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How to evaluate your favorite team's recruiting class

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Sure you could look at the service metrics, but if you want specific truths about your team you'll need to look deeper than star rankings.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The recruiting services make a lot of money by ranking the recruiting classes and analysts often draw big conclusions from simply looking at which teams consistently finish in the top 10. It's all very tidy and convenient but how much should we really credit the services for telling us that the biggest and most powerful programs are successfully grabbing the high school talents that everyone wants? How much can we actually learn from this?

The answer should be, not much.

If you wanted to use the class rankings for something more exact, like predicting which non-blueblood programs would break into the top 10 in a given year, or which top recruiting programs have the best players, you'd be up a creek. That's because the class rankings are entirely unscientific in their process, which is as simple as looking at the total number of committed players or "average star ranking" for the players in a given class.

If you root for a team like Alabama, rest assured that your team probably signed several really good players that will play a large role in helping the Tide compete for SEC and national titles in the coming years. If you root for anyone else? The class rankings are fairly useless as a prognostication tool save to tell you if your program is gaining or losing ground in the eyes of the most obviously talented high school players.

Evaluating classes in a more exact and useful way requires a great deal of work, but fans of a team can often get a better glimpse into their own class than others, if they are willing to take off the shaded glasses and do some homework. Here's how to evaluate your signing day class:

Part 1: Know your own team

The success of individual talents is far, far more dependent on context than is commonly assumed. For instance, if you track the hit rate for Oklahoma and Texas in signing and developing quarterbacks in the Mack Brown and Bob Stoops eras you'll see that each team signed a starting-caliber player with around 50% of their recruits.

That means that to consistently have upperclassmen QBs on the team who are good enough to start, those teams probably needed to sign 1.5 quarterbacks in every class.

On the other hand, look at Art Briles' Baylor program and you'll see that he doesn't always even take a quarterback in each class and the first three guys he recruited to play quarterback, Robert Griffin III, Nick Florence, and Bryce Petty, each had seasons where they threw for 4k yards. That's quite the hit rate.

Is Briles and the Baylor staff THAT much better at evaluating and recruiting quarterbacks than the staffs at Texas and OU, or the greater scouting community? It's more likely that the Baylor context is just better for developing and utilizing quarterbacks.

Every team has idiosyncrasies like this that make a huge difference in determining whether they've done a good job signing a class. To understand them, you need to answer a few questions about your team's program.

1. What is your team's overall strategy?

Are they a team that likes to recruit speed all over the field and then develop it once the players are on campus like TCU? Is it a punishing power team that wants kids with big frames that will run over their opponents like LSU?

Perhaps your team wants to win games by being the toughest team in the league (Stanford), or the smartest and most disciplined (Kansas State). Is it a team that wins more on the strength of the offense or the defense? Which units on offense or defense are generally relied upon the most? The team's identity has a lot to do with the types of players they need to find and sign.

2. What are your team's preferred schemes?

Understanding the different techniques and schemes your team uses helps a great deal in understanding how certain players fit. The hodgepodge collection of offensive linemen that Boise State tends to sign makes sense when you understand that they run a lot of schemes that ask their OL to either block at angles or get out and move in space. That means that all of their OL takes are going to share the trait of being mobile enough to move around in space.

If your team runs a two-gap front you're probably going to see them load up on bigger, powerful DL that can anchor at the point of attack. What will your team ask its players to do on the field?

3. What types of positions does your team use well?

Teams are often built around the types of players that the head coach or particular assistants develop really well. Art Briles puts a lot of focus on his quarterbacks and does a great job, which generally means he can afford to skimp on numbers at that position while using the freed up scholarships to grab a spot that perhaps Baylor doesn't develop as well. Another coach might put a lot of onus on his OL but then also snatch up large numbers of them to ensure that he can count on them being a team strength.

LSU has been looking to own the moniker of "DB U" (meaning, defensive back university) and look to have dominant defensive backs on their roster at all times. Did they sign many of those this year? How do those kids look?

All of these questions get you to the real crux of the matter, the final question:

4. Where does your team need to be great and where can you settle on having role players?

Part of the problem with class rankings is that there aren't many systems in football that require a star at every position, most teams are a collection of role players built around a few true stars. It's not uncommon for a team of three-star players to be stronger than higher ranked teams simply because, while those three-star players may have had lower ceilings on their talent, they actually were able to maximize that ceiling at the University they attended and served as valuable role players.

Will the four or five-star player be willing to develop the skills and understanding to serve as a cog on a team? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sometimes the team with less talented receivers who actually run the routes they're supposed to run the way way they're supposed to run them will produce the better passing game than the team of divas where everyone thinks they should be on the Biletnikoff watch list.

Then there are the spots where a team needs play-makers. Georgia goes after star running backs every year for many good reasons, but amongst them is the fact that their running game is a big part of the offense and it requires a tailback that can do real damage. Oregon needs linebackers who can make an impact on the pass-rush in their 3-4 defense. Baylor has to have wide receivers who can run past people.

Where does your team need playmakers and where do they just need role players? Are they signing kids that can fill the gaps when it's their turn to shine?

Part 2: Know the incoming class

At this point watching tape on the incoming players, checking out their SPARQ numbers, listening to scouting impressions, and all of that becomes valuable. If you don't understand the context they are walking into, they are just talented 18 year olds who could still become just about anything.

Now, it's fun when your team signs the big time four/five-star player that all your regional rivals desperately coveted, but remember that how these kids fit into the program will have more to do with their upside than whether they ran the best 40 time of any WR in the state.

Here are the questions to ask in order to evaluate a given class:

1. Where are the numbers concentrated?

Is your team have an offensive-minded strategy? How did they mitigate the numbers in this class? Did they undersign on offense to ensure that more players are available on defense, or did they make sure they had the pieces to put together a dominant attack?

Where does the team need numbers in light of previous signing day classes or graduation/attrition?

2. How do the players move?

When college coaches watch a player's highlight tape the first thing they are looking for is how the player moves. Is he stiff when he tries to change direction? Does that OL have quick feet? Does that DL have violent and active hands? How quick off the ball is he?

Things like fluidity, coordination, and change of direction can be apparent on film and will tell you a lot more than whether a running back can outrun the much slower kids in his district when he finds an open hole. Instead look for how easy and fluid his gait is, how well he can change direction or turn, and how much power he can generate in a few steps if he has to run someone over.

3. Which players have untapped upside?

There are lots of ways to determine if a player has a lot of unrealized potential that the services can commonly miss on. To begin with, players that get four or five star ratings get them because they are more of a "sure thing" to be successful in college.

The 6'5" 220 pound defensive end from nowhere, WI who was a star in multiple sports in a tiny town is not a "sure thing" for recruiting services. Few scouts will have watched that player much, he may not have attended the camps where scouts congregate, and his weight is far short of what it needs to be in order for him to have success at that position.

However, you take a kid with the coordination to play hockey, basketball, football, baseball, and track and a frame that can pack on considerably more weight and you have a player with a lot of potential upside, even if they are only given two stars. Give that kid a few years of college coaching and conditioning and suddenly you're looking at JJ Watt.

Alternatively, there's the linebacker from a powerhouse suburban program who was the state's leading tackler but stands at 5'11", 220 pounds and has received top level coaching for years. How much better will he get when his level of competition increases but his own body has already reached its peak?

The frame of a player says a lot about where he'll be after a few years of college. Is he shaving yet, how close to his final size is he? How wide are the shoulders and how thick are the wrists, is there room on his frame to add good muscle weight? Some 250 pound offensive linemen get to college and balloon to 300 pounds without any major effort, others have to eat cheeseburgers after every dinner to get there.

This is the same reason JUCO recruits rarely rate above three stars even if they end up being more consistent performers than high schoolers. You generally know what a JUCO player's upside is but you can always be optimistic about a high school senior.

4. Where does everyone fit?

There will always be athletes that have rare athleticism and coordination but either have a lot of growing left to do or perhaps played quarterback or running back for their team in high school so they could be featured, but actually have more upside at another position in college. Teams will often just get these kids on campus and figure it out later.

That said, each player in a recruiting class should have traits that allow them to be projected to at least one position in your team's offensive or defensive schemes. If your team uses a spread passing attack did they sign receivers with quick change of direction, good spatial awareness, and reliable hands that can serve as slot receivers?

Can the quarterback run the ball in your option schemes? Can he hit passing windows downfield in your vertical passing game?

There may be five different four-star linebackers that were available for your team, but which ones are the best at reading the backfield like your team asks of its linebackers? Which of the numerous safeties available has the quickness to handle the coverage assignments your team likes to give its safeties? Are those the players your team ended up signing?

Once this question is answered it will set you up to answer the ultimate signing day question:

How did my team do in recruiting this year?

Did your team load up with players that have the skills and athleticism to thrive in your schemes? How much untapped upside exists in your team's takes? Can they be developed into stars or are they all just role players?

Does your team have players that will become role players? Is their star power and athleticism at the positions where your team needs to be excellent?

Journey back to 2011 and take a look at Michigan State's recruiting class, which ranked 32nd in the nation by 247 and 7th in the Big 10. They took 21 players in that class who ended up serving as the backbone for the 2014 team that were Big 10 runner-ups.

Take a look at the nine eventual starters that Michigan State signed in 2011 and where they ended up in 2014:

Name

Initial Size

Eventual Size

Projected Position

Actual Position

Star Ranking

Lawrence Thomas

6'4" 244

6'4" 309

Weak-side DE

Defensive tackle

4 Stars

Joel Heath

6'5" 255

6'6" 285

Strong-side DE

Nose tackle

3 Stars

Shilique Calhoun

6'5" 230

6'5" 256

Strong-side DE

Strong-side DE

3 Stars

Ed Davis

6'4" 220

6'3" 242

Outside Linebacker

Outside Linebacker

3 Stars

Taiwan Jones

6'3" 220

6'3" 252

Outside Linebacker

Middle Linebacker

3 Stars

RJ Williamson

6'2" 185

6'0" 214

Wide Receiver

Strong Safety

3 Stars

Trae Waynes

6'0" 160

6'1" 182

Cornerback

Cornerback

3 Stars

Jack Allen

6'3" 260

6'2" 299

Center

Center

3 Stars

Connor Cook

6'5" 200

6'4" 218

Pro-style QB

Pro-style QB

3 Stars

Obviously, the class ranking and designations on national signing day weren't terribly helpful for projecting the Spartan players. However, if you had been watching the Spartans and understood their team's identity and strategy, then scouted the players they signed and how they fit into that context, you would likely have had a better sense of the fact that they did a good job in 2011 of getting the right kind of players to have success.

What about your team? How are they shaping up for NSD: 2015?