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Did your team sign the right kinds of players on NSD 2018?

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Loading up on elite athletic talent is always a solid formula, but how well did your team fulfill the goal of signing players that can translate to the modern game?

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The common means of evaluating a signing day class is just to count the number of bluechip prospects signed with an eye towards “blue-chip ratio” and whether your team signed enough talent to give itself enough margin for error. As far as blunt instruments go, that’s not a terrible tool for evaluating signing day, particularly from 1,000 feet.

However, blue-chip ratio and class rankings are rarely useful for sorting out schools recruiting at comparable levels. For that you need more precise evaluations and additional variables to consider such as how well the signees fit the scheme and program, whether the team gave itself enough margin at positions that are harder to evaluate, whether any of the players might be force multipliers (like an elite QB), how many players were JUCOs, if the team gained any transfers, if any of the 2- or 3-star guys are late bloomers, etc.

Another handy trick is to determine whether any of the players match some of the important profiles that can more accurately predict if the blue-chips and 3-stars on the list will be able to grow into star players that can carry a great team. I’ve included some questions here that can determine if your class has the right kind of players that will confirm, overcome, or belie class rankings.

How does your QB handle live bullets?

The only way to get a good read on whether a QB may have success at the college level is to watch him play full, competitive games at the high school level. The reports from 7on7 camps are nowhere near as useful as you’d think from how much #content they generate, namely for the simple reason that a QB’s ability to handle pressure while reading different coverages in different situations is completely untested in that drill. There have been a great many QBs that were hailed for their ability to progress through pro-style reads based on 7on7 work that didn’t show that same ability when the defense was allowed to rush and hit them.

Additionally, 7on7 and camps don’t factor in a QB’s legs, which are often one of the more useful tools he has in the wide open modern game and in option-heavy college offenses.

Shea Patterson is a nice example of this phenomenon. He lit up the recruiting world with his ability to step through progressions from the pocket in 7on7 drills but senior film at IMG revealed a player that tended to rely on scrambling to make things happen. Later on at Ole Miss guess which trait defined his play on the field? That’s right, he’s relied much more on his legs and struggled to get through progressions on time from the pocket.

Of course he’s still a good athlete with some amazing ability as a passer, and now he’ll be working with Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, but it’s likely that he’ll always default to using his legs when the going gets tough. That’s what his film said, but you wouldn’t know unless you watched full games rather than clipped highlights.

What does full film say about your team’s new QB(s)? In a tough game against strong defense, does he hold up? What skills does he lean on to get the job done?

Did your team get star prospects at the focal positions of the college game?

In particular, did they sign any good tight ends? The modern game hinges around personnel choices and abilities at the #4 receiver position. Most every team will use two outside receivers and a slot on the vast majority of their snaps and then teams are often differentiated by whether they use a receiving TE, a blocking TE/H-back/FB, a RB/WR hybrid, or another slot receiver in that fourth skill player spot.

A survey of the playoff results suggests that Jim Mora was actually right when he noted that “spread teams” never win the title, if you take into account his clarification about the need for using a TE to attack the middle of the field. The teams that have won have either featured really good receiving TEs that could force double teams inside that freed up outside receivers or guys that could block DL and LBs to create angles up front for the RB (or QB) in the run game.

Your team could load up on athletes but without a TE to help control the center squares of the chessboard it’s hard to leverage those athletes and attack a defense.

The 2018 Michigan recruiting class may prove to be a great example of this principle. The Wolverines loaded up with 3-stars in this cycle and finished just 21st nationally and third in the Big 10 as a result. However they signed a pair of TEs, including 4-star Mustapha Muhammad who has very complete HS film both blocking and receiving, and an intriguing FB/LB from rural northern Michigan.

Ben VanSumeren participated in a SPARQ drill where he ran a 4.76 with a 4.03 shuttle time, 40.3” vertical, and a 39’ power ball toss. That’s absurd explosiveness at 215 pounds and now he’s already at 230 or so. Essexville Garber HS utilized him at QB in a spread-option offense so that opponents had to worry about him on every play and then they also used him as a hammer at outside linebacker:

Finding guys who have VanSumeren’s level of athleticism at 215+ combined with this kind of love of contact and physicality is a big deal, especially for the purpose of controlling the middle of the field. So while Michigan may not have signed as many or as good as athletes as some other nationally competitive programs, they did sign some players that may make the difference in the middle of the field.

Oklahoma’s historic 2017 offense was largely keyed by having a versatile athlete at FB and a top TE, after all.

Conversely, did your team sign a good nose tackle?

One of the more overlooked consequences of the rise of RPOs in college offenses is the importance that they lend to the nose tackle position. In fact, the supremacy of the nose tackle was quietly one of the biggest stories of the 2017 season.

Over in the Big 12, multiple teams found the means to finally turn the tables on the league’s deadly spread offenses with dime defensive packages. TCU, Texas, and Iowa State all had big seasons on defense in 2017 and each had multiple positive features going for them but a consistent theme for each was the presence of a really good nose tackle commanding the A-gaps and forcing and then resisting double teams.

Meanwhile, Alabama overcame a brutal rash of injuries to their linebacker and safety positions for the simple reason that their DT tandem of Raekwon Davis and Da’Ron Payne made life pretty easy for whichever athletes that the Tide played behind them. Da’Ron Payne in particular absolutely dominated opposing centers and guards and guaranteed Alabama success in their principle strategy of winning games by controlling the trenches.

The reason these guys were so crucial is that they afforded their teams the ability to play smaller, faster, and more conservatively in their alignments and coverages behind the DL. With the nose commanding a double team from the center and guard, their linebackers could slow play RPOs by sitting on the quick routes before closing on the run without worrying that they’d be punished for that hesitation by the advance of an interior OL.

In the NFL nose tackles are of limited value because the main thrust of pro-style offenses is the dropback passing game and you beat that with quick interior pressure, not the consumption of double teams. To beat the Patriots you need a Fletcher Cox but in the spread RPO era, speed and quickness is of increasing value at most defensive positions but not necessarily nose tackle where teams need to be able to field big men that can eat blocks. In college you need a Ross Blacklock or Poona Ford if not a Da’Ron Payne.

Tom Herman’s Texas Longhorns had an amazing 2018 recruiting class, signing eight of the top 15 players in the state of Texas per 247’s rankings. However, the state of Texas was loaded with elite skill athletes in this cycle, so the Longhorns were filling up with DBs and WRs in those rankings. The more important signings by Herman may prove to have been DL Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo, a pair of prospective nose tackles that project as players that could eat double teams and allow all of those top 15 athletes the opportunity to dominate.

Can your best defenders stay on the field?

One of the hardest components of college defense is the wide variety of offensive schemes that a unit has to be able to stop. Beyond the variety you find in each conference, which despite the reputation of different leagues does typically include some notable exceptions, winning the playoffs may require facing teams from totally different leagues.

While many teams look to build base packages that are as flexible as possible, there generally has to be some sub-packaging in order to match up against all the different players and styles that a team faces. That means that a defense’s best players often need to be guys that can perform in multiple roles.

It’s hard to say what might have happened to Alabama, for instance, if Thorpe award recipient Minkah Fitzpatrick didn’t have the flexibility and knowhow to play every single position in their secondary and move around to shore things up when guys went down with injury. Similarly, Georgia was made much more flexible as a defense by the fact that star DB Aaron Davis could play as a cornerback, nickel, or dime defender and take on the toughest coverage assignment for the Dawgs in every game regardless of where that took place on the field. As a result, Georgia had a base 3-4 package, a 3-3-5 nickel package, a 2-4-5 pass-rushing package, and a 3-2-6 dime package that could allow them to move their best players into the positions on the field where they needed to be in a given situation.

Recruiting rankings are often based on projections such as, “this guy is the perfect prototype of a middle linebacker,” but the real key is that your best players project to multiple positions so that they can stay on the field and be in the right spots at the right times to play winning, situational football.

So, did your team sign the kinds of players that can translate potential into wins in the modern college game?