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Recruiting Rankings and Player Impact, Part 1

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Setting the Stage

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: MAY 01 Washington Spring Game Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In July the books finally closed on last year’s recruitment cycle, and with the new year’s recruiting already in full swing there’s some handwringing about who is or isn’t joining the Dawg Pack. We obviously want all the talent we can get at Montlake. Even if we think we can make up for any shortfall in recruitment by having superior development, it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. It’s awesome to have great development and to polish those diamonds in the rough, but it would be better still to start with a higher grade of raw material and develop it from there. Nothing succeeds like success, so we’d love to see UW churning out All-Americans like there’s no tomorrow!

Still, when you’re talking about success, it’s what happens on the field that really matters. Winning the recruiting game definitely can help you rack up wins, but exactly how much of a difference does it really make? What counts as a successful college career? What can you realistically expect from players at different recruiting rankings? And how well does UW stack up at getting that much and more out of their players at the various talent levels coming into the school vs. what they produce on the field.

That’s what this new series of articles is about.

POINTS OF COMPARISON

Alabama and Ohio State rake in the 5-stars by the bucketload and have far separated themselves from the pack. If you compare UW’s recruiting to theirs, we are going to look like the Little Sisters of the Poor. We’re just not there.

Realistically, though, what are—or should be—the aspirational programs for Washington to measure itself against? It should be teams that, in large part, recruit the same areas and face many of the same geographic challenges. That means West Coast teams, and specifically the West Coast teams that UW has to get through and overcome if they want to stake their claim to lasting national relevance, and teams that UW largely goes against head to head for their top targets in the west. That means two teams: USC and Oregon, the former the traditional western recruiting power and the latter the modern recruiting power (perhaps even more so in the future with the confluence of Nike and NIL dollars). Both teams are out-recruiting UW right now, but in terms of results on the field between them they’ve won the last half-dozen Pac-12 championships and are the clear favorites to keep winning them for the next few years at least. Those are our two measuring-stick rivals, so those are the two I’ve chosen to study.

WHAT ARE WE MEASURING?

I started getting interested in this topic some months ago in looking at Bob Gregory’s legacy as LB coach at UW. How had the LBs done under his watch vs. what we might have expected? Overall, actually fairly well, at least looking at them just in terms of their UW productivity. However, that really just compared UW players to each other. Who saw the field and who didn’t? It didn’t really tell us a lot. To really get a sense for how well UW was developing players we needed more.

That initial look was at players who at least *played* under Bob Gregory at some point, so it ended up with players recruited going back to 2010, up through the 2020 season. As noted above, I compared UW’s recruits and their on-field exploits to those at USC and UO, and to expand the pool of comparison, in part because there’s a lot of positional overlap, I included all DE, DT, ILB, and OLB. Over the course of the 2010-2021 recruiting classes, that yielded a total of 261 players.

SIDEBAR: This obviously doesn’t cover all of any team’s recruiting, which is fine. This is hobby work, and I can look more at other positions later, but we had to start somewhere. LBs and D linemen seemed like a solid place to start.

SORTING THE PILE

Obviously not every player recruited in that time frame ever saw the field or even had a chance to see the field. Some had career-ending injuries or never qualified and got into school. Others were recent recruits who redshirted and never got to play. That thinned our pile a bit:

Total Players: 261

Never Made the Team: 11

2021 Recruits: 11

2020 Redshirts: 11

2019 Redshirts: 13

Total Players That Got On the Field: 215

Of those 215 players, not all of them played all four seasons in college (actually, exactly two players in the sample played five seasons due to an injury hardship year along the way). Some missed a season here or there for various reasons from academic to injury to legal trouble or simply left the team and came back. Others transferred in or out at some point during their careers. Most top players left before completing four seasons to chase dollars and QBs in the NFL.

In measuring player and their success as an apples-to-apples comparison, it was helpful to line up their careers as they matured on the field. Redshirt years were not counted as a season of potential play. Once they were on the active roster that was their 1st year. Some players redshirted during their 2nd year or later; in those cases, that year was not counted, but the sequence continued the next season they played. For example, they might have gone “1st year, 2nd year, REDSHIRT, 3rd year, etc.” This allows us to compare players based on the progress of their careers and not try to force a fit of different players in the same year when some played and others didn’t.

Redshirted: 126 (58.6%)

Played 1st Year: 191 (88.84%)

Played 2nd Year: 152 (70.70%)

Played 3rd Year: 133 (61.86%)

Played 4th Year: 85 (39.53%)

Played 5th Year: 2 (0.93%)

Note that this doesn’t mean that all players in their same year had equal impact on the field. Far from it. For instance, Oregon picked up two 5-star LB recruits in the 2020 class. Noah Sewell racked up 48 tackles, while the slightly higher-ranked Justin Flowe recorded only 1 (the same as 3-star 2020 LB recruit Jackson LaDuke). All three players are considered to have Played 1st Year for the purpose of this study, whereas 2020 recruit who redshirted would not count as having an accrued year. It means that they were on the active roster and either did play or could have played during those seasons. This allows us to rate each player’s first year of actual active roster time to each other player’s first year of active roster time and so on. As for what they actually accomplished with those opportunities, that’s what this study is about.

Transfers out count on their team’s roster only as long as they remain in school. Junior college players or other transfers coming into a team are counted only starting with the season they entered school, so if they came in as a junior and didn’t redshirt or otherwise have to sit out, their “first” year of playing at their current school is counted as Played 3rd Year.

NOTE: Player years of recruitment were drawn from the 247 database. Player statistics were drawn from sports-reference.com/cfb (as a sample, here are UW’s 2019 statistics). Team rosters were cross-checked with those listed on Wikipedia (again, here’s UW’s 2019 roster, listed by position and with past redshirts indicated).

HOW MANY RECRUITS WERE AT EACH LEVEL?

Of the 261 defensive linemen and linebackers recruited and signed by UW, USC, and UO since 2010, here’s how they broke down in terms of recruiting rankings (drawn from the 247 database):

Walk-Ons/2* (below .8000): 37

Low 3* (.8000-8299): 12

Mid 3* (.8300-8599): 59

High 3* (.8600-8899): 70

Low 4* (.8900-9199): 32

Mid 4* (.9200-9499): 21

High 4* (.9500-.9799): 14

5* (.9800+): 16

Since recruiting is kind of its own thing, and anyone you recruit or sign is considered part of your class whether they make it into school or see the field or become a star or a bust, I am including all players in this total just for the sake of breaking down patterns of recruitment and other dependent variables, like mean or median rankings for recruits.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE IMPACT?

All of the above breaks down *who* we are measuring and the basics of why. Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll break down how we measured impact for players on the field.