Rating The Recruiting During The D.B. Era

Rankings. Ratings. Grades. We fans love ‘em. Present us with a list of bests and/or worsts, stand back, and watch the fur fly as we discuss, debate, and downright disagree. Especially if the subject of dispute is based on opinion not final scores.

This is the third in a four-part review of Mississippi State football recruiting classes in the Dawgs’ Bite era, running 1976 through 2010 since the 2011-on groups are obviously still active. Today covers 1993-2000 and includes some of the truly great Bulldog names of any era.

As explained in Part 1, grades are arbitrary of course but meant to show how the class helped, or hurt, the program over its complete career. In a few cases classes turned out better than regarded on Signing Day, and in others the grades turned out worse.

Blue Chips are the most touted prospect at the time, regardless how their career actually panned out. Or not, as many of these names are barely remembered today. By contrast Finds are lower-profile signees at the time who became big contributors or even stars. All-SEC are those who eventually were named first- or second-team by league media or coaches.

1993 B+ Blue Chips: QB Kirk Pressley, NG Eric Dotson, DE Al Cotton, DE Colby McCullough, RB Keffer McGee, OL Brent Smith, LB Reggie Wilson. Finds: LB Greg Favors, OL Robert Hicks, FB Nakia Greer, P Andy Russ. All-SEC: Favors, Hicks, LB Paul Lacoste, Russ, Smith.

After a couple of middling years recruiting, Jackie Sherrill put added effort into his third class and it showed. And if prize quarterback prospect Pressley had turned down baseball bucks for football, and both Cotton and Dotson qualified, this would have been a strong A class. The offensive line was rebuilt when Hicks turned out to be much better than expected and Smith lived up to his expectations, while juco Purvis Hunt was another pleasant surprise. James Grier and Conley Earls were instant D-line help. Of course McGee exceeded some pretty high expectations as one of the best all-purpose backs ever at State and would have re-written all rushing records if not for his tragic ’97 drowning. Prep QB Favors set sack records at LB/DE, and Lacoste was a consistent producer. Russ became another excellent Sherrill punter. This class had more than its share of high-profile busts to be sure, with McCullough, Wilson, WR Mike Brown, and OL Toby Myles, but that was acceptable because plenty other programs thought enough to offer them too.

1994 C- Blue Chips: C Eric Allen, DB Tyris Gilmore, TE John Jennings, LB Kenneth Knotts, L Stoney Price, LB Curtis Rowe, QB Adam Russell, OT Cam Smith, DL Larry Williams. Finds: LB Larry Campbell, DB Eric Daniel, CB Izell McGill. All-SEC: Allen

If this seems a little low given that some of the survivors would ultimately play for the SEC West championship, well at the time the class was regarded as a flat bust. History has improved their grade modestly thanks to the work of three-year starting center Allen and quality coverage by McGill. Juco Williams and re-signee Cotton filled needs on the defensive front, as did FS Daniel and CB Adesola Badon in the secondary. RB Robert Isaac was a good backup/returner, but out of five receivers not one was a major play-maker. QB Russell didn’t last, big-clippings signee Rowe never lettered, and Jennings left a year early. So it was not a class to remember for itself but for how the survivors contributed at the end of their careers. Which was much the same with…

1995 B- Blue Chips: FS Juran Bolden, S Eric Brown, WR Kevin Cooper, NG Eric Dotson, PK Brian Hazelwood, DT John Hilliard, LB Paul Hunter, TE Reggie Kelly. Finds: P Jeff Walker, DL Kevin Sluder. All-SEC: Hazelwood, Walker, Hilliard

Here’s another case of some modest up-grading with passing of time and eventual success. The deeds of kickers Hazelwood and Walker made it a respectable class on their own right. It wasn’t a big skill year as WRs Lorenzo Armstead and Trey Belcher were average signs and Cooper had to go juco first. In time QB Matt Wyatt proved capable as a starter and more clutch in relief. Dennis McKinley was a first-class fullback and RB Chris Rainey a workhorse. Defense came out best even if grades delayed S Brown, who was worth the wait. Hilliard, Smith, re-signee Dotson, Sluder, DE Cornell Menafee were a good group of defensive linemen, the secondary was boosted by Anthony Derricks and Kendall Roberson, and transfer ILB Derek Rush was a steal. The ‘-‘ stems from a near-total lack of offensive linemen with only Paul Mooney inked. Kelly was the prize though, perhaps the best all-around tight end of the last three Dog decades. Jucos DBs Bolden and Ken Hill and LB Jamil Graham were never factors. Still, the seniors who stuck it out would win. Big.

1996 C Blue Chips: DB Lamon Dumas, LB Edward Yeates, WR Lamont Woodberry, Finds: DB Tim Nelson, LB Barrin Simpson, DB Kenzaki Jones, DB Eugene Clinton. All-SEC: S Eric Brown, Simpson, OC Michael Fair

On paper it looked like the weakest class of the 90s and a C may still be generous. Staff instability and ongoing NCAA investigations didn’t help recruiting of course, and there was little star power on signing day to boast about. What saves a passing grade were the ‘finds’ in this group and strong fifth-year finishes by Fair and Clinton. Sherrill certainly brought in a lot of kids who could run and raise the roster’s athleticism. Brown certainly produced and Nelson was often amazing as an under-sized safety, while Jones and Clinton were prototypical special teamers. Illness and injury dogged Earnest Garner and Yeates but local boy Simpson was a fine linebacker find. The offense was badly shortchanged though with only Woodberry getting big numbers and WR Matt Butler having an average career. Fair was by far the best of a line group including Matt McRae and Tron Thomas. Bruising Kenny Williamson did his part as a pure blocking back for more speedsters to come.

1997 A+ Blue Chips: WR Kevin Cooper, DL Dorsett Davis, LB Jamal Dinkins, TB James Johnson, LB Bert Keys, WR Kevin Prentiss. Finds: DE Ed Smith, QB Wayne Madkin, OG Randy Thomas. OG Pork Chop Womack. All-SEC: Johnson, Prentiss, Smith, Thomas, Womack

If any thought NCAA sanctions limiting the class to just 16 scholarships would cripple the program…just the opposite proved true. Heck, maybe limiting numbers forced Sherrill to focus and get it right, because he absolutely did. Luck and good timing played a part too because this was the golden era of juco recruiting in Mississippi. The offense struck gold in J.J. Johnson, the classic tailback of the era, but it was putting JC blockers Thomas, Craig Moore, and Anthony Kapp up front that made it possible while frosh Womack and converted DT Fairchild rounded out a great line in time. Wideouts Prentiss and (re-signee) Cooper weren’t often healthy as juniors but were brilliant seniors and KP might’ve been the most dangerous return Dog ever. Madkin took over the starting job as a redshirt and became the all-time passing leader. Defensive signings were selective. Dinkins became a classic kicking-team tackler, but Davis was delayed two years by grades, Keys didn’t fully develop and Garth Henry was a waste. Fortunately Wyms blossomed and Smith, recruited off videotape, defines ‘find.’ Added to the grinders signing in previous years this class provided the pieces in places for a rise to the top of the Western Division.

1998 A- Blue Chips: CB Robert Bean, QB Brandon Butler, SS Ashley, WER Kevin Cooper, RB Justin Griffith, DL Alvin McKinley, RB Dicenzo Miller, LB Mario Haggan, DE Conner Stephens, DB Pig Prather, DL Kenny Sears. Finds: WR Kelvin Love, PK Scott Westerfield, FS Josh Morgan. All-SEC: Bean, Cooper, OT Wes Shivers, Miller, Morgan, Prather, Stephens, Westerfield, Haggan

The wins kept coming on the field and on Signing Day. Instant contributions of choice rookies backed up an initial high grading, though some had disappointing finishes. At the time it was an offensive dream class yet juco defenders Bean and Cooper became as good as any in the nation and McKinley a superb nose-man. On the offensive line Shivers thrived at two positions, though prepsters Carl Hutchins and Kevin Sijansky did not develop and Kyle Wallace transferred. That’s what prevents a straight A now because lack of blocking would come to haunt State in the future. Still Sherrill got a fabulous prep backfield in Miller, Griffith, and Prather, who became a great safety; though touted QB Butler was not suited for State’s style. And the prep receivers didn’t develop, while juco QB Love would as a pass catcher. Kicking teams benefited from all the talent and if Westerfield technically wasn’t a signee he certainly was a heckuva invited walk-on. Sears washed out on the D-line but Stephens was solid and Haggan became a star. Morgan, also technically a walk-on, definitely counts in this grade.

1999 B+ Blue Chips: TB Dontae Walker, QB Kevin Fant, WR Justin Jenkins, DL Cory Miley, DL Toby Golliday, CB Fred Smoot, OL Derrick Thompson, DL Dorsett Davis. Finds: LB Barris Grant, TE Donald Lee. All-SEC: Smoot, DL Willie Blade, Davis

Even before Signing Day this was being heralded as Sherrill’s best class and at the time we agreed. Years later retrospect will still rank it very respectably but not near the top. Walker and Fant got the headlines, the best prospects in the state at their positions and the top-two overall. It’s unlikely any school got better pure athletes than Jenkins, Lee, and if WR Milas Randle became a flop it wasn’t for lack of raw skills. State signed an entire new juco defensive front good enough to play as a group immediately in Davis-Golliday-Blade. Everyone knew Smoot was good; he knew he would be NFL-good from day-one, and only injury would keep Grant from becoming a star. There were disappointments. Thompson and OL Donald Tucker could have been, but one flunked out and the other fizzled. WR Keshun Fudge did not qualify and Miley was found to be knee-damaged goods. Walker had two good years on veteran teams, then faded along with classmates unable to step up to leadership demands. The great tragedy was how Fant and Jenkins were eventually undercut by the lack of follow-up signings that kept them from reaching full potential as upperclassmen.

2000 C Blue Chips: WR Antonio Hargro, WR Ray Ray Bivines, DB Jonathan Bell, DL Jadice Moore, DB Gabe Wallace, OL Courtney Lee, OG Tommy Watson, DB Dale Hall. Finds: FB Darnell Jones, TB Fred Reid, OL David Stewart. All-SEC: LB Jason Clark, Stewart, P Jared Cook

On signing day Sherrill proclaimed every goal was met by this class. The analysts weren’t as impressed and while modest reviews enraged fans they were proven correct. It just took a couple of years to show because the veterans and depth allowed only three of the rookies to play early. The class didn’t lack for athleticism, and if he’d had healthy hamstrings Bivines might’ve become a star. Reid was solid running the ball, but Hargro was an epic failure still recalled for sheer weirdness. There were big bodies as well, headlined by instant starters Watson and Lee and Stewart who matured into a pro tackle. Clark got his senior chance to shine and Jones contributed as a brutal blocking back. Wallace and LB Robert Spivey were backups, and WR McKinley Scott managed to overcome a freshman injury to play well late. Sherrill invested two scholarships in kickers with mixed results as Cook developed while John Michael Marlin didn’t. Plenty of promising signees were busts, especially on defense. Hall did not qualify, Youngblood came late and flopped anyway, and Moore never did anything. One mediocre class could’ve been handled had State come back with a good 2001 class. Instead the program veered off a cliff.

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