Recruiting is a fickle beast. Even if your school lands an elite prospect there's no guarantee that player will develop into an difference maker at the college level. It's a realization that makes evaluation just as important as recruiting and landing top prospects. Each year relative unknowns on signing day emerge as playmakers for their college programs in the fall. Here's a look at a signee from each Big 12 school during the past two recruiting cycles (2011 and 2012 signing classes) who has already exceeded expectations.
Linebacker Eddie Lackey wasn’t a highlight signee in February 2012. Yet the junior college transfer stepped right in and finished second on the squad with 104 tackles. He had five games with nine tackles or more and intercepted four passes, returning two for touchdowns.
In 2013: Lackey could be even better with a year under his belt. His ability to be comfortable playing in space, while bringing the physical mindset of a linebacker is one of the reasons he could be poised to earn All-Big 12 honors as a senior.
Receiver Quenton Bundrage wasn’t considered a “can’t miss” prospect when he signed with the Cyclones out of Bradenton (Fla.) Manatee High School in February 2011. After a redshirt season, he emerged as a threat for the Cyclones offense as a redshirt freshman with 20 receptions for 232 yards and two touchdowns in 2012.
In 2013: Fellow redshirt freshman Sam Richardson started ISU’s final three games at quarterback, overshadowing Bundrage’s contributions as a newcomer. But the duo could become a important foundation for ISU’s offensive attack over the next three seasons. At 6-foot-2, 187 pounds, Bundrage brings a size/speed combination that can be difficult for Big 12 defenses to handle.
Jake Love played small school football at Tonkawa (Okla.) High School, making it unclear how he would transition to the rigors of playing linebacker in the Big 12. Yet, he made an immediate impact after a redshirt season, starting four games in 2012. He finished with 36 tackles, including eight tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman.
In 2013: Love’s playmaking ability became clear in 2012 so he should emerge as a mainstay in KU’s defense. His eight tackles for loss, which ranked second on the squad, are a sign of his active and aggressive approach when he’s on the field.
ESPN.com had him as a two-star prospect along the offensive line, so it’s hard to imagine Cody Whitehair being more overlooked when he signed with the Wildcats in 2011. A versatile lineman who started at guard and tackle at different points during KSU’s Big 12 title season, Whitehair earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors as a redshirt freshman in 2012.
In 2013: He should join center B.J. Finney as one of the anchors of the Wildcats’ offensive line. His versatility should allow KSU to get creative as they look to find ways to get their five best offensive linemen on the field in 2013.
Folks in Norman, Okla., barely noticed when Arizona Western running back Damien Williams signed with the Sooners in February 2012. Senior Dominique Whaley was set to return alongside talented juniors Roy Finch and Brennan Clay, making it appear unlikely the junior college transfer would make an immediate impact. But Williams didn’t get the memo, earning the starting job at the beginning of October and finishing with 176 carries for 946 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In 2013: Williams will have to hold off a bevy of talented backs angling for carries in the Sooners backfield, but the senior has proven game-breaking ability that will be difficult to ignore.
Receiver Austin Hays was an afterthought on Signing Day 2012. The overlooked prospect outperformed several Cowboys receiver signees who were much more highly regarded in February. He started six games and finished with 29 receptions for 394 yards and two touchdowns.
In 2013: His dependability, ball skills and competitiveness should make him a mainstay in the Cowboys lineup, even though he’s not a game-breaking receiver in the mold of Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon.
ESPN.com had Joe Bergeron as a three-star recruit who appeared to be destined to a career buried on the bottom of the depth chart behind the elite running backs the Longhorns were inking. Yet Bergeron made an immediate impact as a freshman and continues to be a productive force in UT's offensive backfield. He's scored 21 touchdowns in two seasons including 16 touchdown runs as a sophomore in 2012.
In 2013: He enters his junior season as UT's best short-yardage runner and should continue to earn carries at running back thanks to his toughness and physical running style.
Offensive tackle Aviante Collins was a three-star prospect on ESPN.com, far from a recruit with expectations to start immediately. Yet that’s exactly what Collins did, starting all 13 games of his true freshman season. And he showed some versatility by starting games at right and left tackle in 2012.
In 2013: Collins will be a foundational member of TCU’s offensive attack this season. There’s no reason he cannot be a four-year starter for the Horned Frogs and leave a legacy as one of the most productive signees in the Gary Patterson era.
Jakeem Grant was never going to be considered the prototypical receiver prospect. At 5-foot-6, 163 pounds, it’s a given to have people notice Grant’s size (or lack thereof) before his ability. Size didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most explosive players on the Red Raiders offense as a redshirt freshman, averaging 11.7 yards per touch thanks to his quickness and speed.
In 2013: With Kliff Kingsbury taking over, the new Red Raiders coach will undoubtedly find ways to take advantage of Grant’s speed and open-field ability. His physical gifts are difficult for most opponents to match up with.
Safety Karl Joseph wasn’t a complete unknown when he stepped on campus. Yet nobody could have envisioned Joseph becoming one of the best players on WVU’s defense. He led the Mountaineers with 102 tackles and brought a physical mindset to the secondary.
In 2013: Joseph provides an excellent base upon which a foundation can be built as WVU looks to rebuild its defense. He will bring a physical presence to the Mountaineers secondary for years to come.