Recruiting ratings are useful tool but don’t tell whole story
Against Ohio State last year, Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis -- a zero-star recruit coming out of high school -- terrorized three-star cornerback and potential NFL first-round pick Bradley Roby, catching 10 passes for 207 yards. But the Buckeyes, whose defensive players on the field averaged a 4.09-star rating to the Badgers offense's 1.81-star average, won for the sixth time in seven matchups.
The throw and catch came on a simple wheel route, executed flawlessly in front of nearly 106,000 fans by a two-star quarterback and a zero-star wide receiver. It was third-and-6 from the Ohio State 36-yard line, and Wisconsin desperately needed a positive play to stay in the game last September at the Horseshoe.
Wisconsin’s coaching staff drew up a route to isolate its best receiver, former walk-on Jared Abbrederis, near the right sideline against three-star cornerback and potential first-round NFL Draft prospect Bradley Roby.
Roby initially locked up Abbrederis five yards into the play. But Abbrederis’ route running was so precise that he created enough space to haul in a throw from quarterback Joel Stave on his back shoulder, dropping Roby to the ground at the 10 and racing into the end zone to tie the game at 7.
"Great catch by Abbrederis," play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger said on the television broadcast. "Oh, what a grab under pressure."
"He doesn’t get much separation," added analyst Kirk Herbstreit. "That ball was perfectly thrown by Stave."
Among those protecting Stave (another former walk-on) on the offensive line was a left guard who amassed zero stars out of high school, a two-star unranked left tackle and a zero-star, unranked right guard. Meanwhile, the Ohio State players barreling down on Stave included two five-star defensive ends (Noah Spence and Joey Bosa), a five-star middle linebacker (Curtis Grant), a four-star tackle (Michael Bennett) and a four-star linebacker (Ryan Shazier).
In total, Ohio State’s 11 players on the field for the play garnered 45 stars on the Scout.com ratings system out of high school — a 4.09 average. Wisconsin had a total of 20 stars on the field — a 1.81 average.
The play illustrated why several Big Ten coaches bemoan the use of the star ratings system entirely.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen noted 46 players in the latest Super Bowl between Denver and Seattle — including former Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson — were no better than two-star high school prospects.
"So that should give you an idea of how we should put the stock in the rankings," Andersen said on National Signing Day in February. "I respect what those guys do. I truly do. I understand that it’s a big part of this process. . . . But as coaches, we can’t put stock in that. We have to evaluate them our way. They’ll evaluate them their way."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald recently launched into his own lengthy monologue on everything that is wrong with the ratings system. The Wildcats, who made five consecutive bowl appearances under Fitzgerald, rank next-to-last in the Big Ten in Scout.com’s average annual national recruiting ranking (59.92) over the past 13 years, based on numbers compiled by FOXSportsWisconsin.com
"I put zero stock in star ratings," Fitzgerald said. "I have no idea what that means, nor do I care. I could care less. I believe in people."
Fitzgerald then went on to describe the importance of finding recruits who fit the culture of a particular campus, as well as academic expectations and football expectations.
"This process is what it is right now, but what I see is staffs are making huge mistakes," he said. "They’re recruiting based on star ratings. They’re recruiting based on if another team offers."
So, are star ratings valuable to college football? Do they have any bearing on the outcome of games? Or are they just another unnecessary component in the ever-growing oversaturation of a market?
The answers, obviously, depend on whom you ask.
‘Difficult to project’
One of the most important things to know when scrolling through recruiting rankings is that they can’t possibly be perfect. Human error, after all, is always present.
"There is no one right way to predict human performance," said Scott Kennedy, Scout.com’s national director of scouting. "It’s impossible. You can get it right. You can scout trends and be right a lot more. But the people putting these together, we don’t agree ever. You can’t get the same top 10 out of two different guys. It just doesn’t happen that way."
There was no way to know that Abbrederis, for example, would develop into one of the best wide receivers ever at Wisconsin after receiving no college scholarship offers and switching positions from scout-team quarterback. Last year as a senior, he caught a school-record 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns — including 10 receptions for 207 yards against Ohio State.
Likewise, there was no way to predict Stave, ranked as the No. 111 quarterback in the Class of 2011, would become the ideal fit for the Badgers’ pro-style offense and go 13-6 in 19 starts during his first two seasons. Most of the rankings are put together before players pick their school, anyway.
"You’re projecting kids who a lot of times haven’t necessarily even grown into their bodies yet, or you don’t know how guys are going to develop physically," said Allen Trieu, the Midwest scouting director for Scout.com. "You also don’t know how kids are going to handle college life. These kids have to balance school, they have to balance their social lives and they have to balance football.
"And a guy like Stave finds the perfect situation for him, finds a system that fits him and he flourishes. He may not have done as well if he had gone to, say, Florida State. You don’t know those things. All of those factors make it difficult to project."
FOXSportsWisconsin.com compiled a list of every Big Ten school’s recruiting statistics based on Scout.com’s rankings over the past 13 seasons, from 2002-14. And because of the unpredictability of player development, plenty of examples exist to poke holes in at least parts of the star rating system.
For example, Michigan signed nearly six times as many four- and five-star recruits as Wisconsin (147-25), yet won one fewer game and one fewer conference championship. Michigan also recruited players ranked nearly a full star better than Wisconsin (3.50-2.69) on average. Penn State signed nearly four times as many four- and five-star recruits as Wisconsin (91-25), yet the Nittany Lions won three fewer games, including vacated victories because of NCAA sanctions.
A look at the average recruiting rank of Big Ten teams from 2002-14 and how many total conference wins they had during that span.
Overall, Wisconsin signed the ninth-most four- and five-star recruits among the 14 teams now in the Big Ten. Yet the Badgers won the second-most conference games among all those teams in the previous 12 seasons. Wisconsin’s average star ranking tied for seventh.
Of course, Wisconsin’s on-field performance is more the exception than the rule in college football. What Kennedy notes is that, more often than not, star ratings serve as a useful tool for creating a realistic set of expectations over time. And head-to-head results seem to help justify that notion.
Consider that since the 2002 season, Wisconsin is a combined 11-14 (.440 winning percentage) against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan — the three teams listed ahead of the Badgers in average national recruiting rank that have been in the Big Ten for that entire span.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin is a combined 49-19 (.720 winning percentage) against Michigan State, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern — all teams ranked below the Badgers in national recruiting since 2002.
The records, Kennedy said, illustrate this point: Good teams tend to recruit well and continue winning against lesser teams. And those lesser teams generally don’t recruit as well and lose more games.
Ohio State tops the list of Big Ten teams with an average national recruiting rank of 8.84 in the past 13 seasons. During that span, the Buckeyes have won 80 conference games and seven Big Ten titles — 20 more overall victories and four more conference championships than any other team — including vacated wins by the NCAA for the purpose of comparison.
Conversely, Indiana’s average national recruiting rank is last in the Big Ten at 63.23 over the same span. The Hoosiers have won 18 Big Ten games, the fewest in the conference. In fact, the teams with the five lowest average recruiting ratings in the Big Ten since 2002 — Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana — rank in the bottom five in conference wins during that span, without a single Big Ten title.
"It’s not by accident the schools that usually recruit well, play well," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "There’s some guys out there that know what they’re doing in recruiting services. So I will take a peek at that. But that’s not how you make decisions. A five-star recruit usually has a better career than other ones.
"There’s always great examples of a young late-developer. But those recruiting analysts aren’t bad now. They do a good job."
Star rating worth
Meyer is among the select few Big Ten coaches who acknowledge the importance of recruiting analysts and rankings, even if it’s to simply monitor top prospects. The primary objective, Kennedy said, is to serve fan interests. Fans, after all, are the ones who flock to the Scout, Rivals, 24/7 and ESPN websites to pay for content, review player commitments and post comments on message boards.
"It represents hope for your team," said Kennedy, who has scouted high school players since 1997. "The whole reason we’re fans is because we enjoy watching our teams. That’s what is so exciting and so much fun. Plus, when it comes to validating why my school is better than yours, what better way to do it than to say he chose my school over yours?"
With so much at stake for potential recruits and teams, the evaluation process is one not taken lightly by analysts. Trieu said he evaluates more than 400 players each year in the Midwest alone, while Kennedy sees even more, scouring the country for games and offseason camps to attend.
The process by which players are evaluated also has drastically improved over the years, thanks in large part to increased use of video technology. Hudl is now a go-to online video system that allows recruiting analysts to watch thousands of prospects rather than hear about players by word of mouth, thus increasing rating accuracy.
Only a handful of high school prospects across the country earn five stars. In the Class of 2014, for example, 40 high school recruits among thousands garnered five stars in Scout.com’s database. There were 308 four-star prospects, 1,157 three-star prospects and 1,825 two-star prospects, excluding those from the junior-college level.
Trieu said there is a common misconception about the star rankings because many view a three-star prospect as average. In reality, those players rank in the top half of all college football recruits because there are so few four- and five-star players. A two-star talent, meanwhile, is considered a player capable of playing Division I football somewhere.
But Tom Lemming, who has been evaluating high school football prospects since 1978 and is considered among the godfathers of the genre, said to take recruiting stars with a grain of salt. Many online entities, he said, base the stars on the number of major college programs to have offered scholarships.
So if a player is talented but hasn’t garnered offers from the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Notre Dame or Texas, for example, the stars will not necessarily pile up. And a player’s star value could be inflated simply based on the deluge of scholarship offers once one major program offers — a point Northwestern’s Fitzgerald emphasized as well.
"If Wisconsin is the only school offering them, they’ll never get five stars," said Lemming, who hosts the only national weekly prep football recruiting show on CBS Sports Network. "There’s an ingrained prejudice with a lot of these rankings.
"They’re nothing to take as gospel. But I’ve still never run into a college coach who didn’t keep an eye at least a little bit on some of that recruiting information."
Despite the perceived value of the stars, the entire process can take on a life of its own with the players themselves. Many desperately crave validation in comparison to their peers, and a competitive drive to one-up other top prospects is prevalent.
"In high school, I actually took it a little too serious," said Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, a three-star high school prospect that is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Gordon recalled having one bad day at a Midwest Ultimate 100 camp sponsored by Rivals.com and being dropped down a star grade.
"I was real ticked," he said. "I took football way, way too serious. I didn’t have enough fun with it in high school."
With thousands of prospects playing across the country, downgrades off a single performance aren’t unusual. Trieu noted his biggest gaffe was dropping running back Mark Ingram a star after watching perhaps the worst game of his high school career. Ingram went on to win the 2009 Heisman Trophy at Alabama.
"To this day, that one kind of sticks in my craw as one that I was wrong about," Trieu said.
There are greater implications at play, too, that were perhaps unforeseen when star ratings began. If a player believes he has been unfairly ranked, Trieu said, it has been known to serve as added motivation in college. Likewise, a five-star prospect can become overconfident and lack work ethic.
Wisconsin players have seen examples from both sides.
"I’m not going to mention any names, but there were some recruits that came on a visit and thought they were hot stuff just because they were five-star, like they deserve quality treatment," said Wisconsin running back Corey Clement, a four-star tailback from New Jersey. "But, no, you’ve still got to come here and earn your right to play."
Ultimately, players say the most important aspect to the star ratings system is recognizing it will only take a player so far. The rest is up to the individual.
"It doesn’t matter once you get here because all those stars go away," said Wisconsin wide receiver Rob Wheelwright, another four-star recruit. "It’s about making plays out here in front of 80,000 and making plays in front of the coaches and being able to just be productive. The stars really mean a lot in high school. It did to me. I was worried about how many stars do I have? But once you get here, the stars go out of the way."
Talent stands out
Are the star ratings systems of the college football world valuable?
To begin with, they are a form of entertainment for fans, which helps stoke the flames on a college football industry that is year-round. But Scout.com, Kennedy said, has other merits as well, with a ratings system that provides an accurate representation of a player’s overall skill from full-time talent evaluators, though most Big Ten coaches join Wisconsin’s Andersen and Northwestern’s Fitzgerald in claiming to eschew such information.
"I don’t worry about what the recruiting analysts say or the different star ratings," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "That’s the least of my concerns."
Added Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio: "I think it’s how you develop those players and how they come in intangibly to you. Competitively, character, football IQ, all these different attributes are very, very difficult to ascertain as you’re in the recruiting process."
Indeed, certain intangibles ultimately shine through that no coach or recruiting analyst can predict. And fitting into a system can work wonders for players. Yet recruiting rankings, for all their faults, seem to demonstrate the importance of bringing in the most talented football players.
This leads back to that Wisconsin-Ohio State game in which Stave connected with Abbrederis for an early touchdown. Wisconsin held its own with a group of players whose star ratings paled in comparison to that of Ohio State. But the game changed on two touchdown passes from Braxton Miller — a five-star prospect and the No. 2-rated quarterback in the same class as Stave — to four-star receiver Corey Brown. That night, the enormous skill, athleticism and physicality of the entire team eventually wore down Wisconsin.
Ohio State went on to defeat Wisconsin, 31-24. It was the Buckeyes’ sixth victory against the Badgers in the past seven games.
Not every outcome will hold true to star rating form, of course. Sports are played by humans, and the unpredictability of it all is what makes the drama so great. More than a decade worth of recruiting statistics, however, indicates any opportunity for coaches to find the best players is one worth taking, Kennedy said.
Whether coaches opt to evaluate recruits their own way is up to them. But both Lemming and Kennedy noted avoiding a service readily available to everybody on the basis of principle does not serve coaches, whose role is to leave no stone unturned in recruiting and whose job security ultimately depends on winning.
"The coach-speak for recruiting is that we don’t care about any of that. We do our own stuff," Kennedy said.
"Yes, you do care. And you know why I know you care? Because the fans care. If you don’t care about the fans, then you’re not going to have a job. That’s just plain and simple. From a more pragmatic standpoint, you’ve got two weeks on the road. We’ve got 365 days and 25 guys around the country. You’re stupid not to pay attention to what we’re doing."