National Signing Day, especially in the SEC, is dominated by blue-chip recruits claiming 5-star status and scholarship offers from just about every major school in the country.
That’s only natural. Everyone wants to know where the supposed best prospects will play their college football. But, as history often reminds us, stars aren’t the end-all, be-all of building a winning program. Some of college football’s biggest stars famously received little attention coming out of high school.
As a fan, it’s always fun seeing which signings your team nailed on the recruiting trail. So in the interest of positive nostalgia, SEC Country rounded up a comprehensive list of the conference’s biggest gems and signing day steals since 2000. The criteria: Qualifying prospects cannot have more than three stars to their name. A few elite junior college prospects were also excluded.
Well, let’s get to it.
Note: All rankings and ratings according to the 247Sports Composite.
**Denotes a player whose enrollment was delayed by one or two years.
Gems: D.J. Hall (2004), Josh Chapman (2007), Chance Warmack (2009)
Other steals: Ramzee Robinson and DeMeco Ryans (2002), Wallace Gilberry (2003), Antoine Caldwell (2004), Glen Coffee and John Parker Wilson (2005), Greg McElroy and Javier Arenas (2006), Marquis Maze and Kareem Jackson (2007), Terrence Cody (2008), Ed Stinson (2009), Deion Belue** (2010)
Hall, out of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., arrived in Tuscaloosa as the country’s No. 620 overall prospect and the No. 71 receiver in what was a very strong class for wideouts. He played sparingly as a freshman, broke in as a regular contributor during his sophomore season and had back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns in his last two years on campus. Hall left Alabama holding program records for all-time receptions (194) and receiving yards (2,923) — marks later broken by Amari Cooper — and surpassed his original billing by a massive margin.
Chapman, the big-bodied nose tackle from Birmingham, helped anchor two national championship-winning defenses from 2007-11. He was No. 541 among national prospects.
Then there’s Warmack, an eventual top-10 NFL Draft pick who showed up at Alabama. A guard, Warmack came out of Atlanta’s Westlake High School as a 3-star prospect — this despite his averaging 7 pancake blocks as a senior for Westlake’s Cam Newton-led offense. Warmack became a 3-year starter for the Crimson Tide, helping pave the way for a rushing attack that averaged more than 210 yards per game in 2011-12.
Gems: Jon Halapio (2009), Jarrad Davis (2013), Quincy Wilson (2014)
Other steals: Jeremy Mincey (2004), Louis Murphy (2005), Mike Pouncey and Ahmad Black (2007), Josh Evans (2009), Bryan Cox Jr. (2012)
Two notable defenders on last year’s Florida team made the cut. Davis, a linebacker, and Wilson, a cornerback, are projected as second-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. Davis came out of Kingsland, Ga., as just the No. 39 outside linebacker in the class. Wilson, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the No. 371 overall recruit for 2014. Both players were named Second Team All-SEC in December after standout 2016 campaigns. Wilson broke out as a junior, picking off 3 passes and breaking up 6 more. Davis had 60 tackles in an injury-shortened season.
Perhaps the most impressive success story of this group, however, is Halapio. A fringe prospect out of the St. Petersburg area, Halapio was the No. 850 overall player in his class. Only three other schools — Indiana, Southern Miss and Florida International — made offers. Halapio started 43 games at right guard for the Gators, overcoming a season-ending shoulder injury in 2009 and a torn pectoral muscle in 2013. The Patriots took a chance on him in the sixth round of the 2014 Draft.
Gems: David Pollack and Thomas Davis (2001), Tim Jennings (2002)
Other steals: Dannell Ellerbe (2004), Geno Atkins (2006), Justin Houston and Clint Boling (2007), Ben Jones and Bacarri Rambo (2008), Shawn Williams and Mike Gilliard (2009), Chris Conley (2011), Dominick Sanders (2014)
Though rated a 3-star defensive end/fullback, Pollack did receive a fair amount of attention from other schools during his recruitment — Florida, Clemson and Ohio State among them. Still, it’s hard to discredit the current ESPN analyst when looking at what he accomplished on the field: 36 sacks, 58 tackles for loss, 4 interceptions and 3 All-American selections, in addition to winning the 2004 Lombardi and Bednarik awards.
Davis was even more overlooked. Considered undersized coming out of high school, Georgia was the only D-I school to hand him a scholarship offer, and that didn’t come until his senior year at Randolph Clay (Coolidge, Ga.). Davis thrived at both linebacker and free safety for the Bulldogs, garnering All-SEC and All-American honors in 2004 before joining Pollack as a 2005 first-round pick.
Jennings, a 2-star cornerback out of small-town Orangeburg, S.C., was the No. 1727-ranked overall recruit in his class. Several others are worthy of recognition here, as well, including NFL stars Atkins and Houston.
Gems: Carlos Rogers (2001), Ben Grubbs (2002), Nick Fairley** (2007)
Other steals: King Dunlap (2003), David Irons (2004), Jerraud Powers (2005), Dee Ford (2009), Chris Davis (2010), Sammie Coates (2011), Robert Leff (2012), Peyton Barber (2013), Kamryn Pettway (2014)
Fairley committed to Auburn out of high school but did not qualify academically as a 3-star recruit out of Wesson, Miss. After spending two years at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, he stayed true to his Tigers pledge. Fairley starred on the team from 2009-10, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors after notching 11.5 sacks and 24.5 TFLs during a dominant a senior campaign. Fairley goes down as a massive steal that helped Auburn win a championship.
Digging into the history books a little more, Rogers and Grubbs both received little attention as prospects. Grubbs signed with Auburn as a 3-star defensive end (No. 831 overall in the country) and moved to defensive tackle and tight end before settling in at guard thanks to a savvy recommendation by position coach Hugh Nall. Rogers, a 3-sport star at Butler High in Augusta, Ga., played two ways before quickly settling in as a defensive back at Auburn. He started 44 games for the Tigers and later earned a place on the school’s All-Decade team.
Gems: Tyson Jackson (2004), Morris Claiborne (2009), Deion Jones (2012)
Other steals: Chevis Jackson (2004), Brandon LaFell (2005), Kelvin Sheppard and Perry Riley (2006), Lamin Barrow (2009), Alfred Blue (2010), Trai Turner (2011), Travin Dural and Jalen Mills (2012), Lewis Neal (2013)
Though a 4-star prospect by some measures, Jones was the No. 377 overall player in the Composite for 2012. He spent one year LSU as an LSU starter, but he parlayed an impressive 100-tackle, 5-sack campaign into a second-round NFL Draft pick. Jones made a case for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year this fall while starting for the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons.
Claiborne and Jackson, also 3-star recruits, went largely overlooked despite ranking as two of Louisiana’s better high school prospects in their respective classes. Both became NFL Draft first-round picks after stellar LSU careers. Jackson helped lead a stingy defense on the Tigers’ 2007 title run. Claiborne was named a consensus All-American and SEC DPoY in 2011.
Gems: Jerod Mayo (2004), Dan Williams (2005), Cam Sutton (2013)
Other steals: Aubrayo Franklin (2001), Justin Harrell (2002), Arian Foster (2004), Luke Stocker (2006), Denarius Moore (2007), Zach Fulton (2010), Ethan Wolf (2014)
Though a 4-star for some recruiting services, Mayo was a 3-star in the Composite — although he was also a top-10 recruit from the state of Virginia. He starred at linebacker for 2 full seasons with the Vols, amassing 236 tackles and 21 tackles for loss. He has spent his entire NFL career as a standout defender with the New England Patriots.
Williams, another eventual first-round NFL Draft pick, was a 3-star recruit out of Memphis in 2005 (that’s according to Rivals; he wasn’t even rated in the Composite). As a senior, he made 70 tackles from the defensive tackle position.
Gems: Jamaal Anderson (2004), Brandon Allen and Trey Flowers (2011),
Other steals: Matt Jones (2001), Chris Houston (2003), Marcus Monk (2004), Felix Jones (2005), Jake Bequette (2007), Travis Swanson and Alvin Bailey (2009), Kiero Small (2011), Darius Philon (2012), Brooks Ellis, Dan Skipper and Drew Morgan (2013), Sebastian Tretola (2014)
Anderson, an eventual top-10 NFL Draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons, signed with Arkansas as a 2-star wide receiver out of Little Rock. But when Anthony Brown was injured during Anderson’s sophomore season, the Hogs moved Anderson to defensive end, where he found success immediately. After getting 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss as a junior, Anderson went pro.
Bobby Petrino’s penultimate Razorbacks signing class produced two more gems in Allen and Flowers. Allen, a 3-star pro-style passer from Fayetteville, was indeed a top-10 pro-style passer in the 2011 class. But given his strong college performance — 7,463 yards passing and 64 touchdowns to 26 interceptions — Allen certainly surpassed expectations. Flowers became a Patriots fourth-round pick after amassing 18 career sacks at Arkansas.
Gems: Sidney Rice (2004), Dylan Thompson (2010), Deebo Samuel (2014)
Troy Williamson (2002), Jared Cook (2005), Jasper Brinkley (2006), Melvin Ingram and Patrick DiMarco (2007), Devin Taylor and Chaz Sutton (2008), DJ Swearinger (2009), Connor Shaw (2010), Jerell Adams** (2011), TJ Holloman (2012), Skai Moore and Pharoh Cooper (2013)
South Carolina was the only Power 5 school to pay Thompson any attention. The Boiling Springs High (S.C.) star signed with the Gamecocks as a 2-star recruit, the No. 63 pro-style passer in the class. He went on to throw for more than 5,000 yards, 40 touchdowns and 16 interceptions during the peak of the Steve Spurrier era.
Two receivers round out the highlights for South Carolina in Rice, a second-round pick and NFL standout; and Samuel, who enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2016. Rice came out of Gaffney, S.C., as just the No. 61 wideout in his class but had 1,000 yards receiving in both of his seasons with the Gamecocks. Samuel led the team with 783 yards receiving this past fall.
Gems: Patrick Willis (2003), Mike Wallace (2005), Greg Hardy (2006)
Other steals: JaMarca Sanford (2004), Peria Jerry (2005), Dexter McCluster (2006), Bradley Sowell (2007), Brandon Bolden (2008), Senquez Golson and Denzel Nkemdiche (2011), Cody Core (2012), Fadol Brown (2013), Marquis Haynes (2014)
Willis, Wallace and Hardy all became NFL stars after playing on a couple of dang lousy Ole Miss teams during the Ed Orgeron era. Bolden is on the Super Bowl-bound Patriots’ roster. Haynes, a little-noticed 3-star before going the prep school route, has 24.5 sacks in his first three college seasons.
Gems: KJ Wright (2007), Dak Prescott (2011), Nick Fitzgerald (2014)
Other steals: Jamar Chaney and Antonio Johnson (2005), Johnathan Banks, Gabe Jackson and Darius Slay (2009), Bernardrick McKinney and Josh Robinson (2011), Richie Brown (2012), De’Runnya Wilson and Donald Gray (2013)
Dan Mullen, quarterbacks guru. After swiping Prescott from The Boot as a 3-star prospect, he’s looking to make Fitzgerald his next underrated recruit-turned-SEC star after the first-time starter threw for 2,400 yards and ran for 1,384 more. Prescott‘s unprecedented rookie success with the Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, has Dak looking like one of the biggest draft steals in recent memory.
Then there’s Wright, who starred at outside lienbacker for the Seattle Seahawks despite playing on a couple of pretty bad defenses at Mississippi State.
Gems: Stevie Johnson (2006), Randall Cobb (2008), Bud Dupree (2011)
Other steals: Jacob Tamme (2003), Ricky Lumpkin and Corey Peters (2006), Danny Trevathan (2008), Larry Warford (2009), Avery Williamson (2010), Jon Toth (2012)
Surprisingly, there are a handful of recognizable NFL names dotting the Kentucky alumni list. Perhaps the most surprising success story of them all is Dupree, who signed with the Wildcats as a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end out of Irwington, Ga., in 2011. He was quickly moved to defensive end, where he amassed 25.5 career sacks (seventh-most in SEC history since the stat has been recorded) and eventually became a first-round NFL Draft pick.
Cobb is well-known as a favorite target of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He accounted for nearly 3,000 total yards and 35 touchdowns as a do-it-all athlete in three years at Kentucky.
Gems: Jay Cutler (2001), Jordan Matthews (2010), Zach Cunningham (2013)
Other steals: Chris Williams (2003), Earl Bennett (2005), Myron Lewis (2006), Casey Hayward (2008), Ralph Webb (2013)
Cutler wasn’t even rated when he signed with Vanderbilt, but amassed 8,697 yards passing and 59 touchdowns for the Commodores over a 4-year career.
Matthews was also highly productive at Vandy, stringing together back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons at the program’s go-to wideout.
Cunningham, who declared early for this April’s NFL draft, projects as either a Day 1 or Day 2 selection. He amassed 125 tackles in 2016, including 19 during an upset win at Georgia.
Steals: Shaan Washington (2013), Josh Reynolds and Donovan Wilson (2014)
Pre-SEC honorable mentions: Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans (2011)
With only five years in the SEC, Texas A&M doesn’t have much track record for this list. But in addition to Reynolds, the SEC’s leading receiver in 2016, the Aggies burst onto the scene in 2012 with a couple of well-known 3-star gems in Manziel and Evans. Those two connected for nearly 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns during just two seasons in College Station.
Steals: Russell Hansbrough and Markus Golden (2012), J’Mon Moore and Charles Harris (2013), Walter Brady (2014)
Pre-SEC honorable mentions: Ziggy Hood (2005) and Aldon Smith (2008)
The other SEC newcomer is known as “D-Line Zou” for good reason: The Tigers were excellent at turning average high school prospects into star NFL pass rushers under Gary Pinkel. Harris, the latest project success story, signed with Missouri as just a 2-star recruit. Hood and Smith, meanwhile, both went on to become first-round NFL Draft.