Signing day around Texas: Why 5-star Denver Harris is waiting, Steve Sarkisian and the Horns are doing flips (2024)

HOUSTON — No hat ceremony, cake or extended celebration could be found at North Shore High School on Wednesday.

Most of the traditional trimmings of a national signing day ceremony were missing at one of the most talent-rich programs in the country. The Mustangs had a subdued gathering, with two players — defensive linemen Kristopher Ross and Jacoby Brass — signing letters of intent. One blue-chip prospect passed on the ritual: five-star cornerback Denver Harris.


After a brief announcement by head coach Jon Kay, some pictures and interviews, North Shore had work to do. The players strapped on their pads and hit the practice field. The Mustangs will play Duncanville High in the Texas Class 6A Division I state championship game Saturday. And that is part of the problem for Harris and Kay: The most important game of their lives is three days away with the biggest decision of Harris’ life hanging over his head.

Count Kay, who has seen dozens upon dozens of his players go to Power 5 programs over the years, as someone who’s not a fan of where the early signing period falls on the calendar.

“It’s extremely ridiculous from the NCAA to be perfectly honest with you,” Kay said. “Not just because of the Texas state high school playoffs, but there’s still a merry-go-round of coaching changes going through.”

Harris may have signed on Wednesday, or he might not have. It’s something Harris, the No. 17 player in the 247Sports Composite and the third-ranked cornerback, wishes to keep private. He’s deciding among four big-time programs: Alabama, LSU, Texas and Texas A&M. One thing he made clear: He’s planning to sign during the early period, which ends Friday, and announce his decision after the Mustangs’ state championship game on Saturday.

“All this stuff is weighing on me, I just need to focus on the state (championship) game,” Harris said. “I’ll be announcing after the state game.”

Harris said he’s uncertain where he wants to go.

“It’s a tough decision,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure. But I’ll take it one day at a time.”

North Shore is a perennial power in the Texas prep ranks, so playing this deep into December is nothing new. The Mustangs won four state championships, including three since 2015. This isn’t the first time one of their star players has been torn on a decision since the early signing period was instituted by the NCAA in 2017. Sources within the program said TCU running back Zach Evans, a former five-star prospect at North Shore, agonized over his decision in December 2019.


Evans ultimately signed with Georgia, but the Bulldogs did not turn in his national letter of intent. Other programs backed off of Evans late in his recruitment and he enrolled in the spring of 2020 at TCU. He had two productive seasons before entering the transfer portal following the firing of longtime coach Gary Patterson.

One coach said the pressure of the early signing period “messed (Evans) up” the week of the Mustangs’ 2019 state title matchup against Duncanville. Evans was eventually sent home the day of the state title game for violating team rules. He later apologized publicly during the Under Armour All-American Game in an interview with Deion Sanders. Looking back, some at the school believe it all became too much for Evans.

Harris is hoping to quell distractions by holding his announcement.

“I got a lot of stuff coming at me left and right,” Harris said. “I’m ready to play Duncanville, and I’m ready … to do everything that y’all know I can do.”

LSU was in a strong position for Harris until the Tigers lost longtime cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond, who joined Billy Napier’s staff at Florida. Alabama seems to be a long shot, sources say, leaving this to be a likely Texas-Texas A&M battle.

A source with knowledge of Harris’ recruitment predicted Wednesday that he will sign with the Aggies. A&M has recruited him hard from the start, but the source also said that Texas has made a late push.

Kay is hopeful that the early signing period is altered.

“You’re asking the kid to make a decision that’s going to affect the rest of his life,” Kay said. “They’re still adolescents. They’re stepping into manhood, but they’re not there yet. I don’t know if all of us at 18 are equipped to make these kinds of pressure decisions in this kind of a pressured timetable and still focus on the things they want to do.”


Kay believes signing day should be after the bowl season so that coaches can settle at their new schools, giving recruits a clearer picture of what they’re signing up for, while also allowing them to focus on final exams and playoff games. The possible elimination of the early signing period has garnered discussion among college administrators, too, because of how much it has accelerated firing timetables. Texas Tech (Oct. 25) and TCU (Nov. 7) fired their coaches well before the season was over in part to salvage the 2021 recruiting class.

College coaches also recognize the pitfalls of the early signing period. Houston’s Dana Holgorsen called it “hard,” citing the compressed schedule because his team played in a conference championship game on Dec. 4, 11 days before the signing period. Getting recruits who are still participating in their high school seasons on campus for late-season visits — especially in Texas where Saturday playoff games are customary — can also be challenging, he said.

But for now, this is the reality Harris and thousands of others deal with. Whichever school lands him, Kay said, is getting a big-time player.

“He’s a high energy kind of guy,” Kay said. “His athletic gifts are off the (charts), but he brings a juice and an energy to the team that is unmatched. … The sky’s the limit.”

Doing flips at Texas

Much of the signing day focus at Texas centered on who the Longhorns flipped. Coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff flipped three prospects from other Power 5 programs: four-star cornerback Terrance Brooks (former Ohio State commit), three-star receiver Xavion Brice (former Oklahoma commit) and three-star edge rusher Ethan Burke (former Michigan commit).

Brooks was the headliner, and not just because he held the highest ranking, but because the Buckeyes have done so well in the state of Texas in recent years. Could landing Brooks be the start of Texas turning the tide back in its favor in head-to-head battles with the Buckeyes?

It’s too early to say, but Sarkisian praised his staff for its relentlessness.


“It’s about relationships, connections and staying the course,” Sarkisian said. “Those are three great players that I think will have bright futures for us.”

The biggest recruit Texas swiped from the Buckeyes was transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers. The No. 1 prospect in the 2022 class who reclassified to 2021 and enrolled at Ohio State in August, officially transferred to Texas on Wednesday. He helped reverse momentum on the Forty Acres.

But Ewers’ decision raised some question as to how it would affect four-star quarterback Maalik Murphy, who committed to Sarkisian and the Longhorns on Feb. 13.

Murphy, though, signed on Wednesday, too. Suddenly, a thin quarterback depth chart now has four scholarship passers: Ewers, Murphy, Hudson Card and Casey Thompson.

Sarkisian said he told Card and Thompson that he wanted to bring in two quarterbacks and maintained the same to Murphy.

“We were very up front and honest with Maalik about that, that we wanted to take two (quarterbacks),” Sarkisian said. “I give a lot of credit to Maalik for being committed to us for a long time … and believing in why he chose Texas and him sticking with us.”

Can Sarkisian manage such a crowded position? Modern trends suggest at least one will transfer out before next season. Sarkisian told a story Wednesday of having Jalen Hurts entrenched as a starter at Alabama after the 2016 season and signing both Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones in the 2017 class.

“All three of those guys won championships in their own right and got great accolades,” Sarkisian said. “Today, they’re three of 32 men in the world who are starting quarterbacks and the face of their franchise in the NFL.”

It didn’t happen without some attrition, as Hurts transferred out of Alabama after his junior season and finished his career at Oklahoma as a Heisman Trophy finalist. But he led the Crimson Tide to consecutive College Football Playoff appearances before Tagovailoa replaced him at halftime of the 2018 national championship game. Tagovailoa started the next two seasons and Jones led the Tide to a title in 2020. Sarkisian also noted that he had Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel at the same time as USC’s offensive coordinator.


His point: He’s confident he can manage the position at Texas successfully.

How Baylor won Winfield over

Baylor scored the biggest in-state win on Wednesday for a program not named Texas or Texas A&M. The Bears landed four-star receiver Armani Winfield, a former Longhorns commit, as the jewel of their 2022 class.

Winfield, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound prospect from Lewisville, Texas, became the first player to commit to Sarkisian after he took the Texas job but decommitted during the Longhorns’ season finale on Nov. 26. Baylor’s staff aggressively pursued Winfield, and the efforts paid off.

Baylor running backs coach Justin Johnson, a former Houston receiver and assistant who joined Dave Aranda’s staff in 2020, led Winfield’s recruitment. The Longhorns tried to reel Winfield back into the class, but Johnson helped stave Texas off.

Winfield, the No. 172 player in the country, is an explosive weapon and a smooth runner who can stretch defenses vertically.

Johnson, nicknamed “Juice,” has garnered praise from colleagues on his own staff and from coaches around the state for his coaching and recruiting ability.

Baylor signed 20 prospects on Wednesday, including two four-stars. One underrated prospect to watch: DeSoto (Texas) High safety Devyn Bobby. The three-star prospect shined at DeSoto, a perennial power just south of Dallas. A ballhawk who showed great instincts and discipline in coverage, Bobby was a hard hitter for the Eagles.

Transition classes for Texas Tech and TCU

The two FBS schools in Texas that chose to make coaching changes did so on different timetables, and that was reflected in Wednesday’s signing classes. Texas Tech hired Joey McGuire on Nov. 8, and the five-week window helped him ink 16 high school prospects plus three transfers.

TCU coach Sonny Dykes, who didn’t officially take over until Nov. 29, had a much smaller class: The Horned Frogs signed nine.


Transition classes are usually the toughest to recruit for a coach because of the logistics of hiring staff and getting settled in, while also getting to quickly know new recruits. The early signing period made it more challenging in recent years.

“Our philosophy is this: We don’t reach, ever, on players,” Dykes said Wednesday. “It would have been very easy for us to sign 25 players for today’s signing period.

“My dad (the late Spike Dykes, former Texas Tech coaching legend) always said, ‘If you lose a recruit, you play against them once a year. If you sign somebody that can’t play for you, that hurts you 365 days a year.”

Dykes and his staff, which is heavy on assistants who were with him at SMU, convinced several recruits who committed to them with the Mustangs to join the Horned Frogs. Four-star receiver Jordan Hudson, four-star safety Chace Biddle, three-star edge rusher Micheal Ibukun-Okeyode and offensive tackle Quinton Harris were all former SMU commits who signed with TCU. Hudson, Biddle and Ibukun-Okeyode are the three highest-ranked prospects in the class.

McGuire said his head start was “huge.” He landed three commitments the night before his official introduction and aggressively offered prospects in the weeks after. Not only did he have a substantial 2022 class, he already has five commitments in the 2023 class.

Two key staffers accelerated McGuire’s progress. James Blanchard, formerly Baylor’s scouting director, was on the plane with McGuire when he first landed in Lubbock and is Texas Tech’s director of player personnel. Cody Bellaire, a former player personnel assistant at Texas A&M and LSU, arrived shortly thereafter as Texas Tech’s scouting director. With former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie handling the team as interim coach in November, McGuire, Blanchard and Bellaire were able to focus mostly on recruiting.

“Whenever I get here in the morning, they’re already watching video,” McGuire said. “Whenever I leave at night, they’re still watching video.”


McGuire leaned on his Texas high school connections, signing four prospects from Cedar Hill, the school where he spent the bulk of his coaching career: defensive back Jalon Peoples, defensive linemen Syncere Massey and Harvey Dyson III and transfer linebacker Dimitri Moore.

Rice’s personnel space

Rice director of recruiting Alex Brown is media and technically savvy.

Brown hosts a podcast called “Up Close In Personnel,” in which he interviews personnel directors, recruiting staffers and others around college football.

On Wednesday, he used Twitter’s “Spaces” feature, a live audio platform akin to Clubhouse that’s growing in popularity, to introduce fans to the Owls’ new recruits (Some Florida State fans also used the feature to lament the loss of No. 1 recruit Travis Hunter to Jackson State.)

Brown invited Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren to the Space and several of the Owls’ signees to discuss why they chose Rice and certain parts of the recruiting process.

It was a creative and unique way to publicize the class and also uncovered some interesting information. Rice’s quarterback signee, three-star prospect AJ Padgett from Frisco (Texas) Reedy, played through a partially torn labrum to lead Reedy to the state playoffs. He suffered the injury in the third week of the season, opted against season-ending surgery, missed three games and returned to finish the final five games of the year. Padgett threw 20 touchdown passes in eight games this season.

“I really didn’t know I tore it, but then I came back on Monday for practice and I couldn’t throw,” Padgett said. “I was faced with two decisions: get surgery in a week or do three weeks of physical therapy and play the rest of my games.

“I just thought I owed it to my teammates.”

Bloomgren called it “a lost art” and said it spoke volumes about Padgett’s character.


Quick hits:

UTSA signed its highest-rated recruit ever, three-star linebacker Owen Pewee from Cy Park just northwest of Houston. Pewee is the No. 710 prospect in the country but had 18 offers, including four from Power 5 programs. “Size, physicality, athleticism, when you see him, he looks the part,” coach Jeff Traylor said. Traylor said Pewee can recite the Roadrunners’ weekly culture pillars and sits in the front row of team meetings. “He checks all my boxes,” Traylor said.

Houston’s 11-2 season and looming Power 5 conference membership in the Big 12 helped the staff land a few highly ranked prospects. Four-star center Demetrius Hunter, formerly committed to Oklahoma, could be an early contributor with starting center Kody Russey graduating. Cornerback Moses Alexander ranked as the sixth-best junior college prospect in the country. Four-star receiver Matthew Golden, ranked No. 204 nationally, comes in as the highest-ranked prospect in the Cougars’ class.

Golden, who had offers from 26 programs including Arkansas, Baylor, Texas, TCU and LSU, counts as a big win for Holgorsen. He said he sees Golden as a potential instant-impact player like true freshman running back Alton McCaskill, the Cougars’ 2021 leading rusher.

Texas State and UTEP both dipped largely into the junior college ranks and transfer portal for their early signees. The Bobcats, who notably went with a heavy transfer class last season, signed six players on Wednesday in three junior college prospects, an FBS, an FCS and a Division II transfer. Texas State also has a commitment from former Arkansas State quarterback Layne Hatcher, who will graduate on Friday and enroll at Texas State for the spring semester, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Hatcher played three seasons for the Red Wolves and was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in 2019, but he rotated with James Blackman at quarterback this season.

UTEP signed six junior college prospects, one FBS transfer and one high school prospect (Luke Seib, a tight end from Missouri whom head coach Dana Dimel scouted at SMU’s June mega camp). The Miners, who are going bowling for the first time since 2014, are building the program with an approach similar to Kansas State, where Dimel was an assistant under former coach Bill Snyder. K-State thrived mining junior colleges under Snyder.

(Photo of Denver Harris: Sam Khan Jr. / The Athletic)

Signing day around Texas: Why 5-star Denver Harris is waiting, Steve Sarkisian and the Horns are doing flips (2024)
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