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Posted December 21, 2022 09:45 PM
We associate the week of Christmas with gift giving and receiving. For college football coaches, they receive their biggest presents of the season just a few days before the holiday when the early signing period begins.
Most of the elite recruits confirmed their choices by putting pen to paper Wednesday, while others made late announcements or surprising flips to new school. The ramification of these decisions will be felt for the next three to four years as those that have evaluated correctly and successfully pursued their right targets are in position to benefit when those players hit the field.
While recruiting is always going to be an inexact science, there is inarguably a higher correlation of success for those rated at the top of the charts. With that in mind, we break down the winners and losers of the 2023 class.
Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State
Yes, it's a big shocker this trio again leads the way with three of the best classes. The Crimson Tide are the consensus No. 1 finishers helped by some late additions. Defensive lineman Keon Keeley - a former Notre Dame commit - came aboard last week and Kadyn Proctor, a longtime offensive lineman pledged to Iowa, flipped this week. Samuel M'Pemba could be the next defensive line standout for the Bulldogs, who have a class that is unusually short on the very top talents but has impressive depth throughout. The Buckeyes, unsurprisingly, landed two of the best wide receiver signees - Brandon Inniss and Carnell Tate - both from Florida.
The Longhorns were the surprise winners of the long and highly publicized chase for Arch Manning's signature and his commitment powered an impressive group of newcomers to Austin. Also jumping on board later in the process were two in-state defenders - linebacker Anthony Hill and defensive lineman Colton Vasek, who decommitted from Texas A&M and Oklahoma, respectively. The offensive side of the ball gets a boost from wide receiver Johntay Cook and running back Cedric Baxter. Both could see immediate playing time next fall.
No program experienced the highs and lows of the recruiting season in the final week more than the Ducks. They appeared to have their quarterback of the future resolved when five-star Dante Moore committed this summer. The departure of offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham for the Arizona State job helped persuade Moore to join Pac-12 rival UCLA. Oregon moved quickly to add longtime Baylor quarterback commitment Austin Novosad from Texas on signing day. The Ducks then sprung two five-star surprises in a matter of minutes Wednesday by getting Notre Dame defensive back commitment Peyton Bowen to flip and successfully pulling defensive lineman Matayo Uiagalelei from finalists Ohio State and Southern California. There is some drama surrounding Bowen, who had yet to sign as of Wednesday evening.
The Hurricanes stumbled to a disappointing campaign under first-year coach Mario Cristobal, but still were able to pull together what appears to be a class that will finish in the top five. Cristobal's background as an offensive line coach also came in handy with the signings of Samson Okunlola and Francis Mauigoa, two five-star prospects who could provide immediate help up front next fall. The lone question is the status of five-star defensive back Cormani McClain, the jewel of the incoming group that pushed off signing Wednesday.
Two consecutive College Football Playoff appearances should have the Wolverines in the mix with other elite programs. But they finished with a class barely inside the top 20, lacking the strength in the trenches that has driven the team's recent success and also doesn't include a quarterback that could be groomed next season with J.J. McCarthy possibly entering the 2024 NFL draft. On the positive side, the late additions of wide receivers Karmello English and Semaj Morgan bolster that position.
It wasn't that the Fighting Irish didn't do well in Marcus Freeman's first full class. They finished comfortably in the top 10 with running back Jeremiyah Love and defensive back Christian Gray signing from St. Louis high schools and in-state linebacker Drayk Bowen coming aboard. However, this had the potential to be one of their best classes in decades before defection of Keeley and expected loss of Bowen, two players that are the profile the program needs to win in the playoff.
It was always going to be hard for the Aggies to replicate last year's phenomenal class that earned praise as one of the best in the modern history of recruiting. However, the Aggies have already lost significant pieces from that group to the portal and struggled to gain the same traction with some of the biggest recruits this cycle. The disappointing play of Jimbo Fisher's offense and a 5-7 finish certainly had an impact, but finishing well outside the top 10 - even with a smaller class than others - is a disappointment for a program that needed to keep building on the impressive 2022 haul to get where it wants to go.
The early signing day forces new hires from outside the current program to assemble classes in a matter of days, and not months, during a period of time where instability and recent results leave little foundation for this recruiting cycle. Hugh Freeze of Auburn was only coach in this situation to have a top 25 class. Among those that need to take advantage of the late signing period and start building for 2024 are Ryan Walters of Purdue, Scott Satterfield of Cincinnati, Kenny Dillingham of Arizona State and Deion Sanders of Colorado.
Franco Harris' historic play not only thing that was immaculate; his career was, too | Opinion
Whenever I spoke to Franco Harris, usually just chatting at various media events, he was always friendly, charming and blunt. He'd talk about anything and was usually fairly chill unless one topic came up: the Immaculate Reception.
Harris was a fierce defender of the most stunning, wonderful and controversial play in the history of the NFL and maybe in the history of American sports. Harris was keenly aware there was doubt about the legitimacy of the play – particularly from the then Oakland Raiders, the victims of that dramatic turn of events – and he defended that moment, that incredible moment that would later launch a dynasty, like a bouncer at the front door of a club.
The Raiders always say that play was illegal, I once told Harris.
"The Raiders are full of it," Harris said back.
"No way that play should have counted," Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano, who played in that game, once told me. Then again, Villapiano has said that to many people. To the Raiders, that play wasn't immaculate, it was illegitimate. The only thing that was received was home cooking from the game officials, they say.
The Raiders hated the outcome but that didn't stop it from counting, or stop Harris from evolving into instant, living history. The Steelers would lose the following week in the AFC title game to the undefeated Dolphins – who created a history of their own going 17-0 – but the play, either from heaven or hell, depending on your geolocation, started the Steelers' dynasty. The franchise would go on to win four Super Bowls in six seasons and was the team of the decade in the 1970s.
Harris died overnight at the age of 72. His death comes just days before the team was going to retire his No. 32 jersey and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.
As long as there's an NFL, that play will be remembered. Hell, as long as there's a Pittsburgh International Airport that play will be remembered since Harris' moment is captured in a statue there right next to a picture of George Washington. Washington only crossed the Delaware; Harris helped the Steelers become a dynasty.
"I was in Section 135 that day. I was eight months old. I think it's funny. Surprisingly, I’ve probably met 75,000 people that were there that day," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the media on Tuesday. "It's just one of those beautiful things in the history of our game. It’s humbling to be in close proximity to it, to work for this organization, to understand its impact on this organization, the career it spawned in Franco [Harris], a gold-jacket career, what it did for them that season in terms of changing the trajectory of that season, what it’s done for this franchise …"
That play defined Harris' career and, in some ways, overshadowed just how remarkable a talent he was. Harris made nine Pro Bowls, was the MVP of Super Bowl IX, and is part of the 1970s All-Decade team.
Harris was 230 pounds but could be quick and darting. His game would translate well into today's sport.
If you're one of the six NFL fans who have never seen the Immaculate Reception, it's worth taking a break from whatever you're doing to watch it. Harris' historic moment happened in that 1972 playoff game as the Raiders were winning, 7-6, with 22 seconds remaining. Quarterback Terry Bradshaw's pass to receiver John Fuqua was deflected as he was being hit. Harris scooped up the pass and scored.
The Raiders, for decades, have maintained that Fuqua touched the ball before Harris, which would have made the play illegal, because of the rule then that disallowed two offensive receivers from touching the ball.
“When Bradshaw threw the ball, my first thought was to go toward the ball, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Harris recently told the Los Angeles Times. “So I started to go to the ball and the next thing I remember was stiff-arming Jimmy Warren along the sideline.
“It blows my mind that I have no visual recollection of catching the ball. That wasn’t an easy ball to catch. It just doesn’t make any sense. How did I track it? How did I keep in stride? You normally don’t catch a ball in that way. If I had dived for it, I would have been ruled down because the rules were different back then.”
In the end, Harris is a Hall of Famer who helped build a dynasty. Legal catch or illegal, ball hit the ground or not, what will never change now is Harris' place in history as one of the best ever. Perhaps that's the truly immaculate part of his story.