Recruiting in college football is a year-round job, despite the fact that the average football fan probably won’t spend much time keeping tabs on recruiting until December’s Early Signing Day. It’s a daunting task to have to host visitors on campus, build relationships over the phone and recruit multiple classes at once while leading a college football program. Despite the challenges that come with recruiting, football coaches across the country work tirelessly to set up their programs for success by building the best possible recruiting classes they can.
Rather than focusing on the usual suspects that are found in the top 10 every year, we wanted to highlight some of the schools that currently are making huge strides in their recruiting efforts. This list is primarily about positive momentum on the recruiting trail, so some of these schools are Group of Five schools that are recruiting at an elite level and some are Power Five schools that are recruiting at a higher level than they have in recent years. For the sake of consistency, we’ll use 24/7 Sports’ recruiting class rankings as a reference.
Greg Schiano has the Scarlet Knights rolling on the recruiting trail. Rutgers’ class of 2022 is currently ranked fifth in the country, which is leaps and bounds better than their previous classes since Schiano took over in December 2019. Rutgers had the 61st-ranked class in the country and the second-lowest in the Big 10 in Schiano’s class of 2020.
That low ranking should come with an asterisk, as new coaches have struggled to sign highly rated recruits in the Early Signing Day era. Universities are usually in a rush to hire their new coaches as soon as the season ends, but that hiring period falls a couple weeks prior to the new Early Signing Day. Schiano and company have shown exponential growth since 2020, with their 2021 class ranked 41st and their current ranking within the top 5 nationally.
Coming off arguably the best season in school history, Cincinnati is looking to finish with its highest rated class ever (24/7 Sports started ranking team classes in 2000). Head coach Luke Fickell won his second AAC Coach of the Year award in 2020 after having led the Bearcats to an undefeated regular season and a New Year’s 6 bowl game appearance. Fickell is trying to use that momentum to his benefit on the recruiting trail, where they are currently ranked 20th in the nation. The 2020 recruiting class was the highest ever in Cincinnati history at 41st, with the vast majority of previous classes ranking in the 60s or below. What makes their progress even more impressive is understanding the context behind it.
Ohio is a quality state for high school football, but having Ohio State recruiting as well as or better than anyone else makes it nearly impossible for Cincinnati to pull the elite prospects. Fickell, a former OSU player and coach himself, clearly recognized that he and his staff will need to be experts on the local football scene to find success in the state. Fickell’s staff is loaded with Ohio natives, most notably Chief of Staff Greg Gillum. Gillum spent 10 years working in the personnel department for Ohio State and 12 years coaching at various Ohio high schools prior to that. Cincinnati may not be ready to pull local 5-star players quite yet, but they are building a talented team that could be the next Boise State or UCF-style contender.
An SEC team having success would not normally be considered a surprise to most, but Missouri has struggled since joining the SEC in 2012. They have only been in the top 40 recruiting classes four times since joining their new conference, with their best finish being 25th in 2015. Eli Drinkwitz is going into his second year as the head coach of the Tigers with some positive momentum on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Much like when Schiano was hired at Rutgers, Drinkwitz was only given a couple of weeks to put together his first class after being hired. The class suffered due to the coaching change, only ranking 60th in the country. The team performed well in 2020, finishing third in the division and making a bowl game in his first season at the helm. Using that positive momentum, he went on to sign the 28th-best class in the country
Let’s start by saying this: Yes, we know UNC has recruited well in the past. The difference between UNC and the rest of this list is that the Tar Heels are trying to make the jump from recruiting well to recruiting at an elite level. Mack Brown came home to Carolina in 2018 and made huge splashes within days of his hiring. Brown was hired on Nov. 27; he hired Phil Longo as his new offensive coordinator on Dec. 11. Eight days later, he flipped the best QB in North Carolina, who had previously commitment to Florida State.
That QB was Sam Howell, the leader of the Tar Heel offense and likely first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Brown’s first class wasn’t ranked in the top 25, but it was a warning shot to the rest of the country. North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia don’t produce players at the same level as Texas or Florida, but the elite players in the state were getting poached by out of state schools prior to Brown’s return. Brown has built an elite recruiting staff in Chapel Hill that has ties to the region, including Virginia natives Dré Bly and Jay Bateman. UNC has signed a top 15 class in both 2020 and 2021, with a 5-star player in each class. If Carolina can continue winning these battles for blue-chip recruits and coach them with one of the most experienced staffs in the country, they can compete with Clemson for ACC Championships and College Football Playoff invitations.