Recruiting Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is not the name of a tight end secret commit that Jeff Tedford and staff have stashed away somewhere, but rather the study of principles of interpretation; something that can come in handy when trying to navigate oceans of recruiting information.

With all of the recruiting news being generated this spring and summer, processing it is a challenge for even the most knowledgeable of fans. There's video, combine results, rankings, interviews and from all of that, one tries to assess a player's ability and gauge the level interest between the prospect and the college. Complicating matters is that teams can't publicly disclose who they're recruiting; even though Scout reporters throughout the country do their best to put together as complete a picture about which players are drawing interest from certain schools, there are bound to be some recruits who pop us as 11th hour surprises. While late news may catch fans off-guard, almost every recruit who signs a letter of intent has been in contact with the coaching staff for several months.

For those wondering how best to navigate the thicket of information, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1.  Know how you assign credibility.

There are different levels of knowledge and understanding with regards to recruiting news. If one had to do a rough breakdown of the spectrum of people with recruiting knowledge, it would probably go something like this.

  Evaluating ability Getting current information
Highest People who regularly see the player in games People who talk to the players
  People who've seen the player in combines People who talk to coaches
  People who've seen highlight videos People who talk to people who talk to players and coaches
  People who read lots of Internet reports People who peruse other Internet sites
Lowest People who make things up People who speculate

Almost all of the articles on this site will include interviews with a key principal - whether it's a player, a coach, a parent, or somebody who camped with a player.   In combing through posts on message boards, there will be lots of speculation - some people will be overly optimistic and others will be extremely pessimistic.   Going into this spring's letter-of-intent day - some people felt Cal would get all/most of its top targets, others thought the Bears would do well to get a couple.   In the final analysis, the people who ended up being the most accurate had the most direct access to the best information.

2.    Never read too much into any one single article.

With some recruits still months away from making their decisions, there's a deluge of mail and phone calls for them to sift through. During some weeks, a player's status might be updated two or three times from different reporters. Invariably what happens is that during one of the updates, a player who's been mentioning a certain school, might not mention that particular school and soon everybody is up in arms about why the school has slipped out of the player's top five.  There are various reasons for this; sometimes a player might have been in the middle of something when the phone call came and it might have slipped his mind, and other times the player might have provided a big list of schools and the reporter might have not written all of them down.  It's also possible that a reporter might only be interested in a player's interest relative to a certain school.  For example, follow the reporting on one player through the spring, and note that the stories are coming from throughout the network from a combination of national and site reporters.

Date Author Status/Quote
February 16 Writer 1 Reported top five of UCLA, Cal, San Diego State, Kansas and USC; one offer from San Diego St.
"I just like (UCLA and Cal) a lot. I've been to Cal's campus and liked it. I was there for the Big Game this year. And I liked UCLA a lot too."
March 21 Writer 2 Favors Cal and UCLA, likes Oregon, USC, Kansas, Duke, Florida, San Diego State, Michigan State and Mississippi
"My father always kind of wanted to go UCLA, but he ended up at Stanford. He loved it, of course, but him and my mother really like UCLA."
April 14 Writer 3 Favorites are USC, UCLA and Kansas
"I dont know many kids from California who would turn down an offer from USC right now. Ninety per cent of the kids out here would want to go there now."
May 23 Writer 2 Lists new top five of Cal, USC, UCLA, Washington State and Notre Dame
"I just wanted to let you know that I got another offer...I just got one from Washington State."
May 25 Writer 4 Reiterates top five of Washington State, Cal, USC, UCLA and Notre Dame in no particular order
"I think outside of those, though, there are a lot of schools that could soon be right there."
June 9 Writer 5 Commits to Cal
"If you've got an offer from a school you really like, that's fairly close to home, a program on the rise and with great academics, why wait? Cal's a great place. With their location, environment and academics, it's a school I'd love to go to even if I didn't play football."

A recruit can only answer the questions that he's asked. They usually aren't inclined to steer the line of questioning, and they certainly don't have control over the direction of the story.  A writer can ask a question, get an answer and write the story in such a way that would slant the player's thinking.  Throughout these stories, the player generally lumps Cal, UCLA and USC as his favorites. However, if one were to have looked at the story on April 14th, one could have surmised that Cal was no longer in the player's top grouping of schools.  Yet, this wasn't consistent with the past stories, and the gushing about USC did not parallel the stories written both before and after April 14th.  

3.  Take rankings with a grain of salt.

Rankings drive the recruiting reporting engine.  A team's success is likely to depend on how many four- and five-star prospects it's able to attract - and the more of those players that appear on various Top 25 or Top 100 lists, the better.  Yet there is no tried and true method for evaluating football players.  Combine results can be helpful - but not all athletes are tested on the same surfaces under the same conditions.  As impressive as a player's 40 time or vertical jump might be, it's impossible to tell how well that translates on the football field.  While the drills all are designed to evaluate talent, it's no substitute for 11-on-11 football played in game conditions.

Beyond the combine, another way to evaluate players is through watching assorted highlights tapes.  While highlights give insights into the player's peak ability and the extent to which a player can dominate play - careful attention also has to be given to the quality of opposition.  For example, one incoming Cal offensive player looked outstanding in one set of highlights - but how many people were aware of the fact that many of those highlights were against a team that gave up more than 80 points that afternoon?

Since nobody has time to watch game film after game film on the hundreds (if not thousands) of recruits that have to be evaluated, it's understandable to focus on the highlights - but what is being missed? For example, one player who will come through this summer with a high ranking had an extremely rough showing in one of his team's most important regular season games last year.  In a game where his team was within one score against one of the area's top teams, this player had a couple of bad drops and fumbled the once in opposing territory - especially costly in a game when forays across the 50 were few and far between. In his defense, the player was coming back from injury at the time - and might not have been at full strength. No amount of highlight and combine information can address a player's ability to come through in big games.

Assessing prospects isn't like judging figure skating, where you throw out the high and low marks and work with everything else. Rankings are made by attempting to compare one player's best against another's; this is valid only if one can assume that the player plays at that high a level most of the time.

To those who've followed recruiting for any length of time, they won't hesistate to tell you that rankings aren't predictors of how well someone will play in college.

For example, take this list.

Kai Ellis Washington
Matt Ware UCLA
Shaun Cody USC
Charles Frederick Washington
Michael Craven Stanford
Reggie Williams Washington
Marvin Simmons USC
Kellen Clemens Oregon
Lamar Baker Arizona State
Lorenzo Alexander California

If you've guessed that it was one publication's list of the Pac-10's top 10 recruits for the 2001 class, pat yourself on the back. Ware, Cody, Williams, and Alexander all ended up doing well in college. Ellis was a JC transfer and the other nine came from high school either were seniors last fall or will be seniors this fall.  Names of note falling outside the top 10 - #14 Matt Leinart, #19 Derek Anderson, and #21 Spencer Havner.

But let's not stop there, here's another list:

DeShaun Foster
Jason Thomas
Leo Mills
Matt Leonard
Kyran Jones
Michael Ainsworth
Hakim Akbar
Mike Belisle
Kevin Brown
Tyler Thomas

If you've guessed that it was another publication's stab at the top incoming freshman for each Pac-10 school in 1999, you're correct. Of those 10 top newcomers, the only one that made any type of sustained impact was UCLA's DeShaun Foster. Jason Thomas transferred from USC to UNLV, and as for Michael Ainsworth, well, we won't go there.

As hard as it may be to fathom now, Ainsworth was projected as one of the nation's top 25 freshmen of influence, joining the likes of Carson Palmer, Roy Williams, and Todd Heap that fall. From that particular recruiting class, the Bears who went on to have the most impact were LaShaun Ward, Jemeel Powell, and Matt Nixon.

4.  Understand the marketplace of information.

Following a combine session last spring, one high school prospect was asked what schools he was considering. He was in the process of naming schools; his father was within earshot and knew what the reporter's interest was and yelled, "Tell him that Cal's your favorite!" On cue, the prospect then said Cal was his favorite.  Was Cal truly his favorite school? Was the father hoping that a favorable mention of Cal might mean a more favorable story, and might catch the eye of some key decision-makers?   Well, let's just say that some people have a better understanding of the process and won't overlook a chance to leverage it in their favor.

This isn't to cynically suggest that every player or every parent or even every coach would do that.  There is no single path that each recruit follows with regards to coming up with a list of favorites or not.  Some student-athletes will give us a list of favorite schools whether they've offered or not.  Others will only say that a school is one of their favorites if they've received an offer. This is done as a measure of respect - receiving a scholarship offer is signficant and some players want to avoid giving the impression that they're holding out for something better. 

Players will all have different timetables, different decision-making processes, and different levels of comfort in talking with the various reporters who talk to them. Take every input as a contribution to the overall understanding of a particular situation - but be wary of anybody who comes across heavy-handedly as the singular carrier and protector of the truth. Ulterior motives are likely to be in abundance - what they are, you might need Dan Brown to write a book about - but know that they're there. 

This spring, a recruit made an 11th hour decision that went against what conventional wisdom at the time dictated. One reporter spent the first 15% of the story asking the student-athlete about why chose a particular school, and the remaining 85% of the story asking this why he didn't choose another school, not why he didn't choose others, but one particular school.  For those familiar with this writer's work, the angle of the story wasn't all that surprising. From a journalistic standpoint, it was astoundingly poor form. 

5.  Be wary of self-reported anything.

Last year at a combine, an aspiring quarterback was reciting his statistics, including his completion percentage and was quick to point out how many passes were dropped.   Prior to running the 40, he said, he ran "about a 4.9."  He ran the drill twice, and the times were very comparable - 5.8 and 5.9 - which would be a slow time for a lineman.  It's not likely that this particular player had any intent to deceive anyone, he just had a slightly different idea of his athletic ability that the timers' two stop watches did.

In high school, bodies are undergoing significant changes, moreso if an athlete is doing different workouts to develop size, speed or agility. Players don't necessarily weigh themselves, measure themselves, and run the 40 every day - so certain measurements that might have held true at the beginning of the season might be quite a bit different at the end of the year. The challenge of how to increase one's weight without losing any speed is something that's going to vary from person to person.

Here's a random sample of four players who participated in the spring Scout.com combines. The first set of columns includes what the player self-reported - information coming from a phone call, or possibly a team roster. The second set of columns shows what was actually measured at the combine. In the first case, a wide receiver's height and speed are fairly close to what was originally reported - but the weight difference is significant. A 171-pound wide receiver is fairly light, at 157 pounds, a receiver will need the cojones of Vinny Strang to play at the D-I level.

In the second example, the defensive back's actual weight and speed are comparable to what was self-reported, but the difference is in height.  While two inches may be insignificant if a defensive back is athletic and has good technique - the trend towards taller wide receivers means that taller defensive backs will be valued more highly.

The third example is of an offensive lineman whose actual numbers show him to be a little shorter, a lot heavier, and a lot slower that originally reported. At 4.9, one can envision a pulling guard capable of throwing downfield blocks, at 5.73, expectations might have to be scaled back considerably.

The fourth case shows a running back.  The height is consistent, but at 180 and a 4.5 40 time and barring unusual elusiveness, the player would have to add mass and strength to become an everyday back. At 166 and 4.75, one would have to hope that the player was timed on a slow surface and has scatback qualities.

With all four of these players - only differences in height, weight, and 40 time are noted. The measure of a player's football intelligence and competitive drive can't be measured with a tape, a scale, or a stop watch. These qualities can make some compensation for shortcomings - but for a lineman whose 40 time is pushing 6-flat, it wouldn't matter if he was Einstein.

Position Height Weight 40 time
  Self-reported Actual Self-reported Actual Self-reported Actual
WR 5' 11" 5' 10" 171 157 4.55 4.63
DB 6' 1" 5' 11" 175 167 4.5 4.53
OL 6' 4" 6' 2.5" 290 300 4.9 5.73
RB 5' 9" 5' 8.5" 180 166 4.5 4.75

6.  Make use of available resources.

Most news about Cal recruits will be found on the Insiders message board or the site's front page, either as a feature or as a Hot News item.  There are additional resources available throughout the site and the Scout network.

For those who want to access updated lists about who the Bears are recruiting and who they've made offers to, click here.   Clicking on a specific player's name will bring up a player page that will include all feature stories, videos, and Hot News items.

Scout's primary football recruiting site can be found here. This is a good resource for lists of national and regional Hot 50 and Hot 100 lists The page also has recruiting updates from throughout the network that are divided regionally.

Other Pac 10 sites on the network generate stories about recruiting on a regular basis. If there's interest between a player and Cal, there's almost certainly interest from at least one other Pac-10 school.  Links to other sites are on The Bear Insider front page; another way to quickly access the site is to type in http://schoolname.scout.com using USC/UCLA/Oregon/Oregon State/Washington/Washington State/Arizona/Arizona State/Stanford as the school name.

 


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Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.


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