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RBR Mailbag: More Recruiting Questions

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A reader of RBR recently sent an e-mail asking some questions regarding recruiting rankings and prospect ratings. Specifically the reader asked:

Are five star recruits as good as they are advertised to be? Are their college careers generally reflective of such a high rating? Has history shown us that more three star players excel than five star players? Are three star recruits such as Demeco Ryans an aberration or is it common for three star players to excel in much the same way as Ryans? If five star players indeed do foretell of future success, why do schools such as the University of Southern California and Notre Dame have stumbles or even collapses when they have as many or more five star players as anyone else?

I'll try to address these questions one by one hitting on the key points as we go.

To begin with, when evaluating the eventual on-field impact of prospects, what must first be recognized is the volatility of recruits. Even for five star prospects, you still see a lot of busts. Oh sure, there are plenty of absolute stars who were rated as five star prospects -- players like Vince Young, Reggie Bush, Carson Palmer, and others -- but for every Vince Young or Reggie Bush there is a Charlie Jones or a Whitney Lewis. And if you are scratching your head as to who those latter two are, then that's exactly my point.

The point of the matter is that even with five star recruits, you see a lot of busts. Just about every five star recruit you will see is an ungodly physical specimen, usually with eye-popping statistics at the prep level, but there are simply so many variable factors that can derail a prospect's career. If you look at the top recruiting lists from a specific year and then see how those prospects panned out, the reasons why some players do not pan out simply run the gauntlet. Some have bad academics, others have poor work ethics, some are slowed by injuries, some walk into a bad situation, others have legal problems, and then you have some incredible physical specimens that, as one coach said, "look like Tarzan but play like Jane."

So, all told, being a five star recruit is far from being guaranteed success on the collegiate football fields.

However, with that in mind, five star recruits, despite having a relatively high bust rate in their own right, have a higher success rate than any other classification of prospects. In other words, five star recruits have a better chance of succeeding than four star recruits. And four star recruits have a better chance of succeeding than three star recruits, and so on and so on. You get the idea.

Now of course none of that means that five star recruits are guaranteed successes, nor does it mean that lower-rated recruits cannot become very good players. However, just because there are a few exceptions either way does not mean that the system as a whole is inherently flawed. As I said earlier, there is simply so much volatility and so many unknowns that no system, no matter how perfectly devised, will ever be able to have completely accurate projections of players.

Another interesting way of looking at things is taking the top selections of the NFL Draft and looking at how they were rated coming out of high school. The following is a breakdown of the top ten selections of the 2007 NFL Draft:

1. JaMarcus Russell: Five star recruit, could have gone to any school in the country.

2. Calvin Johnson: Five star recruit, could have gone to any school in the country.

3. Joe Thomas: Four star recruit, chose Wisconsin over Notre Dame and others.

4. Gaines Adams: Three star recruit, chose Clemson over a variety of other ACC schools.

5. Levi Brown: Four star recruit, Army All-American.

6. LaRon Landry: Five star recruit, could have gone to any school in the country.

7. Adrian Peterson: Five star recruit, thought by many to be the best player in the country coming out of high school.

8. Jamaal Anderson: Three star recruit evaluated as a wide receiver, eventually turned into a defensive end after gaining approximately 70 pounds and growing four inches.

9. Ted Ginn: Five star recruit, could have gone anywhere in the country.

10. Amobi Okoye: Two star recruit, graduated high school at age 15, turned down a scholarship to Harvard in order to play football at Louisville.

As you can see that from surface-deep analysis, the top of the NFL Draft is dominated by highly-touted recruits coming out of high school. You can essentially do the same analysis for any other NFL Draft, and you have essentially the same result. You may see one or two guys who were not highly rated -- and usually those guys are players like Anderson and Okoye, both of whom experienced major growth spurts after arriving on college campuses -- but the top of the draft order is always dominated by players who were highly-touted recruits coming out of high school.

Now, you should keep in mind that it is not that the recruiting "experts" really know anything. If you actually look at their qualifications as an evaluator of football talent, their qualifications are usually, at best, highly dubious. But then again, evaluating football players from a third-party perspective isn't exactly rocket science. The "experts" generally look at two things: game film and the quality of the offers that a player has attracted. With that information, it's generally pretty easy to figure out which players are the best. If you see game film of a player like Vince Young dominating quality high school competition, and then you see that same player has offers from the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Florida, and others, it's pretty obvious that you rate him very highly. Again, it's not really that the recruiting "experts" know anything, but it doesn't exactly take Vince Lombardi to figure out that, when he is watching someone like Carson Palmer, that he is going to be a great player.

And I'm glad that you brought up the two examples of USC and Notre Dame, they illustrate the underlying point quite nicely. The simple fact of the matter is that recruiting rankings matter, no two ways about it. I've done the research before, and there is simply put a very high correlation between winning the recruiting battles today and winning the football games tomorrow. USC and Notre Dame, as mentioned earlier, showcase that fact quite well.

On the one hand, USC has been an absolute recruiting juggernaut, getting more five star recruits than what most people can even attract on Xbox 360. The results have been high, as should have been expected. All told, in the past six seasons, USC has two national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners, six Pac 10 championships, and five consecutive seasons of eleven or more wins, with a chance to extend that streak to six seasons with a win over Illinois in the Rose Bowl. On the other hand, recruiting at Notre Dame has not been particularly good. Prior of the arrival of Weis, they had one really good recruiting class -- that consisted of future stars such as Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, etc. -- and the rest of them were mediocre-to-poor. And not surprisingly, Notre Dame has struggled of late, and even in their two good seasons (2005 and 2006) they won a lot of games mainly by beating poor opponents, all the while struggling greatly to beat any quality teams.

Simply put, if you cannot consistently do well on National Signing Day, you probably aren't going to do all that well come football season.

Bottom line: recruiting matters.