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Alabama Football Recruiting 2014: SPARQ

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A look into how to evaluate a High School Prospect

USA TODAY Sports

It is a huge business these days. Rivals.comScout.com247sports, and ESPN are all behemoths in the land of ranking recruits. Who gets the ever elusive 5-star status? Who are the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation? Who are in the top 100 "elite" players? It seems that these sites arbitrarily rank recruits, and the rest of us are left wondering how they came to these conclusions.

Most of it (like everything else football related) is completely subjective. However, there is one aspect that is not: the athletic measurables. We all know and love the combination of height/weight/40-time, but how much does that really tell us about a player's athleticism? A player who's really tall with long legs could have a great 40-time, but is unable to do much more than gallop in straight lines.

Enter Nike's SPARQ. Every year, Nike holds many combines/camps across the nation for High School players to attend. Outside of the standard camp things, each player tests to get a SPARQ score. The formula (while not made known to public) takes into account five different variables: Weight, 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, vertical jump, and kneeling power ball toss. The idea is to blend speed, explosiveness, power, and agility into one all-powerful number.

For example, here is some data from a couple of recruits in the last class:

Last Name First Name Position State Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ
Hassenauer J.C. C MN 4 172 1 6030 292 5.20 4.37 29.1 34.5 90.99
Evans Rashaan OLB AL 4 15 1 6030 217 4.51 4.27 38.4 33.0 113.70

*Note: for the "height" number, the first digit refers to the feet, the next two digits are the number of inches, and the last digit is the 10th of an inch. Ex: 6035 would be 6 feet and 3 and 1/2 inches tall.*

So, what exactly does that tell us? Obviously, Rashaan Evans tested a bit better than J.C. Hassenauer. But that is expected of a 217 pound linebacker, as compared to a 292-pound center. Without a point of reference, a number is just that, a number.

Normalizing SPARQ

Bear with me for a minute while I geek out, and feel free to skip this section if you don't care to know how I derived this measurement. In order to help make SPARQ a more effective way to measure a prospect, I created a Z-score. If you have taken statistics, a Z-score is simply the number of standard deviations from an average. I found the average SPARQ score (through a little extrapolation) of every committed athlete at each position from the class of 2014, and calculated the standard deviation from the average for each position. From there, I can give each player a Z-score rating.

Yeah... Yeah.. I know...

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If you want a more in depth explanation of how I came up with the numbers or just don't trust that I'm not making up everything, shoot me an e-mail or twitter, and I'll be more than happy to go into full geek mode.

What Z-score really means

A Z-score is a way to compare every player's athleticism, even to those at different positions. A score of 0 is a player with a SPARQ score that is exactly average for his position. A score of 1 is a player in approximately the top 16% of all college athletes.  A score of 2 puts a player in the top 2.5%, and a 3 is a once-in-a-generation type player: the top 0.15%.

A player can also have a Z-score in the negatives, meaning his athleticism/SPARQ is below average, but because of the status of Alabama's program, we have very few examples of that.

Remember the two players I used in the example earlier? Here are their measureables again, but with the Z-score included.

Last Name First Name Position State Stars National Rank Position Rank Height Weight 40-Yard Dash 20-Yard Shuttle Vertical Jump Power Throw SPARQ Z-Score
Hassenauer J.C. C MN 4 172 1 6030 292 5.20 4.37 29.1 34.5 90.99 1.88
Evans Rashaan OLB AL 4 15 1 6030 217 4.51 4.27 38.4 33.0 113.70 1.76

Even though Evans has a higher SPARQ, Hassenauer has a higher Z-score. This means that Hassenauer is actually a slightly better athlete, relative to his position. All in all, Z-scores and SPARQ are very handy tools to compare recruits with each other, and hopefully find trends in the types of athletes that Nick Saban typically likes to have on his roster.

As a piece of bonus trivia, which recruit do you think had the highest SPARQ score in the last 3 classes (of those that tested... Not all players have test data)? Which had the highest Z-Score?

Derrick Henry comes in with a 141.87 SPARQ score, the highest of the 2013/2014/2015 classes. However, O.J. Howard leads (since TE's have a lower average SPARQ than RB's) with 2.8 Z-score, which puts him in the top 0.25% of all college athletes. Crazy, right?

Moving Forward

From here, I will start analyzing each position throughout the season, looking both at commits and possible targets for that position. Obviously, I will be referencing SPARQ and Z-Scores fairly often, and if you missed this article, I will link back to it every time.

However, keep in mind that athleticism is nowhere near the end all be all of projecting the success of a player. Technique, attitude, intangibles (as much as we hate trying to write about them... Looking at you, Tim Tebow), and scheme fits play just as big a role. I also will be keeping all that in mind as I begin the series of previewing each position.

Credits

While I have personally put a good bit of work into this, I've also got a lot of data and ideas from other people and places. Zach Whitman, writer for FieldGulls.com, actually back calculated the entire SPARQ formula so that we could use it for the NFL draft, and many of my ideas have come from him, and I will reference his work occasionally when bringing up NFL player comparisons.

All of the SPARQ ratings were obtained from ESPN and StudentSports.com's databases, and I use 247sports composite rankings for all star ratings, national rankings, and position rankings.

Hope you managed to read all the way through that without falling asleep (even if you don't enjoy it as much as I did), and I promise my next post will finally be about real football.

See y'all in Atlanta!

Roll Tide!