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How to Find Diamonds in the Rough

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Analyzing what Pac-12 All-Conference Teams tell us about recruiting

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013, USC signed four recruits rated as five-stars by 247 Sports. Perhaps the crown jewel of the class was Kenny Bigelow, the #9 player in the country and the 2nd best defensive tackle. It was a coup for USC to beat out schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma for the recruit from Maryland.

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, another defensive tackle named Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was overlooked by 247 Sports and college coaches alike. He was not rated as a recruit and did not receive a single scholarship offer form a major program. He chose to stay home and walk on to Utah, but the odds were stacked against him with five scholarship defensive tackles in his incoming class.

Four years later, Bigelow was prematurely forced into a medical retirement and Tu’ikolovatu made the All Pac-12 team as a DT for USC. The chain of events from signing day to that conclusion was one that nobody could have possibly predicted, but it raises many interesting questions. Is it possible to forecast which under-the-radar prospects will become successful college football players? Are there common threads among highly-rated recruits who fail to meet their potential? More generally, are recruiting rankings even a useful predictor of on-field success for individual players?

In order to learn more about these subjects, I compiled a database of every player who has made a Pac-12 All-Conference team over the last five seasons. The database includes information about the players’ heights, weights, home states, overall recruiting rankings, positional ratings, and post-collegiate NFL status. I did the same for every five-star recruit to commit to the Pac-12 since 2010. I scrutinized this information to see if there were commonalities between the low-rated recruits who made good or the highly-rated ones who didn’t. This article summarizes some of my key findings.

Before I dive in to the analysis, here are a few notes on the methodology. All of the recruiting data comes from 247 Sports. If a player was rated differently by ESPN or Rivals, feel free to incorporate that information into your reading of the situation. I used All Pac-12 first and second teams, but excluded the Honorable Mentions (except where it is specifically noted). Overall, there have been 276 All Pac-12 representatives from the 2013-2017 teams. Some players made the team more than once and they are included each time they made it.

Makeup of All-Conference Teams

There is at least one takeaway from the makeup of Pac-12 All-Conference teams that is unambiguous. That takeaway is that four and five-star recruits are over-represented on the All-Conference teams relative to their peers who received less love from the recruiting services. On average, incoming recruiting classes are made up of about 2% five-star, 21% four-star, 73% three-star, and 4% two-star or lower recruits. Meanwhile, the All-Conference teams, on average, include about 8% five-star recruits and 28% four-star recruits. In other words, blue chip prospects make up almost twice as much of the All-Conference teams than they do recruiting classes at large, and five-star recruits have four times the representation on All-Conference teams.

The difference is even more stark if you exclude specialists from the rankings. Over the years in this study, there have been 38 All-Conference representatives who received two stars or fewer in recruiting rankings. Of those 38, 21 of the representatives were specialists- kickers, punters, returners, or “special teams” representatives (which often goes to a kick coverage standout). That’s a decrease from 14% of the overall makeup to 7%, with that difference largely allocated to three and four-star players. Interestingly, two-and-under-star players are also over-represented on the All-Conference teams (7% to 4%). More on those players later.

Put another way, there are about 1000 scholarship players in in the Pac-12 each season and about 50 of them (5%) make All-Conference. If you broke down the All-Conference team in the same ratios of the average incoming class, it would include about one five-star, 10 four-stars, 37 three-stars and two two-stars or lower. In reality, the breakdown is about four five-stars, 16 four-stars, 26 three-stars, and four two-stars or lower.

What do these numbers mean? They mean that recruiting rankings are more than just navel-gazing for college football superfans. Warts and all, these recruiting services tend to make meaningful, predictive judgments about 17 and 18 year-olds that translate into success on the field over the next half-decade. In the five years from 2013-2017, the All-Pac 12 teams had 23 five-star representatives. The conference averages about five five-star commits per year. While some of those 23 representatives were duplicates (for example, Juju Smith-Schuster made All-Conference twice as a receiver and once as a returner), the numbers speak to the high probability of success for highly-rated recruits. The numbers are not as overwhelming for four-star recruits, but those recruits remain far more likely to make All-Conference than their lower-rated classmates.

Five-Star Recruits

Just how dominant are five-star recruits? It’s hard to argue with the data. For example, 59% of the five-star recruits to commit to Pac-12 schools since 2010 have eventually made at least one All-Conference team. That’s not a question of whether they became starters or even very good players. The question is whether the highly-rated 17 and 18 year-olds would eventually become among the very best at their position in the conference. The ratings predict that outcome correctly significantly more often than they are wrong. Likewise, an astonishing 70% of the five-star recruits to commit to Pac-12 schools who have reached draft eligibility have been drafted to the NFL.

Some of the noteworthy names who accomplished both include Pro Bowler Keenan Allen and Super Bowl Champion Nelson Agholor at WR. The aforementioned Smith-Schuster and his college teammate Adoree’ Jackson both just completed excellent rookie seasons. Like Jackson, Stanford’s Solomon Thomas was an All-American and the 49ers picked him third overall. Another Stanford alum, Andrus Peat, might be best remembered as the subject of Mike Mayock’s brilliant “bubble butt” draft analysis, but he has become a steady starter at guard for the Saints. The list goes on with players like Su’a Cravens, Robert Woods, and Kyle Murphy.

You have probably noticed by now that a lot of the notable five-star recruits seem to come from USC. Altogether, USC has signed 24 of the conference’s 47 five-star recruits since 2010 (51%). UCLA, in the Los Angeles recruiting hotbed, has signed nine. Stanford and Oregon follow with six and five, respectively. Cal made a showing with two, and UW snuck onto the list courtesy of a Cal decommit, Shaq Thompson (another All-Conference and draft success). Washington fans cannot be thrilled that the Huskies failed to sign all four five-star recruits to come out of the state since 2006 (including Taylor Mays, Max Browne, Foster Sarell), though they made up for it in part by securing Jacob Eason’s transfer back home.

Five Star Flops

As well as recruiting services tend to predict success, they have their notable misses, as well. Excluding players who are still active, there have been 11 five-star recruits who failed to make All-Pac-12 during their careers. These misses largely fit into three categories- players who were sidetracked by injuries, players who narrowly missed the honor, and players who were just never good enough.

Injuries

The injury group is probably the most depressing to relive. Kyle Prater committed to USC all the way from Illinois in 2010, only for Pete Carroll to leave for the Seahawks. He stayed committed to Lane Kiffin, but sat out his freshman year with a medical redshirt. He slipped down the depth chart and transferred to Northwestern. He eventually made it onto the Saints’ practice squad for two years, so his career wasn’t a total loss.

George Farmer followed suit the next year. He was the #1 WR recruit in the country and committed to USC. He mostly played at RB during three injury-plagued years as a Trojan, including missing significant time with a spider bite, and tearing his ACL and MCL. Even so, he made it to the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Cowboys, and went on to spend two years on the Seahawks’ practice squad after converting to CB, his third position.

While Farmer was spider-bitten, both Thomas Tyner and Kenny Bigelow were snake-bitten. Tyner was a highly-touted RB at Oregon who suffered so many injuries that he was forced to medically retire. He came out of retirement to finish his eligibility last year with Oregon State. His injuries sapped most of his explosiveness and he produced as a merely adequate backup. Bigelow as a big-time DT who suffered two ACL tears and converted to coaching before he had even finished his collegiate eligibility.

Good Enough

Some players never make All-Conference even though they are good enough; positional depth or bad timing can get in the way. That was the case for 2012 Oregon DT Arik Armstead, who had a dominant career before going in the first round of the NFL draft. All of that ability never got him above Honorable Mention. Similarly, Leon McQuay committed to USC all the way from Florida in 2013, made Honorable Mention, and now plays for the Chiefs. 2015 DT Rasheem Green was also Honorable Mention All-Conference before he declared for this year’s draft, where he is projected to go in the first two rounds.

Not Good Enough

Somehow, among the 47 five-star prospects to join the Pac-12 since 2010, only three were true misses by the recruiting services. Washington fans remember the ballyhooed Max Browne, who spurned Sark from Skyline to go to USC. While a Trojan, he was usurped by Sam Darnold and then transferred to Pitt. George Uko was a DT commit to USC who made it onto NFL practice squads for two years before moving to the CFL. Ellis McCarthy, another DT, committed to UCLA, where he backed up standouts Kenny Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes for three years before inexplicably declaring for the draft, never to be heard from again.

The only five-star commit who failed to make All-Pac-12 not described in this group is Osa Masina. He was a LB who committed to USC in 2015, but is now in jail after being convicted of rape.

All-Conference Outliers

Whereas some highly-touted recruits fail to meet their potential, about the same number of players neglected by recruiting rankings excel at an All-Conference level. Over the last five seasons, the All Pac-12 teams have included 17 representatives who were rated as two stars or fewer. Similar to the five-star underachievers, this group largely fits into four smaller groups: players who were off the radar due to location, size, or position, and players who were simply late bloomers.

Location

The first group of underrated prospects come from locations outside of typical football recruiting hotbeds. Will Dissly came from Montana and and moved from DE to TE before making All-Conference as a senior for the Huskies. Washington State recruited Destiny Vaeao from American Samoa and Joe Dahl from Eastern Washington. You can make a similar argument about Luke Falk and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu from Utah, but Utah tends to produce more highly-rated recruits than these other locales and both players fit better in other categories.

Size

It’s no secret that recruiting rankings love players with elite measurables. Height and weight are objective measures that clearly differentiate players and can have an obvious impact on the field. But if a recruiter is excessively adherent to size requirements, he might miss a good prospect every so often, especially among players who grow into their bodies a few years later.

Conor McDermott committed to UCLA as a 6’8, 245 lb offensive lineman. Even though 245 pounds is a lot for a normal person to carry around, McDermott was string-bean sized when UCLA signed him. He packed on about 35 pounds on his way to making All-Conference twice and getting drafted by the Patriots. Trevor Reilly committed to Utah as a 200 lb DE and Ben Gardner was a 240 lb DT when he signed on with Stanford. Both added 30-40 pounds and eventually made it to the NFL.

Scooby Wright of Arizona had different size concerns. He was a 6’, 225 lb linebacker out of California. His height is less than optimal for an ILB and that position tends to receive lower star ratings in general. Still, Wright’s success is something of a mystery. He was rated as the 230th best prospect in California in the class of 2013. Many players ranked above him went to FCS schools or didn’t receive football scholarship offers. Yet Wright was an immediate success when he made All-Conference as a Sophomore. He won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year that same season and was unanimously voted as an All-American. While I do not have data from his high school career, his NFL Combine numbers were unimpressive. He only ran a 4.90 second 40-yard dash at the Combine, which was 15th out of 17 for his position group. The combination of non-elite size and below-average speed likely masked outstanding football instincts, which are much harder to quantify.

Position

When I say that players were underrated due to position, I don’t mean that their high school position is one that the scouting services ignore, I mean that they made All-Conference in part because of the position they play. Even though the All Pac-12 team technically names five offensive linemen, they typically include one player who predominantly plays center. Both Coleman Shelton and Nick Kelly were middling recruits who found their calling in the middle of the formation. Kelly was a JuCo transfer who didn’t even get a look until he went that route and established himself as a center.

Luke Falk is a tremendous QB who will likely get drafted in the first few rounds of the NFL draft. Nonetheless, he likely never would have made All-Conference if he played for a less pass-happy coach than Mike Leach. If Falk stayed in-state and led Utah for the last four years, what would his career numbers look like? That’s not to say that Falk is purely a system QB, but I think it’s fair to conclude that he is a system All-Conference player. His teams also went 0-4 in Apple Cups with an overall scoring margin of 162-54. How is that relevant to this topic? This is a Huskies blog. Of course it’s relevant.

Late Bloomers

Some of the most interesting stories are the players who were simply overlooked by recruiting services and major college programs and went on to become highly successful anyway. Robert Nelson was a two-star DB recruit out of Georgia who initially played at Louisiana-Monroe. He played well enough to transfer to Arizona State, where he made All-Conference as a CB. He was undrafted, but has hung around the NFL long enough to play for four different teams in the last four seasons.

There are at least three players in this timeframe with even crazier paths than Nelson. The are the three players who made All Pac-12 with no rating and no major scholarship offers.

Despite having good size (6’2), respectable speed (4.53 40), and a solid California high school pedigree, Chad Hansen flew completely under the radar. He had to start his career at Idaho State and then transferred to Cal as a walk-on. In his second year at Cal, Hansen caught 92 passes and 11 TDs. He declared for the draft and has solidified himself on the depth chart for the Jets.

Ahkello Witherspoon also had a circuitous route to football success. He only played high school football for one year in California, so he never caught the eye of any large programs despite his 6’3 frame at DB. He went the JuCo route, which gave him an opportunity to latch on to Colorado. He was instrumental in Colorado’s Pac-12 South title in 2016. The 49ers drafted him in the 3rd round and he played a significant role in their secondary as a rookie. While some football players get attention due to their good sports bloodlines, Witherspoon is the grandson of a famous blues singer, Jimmy Witherspoon.

My favorite story I encountered during my research belongs to Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. He initially walked on to hometown Utah as one of six DTs in his incoming class. He got playing time beyond what a walk-on would normally receive, but he aimed even higher. He graduated a year early and transferred to USC, which needed immediate help on its defensive front (possibly due to the medical retirement of one Kenny Bigelow). Due to a snag in his enrollment, Tu’ikolovatu was stuck between Utah and USC’s financial aid for two months while he lived in the back of his truck in Southern California. He eventually got enrolled, played brilliantly at USC, and parlayed it into a seventh-round pick by the Buccaneers.

NFL: Combine Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusions

One key lesson from this exercise is that college coaches and recruiting services are pretty good at their jobs. If one of them misses on a player, then the other usually picks up the slack. It’s rare for good players to fall through both filters, but the scarcity of those stories is what makes them so interesting.

We don’t need an extensive study to conclude that it’s a good idea to recruit five-star talent. This analysis shows that almost every five-star recruit eventually becomes good enough to be one of the best in the conference at his position. Injuries can sidetrack five-star recruits just like they can players of any pedigree, but that’s not a reason to turn away players with the best physical tools. There were only three players out of 47 total in seven years who just didn’t end up being all that good. The question isn’t whether lower-rated recruits can become star players. The question is about the probability that a recruit becomes a star player, and the probability that a five-star recruit becomes a star player is extremely high.

Perhaps there are more lessons to learn in the group of players who overachieved. After all, those are the players who are more readily available for coaches trying to fill in gaps on a roster. Size is an important variable to consider, particularly weight. If a player is rated lower than his potential due to the fact that he has not filled out his frame yet, that specific quality appears to be one that can depress an evaluation. That does not mean that every skinny kid will turn into a superstar, but a good coach who can identify both skill and the potential to add weight can find value that otherwise might go overlooked.

I’m less confident in the predictive value of overlooked locations. Yes, players who dominate against lesser high school competition can go on to excel in the bigger pond, but the former does not guarantee the latter. Just because a player puts up crazy stats in Montana, that does not mean that he will necessarily be able to translate those stats in the Pac-12. There’s no reason to write those players off, but coaches have to scout the individual skills even more than they would for a player who excelled against high-end competition.

Altogether, I think that the most important takeaway is one that isn’t particularly sexy: recruiting rankings do a good job of predicting which players will be most successful in college. Sure, a three-star recruit can be better than a four-star recruit. An unrated walk-on can be better than a five-star recruit. Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was completely ignored the same year that Kenny Bigelow was the #9 player in the country and only one of them was a star DT for USC. The important thing to remember is that these are exceptions to the rule. Five-star recruits have a higher success rate than four-stars, who have a higher success rate than three-stars, and on down the line. Of course, coaches should trust their scouting and player development skills, but with all else being equal, the smart money is on the consensus.