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January 31, 2004

On The Recruiting Trail

This week's edition of On The Recruiting Trail tackles the following hot topics:

1. Final Visit Weekend
2. Auburn Breaks Through
3. Huskers & Hinds
4. Reversing Field?
5. Wolverines Grab Elite Pair
6. Eight Is Enough?


FINAL VISIT WEEKEND:
The football recruiting world's version of "closing time" is here. The bell has sounded marking the final weekend for official visits leading into Signing Day on Feb. 4.

Several top prospects still hang in the balance, and schools from one coast to the other will be making their final pitch in an effort to land those impact players.

Twenty-six players rated four stars or better are scheduled to be making trips, including six players rated in the top three at their respective positions nationally.

Florida State will be entertaining the nation's top-rated offensive guard, hometown product Calvin Darity. He's maintained one of the most low-key recruitments in the Class of 2004, declining to name a favorite or co-leaders from the beginning, but the Seminoles are widely regarded as the best bet. If they're successful, they'll beat out the likes of Nebraska, Tennessee, North Carolina and LSU.

Sticking in the South, Georgia's Brandon Miller is the object of a three-team battle that includes Georgia, Georgia Tech and Florida State. Like Darity, the nation's No. 1 defensive end isn't giving out clues on a leader. The Bulldogs have the final visit this weekend, and that can often make the difference. Some think it's a 50/50 split between UGA and FSU, but don't count out the Yellow Jackets, who have pulled two stunners already this season in the form of David Brown and Calvin Johnson.

Florida will play host to top-rated outside linebacker Willie Williams, who has trimmed his final list to the Sunshine State's "Big Three." It's widely thought that the Hurricanes and Seminoles are the main dogs in this fight, but he says he grew up a fan of the Gators as well. Expect the flashy and charismatic Williams to delay his decision for maximum drama on signing day.

Five-star Texas defensive tackle Franklin Okam, rated No. 2 at his position, will be heading west to visit Stanford. His co-leaders are Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, and Stanford would likely be considered a darkhorse at this point, but Okam is serious about the academic side of the decision and may like what he sees from the Cardinal.

On the surface, it may have appeared that Rutgers pulled off a coup of sorts by getting New Jersey's top prospect, five-star linebacker Brian Toal, to make his last stop with them. But he's openly stated that the visit is more out of respect for the Knights' staff and fatigue from recent recruiting travel more than a serious consideration of the program. A visit to Penn State last weekend reportedly went extremely well, and Boston College has been strong throughout with his brother on the current roster. Tennessee and Miami are also in the hunt, although it looks like they're slipping off the pace.

Tennessee gets the final visit for Alabama's Tony Bell, the No. 3 safety in the nation. He's maintained a low profile of late and hasn't deviated from a top four that has been in place for most of his recruitment - Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Tennessee. He's often been cryptic in his comments as well, stating he had more fun at LSU and Georgia than Auburn, but felt more comfortable on the Plains than the previous two. The Vols now have the chance to play the ultimate trump card. Never count out the ability for Phil Fulmer & Co. to close strong on Rocky Top.


AUBURN BREAKS THROUGH:
A certain amount of hand-wringing down on the Plains was temporarily placed on hold this week as the Tigers landed their first elite prospect in the Class of 2004.

Four-star South Carolina offensive lineman Leon Hart ended the drought, picking Auburn over Georgia, Ohio State, Maryland and South Carolina. His commitment helped boost the struggling Tigers from No. 50 in the Rivals team rankings all the way up to No. 40.

That modest position is still not what Auburn fans are accustomed to, but it could signal a change of fortunes for Tommy Tuberville's staff as signing day draws near. The Tigers could help themselves greatly by adding Bell (see above), four-star Florida linebacker Rodney Gallon, four-star Florida defensive tackle Pat Sims, three-star Georgia lineman Neil Brown and three-star Mississippi linebacker Steve Gandy.

Any combination of three or more of those players could lead to a collective "War Eagle!" heard across the South on signing day.


HUSKERS & HINDS:
After importing Bill Callahan and his West Coast offense, Nebraska is now making an all-out push for one of the Golden State's elite quarterbacks to guide the attack.

Four-star prospect Rocky Hinds was a late addition to the weekend visit list, agreeing to make the journey to Lincoln after the former Raiders coach wrapped up what was described as an enjoyable meeting with him and his mother at their Los Angeles home this week.

The Cornhuskers already have three players committed at the position, but Hinds, who is ranked the No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in the nation, would clearly be the gem of the class.

They'll have to beat out USC, UCLA, Arizona State and California for his signature - no easy task for sure, especially given the Trojans' head start and the fact that Hinds has referred to USC as "a second home."

It would still have to be considered a longshot, but Callahan has raised eyebrows with his early recruiting success thus far for the Big Red.


REVERSING FIELD?
Fans and coaches alike at Florida will be holding their breath this weekend as one of their top verbal commitments, Alabama running back Markus Manson makes an official visit with the home state Crimson Tide.

The speed merchant has been long rumored to be considering a flip, but has sounded more firm to the Gators in recent weeks.

In the event Bama is able to lure Manson away, Florida may have a backup plan in Andrew Johnson. The four-star Pennsylvania back is currently committed to Pittsburgh, but is currently in the Sunshine State for a mid-week stop at Miami and a weekend visit to Gainesville.

Johnson says he is a "Chris Leak fan" and is intrigued by the idea of playing alongside a potential Heisman quarterback. He is rated the No. 9 running back in the nation, while Manson comes in at No. 11.


WOLVERINES GRAB ELITE PAIR:
Illinois defensive end Tim Jamison and Iowa wide receiver Adrian Arrington made it a good week for Michigan, giving the Wolverines the most four-star commitments (12) in the nation.

They also boosted Lloyd Carr's program to No. 3 in the overall team standings behind only USC and LSU.

The 6-foot-4 Arrington, yet another impressive athlete in what has become the year of the big wideout, is ranked No. 17 nationally at his position.

Jamison was one of the stars of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl earlier this month, displaying an explosive first step off the corner and wreaking havoc in the backfield. That helped him jump from No. 13 to No. 5 at weakside defensive end in the most recent ratings update.

His verbal could also prove to be a key factor in the Wolverines' 2005 recruiting efforts as his brother, Terrance, is slated to be another top prospect.


EIGHT IS ENOUGH?
Southern Cal has already set a three-year Rivals high with eight - count 'em, eight - five-star prospects on the commitment list. That more than doubles any other program this year and tops the five reeled in by Florida a year ago. Florida State and Texas each landed six in 2002.

As eye-popping as the class already is for Pete Carroll & Co., it could get even better. Five-star California wideout Cameron Colvin is showing signs that he could be leaning to the Trojans over Michigan and Oregon. Some suggest a "silent" verbal has been issued.

Picturing Colvin as a bookend to Mike Williams in Norm Chow's always-dangerous offense must already be giving opposing defensive coordinators nightmares.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Make Rivals.com your home for breaking news and extensive Signing Day coverage next week. Our staff will have the week covered like no other, including the crowning of the recruiting national champion, the major stories that highlighted the year, top classes by conference and a sneak peak at the Class of 2005.


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