Friday, February 04, 2011

Signing Day and recruiting rankings

Last Wednesday was National Signing Day, the day high school seniors sign national letters of intent to play scholarship football at their college of choice. It's obviously a big deal in the college football world; as any coach will tell you, recruiting is the "lifeblood" of any college football program.

The University of Houston Cougars signed a total of 22 players: twelve on defense, eight on offense and two athletes that could play on either side of the ball. Included in this group were six junior college transfers, including two defensive backs, two linebackers and one defensive lineman who should be able to provide immediate help to an anemic Cougar defense that needs all the help it can get as quickly as it can get it.

So how did the Cougars do overall? Rivals ranks Houston's incoming class sixth best in Conference USA, which is curious considering that they came in third in "average stars." Scout agrees with Rivals' assessment regarding Houston's place in C-USA and ranks Houston's class 72nd nationally. ESPN, meanwhile, ranks Houston's class among the top eight classes signed by non-BCS automatically-qualifying teams.

While some UH faithful on various message boards are wringing their hands over the Rivals and Scout assessments of the Cougars' Signing Day haul, I personally don't put too much stock in recruiting rankings (or follow the recruiting process in detail) for two reasons.

First, getting these kids signed (verbal commitments before Signing Day mean absolutely nothing, as the Cougars learned this year when several early commits later "defected" to other programs) is just the first step. These players then need to become academically qualified, they need to enroll in school, they need to remain in school and, most importantly, they need to perform on the field. There's always some attrition involved; some kids don't make the grades to get into school, other kids leave the program for whatever reason, and some just don't pan out athletically. Accurate assessments of an incoming class can only be made several years afterward, when it can be determined how many of these signees actually made major contributions with the team.

Second, the methods used to rank incoming classes and individual players are opaque and biased. Houston Coach Kevin Smlin put it best when referring to one signee, Lamar High School quarterback Bram Kohlhausen:
“Bram is a guy we targeted early,” Sumlin said. “At the time, he was the No. 16-rated quarterback in the country. It’s amazing. When he committed to us, he became No. 30. At the place I used to work at (Oklahoma), they used to go from 30 to 16.”
This is because the "recruiting gurus" who automatically assign ratings to athletes do so based not so much on their talent as much as where they sign. If a kid commits to and signs with lowly Houston, for example, rather than a big-time program from a BCS automatically-qualifying conference, then he's deemed to be a lesser player.

The so-called "recruiting experts" who run sites like Rivals and Scout are in it for the money. They know that they can sell more magazines and "insider" internet subscriptions if they say favorable things about, and assign more "stars" to, recruits committing to big-time schools with large fanbases. This comes at the expense of players who commit to lower-profile schools with smaller fanbases that aren't as likely to buy as many subscriptions. Additionally, some of these "experts" also have loyalties, for example to their own alma mater and/or their alma mater's conference, that cloud their objectivity.

There's also the fact that, even if these "recruting gurus" endeavor to see as many players at high school games during the fall as they can, even if they spend all their waking hours watching game films, and even if they collect reports from a network of "scouts" following high school football around the county, there's simply no way they can make an accurate assessment of the talent and abilities of each of the thousands of high school football players around the country that appear to have collegiate potential. So they're left to make assumptions of a kid's athletic worth by considering secondary factors such as what colleges a player had offers from - the more scholarship offers from "big-time" BCS-AQ schools, the better that player is perceived to be.

Compare this process to the one the NFL undertakes for players with professional potential to prior to the league's draft. At pre-draft combines coaches and scouts from various teams get to measure these young men from head to toe and put them through a variety of physical and mental tests. And even these highly-paid, highly-skilled NFL experts can't get it right all the time. Highly-touted first-round draft picks wash out of the NFL. Undrafted free agents go to the Pro Bowl.

With that in mind, are we really supposed to believe that a bunch of college recruiting "experts," who have much less direct contact which a much larger pool of players, are supposed to provide authoritarian analysis about, and an objective ranking of, kids coming out of high school?


This isn't to say that recruiting isn't important: bringing in good talent is crucial to a football program's success. But the recruiting rating and rankings process is cynical and inaccurate and is not worth the attention it receives. Here's a "Case" in point: the recruiting "experts" said this guy was a lowly two-star player coming out of high school.

Dustin provides his assessment of Houston's incoming recruiting class. Travis Stewart of also writes a thorough analysis of the Cougar's Signing Day haul, reminding his readers to "consume recruiting info with caution."

Speaking of recruiting: by now a lot of people are familiar with the story of C. J. Johnson, a top Mississippi high school football player, who quit Facebook after receiving a lot of hateful messages* on the social networking site after changing his commitment from Mississippi State to Ole Miss.

Adult college football fans who "friend" high school players on Facebook are really creepy and are also probably violating NCAA rules regarding contacting recruits. But these teenagers should also know better. Adjust your privacy settings, don't accept friend requests from strangers and don't use your Facebook page for glory-seeking purposes, lest you get the same nasty results C. J. Johnson got.

(* Best part of the article: "I realize all the good Facebook has done for the world. Thanks to you, I know exactly which of the girls who ignored me in high school grew up to marry dumpy losers." So very true...)

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