Layman's Guide to Recruiting Rankings

Internet discussions are often very binary 0 or 1, Yes or No. This mindset is very apparent in the area of recruiting rankings.

On one hand you have people who live and die with what the rankings say. A small fluctuation up or down can cause joy or despair.

The other hand has people who consider the rankings absolute bunk and refuse to lend an credence at all to the rankings.

The savvy fan understands that the rankings are an assessment tool much like power ratings. They provide useful information but are not the final answer.

Just as power rankings sometimes provide bad information (see when Harvard was rated ahead of about FBS schools) the outlier mistakes do not automatically make the other information bad. Recruiting rankings, especially when viewing multiple rankings to get an overall sense of where schools line up tend to give good but not complete information.

As we’ve discussed on the message board, the best rated AState recruiting class over-stated AState’s incoming roster because so many of the players Malzahn signed ended up not being on campus.

The first thing to understand is rankings are not a measure of every high school senior. That is pool of more than 250,000 players a year and 99% will not be seriously considered for a scholarship spot on an FBS team. The players are not rated one to 250,000, instead it is closer to one to 4,000, there will be roughly 3,000 players who sign a national letter of intent with an FBS program as a high school senior, and actually below that as some schools cannot take 25 in a given year and they use some slots for junior college players. Of the probably just under 3,000 you can expect roughly 5% will not be at the school they signed with in August for a variety of reasons but academic issues will be the most prevalent.

When you see that a recruit is a one star or even zero star in the rankings that does not mean they are rated similar to the #249,999th high school football senior, but they are rated toward the bottom of the 4000 or so players who received FBS consideration. Being low ranked by the recruiting services still places a player ahead of 98% or 99% of all high school seniors.

The rankings do not take into account the needs of a particular school. A receiver’s rating value does not take into account whether the player is going to a school that will give him 2-3 touches per game or 10-12 touches. Nor do they take into account whether an offensive lineman is better retreat blocking or attacking and the offensive bent of the team recruiting him.

Another matter to remember is that recruiting rankings are linear. The gap between the top rated and fifth rated quarterback can easily be larger than the gap between the fifth rated QB and the 20th rated QB. In the rankings the school signing #5 will likely be rewarded much more than the school signing the 20th rated QB.

One risk in the evaluation system is a scout second-guessing a rating decision. If you think a player is a two star and suddenly a top school is recruiting that player, a scout may begin to wonder why Texas or USC is crazy about this kid who seemed average (among true prospects). Faced with that a scout may be inclined to re-evaluate even if no other top schools share that affinity for the player.

Now it is widely assumed that simply drawing interest from a top school will result in a player adding stars. That can happen as I noted above where the person evaluating second guesses the rating decision. What you must keep in mind is that a player will generally receive his first scored evaluation as a junior or sophomore player. Players do improve and mature.

The player with two stars when rated as a junior who becomes a four star senior most likely has improved to earn that rating. Chances are Ohio State and Alabama were not interested in that player as a junior when he earned two stars, now that he has improved, he has earned a better rating and that improvement is why Alabama and Ohio State joined the recruiting party late.

Before the Super Bowl there was a lot made of the lack of top rated recruits on the rosters of New England and Seattle. That really should not be surprising.

Recruiting rankings are a snapshot of a player at age 17 or 18. In four or five years a player can grow, mature, and improve his skills a great deal. High school players are often ready or close to ready for MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS, the PGA or professional tennis because all those sports have select teams that play vast numbers of games against higher competition than is normally found on a high school schedule. Football lacks a similar set of competition, there is not just physical improvement to do in college, there is a great deal of skills improvement required seeing new techniques as well as tougher competition.

College selection can also impact a player’s development as well. A moderately rated player going to Alabama may get few snaps in game conditions may be less prepared for the NFL than a player rated the same at Arkansas State who may play the majority snaps for three or four years. The scheme at a school may highlight a player’s strongest skills and allow him time to improve his weaknesses.

The failure of an athlete to make it to the pro level does not equal being a “bust”. Take Basil Shabazz for example. He wasn’t academically qualified so he went to pro baseball and ended up going out of pro baseball for off-field actions more than his playing. When he enrolled a UAPB he ended up being injured and had to give up football. That does not mean he wasn’t a freak of nature. At age 41 he ran a 4.67 forty.

Another Arkansan who would have caused a recruiting yawn was Scottie Pippen. You cannot expect to project a player will grow another seven inches and still retain his guard ball handling ability. If the services had been in place when he was a high school senior, being an unrated small college prospect would have been an accurate rating.

The services rely heavily on measurable things like, height, weight, dash times, arm length, etc. The weakness is that services cannot effectively project the three great causes of a star player becoming a “bust”.
1. Injuries
2. Academics
3. Discipline / off-field issues.

The rankings are useful in gaining a big picture oversight of where a program is in its recruiting (remember since the advent of such services no team has won a national title without a top 10 recruiting class at least once in the preceding four years). The rankings cannot accurately sort out exact finishes because of attrition, later additions, and how well talent is developed and utilized but they do give a fair snapshot of the talent flowing in.

Finally it is important to return to one of the first themes I laid out. The number of players we are truly talking about. At most 4000 out of at least 250,000 high school seniors are being discussed in football recruiting and of that 4000 about 25% will not end up signing with an FBS team. By very definition we are talking elite players. The amount of improvement or regression a player shows can result in a big move in the rankings. Every year there will be players who seem securely within the group of 3000 or so who will sign a letter of intent with an FBS school and fall out of that group by not living up to their play as a junior (or even showing poor judgment on social media) while others will climb in.

The below chart compares the common assumption that it is difficult to move up or down a level with what is the case as established by evidence.