From top prospects to the NFL Draft — revisiting the recruitment of projected top-10 picks

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From top prospects to the NFL Draft — revisiting the recruitment of projected top-10 picks

On Thursday night in Detroit when the first round of the NFL Draft begins, several of the nation’s most prominent players will hear their names called. A new chapter will begin. A dream years in the making will finally come to fruition.

It wasn’t long ago, though, when these projected top picks were still high school prospects wrestling with the decision about where to play college football. Some, like quarterback Caleb Williams and edge rusher Dallas Turner, were obvious five-stars who were expected to be on this stage. Others, like Notre Dame offensive tackle Joe Alt — ranked No. 400 in the Class of 2021 — needed some development.

As we inch closer to Thursday night, let’s take a look back at the recruitments of the projected top 10 picks in Dan Brugler’s latest mock draft.

Note: All rankings are from the 247Sports Composite.

1. Caleb Williams, QB, USC

Williams’ recruitment was unlike any other that Randy Trivers, the head coach at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., had seen in 20-plus years of coaching. First of all, quarterback recruiting is always different. And Williams — a five-star in the Class of 2021 and the nation’s No. 2 quarterback — was no average recruit.

“It’s Caleb Williams, who’s the quarterback. Not just a quarterback,” Trivers said. “He’s the guy.”

Williams had offers from several of the nation’s top programs, including Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, LSU, Michigan, Oregon, Penn State and others. But things started to get serious with Oklahoma after former five-star Brock Vandagriff — who eventually signed with Georgia and is now at Kentucky — decommitted from the Sooners in January 2020. That’s when coach Lincoln Riley and his staff made Williams their top — and only — priority at the position.

Williams visited Oklahoma in March 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person recruiting activities for over a year. He eventually trimmed his list of suitors down to five: Clemson, LSU, Maryland, Oklahoma and Penn State. From there, he released a top three of LSU, Maryland and Oklahoma, where Riley had made a name for himself as a quarterback guru and one of the most promising young coaches in college football.

Williams committed to the Sooners on July 4, 2020. You know the rest. He beat out former five-star Spencer Rattler midway through his true freshman season and then followed Riley to USC after the 2021 season and won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.

“Caleb was thoughtful and thorough, so there were certainly (other schools) that were being considered,” Trivers said. “But at the end of the day, all the things that coach Riley was able to convey, it made sense for the fit for Caleb. Eventually, it became clear for him.”

Like Williams, Daniels won a Heisman Trophy, thanks to a dominant 2023 season in which he passed for 3,812 yards and rushed for 1,134.

But unlike Williams, he didn’t commit to a national championship contender straight out of high school.

Daniels, the No. 35 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2019, originally signed with coach Herm Edwards and Arizona State out of Cajon (Calif.) High School. He is the third-highest-ranked prospect of the modern era to sign with the Sun Devils behind linebacker Vontaze Burfict in the Class of 2009 and tight end Zach Miller in the Class of 2004.

As The Athletic’s Doug Haller previously reported, Edwards and Daniels formed a strong relationship during the recruitment process, with Edwards viewing Daniels as a potential program-changing quarterback.

Daniels had many options, including reported offers from schools such as Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Florida State, Florida and many others. It was clear, however, that he intended to stay on the West Coast, and he took official visits to Cal, Utah, UCLA and Arizona State. The Sun Devils got his final visit, in November 2018, and he committed in December and signed six days later.

He transferred to LSU after the 2021 season and was a two-year starter for the Tigers.

Jayden Daniels was the No. 35 prospect in the Class of 2019. (Petre Thomas / USA Today)

Before he became one of the most decorated quarterbacks in North Carolina history, Maye was on track to take another path … at Alabama.

Maye’s father Mark played quarterback for UNC in the mid-1980s and his brother Luke was a key member of the Tar Heels’ 2017 basketball national championship team, yet North Carolina was originally the one school he did not want to attend.

“He didn’t want to be rude about it, but he was very adamant on me communicating to college coaches that he wasn’t gonna go to Carolina because he was afraid that he wasn’t going to be recruited the way he wanted to be,” said Scott Chadwick, Maye’s coach at Myers Park (N.C.) High School.

So Maye, who ranked No. 56 overall in the Class of 2021, committed to Nick Saban in July 2019. But when Alabama flipped Bryce Young, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2020, from USC a few months later, Maye started to think about his future — and started to seriously entertain thoughts about staying close to home. Mack Brown, who was back for his second stint in Chapel Hill, convinced Maye that North Carolina was the right school for him, and he decommited from Alabama and committed to the Tar Heels on the same day in March 2020.

There was only one problem.

“You’re gonna have to talk to coach Saban,” Chadwick recalled telling Maye. “I’m not doing that.”

It would be fun to give Ohio State coach Ryan Day some truth serum and ask him how he really feels about McCarthy.

A former five-star prospect from Illinois, McCarthy grew up an Ohio State fan who dreamed of playing for the Buckeyes. But his feelings started to change when Day and the coaching staff prioritized Kyle McCord in the recruiting process. And he wasn’t shy about sharing his feelings about his first true love.

“I get it’s a business,” McCarthy told The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman in May 2019. “But it always sucks being lied to. And that’s kind of where the rivalry started for me, and the hatred. But what are you going to do? It’s a business and they have to do what they have to do. They lied to my face, but it’s all good now.”

McCarthy committed to Michigan in May 2019 and went on to beat the Buckeyes three times, including two as the starter, and lead the Wolverines to the 2023 national championship.

Michigan fans can thank Day and Ohio State for the recruiting snub.

“I used to love them,” McCarthy once said of the Buckeyes. “Now I want to kill them.”

Mission accomplished.

Ohio State might have been on the wrong end of McCarthy’s recruitment, but the Buckeyes got it right with Harrison, a Pennsylvania native who played with McCord at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia.

Penn State was in on Harrison early, offering the son of the former NFL star in December 2018, but the Buckeyes came calling a month later as his recruitment started to pick up. Harrison eventually landed offers from LSU, Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Notre Dame, among many others, but no one in the country had a track record of pumping out top receivers like Brian Hartline and Ohio State.

He committed to the Buckeyes in October 2019 during his junior season and — despite being ranked as the No. 14 wide receiver in the Class of 2021 — quickly emerged as one of the top players at his position in the country when he arrived at Ohio State.



Marvin Harrison Jr.’s commitment to Ohio State and the making of a recruiting pipeline

Nabers might have been the best scout team player in the nation in the fall of 2020 after the Youngsville, La., native was ruled ineligible as a senior by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association after he switched schools. So he spent his time at Southside High School preparing his teammates for opposing wide receivers, defensive backs and, one week, a particularly speedy defensive end.

Several schools backed off Nabers after he was ruled ineligible, and he narrowed his decision to two programs: Mississippi State and LSU.

Mike Leach and the Bulldogs never wavered in their commitment to Nabers after he was ruled ineligible. LSU wasn’t as steadfast. Josh Fontenot, the coach at Southside at the time, believes assistant coaches Mickey Joseph and Kevin Faulk had to convince then-head coach Ed Orgeron that Nabers’ film from his junior season was good enough to take him. They were also impressed that Nabers continued to show up at practice every day even though he couldn’t play in games.

“That spoke volumes,” Fontenot said.

Nabers, ranked No. 251 overall in the Class of 2021, committed to Mississippi State in July 2020, but the allure of the in-state Tigers was too great and he flipped to LSU on the first day of the early signing period.

“(He’s) a Louisiana guy and LSU (was) coming off a national championship,” Fontenot said. “So why wouldn’t you?”

7. Joe Alt, OT, Notre Dame

Alt developed into one of the most dominant offensive tackles in college football, but he first started to garner attention as a recruit during his junior year of high school while playing a different position.

“He was playing tight end,” said Jay Anderson, Alt’s coach at Totino-Grace (Minn.) High School. “He really started hitting a growth spurt and he was 6-6, 6-7. He was getting taller and with his frame, people really started gaining interest in him.”

Alt attended a Catholic high school and valued strong academics, which made Notre Dame a natural fit. In-state Minnesota was in heavy pursuit, as was Iowa, the alma mater of his father, John, a first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1984.

But Notre Dame won out for his services and signed him as part of Brian Kelly’s final class with the Fighting Irish.

Anderson is not surprised his former standout tight end is a coveted prospect at another position.

“He kind of realized that his eventual position was probably going to end up being a tackle,” he said. “I don’t know exactly when that decision was made, but I know that that was always in the back of his head. He’s probably one of the hardest-working people that I know. … I’ve just always said, ‘I wouldn’t bet against him.’ That kid, he’s special.”

8. Dallas Turner, edge, Alabama

Turner was a highly coveted edge rusher out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, which is no stranger to producing NFL talent. The Florida powerhouse is home to Nick and Joey Bosa, Asante Samuel Jr., James White, Phillip Dorsett, Giovani Bernard and other former and current pros.

Turner, a five-star prospect who was ranked No. 9 overall in the Class of 2021, was in high demand and eventually narrowed his list to five: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Oklahoma.

The pick was Alabama.

“I really just trust that program a lot,” Turner said during his announcement. “The amount of greatness they have at the school … it’s just really special when you’re up there.”

Odunze was destined to be a football player from the time he was 5 months old and tried to catch a ball despite not yet being able to crawl.

The Las Vegas native eventually developed into a blue-chip recruit, ranking No. 225 nationally in the Class of 2020.

Odunze played at perennial powerhouse Bishop Gorman and landed his first offer, from BYU, in May 2018 at the conclusion of his sophomore year of high school. After his junior season, he received offers from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon and many others. As a senior, he was Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year after recording more than 1,200 receiving yards.

Odunze took unofficial visits to Oklahoma, Penn State, West Virginia, Florida, Miami and others before Washington separated from the pack. He committed to the Huskies in August 2019 and remained committed even after former coach Chris Petersen stepped down following the 2019 season. He was a solid contributor in Jimmy Lake’s brief two-year tenure but thrived in Kalen DeBoer’s offense, combining for 167 receptions and 2,785 yards in his final two seasons at Washington.

Recruiting services are never perfect in their projections, but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing tight end in college football better than Bowers in recent years. And yet he was ranked No. 3 at the position in the Class of 2021 behind Clemson’s Jake Briningstool and Nebraska’s Thomas Fidone.

Bowers, who played at Napa (Calif.) High School, landed offers from many of the nation’s top programs before he trimmed his list to eight: Georgia, Oregon, Oregon State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Cal, UCLA and Washington. He committed to Georgia in August 2020 and emerged as an instant star for the Bulldogs, eventually becoming the first back-to-back winner of the John Mackey Award given to college football’s top tight end.

Even Georgia’s coaches didn’t know what they were getting due in part because Bowers’ senior season of high school was canceled during the pandemic. He worked out on his own and sent the tapes to the Bulldogs coaches.

“You didn’t know for sure (he would be a star),” Georgia tight ends coach Todd Hartley said in December. “You saw the videos he sent in and how hard he worked and how hard he trained. And you’ve got to love (football) in order to send those videos in. Then it was confirmed when he got here.”

Rest of the projected first-rounders as recruits

Pick Name School Rank


JC Latham, G/T


No. 3 in the Class of 2021, No. 1 OT


Taliese Fuaga, G/T

Oregon State

No. 1,608 in the Class of 2020, No. 129 OT


Terrion Arnold, CB


No. 51 in the Class of 2021, No. 3 safety


Olu Fashanu, OT

Penn State

No. 401 in the Class of 2020, No. 32 OT


Quinyon Mitchell, CB


No. 1,830 in the Class of 2020, No. 159 CB


Troy Fautanu, G/T


No. 367 in the Class of 2019, No. 23 OG


Brian Thomas Jr., WR


No. 89 in the Class of 2021, No. 13 WR


Byron Murphy II, DT


No. 393 in the Class of 2021, No. 49 DL


Jared Verse, edge

Florida State

Unranked in the Class of 2019


Graham Barton, C


No. 671 in the Class of 2020, No. 41 OG


Laiatu Latu, edge


No. 128 in the Class of 2019, No. 6 weakside DE


Amarius Mims, OT


No. 8 in the Class of 2021, No. 3 OT


Cooper DeJean, CB


No. 359 in the Class of 2021, No. 26 safety


Tyler Guyton, OT


No. 902 in the Class of 2020, No. 70 OT


Jackson Powers-Johnson, G/C


No. 197 in the Class of 2021, No. 14 iOL


Nate Wiggins, CB


No. 118 in the Class of 2021, No. 7 CB


Chop Robinson, edge

Penn State

No. 68 in the Class of 2021, No. 4 edge


Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB


No. 18 in the Class of 2021, No. 1 CB


Michael Penix Jr., QB


No. 548 in the Class of 2018, No. 21 pro-style QB


Jordan Morgan, OT


No. 1,581 in the Class of 2019, No. 137 OT


Jer’Zhan Newton, DT


No. 1,043 in the Class of 2020, No. 51 strongside DE


Adonai Mitchell, WR


No. 383 in the Class of 2021, No. 63 WR

(Top photos of Caleb Williams, Malik Nabers, Marvin Harrison Jr.: John Leyba, Stephen Lew, Rick Osentoski / USA Today)