Sammy Watkins, Jadeveon Clowney & Recruiting Class of 2011 Makes Instant Impact


The on-field college football season is winding to a close with what was formerly Bowl Week, but now is closer to Bowl Month — and that’s a discussion for another time. September through December is the final phase of the football process, the culmination of a yearlong system that begins in the winter with the first phase: Recruiting Season.

Skeptics of the recruiting process choose to ignore, or at least devalue signings. However, the young men who ink letters of intent in February are the athletes who will shape the football landscape — some sooner than others. The 2011 recruiting class was among the deepest in recent memory, loaded with talent that made immediate impacts around college campuses nationwide.

Sammy Watkins was voted the Blitzies Freshman of the Year, and by a wide margin. And why not? The South Fort Meyers (Fla.) High wide receiver product quickly established himself as the breakout star of Dabo Swinney’s top five recruiting class. Watkins generated legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz by virtue of

With Watkins as the head of the class at Clemson, and the mother lode Steve Spurrier signed at South Carolina, the Palmetto State is guaranteed a fantastic in-state rivalry for years to come.

No 2011 recruit was more ballyhooed than Jadeveon Clowney, and the defensive end proved worthy of every bit of hype. He was second in tackles-for-loss with 10 on a South Carolina defense that held opponents to 18.8 points per game. Clowney was touted as a transcendent type of talent coming out of South Point (Rock Hill, S.C.) High School. At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, Clowney has a build of a player four years his elder.

Such is the case for Notre Dame’s own standout, first-year end Aaron Lynch. Anyone who ever played Little League baseball opposite the pitcher with a six-foot frame, 80 mile-per-hour fastball and 5 o’clock shadow can empathize with offensive linemen opposite Lynch. No way someone built like *that* can be a teenager.

Oh, but he is. Six-foot-six, 270-pound Lynch has advanced game to match his advanced size. His role on the Irish defensive line has progressed through the season, and resulted in his making 5.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks and 28 total hits. With another spring and summer of seasoning ahead for Lynch, and ND tackles leader Manti Te’o returning for 2012, Irish eyes will smile on its defense.

Two of the most prolific receivers in all college football emerged from the Pac-12 as freshmen, and coincidentally Marqise Lee and De’Anthony Thomas were almost teammates. USC’s Lee caught 24 touchdown passes for Junipero Serra (Gardena, Calif.) High School in 2010: more than double the total all Serra receivers have this season. He carried that over to his performance at USC, snagging balls for over 1100 yards.

Lee had competition for the title best 2010 offensive prospect in the CIF Los Angeles Section from Crenshaw High’s Thomas. His multi-purpose abilities as a running back, slot receiver and cornerback caught the attention of Lane Kiffin, but Chip Kelly and Oregon swooped in with an offer Thomas couldn’t refuse. While Kiffin offered Thomas a spot in the secondary, Kelly found the perfect cog in his quick-strike attack. There could be no player better suited to the Kelly style, blazing fast and reliable in a slot routes, yet equal parts ball carrier as pass catcher.

His fit with the Duck offense would not have necessarily translated exactly the same to USC’s system, but the thought of Thomas and Lee on the same unit is mind boggling. That Kiffin believed Thomas to be best suited to defense exhibits some of the inexact science behind recruiting.

Take the two freshmen quarterbacks who were arguably the best of this class. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater was highly touted coming from Northwestern (Miami, Fla.) High, rated No. 6 by among all dual-threat quarterbacks. Bridgewater overcame a rocky start to earn First Team Freshmen All-America honors with 66 percent completions, 12 touchdowns and another three scores on the ground.

Bridgewater started at UL with fan fare and expectations. Fellow two-way QB Brett Smith arrived at Wyoming with far less attention, but immediately commanded it. Smith was rated just a two-star recruit. When Austyn Carta-Samuels transferred from UW in the spring, Smith wasn’t proclaimed the Cowboys’ quarterback savior. But he certainly turned out to be.

Smith threw 18 touchdowns and nearly 2500 yards, and tacked on 645 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns. Smith flew under the radar of BCS conference programs, but has played at a worthy level of their attention now in leading UW to 8-4 and the New Mexico Bowl.