LSU Makes Inroads in Recruiting Wars

Thursday, February 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Watch out. LSU is on the prowl again.

Coach Nick Saban parlayed a strong finish to his first season at LSU into one of the country's top recruiting classes on Wednesday, signing four high school All-Americans and nine of the 10 top-rated players in Louisiana.

While Florida State came away as the clear-cut winner in Recruiting Wars 2001, LSU made an impressive showing.

Parade Magazine All-Americans Michael Clayton, a tight end, and Marcus Spears, a wide receiver, joined USA Today All-Americans Marquise Hill, a defensive end, and Andrew Whitworth, an offensive lineman, on LSU's impressive list of 27 signees on the first day players could sign letters of intent. All four are from Louisiana.

The Tigers traveled, too, signing California quarterback Rick Clausen, Tennessee quarterback Casey's younger brother, plus a couple of blue-chippers from Florida and Texas.

``LSU cleaned up the state, got a bunch of All-Americans, went to California and got Clausen and went to Florida and Texas and got two really good players from each state,'' Max Emfinger of Covington, La.-based National Blue Chips, said. ``I don't know how they did it, but this is the best class in the country.''

Saban, who left Michigan State after the 1999 season, obviously impressed high school stars that playing in Baton Rouge, in front of 90,000 fans in Death Valley, is the way to go. LSU went 8-4 in 2000, including a bowl win over Georgia Tech.

``To come to the SEC, with a new staff, and have a pulse on the recruiting game here says something about him,'' Allen Wallace of Laguna Beach, Calif.-SuperPrep magazine said.

Emfinger ranked LSU first and Florida State second, while Wallace and two other recruiting experts — Tom Lemming and Bobby Burton — tabbed the Seminoles easy winners and the Tigers getting a second and two third-places from the trio.

``Recruiting is not an exact science,'' Saban said. ``Football is different from any other sport — it is almost like picking puppy dogs. When you take the pick of the litter, it will always take two or three years to know what that dog is supposed to be like.''

Florida State lost to Oklahoma in the national title game in the Orange Bowl, but with coach Bobby Bowden calling signals, the Seminoles corralled three high school All-Americans in quarterback Joe Mauer, running back Eric Shelton and linebacker Chauncey Davis.

``It's a slam dunk for Florida State,'' Wallace said. ``They completely dominated the state, and that means they completely dominated the nation. Nobody else comes close.''

Added Burton of, ``Bobby Bowden is the ultimate closer. ``They may not win the national title every year, but they certainly have the talent to get to the big game every year.''

Mauer, from the same high school in St. Paul, Minn., as departed Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, threw for 5,528 yards and 73 touchdowns in two years. He also is a star catcher and could be a first-round pick in June's baseball draft.

``Regardless of who the assistant coaches are, Bobby is the man and he still gets the great players,'' Lemming of Schaumburg, Ill.-based Prep Football Report said. ``By far, they have the most talented class in the country.''

The 'Noles signed nine of the top 13 players in Florida, according to SuperPrep's ratings — Davis (Auburndale), defensive backs Jerome Carter (Lake City) and Gerard Ross (Jacksonville), quarterback Adrian McPherson (Bradenton), linebacker Willie Jones (Miami), offensive linemen Andrew Henry-Kenon (Tallahassee), Ron Lunford (Jacksonville) and Matt Meinrod (Tarpon Springs) and wide receiver Craphonso Thorpe (Tallahassee).

``This is probably as thorough a group as we've signed around here,'' Bowden said.

The Seminoles and Tigers weren't alone in striking recruiting gold.

Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas can celebrate, too. All three finished just below the Seminoles and Tigers.

Among 25 schools with new coaches, Ohio State drew mixed reviews with Jim Tressel replacing John Cooper, and Miami had a decent class despite Butch Davis departing last week and assistant Larry Coker replacing him.

The Buckeyes kept several top recruits at home, including Parade All-American running back Maurice Hall, and they also signed running back Lydell Ross from Tampa, Fla., who was leaning toward Notre Dame.

Miami, which returned to the national title picture this past season, hung on to some previous commitments in signing linebacker Leon Williams from Brooklyn, N.Y., and local running back Frank Gore. The Hurricanes also won out over Clemson in signing linebacker Roger McIntosh from Gaffney, S.C.

Also faring well was the Pacific-10 Conference, led by Washington and UCLA, with a strong showing from Oregon State, Stanford and USC under new coach Pete Carroll.

Among the Pac-10's scores — Shaun Cody, USA Today's defensive player of the year, chose USC over Notre Dame.

Florida, which won the recruiting race last year, was not among the top 10 due to a limited amount of scholarships available. The Gators signed 17 players, but also lost out on three prized recruits — wide receiver Fred Gibson chose Georgia, Ross went for the Buckeyes and defensive lineman Torran Williams picked LSU.

The Irish, meanwhile, did not sign many high-profile players and managed a No. 13 rating from Lemming, who said higher academic standards was the reason.

``They finished 13th, and that's good for anyone else but Notre Dame,'' Lemming said. ``But they were competing with the Stanfords and Northwesterns rather than the Florida States, Tennessee and Michigans. That's an indication of raised academic standards rather than a lack of effort.''

The Sooners' prize recruit could turn out to be defensive lineman Tommie Harris, a 6-foot-3, 275-pounder from Killeen, Texas, a player the Longhorns coveted. Winning a national title has a way of helping, too.

``The exposure's been great and it's helped us in recruiting,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ``All these young men want to win championship and they realize here at Oklahoma they're going to have that opportunity.''

Michigan signed three USA Today All-Americans — running back Kelly Baraka of Portage, Mich., and defensive backs Marlin Jackson of Sharon, Pa., and Ernest Shazor of Detroit.

``It's easier to get them, than it is to build them into a team,'' Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said. ``That's really the greatest challenge.''

Texas signed a pair of top 25-rated players in running back Cedric Benson of Midland and offensive lineman Jonathan Scott of Dallas.

Penn State, after a 5-7 season, was missing from most Top 10 lists. The Nittany Lions' biggest failure was losing Kevin Jones of Chester, Pa., one of the nation's top-rated running backs who signed with Virginia Tech. Jones ran for 1,606 yards and 18 TDs in his senior season.

The Lions beat the Hokies for quarterback Michael Robinson, from Richmond, Va. The 6-3, 210-pound Robinson, viewed by Tech as a replacement for Michael Vick, passed for 1,281 yards and 15 TDs and ran for 1,056 yards and 12 TDs as a senior. But Virginia Tech signed another top quarterback in Bryan Randall, who threw for 1,301 yards and 14 TDs and ran for 1,012 yards and another 14 TDs.