Despite Alabama's dominance of the event, National Signing Day is an increasingly exciting time in the year-long college football season. Class rankings, late deciding stud athletes, and comprehensive examinations of the recruiting hauls always grab the hopes and attention of college football's most hardcore fans.
There is a great deal of analysis that says these signing day class rankings matter tremendously and have a lot to say about who's going to win in the future. For my own part I'm much more skeptical that the rankings tell us much more than who the obvious talents are at the high school level and which schools they are going. The truth is somewhere in between the extremes, there's good reason to be excited if your team loads up on a bunch of high schoolers with recognizable talent and obvious translation to the college game.
But there's also the quarterback position, which tends to confound scouts and prognosticators at every level and rarely turns out clearly, which threatens to muck up the whole operation of making prognostications based on NSD results.
How accurate are the QB rankings?
It's been long enough now that we can look back at the top 10 rated QBs by 247's consensus rankings from 2010, 2011, and 2012 and see what the hit rate was like. For our purposes here, I checked back to see who the top 10 QBs were (combining the questionably separated and poorly named "pro-style" and "dual-threat" QBs into one group) and then measured whether they were a "bust" or "success" based on the criterion of whether they managed to make an All-Conference list at some point in their collegiate career.
First let's look back at the 2010 class:
|Phillip Sims||Alabama||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
|Devin Gardner||Michigan||BUST: Struggled due to scheme change|
|Jess Scroggins||USC||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
|Rob Bolden||Penn State||BUST: Couldn't hold starting job, transferred|
|Blake Bell||Oklahoma||BUST: Struggled with passing game, moved to TE|
|Connor Wood||Texas||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
|Tyler Bray||Tennessee||BUST: Started but was never All-Conference|
|Barry Brunetti||Ole Miss||BUST: Never started or moved beyond a spot role in their Wildcat package|
|Chase Rettig||Boston College||BUST: Started but never All-Conference|
|Brett Nottingham||Stanford||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
Of that entire list, only three guys were even able to win and hold the starting jobs for the teams they signed with and none of them were able to stand out as the best signal callers in their league.
Let's move on to 2011 now:
|Jeff Driskel||Florida||BUST-ish: Struggled then transferred to La Tech where he was All-Conference|
|Braxton Miller||Ohio State||HIT: Miller was an All-B1G QB before shoulder injuries moved him to WR|
|Kiel Frazier||Auburn||BUST: Lost the starting job, eventually transferred|
|Brett Hundley||UCLA||HIT: 2nd team All-Pac 12 in 2013|
|Christian LeMay||Georgia||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
|Max Wittek||USC||BUST: Lost starting job, eventually transferred|
|Teddy Bridgewater||Louisville||HIT: Bridgewater won the Big East OPOY in 2012|
|Jacoby Brissett||Florida||HIT-ish: Didn't win job, transferred to NC State, 2015 All-ACC honorable mention|
|Bubba Starling||Nebraska||BUST-ish: Starling accepted an opportunity to go pro at baseball|
|J.W. Walsh||OSU||BUST: Walsh couldn't hold the starting job at QB|
The QB rankings did better in 2011 than in 2010 but still only had a 40% hit rate of projecting which players would actually go on to thrive as the starting QBs and one of those players achieved that goal at a different school than the one that signed him out of high school.
You'll notice there is also a re-occuring theme of players failing to win the starting jobs, transferring out of belief in their previous rankings and hype, and then only occasionally having any degree of success at their new destination.
Let's do one more, the 2012 class:
|Jameis Winston||Florida State||HIT: Two-time All-ACC 1st team, also Heisman and national champion|
|Gunner Kiel||Notre Dame||BUST: Couldn't win job, transferred to Cincinnati, wasn't All-AAC|
|Zach Kline||Cal||BUST: Couldn't win job, transferred to FCS level|
|Cyler Miles||Washington||BUST: Career ended by injury|
|Anthony Alford||Southern Miss||BUST: Went pro in baseball|
|Matt Davis||Texas A&M||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
|Tanner Mangum||BYU||?: Mangum only just arrived to campus after completing his mission|
|Connor Brewer||Texas||BUST: Never started, eventually transferred|
|Chad Kelly||Clemson||HIT-ish: Dismissed from Clemson, eventual All-SEC for Ole Miss|
|Chad Voytik||Pittsburgh||BUST-ish: Voytik lost the starting job but has one year remaining|
Barring Voytik winning the job at Pittsburgh, or elsewhere if he transfers, and lighting the world on fire it's looking like at best a 30% hit rate IF Tanner Mangum builds on a strong freshman season.
Over three years it's looking like a 23% hit rate for the consensus service ratings on the best QBs in terms of predicting the players that will actually be the best on the field. In fact, these ratings didn't even give a good indication of whether these prospects were able to win the starting jobs at the schools that recruited them.
So why are these QBs failing?
We can only speculate as to why so many of these QBs that were well regarded out of high school haven't found success at the collegiate level but we might as well take a stab at it.
One minor problem that hurt these rankings is the fact that many great high school QBs are also fantastic at baseball and consequently (and quite understandably) choose to pursue opportunities in that game instead. Then there are injuries, reported or not, that slow down a QB and make it harder for him to have success. You can't blame scouts for those issues.
But for the most part we simply have to conclude that the criterion that scouts are using to judge QBs simply doesn't do a good job of projecting which players will actually be effective. This is likely because the QB position is unique within the game of football and scouting raw skills such as accuracy, arm strength, footwork, and even vision from the pocket still doesn't answer other questions about whether a player will thrive as his team's signal caller.
Other factors that dictate whether a player will have success as a collegiate QB include his ability to lead his teammates on offense, how well he handles the pressure of being targeted by college-level defenses and DCs, how well he handles the increased media pressure of being the face of the team, and whether he knows how to study film and improve enough on his own to break through.
Of all the positions where coasting by on talent won't work, QB is certainly one of the ones where this shows up most quickly and with the greatest impact. Even if you're a great DB or OL you still aren't going to be studied, attacked, and exposed by opposing coaching staffs and players to the degree the QB will be. That level of scrutiny tends to weed out players very quickly and efficiently.
Finally, we have to wonder if scouts routinely put too much emphasis on raw and obvious talents like arm strength or mobility. If a HS player can drill a deep comeback or run a 4.6 40 he's almost always going to be ranked high but the quarterback who's more consistent about making good reads and throwing an accurate ball will inevitably surpass him on the field.
Which QBs are having success?
If you look at the 2015 QBs in the AQ conferences and take note of who was rated what out of high school and which QBs ended up performing best on the field and securing All-Conference honors you'll something interesting play out.
|League||All-Conference QBs||QB league-average star ranking|
Deshaun Watson: 4-star
Marquise Williams: 4-star
Connor Cook: 3-star
C.J. Beathard: 3-star
Baker Mayfield: 3-star
Trevone Boykin: 3-star
Jared Goff: 4-star
Luke Falk: 2-star
Dak Prescott: 3-star
Chad Kelly: 4-star
I used the coach's selections for All-Conference and determined who each team's starting QB was based on which QB attempted the most passes, that provided a clear starter in all but two or three instances. I used 247 player consensus rankings where available and Rivals if 247 rankings were unavailable.
The Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 averages were both hurt by the fact that each league featured a former 0-star HS recruit as a starting QB. Joe Hubener of Kansas State, Perry Orth of South Carolina, and Vernon Adams of Oregon flew completely under the radar out of high school before emerging.
What you find with the All-Conference QBs is that they rarely stand out from the pack in terms of recruiting ranking with a few exceptions. Instead you see a lot of guys who had major talent that was overlooked out of high school (Connor Cook, Trevone Boykin) and guys that found a perfect schematic fit that maximizes what they offer as players (Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott).
It seems that finding players who fit the program and can join up with the right teammates to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts is even more important at the QB position than with any other role on the field. This is not a position where raw talent allows players to rise above but one where an ability to work well with teammates makes all the difference.
So when you're checking out your team's signing day haul, pay greater attention to whether the QB recruits are guys that can fit the system and grow into a demanding role than whether they are getting rave reviews or are expected to start as freshman.
It's the former types that will actually be leading the conversation two to three years later.