded Nebraska on Saturday, with first serve set for 9 p.m. ET. Should the Gators win, coach Mary Wise would become the first female coach to win the NCAA Division I volleyball championship.

Let’s keep talking

Want to keep the conversation going? Hop over to our free Florida message board. Sign up now and join the discussion here.

What they’re saying on Twitter

Defensive back Chauncey Gardner:

Quarterback Jake Allen:

Wide receiver target Jacob Copeland:

Miss a previous edition of Good Morning, Gators? Get caught up here.

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Jordan McPherson – SEC Country

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South Carolina’s big recruiting weekend; Gamecocks’ top remaining targets for 2019

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Welcome to SEC Country’s Chicken & Waffles, your daily dish for all things South Carolina Gamecocks football, basketball and more. Miss a previous edition? Find every edition of SEC Country’s South Carolina Gamecocks Chicken & Waffles right here.

It’s official

Four-star defensive end and 2019 prospect Savion Jackson plans to take an official visit to South Carolina this weekend, according to a tweet he posted Tuesday afternoon.

Jackson is rated as the No. 45 overall prospect for 2019, according to the 247Sports composite.

Top 6

Three-star athlete and 2019 prospect Jammie Robinson announced his top 6 schools on Twitter on Tuesday.

South Carolina made the cut along with Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan and UT Chattanooga.

The 247Sports composite ranks Robinson as the No. 33 athlete for 2019. The Crisp County (Ga.) High School standout plans to take an official visit to South Carolina this weekend.

Guest list

In addition to Jackson and Robinson, the Gamecocks will welcome at least three other non-committed 2019 targets to Columbia this weekend for official visits, including:

  • 4-star DE Joseph Anderson (Murfreesboro, Tenn.)
  • 3-star LB Derek Boykins (Concord, N.C.)
  • 3-star T Anthony Whigan (Lackawanna College, Scranton, Pa.)

Two 2019 commits may also be on campus: 3-star LB Jahmar Brown and 5-star DE Zacch Pickens.

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Top targets

They may not be visiting this weekend, but the South Carolina coaching staff would love to bring these four 2019 prospects back to Columbia this summer, according to SEC Country’s Hale McGranahan:

  • 4-star DE Curtis Fann Jr. (Twin City, Ga.)
  • 4-star T Warren McClendon (Brunswick, Ga.)
  • 4-star LB Kalen Deloach (Savannah, Ga.)
  • 4-star S Jaylen McCollough (Powder Springs, Ga.)

The Gamecocks’ 2019 haul — with 12 commits — is currently ranked No. 7 in 247Sports’ 2019 football recruiting composite team rankings.

On transfers

Though South Carolina coach Will Muschamp is wary of immediate eligibility for undergraduate transfers, he understands that not all situations are the same.

“Josh Shaw was a young man I had at the University of Florida who was from Southern California and he had some issues in his family,” Muschamp said. “I appealed to the NCAA for immediate eligibility for him. I mean there’s so many different reasons why a young man’s transferring that it’s hard to lump it all into one category and say this is why it’s accurate. It’s not.”

Three graduate transfers will take the field for the Gamecocks this season: cornerback Nick Harvey (Texas A&M), kicker Shane Hynes (Kent State) and safety J.T. Ibe (Rice).

Waiting on answer

According to South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner, the Gamecocks may soon have an update on Brian Bowen’s eligibility, per Josh Kendall of The State.

“I think we are going to have some clarity,” Tanner said Tuesday. “I have some tidbits of information that there is a possibility that we will have some updated information.”

Bowen’s remained in NCAA limbo since transferring to South Carolina from Louisville in January.

Chiming in

D1Baseball.com’s Kendall Rogers shared his thoughts on Clemson fans’ conspiracy theory that Tanner, as a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, intentionally overlooked the Tigers as a national seed.

Clemson will host a regional but is not one of the tournament’s top 8 seeds.

Craving more Chicken & Waffles? Get your fix with previous versions here.

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Daniel Sweeney – SEC Country

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Mississippi State recruiting: With Jalen Mayden commitment, Dan Mullen is on a roll

They say success breeds success, and that’s especially true in the fickle world of college football recruiting. Exhibit A: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who is tapping into a gold mine of it when it comes to finding quarterbacks.

His winning streak began with former 3-star prospect Dak Prescott (maybe you’ve heard of him), who Mullen helped mold into a standout NFL quarterback for the Cowboys. Prescott’s successor, another overlooked gem by the name of Nick Fitzgerald, broke out as a first-time starter under Mullen’s tutelage last season. This past recruiting cycle saw touted 4-star Keytaon Thompson, a true high school star from the highly competitive New Orleans area, sign with the Bulldogs and enroll early.

The newest stud to fall in love with Mississippi State is Jalen Mayden, a 4-star from Sachse (Texas) High School who is the No. 12 dual-threat quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class. He committed to Mississippi State over Tennessee, Nebraska, Louisville and Baylor on Tuesday night.

Mullen’s track record for development reaches well beyond his years at Starkville, and it had to factor heavily into Mayden’s decision. Mullen most notably coached No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith at Utah and guided Heisman Trophy-winner Tim Tebow at Florida. But, at least to outsiders, the imposing reputation of Urban Meyer cast a shadow over Mullen back then.

Now that Mullen proved he can win by himself, quarterbacks like Mayden are flocking to Starkville.

How huge is Mayden’s commitment? Consider this: Of the top 21-ranked 2018 quarterback prospects, only two are committed to SEC schools — Mayden and Tennessee pledge Adrian Martinez. Only four of those players are uncommitted, too. And here’s Mississippi State, beating out the school that just turned Lamar Jackson into a Heisman winner.

Mississippi State only has two scholarship quarterbacks on its roster — Fitzgerald and Thompson —so Mayden’s pledge helps the numbers situation, as well. By the time Mayden enrolls, Fitzgerald will be a senior and Thompson would be a true sophomore, so the Texas product could redshirt in 2018 and then theoretically take over for Thompson in 2020 if all goes according to plan. That’s in the distant future, though.

The Bulldogs will likely take a second quarterback in this class, but having a 4-star prospect already in the fold is a sure-fire way to help coaches breathe a bit easier.

As of Wednesday, Mississippi State’s class is nine commitments strong — headlined by Mayden and 4-star receiver Malik Heath — and is No. 4 in the SEC, according to the 247Sports composition rankings. Granted, it’s only late May. With the early signing period now in effect, however, the 2018 finish line will creep up on us faster than ever, and Mullen is in good position to be smiling on the other side of it once again. One reason? He could for the first time sign a 4-star quarterback in back-to-back classes.

At this point, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Mullen is the second-longest tenured coach in the SEC, behind only Nick Saban, and his teams have made seven consecutive bowl games. His overall record: 61-42 in eight seasons. It figures that as the wins come, recruiting success is starting to follow. It’ll be interesting to see where Mississippi State goes from here.

RELATED: Mississippi State receives late 2017 commit from TE Powers Warren

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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How one recruiting list set Nick Fitzgerald on path to Mississippi State stardom

STARKVILLE, Miss. — The most important number in Nick Fitzgerald’s Mississippi State career has nothing to do with yards, touchdowns, wins or school records. No, the number that defines Fitzgerald’s unlikely rise to SEC football standout is 290.

That’s at least how many Georgia high school prospects the Bulldogs sifted through before assistant recruiting coordinator Niel Stopczynski stumbled upon a lanky receiver-turned-quarterback from Richmond Hill, a town of 11,000 nestled some 20 miles south of Savannah.

“We had put up Nick’s stuff on video, sent it out,” Derrick Fitzgerald, Nick’s dad, told SEC Country. “[Stopczynski] was going down this recruiting list, one of the services he was using. Here are the top 300 D-I prospects in the state of Georgia. He was going through the list. Nick was down near 290-something.”

Perhaps intrigued by Fitzgerald’s listed 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame, Stopczynski began watching the young quarterback’s film and soon came across a highlight clip from Richmond Hill High School’s 2012 spring game.

“At about the 7-yard line. Nick being a righty, he rolled out to his left, footed around and threw a ball out of the range of our camera,” Derrick Fitzgerald said. “Our camera couldn’t keep up. He hit the receiver 60 yards downfield in stride.”

This one small moment of film-room discovery set into motion Nick Fitzgerald’s surprising journey to Starkville.

Nick Fitzgerald, the ‘one-man show’

The Southeast plays host to more recruiting battles than maybe any other part of the country, and more often than not, the Peach State is on the front lines. The Savannah area, however, is far less prospect-rich than other parts of Georgia, even when it comes to larger schools like Richmond Hill.

Thus, the naturally gifted Fitzgerald quickly became a textbook example of the big-fish, small-pond star, often outclassing his competition from an early age.

“He was pretty much a one-man show coming through rec ball. He was usually the dude,” Derrick Fitzgerald said. “Ran a lot of wildcat offense. In middle school, he started running triple option. He was used to taking that beating.”

Nick experienced a growth spurt as an eighth-grader, going from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2, at the tail end of those typically awkward middle school years. Within a year or two, however, Fitzgerald grew into his body, and those around him knew he’d be a special athlete.

But that was never the question with Fitzgerald. Rather, did his family and friends ever think he’d become a great quarterback?

Derrick Fitzgerald pauses.

“As a quarterback, I never was really sure at first,” he said.

Two factors help explain why Fitzgerald went so overlooked in high school level: Richmond Hill ran the triple option, and Fitzgerald wasn’t its starting quarterback until his senior season.

The former had nothing to do with Fitzgerald, but rather the lack of reliable talent around him. As a result, Fitzgerald threw the ball 78 times as a senior, completing just 33 passes for 671 yards and 11 touchdowns, according to MaxPreps.

“Nick’s numbers, he was a victim of not having good personnel around him. We were not loaded,” Lyman Guy, Fitzgerald’s high school coach, told SEC Country. “I don’t think anybody else in his class signed except at the Division-II and D-III level. We were a 5-A school. We didn’t have the receiving corps around Nick.”

So Fitzgerald became the do-it-all quarterback for his underdog team, rushing for 1,517 yards and 25 touchdowns, and led the Wildcats to a 9-1 regular-season record. They would ultimately lose to perennial powerhouse Warner Robins in the second round of the state playoffs; Fitzgerald accounted for 305 total yards in that game.

Nine wins and a second-round playoff loss might not seem so remarkable, until you realize that the Richmond Hill program won eight games total from 2004-09, a span that included back-to-back 0-10 seasons in 2004-05.

“He was just tough to tackle,” Jenkins (Ga.) High School coach Tim Adams told The Clarion-Ledger’s Will Sammon. “There were a couple of times we had him when they went for it on fourth down and he just makes yardage out of nothing. You look up when the ball is spotted and there’s a 3-yard gain when there should’ve been no yards.”

Then there’s the question of playing time. As a sophomore and junior, Fitzgerald usually lined up as a receiver, where the team believed he was most needed. He caught 18 passes and ran the ball 41 times in 2012 with Dominique Allen, who went on to play for The Citadel, starting at quarterback.

“If you want leadership, you have to give kids an opportunity to be in a leadership role. That was one of the reasons we decided to leave Dominique where he was at, and leave Nick where he was at,” Guy said. “First of all, we had no passing threat whatsoever unless Nick was out there [at receiver]. When Nick was out there, it changed the dynamics of the game. Dominique could’ve very well played fullback for us and we put Nick at quarterback. But we had a pretty good running back back there — the kid should’ve played college ball.

“That was the best combination for us offensively.”

Fitzgerald’s arm strength, however, was known to the coaching staff well before he became a starter. He broke three paddles — the ones coaches hold up to the linemen in front of quarterbacks — as a freshman. The 60-yard bomb Mississippi State recruiters saw Fitzgerald heave on video? That happened at the end of his sophomore year.

Folks in Richmond Hill knew Fitzgerald had a big-league arm. Nobody at the college level had taken notice … yet.

Nick Fitzgerald, the overlooked prospect

Football recruiting has always been a numbers game, built around class rankings, top-10 announcements and how many players are committed when the final curtain drops. Top prospects pick up dozens of offers from a who’s who of elite programs — Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Oklahoma, Southern Cal and so on.

Only one school other than Mississippi State offered Fitzgerald a scholarship, a fact immortalized in Dan Mullen’s iconic cigar-chomping interview response. As funny as it was, however, the Bulldogs coach got it wrong: UT-Chattanooga never offered Fitzgerald.

“I still have no idea where Coach Mullen got UT-Chattanooga from,” Nick Fitzgerald told SEC Country. “Maybe he was thinking of [Nick] Tiano. I got offers from Mississippi State one day. The next day, I went to Middle Tennessee and got an offer from Middle Tennessee. It makes for a great postgame interview though.”

Why only two? That’s a complex question that warrants a detailed answer.

First, recruiting involves a certain degree of risk-taking. Many prospects turn out to be colossal disappointments, so Power Five assistant coaches are often hesitant to vouch for a player who lacks the offers, star ratings, measurables or passing numbers that make quarterback recruits “elite.”

“The terrible thing about college football is these guys don’t have the guts to sit in a room and look a head coach in the eye and say, ‘I know he’s not prototypical.’ They want to have a cookie-cut, prototypical position player with stats,” Guy said. “That way if they don’t make a good decision — ‘Hey, he had the numbers. He’s got the size.’

“Very few schools will go after guys that break the mold a little bit. It’s [graduate assistants] and young coaches who don’t want to say, ‘This kid’s a motor, we got to find a place for him.’”

In Fitzgerald’s case, Georgia may have been the first Power 5 school to hear about him. Guy said he informed Mark Richt’s coaching staff about Fitzgerald when Nick was just a sophomore. He also had family from the Athens area; Derrick Fitzgerald grew up down in Jefferson, Ga.

But the Bulldogs didn’t want Fitzgerald at quarterback.

“Georgia would’ve been a dream place for him,” Derrick said. “At that point, they had a 4-star kid they were taking out of South Carolina [Jacob Park]. They may have taken Nick as an athlete or something like that. Nick said he wanted to be a quarterback and I want to be knowing what I’m doing when I walk in the door.”

Oddly enough, Georgia signed Brice Ramsey — a 4-star prospect from South Georgia who, like Fitzgerald, passed sparingly in high school because he played in the wing-T offense — during the previous recruiting cycle.

Other schools apparently felt the same way. Fitzgerald and his father spent many summer weeks on the road during his high school years, hitting as many as five, six and seven one-day college camps in a row, with the ultimate goal of attending 10-12 in a given summer.

Derrick Fitzgerald, an assistant high school coach with extensive experience helping Savannah-area players gain recruiting exposure, knew the system well, and he knew how to attack it. He might not have been able to afford a quarterback trainer for Nick in high school, but he dang sure took advantage of those camps.

“You’re not going to go out and stay at the Marriott every night,” Derrick said. “Cheap hotel, but in a good area to make sure you’re safe. It may be a lot of Little Caesars pizzas and dollar menu stuff.”

Nick Fitzgerald during his time at Richmond Hill (Courtesy Derrick Fitzgerald)

Slowly, the intrigue surrounding his son grew. His film was out there, and coaches had seen him at camps. Upwards of 30 D-I schools saw Fitzgerald practice as a senior during the spring evaluation period, and many came away interested. But almost all of them wanted to see Fitzgerald play before they offered him.

The exception turned out to be Mississippi State.

In April, after Stopczynski found Fitzgerald’s tape at the bottom of the list, offensive line coach John Hevesy — Mississippi State’s area recruiter for South Georgia — got in contact with the Fitzgeralds and asked if they could visit Starkville that spring. They quickly obliged.

“Nick had spring break next week, so we just took off,” Derrick said. “Met with the coaching staff, was there all day, from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Met the academic folks, the weight training folks, everything.”

Hevesy cycled through Richmond Hill’s spring practice the following month and invited Fitzgerald to a Mississippi State summer camp on June 8. After a great showing, the Bulldogs became the first team to send him an offer. The next day, after camping at Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders followed suit.

Suddenly, 247Sports had Fitzgerald at a rating of 86, which made him the No. 812 prospect in the country and No. 68 in Georgia. He had 3 stars.

Often, this is the point where recruits begin getting flooded with offers. Schools take notice of competing programs sending out scholarships, especially SEC teams, and it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Fitzgerald pick up seven or eight more offers within the next two weeks. But that wasn’t the case.

Fitzgerald’s lack of subsequent offers had to do with timing, true. He didn’t commit to Mississippi State until June 28, just before his senior season. In the increasingly intense world of recruiting, and especially for a quarterback, a June commitment is considered very late. For example, 36 of the top 50 quarterbacks in the 2018 recruiting class are already committed.

But Fitzgerald’s lightning-quick recruiting process had just as much to do with his unwavering commitment to MSU.

“When he got that offer, he was like, ‘They’re committed to me, I’m committed to them.’ He loved the game. He’s not a drama queen,” Derrick Fitzgerald said. “Some kids love recruiting more than they do football. He was not that type of kid. He’s a player. He was all business … I thought Georgia really would’ve come in, but when Nick committed, he’s not going to waffle. I think he would’ve gotten a lot more offers.”

For some high school players, the courtship of major college programs can last for months. Nick only needed 20 days to end his recruiting process.

Nick Fitzgerald, the Mississippi State quarterback

“How do you respond to allegations that your quarterback has better hands than you?”

Nick Fitzgerald had hijacked the interview so he could pose this question to teammate Gabe Myles, with a gaggle of reporters surrounding him.

“I just say let’s take it to the JUGS machine,” Myles said, smiling in response. “Let’s get out there and do a little something-something out there. Let’s go out there and prove it.”

It was a joke, of course. Fitzgerald, himself a former wide receiver, does have a good set of hands. But, more than anything, this seemed to be Fitzgerald’s way of keeping things light-hearted with a teammate who struggled with drops the previous season. Myles, a senior expected to take on a bigger role with Malik Dear sidelined by an ACL injury, must stay confident and relaxed.

This playful exchange between quarterback and receiver might seem trivial, but it’s important within the context of Fitzgerald’s personal growth.

Last season, in the weeks following his ascension to SEC starting quarterback, Fitzgerald didn’t appear all that comfortable in an interview setting, speaking about himself or on behalf of his offense. Fast forward to this spring and the Fitzgerald you see on camera looks much more comfortable before the microphones and bright lights.

“Watching him now, you can see, it’s a huge transformation,” Derrick Fitzgerald said. “Getting more comfortable and relaxed. Having fun with it.”

Nick Fitzgerald runs the ball during last November’s 55-20 Egg Bowl victory over Ole Miss. (Courtesy MSU Athletics)

By now, SEC fans everywhere are at least somewhat familiar with Fitzgerald’s breakout 2016 season, in which he put up 2,423 yards passing, 1,375 yards rushing and 37 total touchdowns. Those numbers combined with Mullen’s previous success developing quarterbacks have made Fitzgerald one of the most intriguing quarterbacks in the country this year.

But it’s the work Fitzgerald continues to do off the field that will most influence whether his sequel becomes a best-seller. When asked about their quarterback’s leadership, multiple teammates told SEC Country that Fitzgerald was more confident in himself and the offense. Mullen, on a recent conference call with reporters, said Fitzgerald is coming off his best spring with the Bulldogs.

The biggest reason for all that might be the simplest: Fitzgerald, who spent last offseason mired in an open quarterback competition, is the guy under center. Unquestionably.

“Going through a competition, you tend to worry about some of the wrong things,” Fitzgerald said to SEC Country. “You tend to worry about what the other quarterbacks did and how you have to beat them, rather than working on the things you’re supposed to be working on to try and better yourself. Having a year of experience, having a year of being around my teammates, them knowing what I can do, building that trust, building those relationships, it’s huge. The guys, instead of them not having any idea who’s going to play, that’s huge. Off the bat, we know what we have to do.”

Guy, his high school coach, saw the same sort of blossoming take place back at Richmond Hill.

“Nick had that ability to lead any moment,” Guy said. “But that senior year, he really flipped the switch because he was the guy.”

Perhaps this is what college recruiters had been waiting to see, and what Mississippi State saw in Fitzgerald all along — the type of quarterback who can truly lead a team, no matter the circumstances. Mullen, having coached Dak Prescott and Tim Tebow, probably knows what that looks like.

“In recruiting, you don’t get to see what you watch on film, it’s hard to find a lot of the most important factors. The mental, physical toughness. The processing of information. The leadership is sometimes hard to evaluate,” Mullen said. “You don’t get to see it on film. The only thing you can do is try to spend time with guys.”

As SEC teams enter the doldrums of summer, players disperse from campus and train on their own time. For Fitzgerald, that will include appearances at the Manning Passing Academy in June and an Adidas camp in California. He spent last month working with a personal quarterbacks trainer.

The summer football to-do list features work on timing, balance, release points, off-balance throws and just about everything in between. Off the field, it’s film study so that Fitzgerald can better process the game and go through his progressions more quickly.

“Staying in the pocket, staying calm and collected, sticking to your techniques, staying compact, really driving through a pass even when someone’s through your face,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s hard. The first instinct when someone’s around you is get away from them. Not step into it and make a throw. Staying in the pocket, trying to make reads, trying to feel pocket presence has been a huge emphasis.”

Fitzgerald knows the stakes will be higher next season. A 6-7 season capped off by a St. Petersburg Bowl win is fine for a down year, but given the tremendous precedent for success set in the Prescott era, Mississippi State fans will expect more in 2017.

That’s certainly possible, though it’ll take improvement from Fitzgerald, his offensive supporting cast and the defense under new coordinator Todd Grantham. Provided he takes that next big step from standout to star as a junior, the Fitzgerald success story — hinged on the number 290 — will add another important number for Mississippi State: the notches in Mullen’s growing quarterback development belt.

“I really press that I was extremely raw. I had the talent. I didn’t have the mechanics, any of the technique,” Fitzgerald said. “They worked with me every day. They pushed me. They kind of formed me into what I am. I never had a quarterback coach growing up. Here I have two amazing quarterback coaches that develop me every day.”

If Starkville ever takes the Cradle of College Quarterbacks title that once belonged to Purdue, football historians will look back on Prescott and Fitzgerald as its progenitors.

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country