Each year, the first Wednesday in February is celebrated nationwide as the first day high school athletes can accept an athletic scholarship from a university. The day has become something of a spectacle in recent years, with recruiting websites and large networks such as ESPN joining in on its coverage.
This year, Rice football signed 18 players to football scholarships beginning in the 2015-16 academic year. The class includes four defensive linemen, three offensive linemen, three cornerbacks, two safeties, two quarterbacks, two running backs, one tight end and one kicker.
Additionally, 16 of the 18 seniors come from within the state of Texas. Three of the sixteen Texans hail from the Houston metropolitan area.
Head Football Coach David Bailiff said Signing Day was the culmination of nearly a year’s work of recruiting and establishing relationships with the players. 16 of the 18 players who signed either went to Rice’s Junior Day workouts or attended Rice’s annual summer football camp.
“It has been a fabulous day for Rice, but today has been a process where this really started back in March on Junior Day,” Bailiff said. “We’ve been developing relationships with a lot of these young men for quite some time and that really makes it special.”
J.T. Granato, a local quarterback prospect from the Kinkaid School, has already garnered high expectations from the coaching staff. According to Bailiff, Granato, who threw for over 9,000 yards in his career, may be the future starting quarterback for the Owls due to his athletic and leadership abilities.
“Not only is [Granato] a great quarterback, he’s a great leader,” Bailiff said. “We just think our future is bright at that position.”
Bailiff and his staff added two more skill position players in Emanuel Esukpa and Nahshon Ellerby. This past season, Ellerbe had over 2,000 yards rushing and 700 receiving yards.
Bailiff said Esukpa, who scored five touchdowns in a game this past season, reminds him of former Rice running back, Charles Ross, who led Conference USA in rushing in 2013.
“He’s a powerful running back,” Bailiff said. “When you see him run ... he’s powerful, he’s explosive, but he’s still got the speed and agility to outrun you.”
Defensively, Rice signed five defensive backs and four defensive linemen. According to Bailiff, the new defensive line recruits may be the best defensive recruits in the program’s history.
“We have four of the best future defensive linemen we’ve ever signed here going into my ninth year,” Bailiff said. “The first young man, Zach Abercrumbia, had a lot of offers; he’s very disruptive and incredibly powerful with his hands. Blaine Plaggent is a kid when you watch his film you see how much he loves football. Carl Thompson is another guy like Zach Abercrumbia. We really think these three young men could play early for us if we needed. Carl is very explosive; he can play from sideline to sideline.”
One of the players from outside of Texas, kicker Jack Fox, hails from Missouri and received high praise from Bailiff. Fox, the no. 28 kicker in the country according to ESPN, also played quarterback in high school but was recruited as a two-position player as a kicker and punter. Fox broke the Missouri high school record for field goals in a season this past year with 17.
According to Bailiff, Fox’s athletic ability and leg strength made him an exciting signee.
“He’s got an unbelievable leg when he punts,” Bailiff said. “We really liked the fact that he was also a quarterback, so he’s very athletic. He threw for 1,900 yards this year but we’re just going to ask him to get his foot to go to work for us.”
According to Bailiff, Rice only wants student athletes who have a commitment to excellence both on and off the field.
“We want young men who are serious about winning and serious about graduating,” Bailiff said. “We tell them all, ‘In five years we expect you to be a boss, and in ten years we expect you to pay your scholarship back to Rice and in 30 to 40 years we expect you to name a building after yourself.’ We have high expectations here, and I think we’re looking at a Conference USA championship-caliber class.”
According to ESPN, 13 of the 18 signees are ranked as three-star prospects. However, not a single player on either Super Bowl team this year, the New England Patriots nor the Seattle Seahawks, was ranked as a five-star prospect out of high school. Bailiff said he believes in this class and believes they will help the team continue its winning ways.
“It was a fabulous year,” Bailiff said. “We’re just excited for what these young men have stood for in their community, what they’ve stood for academically and athletically. They’re great fits and the future is bright.”