National Signing Day is just a day away. It's that magical time of year when every fan base believes it has brought in a group that will one day lead the program to a national championship. But which recruits are truly impactful?
FOX Sports has looked through All-American teams and awards lists and put together the 25 most impactful recruits of the past decade. There are a few caveats: First, this list is based only on impact at the college level. What a player did once he left for the NFL doesn’t matter. Also, we listed only guys who have been “recruited” in the past 10 classes (since 2008). So some stars (Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy or Ndamukong Suh) who played college football during the past decade did not make the list because they weren’t recruited in that stretch.
Presenting the 25 most impactful recruits of the past decade:
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M (class of 2014)
Garrett was limited by injuries for most of 2016, but was a terror in his freshman and sophomore seasons. He set an SEC freshman record with 11.5 sacks in 2014 and followed it up 12 more in 2015. Despite playing limited snaps this past season, he was still voted a unanimous All-American.
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Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville (class of 2011)
The one-time Miami commit turned out to be a program-changing recruit for Louisville. After going 7-6 his freshman year, the Cardinals took off when Bridgewater was a sophomore; over his final two seasons, he tossed 58 touchdowns and just 12 picks, while his team went 23-3 overall. Most important, he helped lay the foundation at Louisville, tranforming it from a fringe bowl team to one of the most consistent programs in the ACC.
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Julio Jones, WR, Alabama (class of 2008)
While signing a boatload of five-star players now is a given in Tuscaloosa, that wasn’t the case in 2008. Besides his on-the-field production (which included 179 career catches), he became the first big-time national recruit to turn down other college football powers and join Nick Saban’s rebuilding plan in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide were coming off a 7-6 season. They went 36-5 in his three seasons at the school. OF all the big-time, five-star kids who have signed in Tuscaloosa during Saban’s run, Jones was the first.
Jabrill Peppers, CB/S/LB/KR/PR/RB/WR, Michigan (class of 2014)
Peppers' impact can’t be measured purely by stats, but instead as a versatile athlete who was arguably Michigan’s most impactful player in all three phases of the game the past two seasons. Although he was a red-zone threat at running back and a dynamic return man, Peppers' greatest impact was probably as the bedrock of one of the sport’s best defenses the past two years.
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Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (class of 2008)
It’s hard to fully gauge the impact an offensive lineman can have on a football team … except in the case of Jones. He was a two-time All-American and two-time first-team All-SEC performer who started on three different Alabama national championship teams. Whoa!
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Aaron Donald, DL, Pitt (class of 2010)
Donald might not have made this list week ago, but then I looked at his resume, and… wow. He finished his career with 66 tackles for loss and 29.5 sacks, including a senior season in which he tallied 28.5 and ,respectively. In the process, he won the Nagurski Trophy, Outland Trophy, Bednarik Award and Lombardi Award during the 2013 season.
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Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU (class of 2014)
Fournette’s time in Baton Rouge was short – and, unfortunately, injury-plagued in 2016 – but he was one of the most dynamic players in college football history when at his best.
During an All-American season in 2015, Fournette topped the 100-yard rushing mark in 10 of LSU’s 12 games and hit the 200-yard rushing mark four times. He briefly held the school’s single-game rushing record after a 284-yard performance against Ole Miss earlier this year (Derrius Guice later rushed for 285 against Texas A&M).
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Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (class of 2008)
While it’s easy to focus on Blackmon’s off-the-field issues since leaving Oklahoma State in 2011, it’s also easy to forget how spectacular he was while there. Blackmon was a two-time unanimous All-American and two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection. He’s also one of only two players to ever win the Bilitnekoff Award twice (given to the nation’s top receiver), something that fellow winners Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson can’t claim.
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Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford (class of 2014)
Like Fournette, McCaffrey’s best work was done in his true sophomore campaign, when he broke Barry Sanders’ FBS record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. That included over 2,000 yards rushing, as well as at least one touchdown scored rushing, receiving and via kick and punt return. During that sophomore year, he was named a consensus first-team All-American, won the Paul Hornung Award and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Derrick Henry.
Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (class of 2009)
It isn’t hyperbole to say that the Clemson program as we know it today might not exist with Boyd. Head coach Dabo Swinney went 19-15 in the three years before inserting Boyd as a starting quarterback. In the three years that Boyd ran the offense, the Tigers went 32-8. Clemson has only built on that since, culminating in a national championship this year. But it all started with inserting Boyd (a consensus All-American as a senior) as the team’s starting quarterback.
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Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (class of 2011)
Miller’s career had more twists and turns than an episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and even though things didn’t end quite as planned, it doesn’t take away the impact he made in Columbus. Miller enrolled at Ohio State shortly after Jim Tressel was fired and was the glue that held the program together in the transition from Tressel to Luke Fickell and Fickell to Urban Meyer. Oh, he was pretty good on the field, too. After a bumpy freshman year he went 24-2 as the starting quarterback before injuring his shoulder and moving to wide receiver.
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Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College (class of 2009)
The numbers that Kuechly put up at Boston College aren’t just historically great, but flat-out insane. He finished second in the nation in tackles as a freshman (158) before leading the country in the same category during his sophomore and junior years. His 191 as a junior were just short an FBS single-season record, and he did it in just 12 games. Kuechly was a three-time first-team All-American and won the Butkus Award in 2011.
It’s hard to know exactly where to put the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner on this list because his college career isn’t over. Still, Jackson had one of the most incredible seasons we’ve seen in recent memory this past fall – tallying 51 total touchdowns – and for a brief time elevated Louisville to a national championship contender. It will be fascinating to see what he has in store for an encore in 2017.
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (class of 2008)
Because Luck was anointed the next great NFL quarterback while still in college, he was held to a next-to-impossible standard to meet while at Stanford. Still, he didn’t disappoint, throwing for over 9,400 yards and 82 touchdowns in three years as a starter -- finishing second in Heisman Trophy voting in both 2010 and 2011.
Tyrann Mathieu, DB, LSU (class of 2010)
In 2011, “The Honey Badger” put together one of the most complete seasons of any defensive back in recent memory, with an incredible stat line that included 77 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries (two returned for a touchdowns) and two interceptions, as well as two punt returns for scores. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting that season and was the defensive star of an LSU team that advanced to the BCS title game.
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Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn (class of 2009)
While Cam Newton gets a lot of the credit, it’s also easy to forget that Auburn wouldn’t have won the 2010 national championship without Fairley. He finished that season with 20.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, and always make the big play when his team needed it most. He was honored with the Lombardi Award that season and was named a consensus first-team All-American.
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Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State (class of 2013)
Elliott was never named a first-team All-American and never won a major national award, but his presence was unquestionably felt. Ohio State wouldn’t have won the 2014 national championship if it weren’t for Elliott, who rushed for over 1,800 yards that season. He accumulated close to 700 yards in the Buckeyes' final three games of that title run (against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, and Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff).
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Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame (class of 2008)
It’s easy to remember Te’o’s college career as never-ending string of bad girlfriend jokes, but he was arguably the most important defensive player any college team has had in the past decade. An Irish team whose offense never got going all year (it ranked 80th nationally in scoring that season) rode its defense all the way to the title game, with Te’o serving as its backbone. He finished with 103 tackles and seven interceptions in 2012, and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.
A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama (class of 2009)
Like so many quarterbacks who play on historically great teams (Ken Dorsey, Matt Leinart), McCarron gets knocked for the talent he had around him at Alabama. It doesn’t take away from the fact that he won two BCS national championships in three years as a starter. And the Crimson Tide might have won a third if it weren’t for the famous “Kick Six” against Auburn. It took Alabama three years to find a steady presence at quarterback after McCarron left, proving that what he did in Tuscaloosa isn’t easy.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (class of 2010)
Mariota was the glue that held the Oregon program together when Chip Kelly left, then he took it to new heights during his redshirt junior year in 2014. He threw for over 4,400 yards, rushed for 770 and tallied 57 total touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. However, Mariota’s greatest impact at Oregon may have been felt after he left. Two seasons after his departure, Oregon fell to 4-8 and fired head coach Mark Helfrich.
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Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson (class of 2014)
As good as Boyd was at Clemson, Watson took things to the next level, making two College Football Playoff appearances and winning one national championship in his three years in school. He threw for 90 career touchdowns while finishing as a Heisman finalist in both 2015 and 2016. Clemson was already a really a good program when Watson arrived, but it’s impossible to imagine it getting to its current level without him.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State (class of 2012)
In his two years as a starter, Winston took a good program and elevated it to greatness. Remember, he replaced a first-round draft pick at quarterback (E.J. Manuel) and was instantly better, throwing for 40 touchdowns and leading the Seminoles to the 2013 BCS national championship (he also won the Heisman that season). Incredibly, Winston won his first 27 games as a starter before the Seminoles finally fell in the College Football Playoff against Mariota and Oregon.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (class of 2008)
You could make a case for Griffin at No. 1, as he literally took one of the worst Power 5 programs in college football, put it on his back and led it to unprecedented heights. His 2011 Heisman campaign (which included 47 total touchdowns) served as a launching pad for Baylor’s program, which won 32 games from 2013-15 thanks to the foundation that Griffin helped build. Because of that impact, Griffin will go down as one of the most important players in college football history.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn (class of 2010)
Strictly in terms of on the field production, Newton is the most impactful player in recent college football history. He took a team that was 8-5 the season before he arrived and put it on his back, leading the Tigers’ to the national championship in 2010. In the process, he won the Heisman after totaling 51 touchdowns. However, Newton’s greatest impact was felt in the years after he departed. The Tigers fell to 8-5 the season after he left, then 3-9 in 2012, resulting in the firing of Gene Chizik.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (class of 2010)
In his first year as a starter, Manziel led the Aggies to an 11-2 record by accounting for 47 total touchdowns. However, his greatest impact might have been felt off the field in the months after bursting onto the scene in 2012. The Aggies experienced a boom in recruiting that can be directly correlated to Manziel’s rise (they finished fifth in the 24/7 rankings in 2014, the first full cycle after Manziel’s breakout season), and the school announced a $450 million renovation to Kyle Field just months after Manziel won the Heisman Trophy.