Jaelan Phillips will try and play up to his 5-star billing this season at Miami after transferring from UCLA
The signing of a 5-star high school football recruit is a badge of honor for all college programs and a measure of success in the national recruiting rankings for a given year. The recruiting status that comes with a top player putting ink to a national letter of intent also is a solid indicator of future success, especially if others follow suit to the same campus. However, not all "can't-miss" prospects pan out as All-Americans or even all-conference-caliber products on the field.
Looking back, the following is a breakdown of the top five recruits from 2013-17 evaluating their play on the field compared to their lofty status leaving the high school level.
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Grayson (Ga.) — Ole Miss
CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Wharton (Fla.) — Florida
LB Jaylon Smith, Bishop Luers (Ind.) — Notre Dame
DE Carl Lawson, Milton (Ga.) — Auburn
WR Laquon Treadwell, Crete-Monee (Ill.) — Ole Miss
2013 Class Grade: SUCCESS
Success: Robert Nkemdiche
Nkemdiche was the consensus top-rated player out of Grayson High School in Georgia and lived up to the billing on the field. Nkemdiche earned Freshman All-American honors, started in 10 games in 2013, and started every game during his sophomore campaign. After earning first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American honors in a standout junior season, Nkemdiche declared for the NFL draft and became a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals.
Success: Jaylon Smith
Smith earned second-team All-American honors in 2014, won the Butkus Award, and was a consensus All-American as a junior (2015). He suffered a torn ACL and MCL injury in the Fiesta Bowl but was taken in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft by Dallas. After missing all of 2016, Smith returned in 2017 playing in all 16 games for the Cowboys, finishing with 81 total tackles and two forced fumbles. Smith had a standout 2018 season with the Cowboys tallying 121 tackles. At the end of the 2019 season, Smith earned Pro Bowl honors.
Success: Laquon Treadwell
Treadwell was the top-rated receiver in his class, doing it all as a pass catcher and as a dominating outside blocker to earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2013. Treadwell dominated SEC competition during his sophomore year until he broke his leg in gruesome fashion after nine games. His return showed no ill effects, pulling in 82 passes for 1,153 yards with 11 touchdowns. A first-round selection in the 2016 NFL draft (23rd overall) by the Minnesota Vikings, he has not lived up to the billing in the professional ranks. Treadwell has been a role player with the Vikings with only 65 receptions for 701 yards and two touchdowns in four seasons.
Success: Vernon Hargreaves III
Being a three-time All-SEC performer, first-team All-American as a sophomore, and earning consensus All-American recognition as a junior makes Hargreaves worthy of the 5-star label. He finished his Gators career with 10 interceptions, 27 passes defended and 121 career tackles. Hargraves declared early for the NFL draft after his junior season, and Tampa Bay selected with the 11th overall pick in 2016. Hargreaves had a big rookie season with 68 tackles and an interception but has been plagued by injuries since appearing in 19 total games over the past three seasons. The Bucs cut him midway through his fourth NFL season, but he latched onto the Houston Texans in time for their 2019-20 playoff run.
DE Da'Shawn Hand, Woodbridge (Va.) — Alabama
DE Myles Garrett, Arlington Martin (Texas) — Texas A&M
DB Jabrill Peppers, Paramus Catholic (N.J.) — Michigan
RB Leonard Fournette, St. Augustine (La.) — LSU
DB Quin Blanding, Bayside (Va.) — Virginia
2014 Class Grade: SUCCESS
Bust: Da'Shawn Hand
Injuries derailed the first three years of Hand’s career. As the top player in the 2014 class, he fell way short of expectations as a backup on defense for three years and a second-team All-SEC selection in 2017 after registering 27 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Hand still went in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL draft and has continued to battle injuries throughout the early part of his pro career.
Success: Myles Garrett
Garrett proved to be a high-caliber player throughout his three seasons with the Aggies. He broke the SEC record for sacks (11.5) by a freshman en route to earning freshman All-American status in 2014 with 14 tackles for a loss and nine quarterback hurries. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound, playmaker upped his game in 2015 by leading the SEC in sacks (12.5) while coming up with 19.5 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles, finishing the year as a finalist for the Rotary Lombardi Award, Ted Hendricks Award, and Bednarik Award. His junior season was slowed by injuries, but he still had 15 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks. He declared early for the draft and was Cleveland’s choice as the first pick in the 2017 NFL draft. Garrett had a solid rookie year with the Browns and then earned Pro Bowl status in 2018 with 44 tackles and 13.5 sacks. He is in the midst of an indefinite suspension after attacking Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with a helmet during an on-field fight.
Success: Leonard Fournette
Fournette arguably was the best of his fellow 5-star peers in this class. Fournette was a speedy and powerful back who performed like a 5-star as a true freshman with 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 187 carries. In his sophomore season, Fournette was third in the nation in total rushing yards (1,953) behind Heisman winner Derrick Henry (2,219) and runner-up Christian McCaffrey (2,019). Fournette’s junior season was limited by leg injuries, but he still managed to run for 843 yards and eight scores on 129 carries. The Jaguars made Fournette the fourth pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. The all-purpose back has been a difference-maker for the Jaguars offense, twice eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing mark with career-highs set in 2019: 1,152 rush yards and 522 receiving yards.
DE Byron Cowart, Armwood (Fla.) — Auburn
QB Josh Rosen, St. John Bosco (Calif.) — UCLA
CB Iman Marshall, Long Beach Poly (Calif.) — USC
OT Matez Ivey, Apopka (Fla.) — Florida
SS Derwin James, Haines City (Fla.) — Florida State
2015 Class Grade: AVERAGE
Bust: Byron Cowart
A combination of circumstances including injuries, an emergency appendectomy, and a lack of playing time, led to Cowart leaving Auburn just three games into the 2017 season after finishing with 15 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss in 26 games for the Tigers. After a transfer to Hillsborough (Fla.) Community College, Cowart signed with Maryland. His senior season with the Terrapins was a big step forward but not quite to a 5-star level; he ended with 38 tackles, five tackles for a loss, and three sacks. Cowart caught on with the New England Patriots in 2019 and appeared in five games.
Success: Josh Rosen
Rosen was successful at UCLA as a passer, but the arm talent never pushed the Bruins to the next level of prominence. Rosen was the first true freshman to ever open as the Bruins’ starting quarterback, and he finished his debut with the most passing yards (3,668) and total touchdowns (23) in program history. He played in just six games as a sophomore because of a shoulder injury but returned and finished second in the Pac-12 in both passing (3,756 yards) and touchdown passes (26) while completing 63 percent of his attempts. Rosen skipped his senior season, and the Cardinals justified that decision by drafting him 10th overall. However, he only played in 14 games before getting dealt to Miami in the offseason. The former first-round pick appeared in just five games with the Dolphins in 2019.
Average: Iman Marshall
Marshall was a four-year starter for USC and earned 2015 Sporting News and USA Today Freshman All-American honors after coming up with 63 tackles and leading the Trojans in interceptions (3) and pass breakups (9). He received honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition in 2017 after ending his 38-game career with 170 tackles, including four for a loss, plus 27 deflections and 6 interceptions. The Ravens made Marshall a fourth-round draft selection, but he spent much of the 2019 season on the injured reserve.
Success: Derwin James
James may have been the best of all the 5-star recruits in the 2015 class. A knee injury took away most of his 2016 season, but James received All-American recognition in ’17. After earning Freshman All-American in 2016, James seemingly had no ceiling until he tore the LCL in his left knee in the second game of his sophomore year. James ended his 2017 season with FSU recording 84 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 11 pass breakups, and two interceptions, which was good enough to earn first-team All-American honors from the FWAA. James declared early for the 2018 NFL draft, and the Chargers took him 17th overall. He earned Pro Bowl recognition in 2018 but missed much of the 2019 schedule with a stress fracture in his right foot.
DT Rashan Gary, Paramus Catholic (N.J.) — Michigan
DT Dexter Lawrence, Wake Forest (N.C.) — Clemson
OT Greg Little, Allen (Texas) — Ole Miss
QB Shea Patterson, IMG Academy (Fla.) — Ole Miss, transferred to Michigan
QB Jacob Eason, Lake Stevens (Wa.) — Georgia, transferred to Washington
2016 Class Grade: BELOW AVERAGE
Average: Rashan Gary
Life for the No. 1 rated recruit in the 2016 class started out trending towards a bust. Gary appeared in all 13 games of his true freshman season but only ended the year with 23 stops, a single sack, and five tackles for a loss while never dominating as expected. His breakout year came in 2017 when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors with a 62-tackle, 11-TFL, five-sack season. In 2019, Gary earned All-Big Ten after 38 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks but was never named an All-American. Gary was an early NFL entry, foregoing his senior season, and the Packers drafted him 12th overall. Gary appeared in all 16 regular-season games for Green Bay.
Average: Dexter Lawrence
Lawrence, much like Rashan Gary, was a very good college football player but never seemed to capture the magic of an all-powerful 5-star recruit. Lawrence’s career started off in the right direction by earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors after breaking Clemson’s freshman record for sacks (5). His sophomore season fell flat, but he rebounded to earn first-team All-ACC with 44 stops, 7.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks. What helps make Lawrence’s career a success is national title wins in 2016 and 2018, even though he was ineligible for postseason play during his junior season due to a failed drug test (ostarine). Lawrence was a first-round pick of the New York Giants in 2019 and earned PFWA All-Rookie honors.
Success: Greg Little
Grading offensive linemen can be tough; Little by many standards was very much a success during his college career but maybe not to the level of a 5-star. He played right away for Ole Miss as a true freshman, working his way into a starting role at left tackle in the SEC. His progress as a lineman was on a positive upwards track as he earned second-team All-SEC recognition during his sophomore year and first-team honors in 2018. Little, like many other 5-star recruits from the 2016 class, declared early for the NFL and became a second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers. Little started three games before going on the injured reserve.
Bust: Shea Patterson
Patterson had a tough start to his collegiate career after being designated to be redshirted in 2016, but an injury to Chad Kelly with three games left forced the Rebels staff to put in their star backup. He played up to his five-star pedigree against Texas A&M in his first career game, throwing for 338 yards with two scores in a come-from-behind win. The 2017 season started off with great success too, albeit against South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin, but the rest was ho-hum. Patterson lost his starting job to Jordan Ta’amu and decided to transfer to Michigan before the start of the 2018 season. His junior season was positive, as he threw for 2,600 yards and 22 touchdowns followed by a 3,061-yard, 23-touchdown performance in 2019. Being a two-time third-team All-Big Ten selection is subpar for a 5-star recruit.
Bust: Jacob Eason
Life for Eason started off promising when he earned a starting position with the University of Georgia after being an early enrollee. The 2016 season ended with the 5-star throwing for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns. A knee injury in the opening game of the 2017 season gave way for true freshman Jake Fromm to begin his legacy with the Bulldogs, guiding his team to the National Championship Game. Eason transferred to Washington for the 2018 season but was forced to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules. That paid off in 2019 when he finished fourth in the Pac-12 in passing yards (3,132) and fifth overall in touchdowns tossed (23). Eason is forgoing his senior season for the 2020 NFL draft. His career started out promising, but he never took that elite step to collegiate glory.
DE Jaelan Phillips, East Valley (Calif.) — UCLA, transferred to Miami
RB Najee Harris, Antioch (Calif.) — Alabama
RB Cam Akers, Clinton (Miss.) — Florida State
OT Alex Leatherwood, Booker T. Washington (Fla.) — Alabama
OT Foster Sarell, Graham-Kapowsin (Wash.) — Stanford
Class Grade: BUST
Potential Bust: Jaelan Phillips
After earning All-American honors during his senior year of high school, the hype machine was behind Phillips as he headed to Westwood. Appearing in seven games during his freshman season, he had 21 tackles, seven for a loss, and 3.5 sacks. Four games into his sophomore season, Phillips suffered a concussion that forced a medical retirement. But Phillips entered the transfer portal at the end of the 2018 season and took his talents to South Beach. Due to transfer rules, Phillips sat out in 2019.
Average: Najee Harris
Living up to 5-star billing is tough enough, but especially at a program like Alabama where it seems the roster is filled with talents at the same skill and athletic level. Harris had a slow start to his college game in 2017 with 370 rushing yards and three scores but picked it up a notch as a sophomore with 117 carries for 783 yards and four touchdowns. His breakthrough year came in 2019 when he became the workhorse back for the Crimson Tide with 1,224 yards off 209 carries with 13 scores. His overall game expanded into the passing attack with 27 receptions for 304 yards with four touchdowns too. Coming back for his senior season, Harris can improve upon his second-team All-SEC selection in 2019.
Average: Cam Akers
Success is in the eyes of the beholder, and with all things being considered, Akers had a successful career at Florida State. Maybe not to the level of a 5-star, still Akers twice went over the 1,000-yard mark and broke the program’s freshman rushing mark with 1,025 yards in 2017. His sophomore season was a letdown with 706 yards off 161 totes, but he rebounded for a 1,144-yard 14-touchdown run in 2019 to earn second-team All-ACC honors. Akers’ 2,875 career rushing yards with 34 total touchdowns (27 rush, 7 receiving) came during FSU’s worst three-year run since the Larry Jones and Darrell Mudra eras (1973-75). Akers sat out the Seminoles’ appearance in the Sun Bowl after declaring for the 2020 draft.
Success: Alex Leatherwood
Leatherwood has lived up to his billing right away and earned time on the field during his freshman season with a notable appearance in the National Championship Game against Clemson, filling in at left tackle for an injured Jonah Williams. Showing his versatility, Leatherwood earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2018 playing right guard and started in all 15 games. Moving back to left tackle for the 2019 schedule, Leatherwood earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2019. Leatherwood is sure to be a preseason All-American with mentions on all pertinent watch lists as he returns for his senior season.
Trending to a Bust: Foster Sarell
The good news for Cardinal fans is that Sarell has two more seasons of eligibility to reach his promise. He was relegated to a backup role in his freshman season and appeared in 14 games for Stanford. Sarell suffered an injury in Week 2 of the 2018 season but was able to retain redshirt status. He came back to start in 11 games during the 2019 season at right tackle and earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
Other Notable Class of 2017 5-Star Players
RB D'Andre Swift, St. Joseph's (Pa.) — Georgia
QB Tua Tagovailoa, St. Louis (Hawaii) — Alabama
DE A.J. Epenesa, Edwardsville (Ill.) — Iowa
WR Jerry Jeudy, Deerfield Beach (Fla.) — Alabama
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.