Excuses always abound after National Signing Day from teams who haven’t signed many top rated players. There are always market inefficiencies that exist in recruiting and loads and loads of undervalued 2/3-star players that really will reward the programs that gave them opportunities.
But the 5-stars are rated as high as they are for a reason, these are generally athletes with NFL-caliber measurables and abilities that should at least theoretically be pretty easy to translate into college success.
Generally five-star players have college-ready bodies and some kind of elite skill that translates to the NFL. However, that’s where the rankings occasionally get into trouble. By aiming to highlight players that clearly project to the NFL out of high school, the rankings understandably often fail to highlight players that project well to college or who have major collegiate upside provided they follow a certain developmental track.
The classic example is the Wisconsin offensive lineman. There are currently seven Badgers playing OL in the NFL and not a one of them was a five star. In fact five were rated as three-stars while another was an unranked walk-on (Rick Wagner). Most of them were multi-sport stars of small towns in Wisconsin who started to really focus on football and tapped into deep potential AFTER enrolling in college.
The schools that regularly overachieve to their rankings are the ones that are either unlocking undervalued skills with scheme or coaching or programs that are recruiting from regions like Wisconsin where there’s a demographic of overlooked or undeveloped talents (big, rural kids that haven’t been developed yet).
The easiest way to ensure that your team has some elite athletes to build around is to go recruit high schoolers that everyone plainly recognizes as elite athletes. Finding those kids consistently from the 3-star rankings is immensely difficult, but here’s what they might look like if you can find them.
The sturdy DL who isn’t a pass-rusher
It was initially quite a shock when Baylor nose tackle Andrew Billings fell to the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft despite leaving early after a dominant stretch. The thing of it though was that his value in the Big 12 was created in part due to the unique challenges of defending Big 12 offenses that don’t exist in the NFL.
In the Big 12, quick passing plays are often accompanied with run blocking that negates the need for pass rushing. Even some vertical passing concepts involve three-step drops by the QB where the ball is out quick. In other words, pass-rush isn’t as essential but being able to stop the run with limited numbers in the box is immensely valuable. So a disruptive, run-stopping monster like Billings had great value for Baylor but less so for NFL teams trying to stock their DL with pass-rushers that can attack drop-back passing concepts.
Billings was actually rated as a four-star player, his power-lifting and suddenness were not overlooked coming out of high school, but there are plenty of players who don’t necessarily project as guys that can beat guards regularly in the pass rush but still have a lot of value in the college game. You aren’t defending Tom Brady in the empty formation in college, you’re defending some team that is trying to find a dozen different ways to run the football up the middle. If you have a guy down there that’s hard to move or get around, there’s a lot of value to be had even if he doesn’t have athleticism that translates to the next level.
The athlete moving to a new position
Part of the trick at TCU under Gary Patterson for beating the team rankings has been snatching up good, heady athletes that played QB in high school. In fact, Patterson has been one to fully maximize the position change in a wide variety of different ways, even making DEs out of RBs. However, it’s very common for high schools to put their best all-around player at QB where he can most heavily impact the game even if he’s not much for making progressions and firing accurate tosses out wide.
There’s also always guys that played positions in high school that they won’t play in college and that makes life hard for scouts because how can you regard a kid as a four or five-star prospect if you haven’t seen him do the things he’ll be doing in college?
So these players are often understandably undervalued. I figured current TCU linebacker Ty Summers was destined for linebacker in college even though he was playing QB in high school. His ability to read the field and make sharp cuts in the box at QB SEEMED like it could translate to reading flow from behind the DL and filling those same creases. But even if it did there was no telling if he would prove to relish the physical aspects of playing linebacker.
Another common one is the hard-hitting, athletic safety who grows too heavy and too slow to play coverage in college but has the potential to become a plus athlete at linebacker. This one is often less of a sure thing then the athletic QB who moves to a new position because while playing QB demonstrates a higher understanding of the game, reading offenses and responding from safety is very different from doing so at linebacker where everything happens faster and more violently.
The late bloomer
Not everyone does the camp circuit, hires a skills coach, or works under high level coaching when they’re 15-18 years old. Not every kid even finishes substantial phases of his natural growth at those ages.
The market for the no-brainer, blue-chip talents is such that if you aren’t showing scouts something by your junior year then you aren’t going to be one of the higher-ranked players. Kids that explode as seniors have fewer options, because spots are filling up, and at some positions like quarterback they are totally overlooked because top schools aren’t even trying to find them. They’ve already filled up.
If you’re a late blooming quarterback who lacks offers from major, power-five programs and didn’t compete in Elite 11 or other camps then you aren’t going to end up with a high star ranking, but you might end up being a really good quarterback.
We already mentioned the rural, multi-sport Wisconsin lineman but other examples include the sorts of players that Kansas State has come to rely on. They often add kids to their program that didn’t play particularly competitive ball growing up in Kansas but then go to one of the state’s very strong JUCO programs, develop, and then get preferred walk-on status at Kansas State and finally grow into good players.
Those kids often come to Kansas State at age 20 or so more or less at the developmental level of an 18 year old kid coming out of a Texas HS powerhouse. A player like that might have a similar ceiling as a 22 year old senior but it won’t be recognized coming out of high school. Louisiana and East Texas are other such regions loaded with athletic kids that aren’t always in programs that max out their teenage potential.
That describes a large number of 3-star “gems” that pan out down the line.
Size often matters so much less then the emphasis that’s placed upon it, but what else can you do when trying to differentiate talents and guessing how they’ll project up a level?
Height is the crucial one, in part because at most positions it really doesn’t matter that much. The top linebackers these days are usually much shorter than the established prototype because tall guys usually lack the lateral range to play in space and still get low and blow things up between the tackles as modern linebackers must do.
This applies at other positions as well. Short guards can often still get low and drive DTs off the ball, especially in schemes that emphasize reach blocking or double teams. Shorter corners might technically be a little easier to beat with the perfect pass, but then taller corners are often going to get beat by the same pass. The range of passes that occur that the taller corner is going to stop that will beat the shorter corner is pretty small. What’s more, when you lower your restrictions on corners to allow players that are “only” 5-10 or so it greatly increases the pool of athletes that are capable of sticking in man coverage tightly enough that those precision passes to big targets even matter.
The value of the big corner is often more in how physical he plays rather than the difference in coverage, do your team’s short corners play physical? If he’s 180+, a big hitter, or has a wide wingspan you might be right when you tell yourself he’s as good as the four-star kid that went to Rival U.
The undersized, quick-thinking, athletic QB
The tall pocket-passer with the cannon arm is often wasted in college. As we noted last week, this guy is being utilized in the NFL these days in precision passing games featuring spread formations aiming to get as many matchup problems on the field as possible.
In college the major programs will often aim to get the big, cannon-armed passer only to put him in systems that are geared around running the football and perhaps utilizing his arm strength to hit the odd play-action bomb or field curl route to punish an overloaded box. You don’t really need Tom Brady to do that effectively.
It sometimes takes a strange accident like big Paxton Lynch ending up at Memphis to see what would happen if a college team geared around the spread passing put a guy with NFL-caliber arm strength and vision on the field.
Because the college game is much more geared around option football and the run game then the NFL, the 6-0, 200 pound, quick-thinking athlete is usually undervalued in recruiting with exceptions usually only coming in the form of camp-trotting players from big time programs.
Being capable of seeing the field from the pocket and delivering throws outside the hash marks comes up in college football considerably less often then being athletic enough to escape when your 20-year old OL blow their assignments on a stunt. It’s also more difficult to weaponize then the ability to read a single defender and make a quick pass or a darting cut to put the ball out into space and force college defenders to make open field tackles.
It takes a lot of time, program commitment, and effective coaching to develop a high-level drop back passing game at the college level. The major programs usually prefer to spend that time working on run-blocking so they can make the most of their advantages in size and athleticism in the trenches. Nevertheless, smaller QBs that can excel at running those sorts of offenses regularly slip through the cracks.
So what kinds of 3-star players did your team sign? Are there real reasons for them being undervalued that will show up over the next five years? Or did your team just miss on the obviously good players and now you want to rationalize why it won’t matter ;)