Dienhart: National Signing Day Notebook

The Fax machines in football offices from Lincoln, Neb., to Piscataway, N.J., worked overtime today, delivering letters-of-intent for the players of tomorrow. Yes, the future begins today. Here’s a look around the Big Ten on this big Signing Day 2014.

[ MORE: Get all of our National Signing Day coverage ]

NO. 1 MAN: The top-rated player signed by any Big Ten school? It’s CB Jabrill Peppers, a top-10 player in most recruiting ranks. 247Sports.com has him No. 3 overall in the nation in its composite rankings. He’s a big, physical corner from New Jersey who should impact from Day One. At one point, it looked like Peppers may de-commit. But it never happened. Good for Michigan, which signed a small-but-potent class.

NO. 2 MAN: The second-most touted signee is Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan, of Georgia. He’s already enrolled and will go through spring practice. Good thing, because the Buckeye defense needs help in the back seven. McMillan could earn a starting spot for a linebacking unit that lost Ryan Shazier a year early to the NFL. Some recruiting services tabbed McMillan the top linebacker in the nation.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN: Michigan paid a price for stumbling across the finish line in 2013, watching a 5-0 start melt into a 7-6 finish. The biggest casualty of going 2-6 in the final eight games was losing DE Da’Shawn Hand, who was hailed as the No. 1 player in the nation by one recruiting service. The Wolverines looked like the favorite for the precocious Hand. Alas, he tabbed Alabama in a mid-November, a stunning development in recruiting circles that turned Ann Arbor sideways. Maybe the best part of Brady Hoke’s class is the fact seven players already are enrolled. The best of the bunch is WR Drake Harris, who at one time was a Michigan State commit.

[ MORE Dienhart: All of the best from 2014 Signing Day ]

KINGS OF FEBRUARY: Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore the work of Urban Meyer at Ohio State. He continues to set the recruiting standard in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes were the runaway winners in the talent search this season with a class rated by most services as the second-best in the nation. That’s three Ohio State recruiting classes and three Big Ten recruiting championships for Meyer. OSU hung on to a commitment from OL Jamarco Jones, who strongly considered Michigan State after a late visit. But the Chicago product stuck with the Buckeyes, who need help along their offensive front. However, OSU missed on mega-stud DE Malik McDowell, who picked Michigan State.

LAST BIG FISH: The recruiting world watched and waited on five-star stud DE Malik McDowell of Southfield, Mich., who was considered by most to be the top uncommitted player in Big Ten circles entering Signing Day. McDowell winnowed his choices to OSU, Florida State, Michigan and Michigan State.  And, he chose the Spartans (he verbally committed but still hasn’t sent his National Letter of Intent) even though his mother publicly disparaged the school leading up to Signing Day. This was a big coup, making MSU the biggest Signing Day winner among Big Ten schools. McDowell is the cherry on top of a boffo MSU class that has six four-star recruits, in addition in landing Mc Dowell, a five-star player and the No. 1 recruit in Michigan.

Things almost were even better for MSU, as it tried to flip Ohio State OL commit Jamarco Jones but failed. However, the Spartans did flip DT Craig Evans from Wisconsin.

FREAKY FAST FINISH: Despite having scant time to fill his initial Penn State class, new coach James Franklin did just fine. In fact, he did very good, reeling in a top-three class in the Big Ten. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t hired until Jan. 11 after Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL. Among Franklin’s “gets” were five players who had committed to him while he was still Vanderbilt coach. DB Grant Haley; QB/DB Trace McSorley; Brendan Brosnan; Chance Sorrell; Lloyd Tubman. Franklin held on to a commitment from ballyhooed TE Mike Gesicki and QB Michael O’Connor, the prize of the class who already is enrolled. It’s just too bad PSU couldn’t keep DT Thomas Holley, who flipped from Penn State to Florida after Larry Johnson left for Ohio State. Franklin’s haul included just three players from the Keystone State. But look for that number to rise in coming years.

HUSKER HELP: Nebraska didn’t finish the regular season with a blaze of glory, casting doubt of Bo Pelini’s future. But Pelini and the Huskers rebounded with a bowl win, which helped fuel a solid class. There was one big sting late, as Florida DE Blake McClain flipped to South Carolina. Nebraska is anchored by a quartet of four-star players. OL Tanner Farmer may be the pick of the litter.

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WIDEOUTS WANTED: Anyone who saw Wisconsin play knows the yawning need for some big-play wideouts in Madison. Maybe the Badgers have a gem in one of the five they signed. The best of the quintet looks to be Krenwick Sanders and Chris Jones.

THE CATS’ MEOW: Northwestern may have inked its best class yet under Pat Fitzgerald. The group includes four four-star signees. Justin Jackson and Auston Anderson are one of the best running back tandems signed in the Big Ten. CB Parrker Westphal is big-time and already has enrolled after having offers from the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame, among others. DE Garrett Dickerson also had other great options, including Alabama, Ohio State, Stanford and Michigan.

SAME PLAYERS, DIFFERENT YEAR: Every season, Kirk Ferentz signs a class that looks remarkably similar to previous years. Not awesome … not bad … pretty solid. That’s the case again. Keep an eye on RB Markel Smith, the top running back in Missouri and one of the all-time best in St. Louis prep annals.

GO-GO GOPHERS: Minnesota continues to gain steam under Jerry Kill with his best class yet. The unit is paced by in-state RB Jeff Jones, the pick of the crop in this signing class and the top recruit in the state of Minnesota. Jones was a must-get for Kill and Co., who are trying to lock up the state. No doubt, Jones it the most touted signee of the Kill era. The Gophers also bolstered their haul by flipping two key recruits late: WR Conner Krizancic flipped from Cincinnati; Gary Moore switched from Southern Miss. Krizancic is one of several key wideouts, a position that needs to improve for this offense to develop. Isaiah Gentry of Cincinnati is the most touted wideout signee. Some think Moore could be the next Ra’Shede Hageman. We shall see.

NEW KIDS: Rutgers officially will join the Big Ten this summer. But it won’t bring a touted recruiting class to its new home. At one point last fall, Rutgers had five commitments from four-star players. The Scarlet Knights ended up with none. In all, 13 players de-committed from the middle of the 2013 season until Signing Day.  Penn State (WR Saeed Blacknall) and Iowa (QB Tyler Wiegers) each snatched a guy. Just a brutal finish for Rutgers.

Like Rutgers, Maryland will come aboard next fall. The Terrapins were in late for five-star Damian Prince. And, the Terps landed the stud offensive lineman. This is a big coup for Maryland, as Prince also visited Florida, Florida State and South Carolina.

Signing Day Coverage

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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