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Washington State 2017 recruiting class roundtable with 5 experts

WITH SIGNING DAY at Washington State set to kick off in just hours, recruiting experts from and CF.C weigh in on seven burning questions on Mike Leach’s 2017 recruiting class.

(Pictured above, 4-star QB Connor Neville and 4-star OL Dontae Powell). 

Note: The WSU class may still yield a surprise or three on Wednesday, ahem.  But we wanted to bring you the overall analysis early.  Here is our roundtable discussion featuring national recruiting analysts Brandon Huffman and Greg Biggins, along with CF.C managing editor Barry Bolton, associate editor Braulio Perez and Luxury Suites columnist Joshua Davis.

1. Who is the biggest get?
Brandon Huffman: OT Robert Valencia.  He’s a four-star OL from one of the best JC’s in the country and can come in and play right away -- and at a position schools value experience and already physically developed players. He has 2-to-play-2 but even if he did have a redshirt year, there would be no need to redshirt him and see if he’s ready. He’ll be able to come in and contribute immediately.

Braulio Perez: WSU fans need to get excited about safety Josh Talbott. He's not one of WSU's four-star recruits, but he had a boatload of offers and has great defensive skills. Among his tenders throughout his recruitment? Florida, Oregon, UCLA, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and many others. He could do some big things under defensive coordinator and DBs coach Alex Grinch.

Joshua Davis: I'm picking two: the offensive tackle pair of Robert Valencia and Dontae Powell. Oregon and Utah wanted both and got neither, with Valencia particularly coveted by a bunch of big schools. Both are huge, nasty players who will help solidify the line of scrimmage for Leach's Air Raid attack. I like Valencia on the right side in some form of combination with Cole Madison this season and my guess is the plan for Powell is to be a starting o-tackle by the time he's a third-year sophomore. To me, Powell brings more versatility than the other o-tackles in this class though, and I could see him kicking inside on the o-line as well.

Greg Biggins: I really like the way Dontae Powell plays and feel he's a tremendous talent. He's a big kid who can move, plays with an edge to him and has the perfect amount of nastiness to excel in the trenches at the next level.

Barry Bolton: There are a number of WSU commits one can argue for but I'll go with Dontae Powell.  He could play inside or outside but the truly intriguing thing about him: although he's 6-6 1/2, 305 pounds, he's got plenty more room on his frame. He'll have to earn it, and his developmental arc under Clay McGuire will tell the tale, but he has a chance to be special in Leach's wide-split, Air Raid offense.

2. Who is the biggest sleeper?
Braulio Perez: There's no doubt in my mind it's Willie Taylor. Two weeks ago, who even knew about this linebacker? Roy Manning and the WSU coaches kept him under wraps. He had other known offers from Mercer and Stetson. No, that doesn't sound too sexy, but 1. Ole Miss and Troy came in late and 2. watch his highlight tape. This young man is a freak athlete. He'll line up at outside 'backer and that to me feels like the perfect spot for his skills.

Joshua Davis: RB Caleb Perry, for two reasons. First, he's a blazer who comes right out of UW's backyard and is comparable in size and explosiveness to the last two running backs the Dawgs have signed: Myles Gaskin and Sean McGrew. Second, he figures to be understandably on the back burner in 2017 as the Cougs have back their three-man rotation in Jamal Morrow, Gerard Wicks and James Williams. Not many are talking about Perry but make no mistake, he is going to be an electric player for WSU in the future -- 100 meter state champions are rare.

Greg Biggins: LB Faavae Faavae isn't talked about much after missing his entire senior season but he can play. He had a big junior season and then looked great at several summer camps prior to his knee injury. He's a high motor guy who plays with a ton of passion and energy and can really get after the quarterback. He can play multiple roles in a defense and it will be interesting to see where he ends up position-wise in Pullman.

Barry Bolton: CB Sean Harper, a 3-for-2 guy who gets the benefit of having enrolled early and will go through spring ball. The big reason I'm picking him is because of what Harper said about Alex Grinch's recruitment of him. After Harper failed to qualify after signing with the Cougs in 2015, WSU's defensive coordinator spent the next two years recruiting him hard. "Coach Grinch has stayed with me the last two years, we talked (just about) every other day," Harper told CF.C before he signed in December.  If Grinch wanted Harper that badly, I don't care much if he's rated 2 stars or 5 stars. It will be fascinating to see how Harper does in spring ball under Grinch's tutelage. 

Brandon Huffman: ATH Dominick Silvels is an intriguing player in that he’s a good receiver but will come in and play defense for WSU.  Not a lot is known on him as a defender - most of his film is on offense.  But he’s got the size and skillset, plus athleticism, to make the transition to defense pretty seamless.

3. Who makes an impact on Day One in fall camp - who isn't going to redshirt?
Joshua Davis: The JC guys are always a popular choice for this question, but I'm going to look at true freshman impact. Willie RodgersIsaiah Love and Anthony White Jr. stick out of this class to me as immediate impact players. Michigan State was thought to have Rodgers locked up and he was receiving interest from Michigan and Mississippi State as well. Love is a highly underrated cornerback, as I recently wrote here on the Luxury Suites. White Jr. is going to be a nice addition to this receiving core in the middle with his size and excellent combo of route running ability and hands.

Greg Biggins: JUCO players always have a chance to contribute early since they're more physically mature and in offensive lineman Robert Valencia, you have a player who should play right away. Valencia was a huge pickup and is among the top 20 JUCO prospects in the country. He plays a premium position as an offensive tackle and the fact that he'll be able to participate in spring ball as an early enrollee is another big plus.

Barry Bolton: You can make a strong case obviously for any of the junior college players and early enrollees (DE Preston Hendry, OL Robert Valencia, WRs Easop Winston and Anthony White Jr., CBs Isaiah Love and Sean Harper). Valencia in particular intrigues because despite this past season being his first in the trenches, he became one of the top JUCO o-line prospects nationally (Valencia played TE at DIII Coe College, redshirted at CCSF, and then soared on the CCSF OL).  But DE Willie Rodgers' is my pick.  Rodgers' ability to slip and shed blocks is going to make it hard for WSU to redshirt the true freshman.

Brandon Huffman: Aside from Valencia, I think that George Hicks has a good chance to play right away.  He’s a good DB with positional versatility and I like him like I did Jalen Thompson a year ago, and he played right away.  I would imagine he finds himself in the rotation early.

Braulio Perez: The City College of San Francisco has been good to WSU in recent years - does the name Shalom Luani ring a bell? Well, two of his former CCSF teammates were mid-year transfers in tackle Robert Valencia and receiver Easop Winston. Going through spring ball will be huge for them. Valencia is a massive o-lineman, checking in at 6-5, 300-pounds. He'll be looked at to contribute immediately.

4. Who is the guy that 4-5 years from now Cougar fans will be talking about most?
Greg Biggins: I think DB George Hicks has a lot of upside to him and could be a big time player in a few years. He's a big corner who could grow in to a safety and has a lot of natural talent. He can cover, is physical in run support and is a tough, competitive kid.

Barry Bolton: Safety Josh Talbott. His read and react skills are advanced headed into college. Contemplating his upside and what kind of player he might develop into in 3-4 years' time should bring a smile to the face of CougFans. Of course, all safeties go through a learning curve when they get to this level but Talbott feels like one of those guys who gets to a certain point, and then moves beyond it, quicker than most.

Brandon Huffman: I’ll go with Christian Mejia.  He’s almost a lock for a redshirt year because he’s still pretty slight, but give him a redshirt season and another year in the weight room, and I think he becomes a big contributor down the line.  He’s more of a late bloomer but he’s got some upside that I think WSU will like.

Braulio Perez: I'm going with my gut here. I think it's going to be Davontavean Martin, the receiver out of Louisiana. He's another under-the-radar player but the more I watch his highlights, the more impressed I am. In the Air Raid offense, receivers are going to make plays. We all know about Gabe Marks and River Cracraft. Martin to me looks like a special player. My gut tells me he'll prove that to Cougar fans throughout his career.

Joshua Davis: I am going to take one on offense, one on defense. I love QB Connor Neville as a long-term investment by Leach and I think he has some mobility tools that can work in concert with the Air Raid -- Baker Mayfield-type qualities on the field. Defensively, Isaiah Love is going to be WSU's next great corner. He was underrated because of missing his senior season due to injury. Here at WSU we think of Marcus Trufant when we compare to past CB's but Love's tape reminds me more of two recent Husky corners, Desmond Trufant and Sidney Jones.

5. Apart from simply comparing stars and ratings, how does the WSU class stack up with the rest of the Pac-12?
Barry Bolton: Others will hold a different view but from my chair, the gap between WSU's class and the Pac-12 schools' above them in the rankings is smaller than many think. Washington State is tied with USC for the second-best mark in Pac-12 play since 2015 at 13-5 -- despite its recruiting rankings over the last five years averaging 48th nationally.  Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see WSU ranked in the top 15 nationally every recruiting class and firmly believe it is something WSU should aspire to. But the offensive and defensive schemes are so incredibly important in seeing which players rise to the top, and which ones do not. And WSU in its 2017 class in my opinion has recruited quite nicely to both its offense and defense in comparison to the rest of the Pac-12 (with one notable exception, see final question).

Brandon Huffman: The Cougs have a Top 40 class nationally right now but are just in that second half of the conference.  They were on track for a top 30-35 class before losing some guys, but they do have a lot of quality depth in this class.

Braulio Perez: WSU looks to have missed out on a good amount of targets and name commits, such as four-star prospects WR Isaiah Hodgins and RB Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who have committed to Oregon State and Oregon, respectively. In the future, it's imperative for Leach and Co. to hang on to more prized recruits. They look to have hung onto Abraham Lucas from flipping to Cal --  need to see more of that in the future.

Joshua Davis: Looking at the rest of the Pac-12, the disappointment for some CougFans is going to come in looking at how many of early quality recruits flipped to other Pac-12 schools, and how many potential elites ended up signing elsewhere. Oregon in particular won the battles with WSU this cycle, with RB Cyrus Habibi-Likio and LB Isaac Slade-Matautia, plus WR Bruce Judson and DT Austin Faoliu. Each would have been a very nice get WSU, as would have Joe Tryon (UW), Javelin Guidry and Tyquez Hampton (Utah) and Elijah Gates (UCLA). The class will likely rank in the lower half of the Pac-12, but a top 40 class nationally is still pretty good, considering the losses throughout the process. Decommitments have become a more consistent trend in recruiting, and the WSU class also has a good number of kids that other Pac-12 schools, and in some cases Big-Ten schools like Michigan State and Nebraska, coveted as well. That's a big step forward and bodes well for future classes.

Greg Biggins: I think you have your top group of schools that are going to have top 25 ranked classes: USC, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford and Washington and then in that next group, you have Wazzu with schools like Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah and Cal. All should be in the top 40-45.

6. How does this class stack up against other Mike Leach classes?
Brandon Huffman: If everything holds, it will be the second-highest rated class Leach has signed since taking over at WSU, with only the 2015 class ranked higher.  Given the decommitments, to still finish with a Top 40 class is reason for optimism.

Braulio Perez: It's pretty on par with what we've seen from Leach. He was able to land a trio of 4-star recruits and tons of 3-star guys. You've also got a handful of 2-star prospects, but those players also have a lot of potential and in some cases, are just now being seen late in the process by evaluators. Hey, there could be some Signing Day surprises too. One thing Cougar fans know when it comes to LOI Day ... anything can happen.

Joshua Davis: Had WSU closed on three or four more of the big targets, we'd be talking about a top-25 type class. But I do believe Leach has an underrated class (again) and I see it as a cut above any Leach class so far. A great quarterback signing, hanging on to Powell and Neville all year, while reeling in a great, late get in Willie Rodgers makes this class stack up decently in the middle of the Pac-12. I would grade it on the surface as a C-plus or B-minus, with straight B to B-plus potential. The coaches still needs to pull in a nice WR like Braylon Sanders or Travell Harris - or Jamire Calvin - on Signing Day (or later) to complete this thing.

Greg Biggins: I think the last few Cougar classes have been very good and on the upswing. I think this class is high in quality and in depth and I probably said the same things last year. It's always tough when you have a few defections but overall, this is a good staff and just to shout out one coach, Roy Manning has really established himself as one of the top recruiters in the region.

Barry Bolton: It's very similar to past Leach classes, with perhaps a few more WSU wins in terms of Pac-12 battles -- and as usual with some guys sprinkled in that other Pac-12 schools did not offer.  Washington State evaluates better than most coaching staffs in my view, and they need to continue to do that. That's the continuing theme from this chair in comparing this class to recent Leach classes: WSU did a thumbs up job when it came to evaluation in this recruiting class ... again.

7. What should CougFans take away overall: What's the big picture?
Braulio Perez: To me, the big picture is that the WSU coaches continue to show they know how to recruit. What impressed me the most is how far and wide they've gone across the U.S. to land players. Yes, recruiting California and in-state is the priority, but they've also got guys from Hawaii, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, Colorado, Massachusetts and Idaho. I can't stress how impressive that is. And that should help the staff moving forward in terms of potential reach.

Joshua Davis: The Cougar coaching staff did an outstanding, almost unbelievable job of scouring the countryside to put it together. There were several challenges along the way including losing two assistant coaches late in the process to the coaching carousel, including one in Joe Salave'a that I consider one of the truly core recruiters on the staff. Then you had the  number of late decommits and last-second visit switches. But the class spans a surprising 11 states (including WA, CA, ID, OR, HI, CO, MA, GA, FL, MS and AZ) and it is balanced, with 13 defensive and 12 offensive commitments as of today. The other point to emphasize here is that clearly, this class is built for speed, especially defensively. However, the lack of some interior size has been a disappointing development because the effectiveness of speed over size has yet to be seen against the more elite competition in my view, and that could be cause for concern in the future.

Greg Biggins: I think the big picture here is Washington State has some very good football players coming. They signed a nice, balanced class where they filled a lot of needs with quality players. Go down the line: they have a quality quarterback, speed at the skill positions and some talent on both sides of the line. I really think this class is going to help the program win a lot of games moving forward.

Barry Bolton: Maybe it's just because I've covered so many recruiting classes but decommits (nost of them, anyway) don't bother me as much as they might others. The trend has been headed that way for a while with more flips over the course of the year, and then the ever increasing free-for-all in the final weeks in January.  There are always more fish in the sea and hell, sometimes they end up being better than a big one that got away.  Now, on the downside, WSU simply has to do better in DT-type recruiting in my view. It’s one of the hardest positions to evaluate, and DTs need time to develop before they’re ready to win Pac-12 battles. Even if the best comes to pass for WSU, with a late DT signing or even two, plus 2016 signees Lyric Bartley and Danny Bender developing into DTs, there is still a lack of prototypical DTs in the past TWO recruiting cycles. That simply needs to be fixed.  WSU uses a multi-coach recruiting approach but the position coach is always hugely important and the good news, in my mind, is that new DL coach Jeff Phelps is going to be an effective d-line recruiter - I believe we will see more DT commits and earlier in the cycle. As far as the big picture positive: teams that are successful from year to year have quality depth, and this class adds quality to a number of positions. One other big takeaway not being discussed enough: WSU for the second straight recruiting class have upgraded its speed on defense.

Brandon Huffman: Obviously there is a lot of disappointment with who they had committed that ended up at other Pac-12 schools (Isaiah Hodgins, Cyrus Habibi-Likio and Joe Tryon).  The class could have been higher rated with those three.  However, if they can close with a few more guys and hold on to some key guys, they should be very happy with how they finish.  They have three 4-stars including two from the preps and one from the junior college, but also a real solid core of 3 stars.

WSU 2017 commit list

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