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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

P.S.R. Op-Ed

The Annual Curmudgeonly Take on N.S.D.

Once asked whether he preferred his wide receivers to be fast or quick, B.Y.U.’s LaVell Edwards replied, “I’d like them to have both, but if they had both, they’d be at Southern California.” This is true: Yesterday, today and tomorrow, for as long as the weather remains lovely and the Trojans field a team, U.S.C. will win be the preferred landing spot for receivers who are fast and quick, not to mention for any five-star prospect who views the N.C.A.A. as a boarding school on the road to N.F.L. riches. What’s left to be said about national signing day? Those who are fast and quick are swooped by the national powers. Those who are fast but not quick, quick but not fast, fast but not big, big but not fast — those recruits go elsewhere.

Boiled down, national signing day again illustrates the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Cameras don’t show up to see a two-star recruit choose between Idaho and San Jose State; there are no hats on the table, just a phone call and a faxed letter of intent. But when it comes to a major program’s potential recruit — with whom the use of live props is now in vogue — local and national television crews bust out the bright lights.

And what is national signing day, anyway? For the vast majority of incoming recruits, it’s simply a day to make things official. After giving a program his verbal commitment in August, a prospect prints out his letter of intent, applies his signature and sends it in to his new school’s football offices. Signed, sealed and delivered, this recruit is now part of the family.

For a select few, national signing day is their time to shine — until they get a chance to prove their worth on the field, that is. A small slice of the nation’s uncommitted prospects get to flash a smile and mug for the camera, thereby milking a few more minutes out of the 24-7 world of recruiting coverage that makes celebrities out of high school seniors.

Three hats in a row, four in a diamond, five shaped in a pentagon. Cue the red light. Adjust for feedback. The plan, dreamt up in bed, in the shower and in class over the last week, is to reach for one cap — preferably your school-of-choice’s prime rival — before going for your actual pick. Bathe in applause. Scene. But you stammer. Mumble. The plan goes awry. You just grab the cap, put it on and stand up. The applause still comes.

Georgia’s Isaiah Crowell busted out a bulldog puppy when he made his announcement a year ago. Cute, but that’s setting the bar awfully high; at some point in the future, an L.S.U.-bound recruit is going to lift a curtain to unveil a live Bengal tiger. Where will it end? It won’t end soon, and we’re all just waiting for the next five-star prospect who bleeds out of his recruitment all the way through the summer, trumping Terrelle Pryor’s will-he-or-won’t-he waffling in 2008.

The reality of national signing day is that like these made-for-TV announcements, the pomp and hoopla is ultimately meaningless. Nick Saban once made an N.F.L. player — someone who played football for a living — cry on the practice field. Think he cares about the star beside your name during August two-a-days? Football is the great equalizer: come the fall, there’s nothing separating five stars from two stars.

Except talent, of course. Five stars are five stars for a reason: that exclusive designation is supposed to illustrate the prospect’s can’t-miss status. And more often than not, the five-star prospect lives up to his advance billing. And more often than not, a two star plays like a two star.

When it comes to the class of 2012, however, we’re still four years away from making a definitive ruling. All we have now is a hat picked off a table, a signature, a grainy highlight reel — though those tapes get better every year — and the promise of a college career months away from the starting line.

For now, the fast and quick guys are going to U.S.C., Alabama, L.S.U. and the like. The fast but not quick guys are going to B.Y.U., Kansas State, Missouri and the like, programs that seem to be doing fine with the hand they’re dealt. The not-so-fast and not-so-quick guys go to the Sun Belt. That’s signing day in a nutshell. Now we can ignore the recently-committed recruits until they step onto practice fields in August.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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  1. DMK says:

    Signing day is one of the biggest days of the year.

    What if Cam had signed elsewhere? Tebow to Bama? Would all those busts have been busts no matter where they went?

    It’s true: BYU, KState and Missouri are plugging away with their 3-stars and JC non-qualifiers. They’re not competing for titles, though. Missouri wants DGB for a next-level reason.

    Getting the best guys available is HUGE.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Way too much emphasis on beauty pageant measurements and how they do at non contact camps. Not enough emphasis on who has actually played solid, physical football against top flight competition.

    Last year, I pointed out that the # 6 overall ranked recruit per ESPN ( Christian Westerman) was puzzling. In looking at the film,( much film available around here when he was headed to Texas ) he was huge and dominant against 170 pound defenders in Arizona and aside from his size, his skills looked very average.

    He ended up at Auburn and we had a discussion here about talent evaluation, recruiting mistakes, etc. He went there as a tackle expecting to compete for a starting position. Westerman was moved to guard ( not a good sign ) and red shirted. Articles said he was putting on weight and working on his technique. Will report back next year at this time.

  3. Gotham Gator says:

    A good article. Guys like Cam Newton and Tim Tebow are can’t miss only in retrospect. And getting top talent on campus is only the first step. Plenty of coaches are good recruiters who struggle to develop the raw materials into top football players.

    Oh, and Cam Newton DID sign elsewhere, which is a depressing fact for me to this day.

  4. Hokieshibe says:

    Cam did sign elsewhere – Florida. What happens at school is way more important than the # of stars you haul in. I mean, look at Miami with Larry Coker. They regularly hauled in the most stars in the country, but they just never did anything with them.

  5. Hokieshibe says:

    haha, Gotham beat me to it.

  6. Burnt Orange says:

    Agreed with Hokie and Gotham. I have no idea who Pitt will sign today at OL/TE but as long as Bob Bostad is coaching them, I predict 1-2 of them will be on an NFL roster in 2017.

  7. DMK says:

    I can’t think of a BCS-era champion who has won it all with less than top-10 recruiting talent. Auburn, maybe, but Cam carried the whole team and was hyper 5-star. Even all of the runners-up had top, top recruits according to the ranking services.

    Auburn, VaTech, Oregon bumped up their talent with innovative schemes and/or world-changing QB play. (Every team that’s played in a BCS title game has had solid coaching.)

    If your team is chugging along at about #25 in the recruiting rankings, you can pretty much forget about a national title. If your team is top 10 in those supposedly meaningless lists, you can hope that coaching and luck will get you to the top.

    A lot of elements have to come together to be good, but getting the best available players is huge, and the goofy commercial services are increasingly solid at identifying who the top players are. They even revise their rankings based on the evaluations of top coaches: people are always moaning when a 3-star gets his 4th after he commits to Bama, but if some country kid suddenly has offers from Texas, UF, Bama, LSU, Oklahoma, et al., then he’s certified potential.

    And Cam Newton is a perfect symbol of this process: for one team he’s a screw-up bust and for another he’s the best thing that ever happened to them.

  8. Hokieshibe says:

    DMK –
    I really disagree. I think what happens once they get on campus is far more important than recruiting rankings. Sure, they make for great fun as fans, but they really don’t forecast anything. It’s all so subjective. I think the only thing these rankings really help with is long term trends – IE Texas, Bama, etc should (should being the key word here – see Texas)be consistently able to reload and remain elite, whereas others may need a year or two every now and then.

    But these rankings are really silly. They don’t take into account scheme, or need, or attitude, or IQ, or anything. It’s just silly measurables and 40 times.

  9. DMK says:

    Not true! Not even remotely true.

    The recruiting service rankings are a good approximation of *what coaches are looking for* in a player, and if coaches don’t know talent, then the world is officially upside down. Seriously.

    We’ve only had about a decade of internet-age recruiting ranking, but …

    what we do have shows a *strong* correlation between “star rankings” and (1) a player’s success in college, (2) a college team’s success, and (3) a player’s likelihood of playing in the NFL. Are not those three categories the very definition of football success?

    Anyway, it’s been written about endlessly over the past few years, most recently a few days ago by Hinton over at Yahoo.

    Here’s a link if you want to check the numbers:

  10. Burnt Orange says:

    DMK -I read your link and on a percentage basis, you are correct but it still does not change the fact that as the link points out – of this years 47 consensus All American’s – only 7 were five star recruits but 18 were three star recruits or lower.

    My point is this, these rating services and camps slot these guys and a lot of the slotting is based on stats and unearned reputation against inferior competition. The intangibles to play the sport are so diffeent from other sports. For many positions, a very real issue is how much pain can you endure and still play effectively- that is tough to measure at non contact camps and on film where you are much larger or faster than virtually all of your competition.

    The best example I can give of this is about 20 years ago, there was a very highly touted, nationally recruited LB out of Irving Nimitz High- George Howell. Early commit to Michigan. I go to see him play against an area power known for its physical, some would say vicious style of play. It is apparent quickly that the real linebacker ( at least from an intangibles standpoint)for Nimitz is the 5’10′, 205 pound maniac who is more than up for the fight. Howell- not so much. Look it up – Howell lasted three years at Michigan- moved to offense, lettered but that was about it.

    Anyway, here is one to watch- scat back Tavarreon Dickerson from Arlington High. Think he is going to Utah State. An overlooked two star recruit who can fly and one tough kid – overlooked because of his size.

  11. DMK says:

    I’d say, based on those numbers, that if you’re a 2-star recruit, you should not feel like you are doomed to be a back up with no shot at the NFL. If, however, you favorite team only signs 2-star players, you’re pretty much doomed to be a non-factor nationally.

    Another way to look at it: if your team starts 5-star recruits at every position on both sides of the ball, you’ll average about 2 All-Americans every season. If your starting 22 are all 2-stars, however, you’ll average an All-American about once every fifty years!

    There are biases and busts all over the place, to be sure, but on the whole it’s no surprise that those considered the best in high school will tend to be the best in college and so forth.

    You’re right though, Burnt Orange: if the experts did a re-ranking after watching freshmen go against similar talent during summer/fall practice, they’d give and even better assessment of the talent out there.

  12. Parker says:

    Hi Paul,

    As objective as the rating services try to pretend to be, they:

    1. Are in business to sell subscriptions and cater to the large fanbase schools,
    2. Aren’t anywhere near as good at evaluating talent as college coaches,
    3. Tend to overrate athleticism and underrate football skill,
    4. Don’t do a good job of projecting body types,
    5. Don’t do a good job of properly rating HS seniors who develop late, and
    6. Usually don’t have a clue about character issues.

    Mack Brown has outrecruited Bob Stoops nearly every year. Texas is consistently in the Top 5 recruiting classes year in and year out. Yet Mack Brown has 2 Big 12 titles in 14 years while Stoops has 7 conference titles in 13 years.

    That pretty much sums it up right there.

  13. DMK says:

    … and yet these rankings are, on the whole, quite accurate indicators of the success of players in college, of their potential to play in the NFL, and of a college team’s potential to play for titles.

    Not bad for being so terrible.

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