published Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Quick start still needs fast finish

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    Auburn coach Gene Chizik, left, greets Alabama coach Nick Saban after Alabama beat Auburn 26-21 in an NCAA college football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., Friday, Nov. 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

It doesn't take long for Southeastern Conference football coaches to discover that having an almost full recruiting class and being almost finished are two completely different things.

There are 24 days remaining until National Signing Day 2010, and that can be an eternity with a sea of indecisive 18-year-olds.

"Down here, nobody is going to leave them alone," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "Everybody is still going to be trying to get them, going in and calling them and going by their houses and schools. We still recruit them as if they're not committed."

Touted high school prospects have continued making earlier college choices during the past several months, as nine of the 12 SEC teams have 20 or more nonbinding commitments in their 2010 classes. The three exceptions -- Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss -- are each within a whisker of 20 and had at least 27 signees in last year's class.

Alabama had 18 of its 23 commitments before kicking off its '09 national championship season Sept. 5 against Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome.

"Recruiting has changed dramatically in the last several years," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. "Our players get recruited earlier. They sort of get marketed earlier with recruiting services and all that kind of stuff. I don't think that makes recruiting any easier just because a guy commits to you. In some cases it just makes you the target.

"So you've got to continue recruiting guys and continue evaluating, but when you get a lot of commitments, you've got to be careful about the next guys you take because you do have to manage the numbers you have."

Florida knows all about being targeted and managing numbers these days. Five-star safety prospect Matt Elam from West Palm Beach committed to the Gators on Oct. 8, 2008, but he was pursued throughout 2009 by Florida State, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Elam switched his commitment to FSU on New Year's Eve but received a call from Florida coach Urban Meyer this past week and committed again Saturday to the Gators at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

The Gators had 16 of their 21 current commitments before the '09 season started, a program high for that time of year, and how large Florida's class grows depends on how many juniors leave early for the NFL. Cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Aaron Hernandez have announced they're bypassing their final year of eligibility, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, safety Major Wright and the Pouncey twins up front are among those who could follow.

"We've never quite had it like this as far as what spots are going to be available," Meyer said. "We have a great class committed already, but we're still working hard."

As of Saturday, Rivals.com ranked Florida with the No. 1 recruiting class nationally, followed by Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma and Auburn. Tennessee is ranked sixth, LSU ninth and Georgia 10th, giving the SEC six teams in the top 10.

The SEC had six of the top 12 signing classes in '09, including a 1-2 finish by Alabama and LSU, and league coaches realize the pace will become more frantic each year.

"It is what it is right now as far as everybody committing early," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "Personally I don't like it as much as the old days when you got to go out and spend a lot of time on the road and be able to watch video and do a lot of the evaluation process. I think it is a little concerning that you wonder if you get to know them well enough and their parents well enough."

Said Auburn coach Gene Chizik: "It's early commitments, and then move on to the juniors next year. Whether we think that's a good thing or not, I don't really think that matters. I think it's just the way everything has evolved the last five or six years."

Houston Nutt signed 10 classes at Arkansas and is within a month of signing his second at Ole Miss, and he still can't figure out the recruiting process.

"Just because people have committed doesn't mean that people are going to stop recruiting them," Nutt said. "In fact, it maybe even goes the other way, especially if that young man is still visiting. That's what I don't get. They commit, but yet they're still making visits to other schools."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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