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Column: FSU met many needs with top 15 class, now surfs transfer portal

Welcome to the new world of college football where there was good news, bad news and the revelation of a new reality in collegiate athletics. 

The Seminoles’ coaches and faithful were shocked by the defection of Travis Hunter, the No. 1 rated recruit in the nation, to FCS Jackson State, which is coached by Florida State alum Deion Sanders. Goodness gracious! It was bad enough FSU lost a football game to Jacksonville State in the fall but to lose Hunter, who had been committed since March 2020, to Jackson State (different school, different state) was almost too much to bear. More on that later. 

As if becoming the first FBS school to lose a No. 1 ranked recruit to a FCS school wasn’t bad enough, a legacy player, Marvin Jones, Jr., signed with Georgia and one of Brad Johnson’s boys, Jake, chose to play for Jimbo Fisher. Good gawd almighty!

Oh, what could have been had FSU been able to sign Hunter and Jones — certainly a top-10 class — not to mention the Johnsons, who entered the foray late.

When you get done wringing your hands, you’ll notice what remains of this 2022 class is pretty darn good. Bobby Bowden used to say he never concerned himself with the prospects who got away, only with the ones he landed. 

Yes, there was bad news but don’t let it blind you to the good news. Florida State signed a balanced class of 14 players prior to the press conference on Wednesday that included the son of former FSU and Miami Dolphins’ linebacker Ron Hester and later that night added five-star offensive tackle Julian Armella, the son of former nose guard Enzo Armella, which took a little sting out of not signing the other legacy players.  

Head coach Mike Norvell said he expects to sign more players before the early signing period ends on Friday and will sign 25 high school players by National Signing Day the first Wednesday in February, with seven transfers expected to come from the portal. 247Sports has 4-star offensive lineman Antavious Woody listed as a “hard commit” as well as Bless Harris, an offensive lineman transferring from Lamar. Rivals adds 4-star defensive end Dante Anderson counted along with the 4-star Woody as commitments.

While writing this, we learned Wisconsin center Kayden Lyles committed to FSU with one year of eligibility remaining. The former 4-star offensive lineman played in 29 games with 15 starts along the offensive and defensive lines before losing the starting center job in 2021. He sports a beard that rivals Dillan Gibbons’.

Here’s some facts

The 2022 Seminoles class is currently ranked higher than the 2021 class by both 247 Sports (No. 13, up from No. 22 in 2021) and by Rivals (No. 12, compared to No. 31 in 2021) and can still add 10 more high school players. 

The Seminoles’ 2022 class is currently second only to North Carolina (No. 8/No. 9) according to 247Sports and Rivals, respectively, when FSU trailed Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburg and Louisville in 2021. 

This is the first year the Seminoles’ class is ranked higher than Florida since 2018. Rivals has the Gators currently at No. 47 and 247Sports has Florida at No. 50. Rivals has Miami at No. 64, while 247Sports has the Canes at No. 62.

Depending on which service you look at, of the 15 players thus far signed FSU has 11 players who earned either 5-star or 4-star status from one or more of the sites who rank classes (247Sports, Rivals or ESPN):

5-Stars

Julian Armella (Rivals, 247Sports 4-star), OL, 6-5, 280, Fort Lauderdale (Aquinas), FL

Sam McCall (247Sports, Rivals 4-star), DB, 6-0, 182, Lakeland (Lake Gibson), FL

Consensus 4-Stars

Azareyeh Thomas (247Sports, Rivals), DB, 6-2, 181, Niceville, FL

AJ Duffy (247Sports, Rivals), QB, 6-2,223, Murrieta, CA (IMG Academy)

Jaylen Early (247Sports, Rivals), OL, 6-4, 320, Duncanville TX

Qae’shon Sapp (247Sports, Rivals), 6-4, 325, Leesburg, GA

Composite 4-Stars

Bishop Thomas (4-star ESPN, 247Sports 3-star, Rivals 4-star), 6-2, 301, New Orleans, LA (Bishop Moore, FL)

Daughtry Richardson (4-star ESPN, 247Sports 3-star, Rivals 3-star), 6-5, 285, Tallahassee (Miami Central HS), FL

Aaron Hester (4-star ESPN, 247Sports 3-star, Rivals 3-star), DE, 6-1, 237, Jacksonville (Fletcher), FL

Rodney Hill (4-star ESPN, 247Sports 3-star, Rivals 3-star), RB, 5-10, 175, Statesboro, GA

Daniel Lyons (4-star ESPN, 247Sports 3-star, Rivals 3-star), DT, 6-4, 286 Miami (Homestead), FL

3-Stars

Kanaya Charlton (247Sports, Rivals), OL, 6-5, 354 Brunswick, GA

Brian Courtney (247 Sports, Rivals), TE, 6-3, 223 Ashburn, VA

Omar Graham (247Sports, Rivals), LB, 6-1, 220, Fort Lauderdale (Stranahan), FL

Jerrale Powers (247Sports, Rivals), TE, 6-4, 238, Arlington, TX

For my money, you evaluate a class based on meeting needs and while FSU has not met all its needs it is well on its way to doing so with a lot of time left on the clock. The class includes several elite players at hard-to-sign positions like corner, quarterback, defensive line, linebacker and, wait for it, offensive line, including Armella — who is arguably the best left tackle FSU has signed in a decade.

“It is a class that addressed a lot of the needs we had, big emphasis on the offensive line,” FSU head coach Mike Norvell said. “An opportunity to focus on the defensive side of the ball to get some dynamic defensive players that make an incredible impact early in their career. I really like the size and the length of the class that is started. There’s an opportunity for more guys to be added to the class not only today (Wednesday) but leading up to Friday … It’s going to be a special group when all is said and done.”

McCall is the No. 2 athlete in the nation, and he can play corner, safety, wide receiver, running back and can help as a punt or kick returner. Thomas is a 4-star athlete who is also ranked among the nation’s top 100 players at any position and can play on either side of the ball and on special teams as well. 

4-star quarterback AJ Duffy is ranked anywhere from No. 3 in the nation at his position to No . 14 depending on which service you choose. 

Defensive tackle is a tough position to find and FSU signed three players who have been ranked as 4-stars by one service or the other and have a fourth 4-star defensive end committed in Anderson.

More shocking yet is the success FSU is having on the offensive line, where they signed five on Wednesday, with one 5-star and three 4-stars. Armella is rated among the five best tackles in the nation. The Noles have a fourth, 4-star offensive lineman, Antavious Woody, committed but not yet signed.  FSU has a seventh offensive lineman, portal transfer Bless Harris, a New Orleans St. Augustine High player, who is transferring from Lamar, and now Lyons from Wisconsin makes the eighth OL to fortify a position that was neglected for years. Those eight players equal the total numbers signed in 2019 (4), 2018 (3) and 2017 (1) combined.

“The thing we really wanted to do was get bigger, to get guys with the size they have but also the athletic ability,” Norvell said. “When all is said and done, I think this will be a special group.”

FSU has signed very few true linebackers in recent years but inked 3-star linebacker Omar Graham. They need more whether from the high school ranks or the portal.

If you want to listen to what the coaches have to say about the initial fourteen, this is a fun 52-minute listen, with highlight videos narrated by each of the position coaches and emceed by former FSU cornerback Bryant McFadden. National Signing Day Show (seminoles.com).

What’s next

While the Noles are far from done, they have already addressed the most pressing needs on their roster with the players signed thus far. However, there’s a gaping hole in the donut at receiver, which Norvell is confident will be addressed soon.

“We were able to address some core principal needs,” Norvell said. “It’s not just about a number of guys at a position. It’s how those guys can transition and effectively impact our team as quick as they can. There’s still some places there at wide receiver. We have a couple of guys we’ve pinpointed that we will continue to pursue. I’m excited where we are at in those situations but there’s some opportunities within the transfer portal, being able to have a balance of young potential and older skill sets to make that impact. 

“It is all about the balance when it comes to high school or transfer player. We want to build this program with a great core of guys who develop in it but we’ve seen the flip side of that how quickly a transfer player can come in and make an impact. Those guys became leaders of this team.”

We’d all like to see a couple of receivers signed as well as another dynamic running back on offense. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said he’d like to sign another player at each of the three levels, which would bring FSU close to their limit of 25 high school prospects.

Don’t be surprised if FSU signs a receiver or two from the portal and the full complement of seven portal players. Mycah Pittman, a sophomore from Oregon, is looking at FSU and ASU. There are a number of linebackers in the portal who have some tie to FSU including the Gators Mohammad Diabete, who was recruited by FSU in years past. You may remember Branden Jennings, the son of former FSU linebacker Brandon Jennings, who committed to FSU, then Michigan, before flipping to Maryland. Jennings is a freshman. 

A balanced class by position is a good class and this class has balance and will add depth while seeking to fill the aforementioned holes whether with high school potential or through the portal.

What went awry

FSU did not get everyone they set out to sign. The most-startling surprise and disappointment was Travis Hunter flipping from FSU and signing with Deion Sanders at Jackson State.  This is the second big-time recruit that Sanders has pulled to Jackson State. De’Jahn Warren, the top junior college recruit in the country, flipped from Georgia last season.

Hunter committed to FSU in March 2020 and had been the bell cow for FSU’s 2022 class ever since, giving FSU coaches and fellow recruits repeated assurance he would hold true to his commitment and become a Seminole on signing day. 

Remember Deion at Clemson, when he pointed at the Tigers’ head coach Danny Ford and said, “This one’s (punt) going back?” Well, Sanders made good on that bold prediction and then delivered on another one Wednesday at FSU’s expense. 

“Signing day is tomorrow,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m going on record to tell you guys we’re going to shock the country. I’m telling you right now. You’ve heard it from me. We’re going to shock the country.” 

FSU fans only wished he would have shocked Clemson again by taking their top prospect. Had he shocked Nick Saban Seminole fans would love him even more. Prime Time made no new friends in Tallahassee when he poached the marquee player in the 2022 class.

Deion upset not only FSU folks, he upset the college football world because Hunter became the first No. 1 rated recruit to sign with an FCS school since recruiting classes were ranked and the first in this era to sign with a historically Black college or university.

“Jerry Rice, Doug Williams and, of course, JSU’s own Walter Payton,” Hunter said in a statement. “Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich history in football. I want to be part of that history, and more, I want to be part of that future. I can light the way for others to follow, make it a little easier for the next player to recognize that HBCUs may be everything you want and more: an exciting college experience, a vital community, and a life-changing place to play football.”

That’s a noble statement and one I choose to accept on its face. But the college football world knows there was much more to this. 

According to an article in the New York Times, “Some have speculated that a lucrative financial deal attracted Hunter to Jackson State, where Sanders has tried to help his players profit off their name, image and likeness since the N.C.A.A. instituted the rule change that allowed college athletes to make money off their fame earlier this year. If that was a factor in Hunter’s decision to commit to the Tigers, it could launch an era in which players sign with smaller schools simply for the potential to sign N.I.L. deals.”

The times quoted Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting editor for 247Sports, who said, “This could be the great revival, the renaissance for HBCUs. This one may change the entire face of how recruiting is done as we know it and it all goes back to Deion. I think this is going to open up an even better opportunity for these recruits to have national brands believe in their personal brand rather than the college brand.”

According to the Times, Sanders put together the highest-rated class in the Football Championship Subdivision in 2020 “with 19 transfers, and 11 of the highest-rated recruits in program history, including his son, Shedeur Sanders, who was a four-star recruit.”

Certainly, the opportunity to play for Deion Sanders, a Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, would be appealing to any aspiring cornerback. A student of the game, Sanders’ defense was ranked the best in FCS football to win the SWAC Championship in his first year of college coaching and won FCS Coach of the Year honors. You can be certain Deion is a great recruiter too but it is the NIL agreement — allegedly a seven-figure deal — that has caught the attention of every college football coach and fan. 

This was the first year of NIL and there are some important takeaways. First, the majority of the players signed by FSU did not demand, or even ask, for NIL. The market for the high profile players who did ask starts at $100,000 all the way up to what Hunter allegedly could earn.  

Norvell managed his emotions and gave an upbeat response when asked about how NIL is now affecting the recruiting process.

“NIL has definitely changed some of the dynamics in recruiting, obviously the decision-making process with some student-athletes,” Norvell said. “When you look at all factors that are involved in that decision, whether it is facilities, the program, the location, the education, it is also playing a big part. I am proud of some of the examples our players have been able to show benefiting from their name, image and likeness. I think it’s a great benefit for them and something I am excited for them to benefit from moving forward.”

We’ll continue to learn and about these NIL agreements and share what we learn with you. From what I’m hearing, some of the large agreements are earn outs where the player is paid based on how many appearances he makes, how many clicks his social media posts receive or based on lift in sales of the product or business he’s representing. If true, the amount of compensation actually received could be far less if the student-athlete can’t find the time in a busy schedule to post or appear or if his impact doesn’t lift sales. 

We’ll also bring you more about Rising Spear, a private entity seeking business partners for FSU’s student-athletes as well as individuals who are willing to donate whatever they can to the not-for-profit that will fund community outreach efforts for FSU student-athletes.

Wednesday certainly built a launching pad for Rising Spear and lit the fuse.

We learned Wednesday that a Florida legislator has already drafted amended language that will permit Sunshine State coaches and staff to become more involved in developing NIL deals for their players, action that is currently not permissible in Florida but permitted in other states, which has put Florida schools at a disadvantage. 

Right now it’s a “wild west” with each state operating under different rules, or no rules at all. Stay tuned as this is a new world indeed.   

Relationships with former players

When I look at social media or the message boards on FSU sites, I’m saddened to see some Seminoles questioning the loyalty of our former players. 

As for Marvin Jones and Brad Johnson, I talk to those guys periodically and can assure you they both love FSU and would have liked for their sons to choose FSU so they could get back to visit with friends more often. But most of the former players I’ve talked with — Jones and Johnson included — don’t make choices for their sons. They know how demanding this sport is and the commitment that needs to be made to do the work every day. They consulted but left this important decision up to their sons to make.

Jones’ choices came down to Georgia and Alabama, both of whom will play for the national championship again, teams that pump out NFL first-round draft picks on Marvin’s side of the ball. Texas A&M, another SEC school, beat Alabama and is in preseason playoff conversation for the 2022 season. While Max Johnson has not announced his decision yet, Jake signed with Texas A&M on Wednesday and, since both boys want to play at the same school, I will assume Max will join Jake in January. When you think about it, Texas A&M is a logical choice for Max as the Aggies run a pro-style offense in the SEC West playing a schedule Max has seen and had success against.

And let’s not forget Norvell has already landed two legacy players in this class and may sign more.

While we are all optimistic about Mike Norvell’s leadership and applaud his pitch to prospects that the 2022 signing class can be the catalyst to bring FSU back to the promised land, opposing coaches are reminding these very same prospects of the obvious: FSU was 5-7 in 2021 and has endured four consecutive losing seasons while compiling a record of 19-27. 

That reality should not be lost on any of us. 

Norvell and his staff did well to sign the vast majority of the prospects who committed to them prior to the 0-4 start to the 2021 season. Top 10 recruiting classes are not given, they are earned. While we are all frustrated by one agonizing disappointment and a once-in-my lifetime surprise, this 2022 signing class is one more big step forward for the program.