The recruitment of Gunner Kiel took some odd twists and turns over the past 12 months. At one point or another, Oklahoma, Alabama and Missouri were considered favorites for his services, but in late-July, he committed to Kevin Wilson and his home-state Indiana Hoosiers. Three months later, he de-committed. By mid-December, he was an LSU Tiger. And then, out of nowhere, he enrolled at Notre Dame.
Kiel's is not the only up-and-down, left-and-right recruiting saga to have emerged this year, or in any other year. We are reminded often that commitments are not worth much, and that a high school senior's recruitment is a work in progress all the way up until Signing Day. And if you asked coaching staffs, they would probably say that a lot of the drama is absolutely, positively worth it. When it comes to top prospects, the payoff is consistently good enough to be worth the pain, especially at the quarterback position.
In terms of both perception and actual product, it seems no one player can do more for a program than a big-time quarterback. Fans of BYU (Tanner Mangum), California (Zach Kline), Florida State (Jameis Winston), Notre Dame (Kiel) and Washington (Cyler Miles) are likely thrilled with recruiting right now, because they have all scored commitments from either a five-star or high-four-star recruit. And to be sure, blue-chippers are more likely to succeed than a two-star no-name. There is a balance involved, however. Two years ago, in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2010, I wrote an essay about the correlation between recruiting rankings and quarterback performance. The conclusion was that, predictably, both experience and caliber matter when it comes to successful quarterback play.
Average Passing S&P+ According to Recruiting Ranking
and Years of Experience
Star Ratings /
Yrs. From HS Grad.
0 Yrs. 1 Year 2 Yrs. 3 Yrs. 4 Yrs. Two stars 84.5 90.6 89 96.7 97.2 Three stars 89.6 101.3 102 102.6 100.6 Four stars 96.8 108.3 111.6 112.9 110.2 Five stars 105.1 115.3 121.9 119 N/A
Experience and talent (as evaluated by recruiting experts) interact in an interesting way. The data suggests that a five-star true freshman is going to produce at a level similar to a four-star second-year player, or a three-star third-year player.
The data also shows that at some point, experience stops mattering quite as much. Your growth is strongest in the first 12 months at the college level, and it is still steady between years two and three. Once you are three or four years removed from high school, the quality of your overall passing might (or might not) still be improving, though with a lesser slope. Among other things, this goes against the generally accepted notion that players who thrive as juniors are going to get better as seniors; usually, what you were as a junior is approximately what you will be the next season.
One of the more interesting parts of that study was the fact that the bluest of blue-chippers tend to be quite a bit more likely to play as true freshmen, and because of that, their career stats tend to lag behind lesser recruits (who were probably on the bench until they were more seasoned). On most occasions, you are trading short-term pain for long-term gain when you sign an elite quarterback; and if you don't endure the short-term pain, you might not retain the services of said quarterback for very long. Big-time quarterbacks are not so much hit-or-miss as hit-or-hit-with-another-team-after-transferring.
From 2005 to 11, 30 quarterback were given either a five-star or high-four-star rating by Rivals.com, including LSU's Russell Shepard, who ended up a wide receiver. Whereas about 70 percent of blue-chip running backs play as freshmen and 80 percent of wide receivers do, the quarterback position, with its extreme learning curve, typically involves a bit more seasoning. Of the 29 players who remained at quarterback, only 15 avoided a redshirt (51 percent), and only 12 got any serious playing time. Meanwhile, almost as many eventually transferred (10) as either completed their eligibility (eight) or went pro after three years (six). When you are a blue-chip quarterback, you are, predictably, more likely to flee for the promise of playing time elsewhere than a lower-rung recruit.
To get an idea for what is in store for blue-chip quarterbacks, let's once again separate them into categories based on how much they played (or didn't play) as first-year freshmen. (Note: "plays" below refer to the number of combined rushes and passes attempted by the given player; it ignores plays in which the quarterback handed off to a running back.)
Redshirted -- 14 Players
- Tajh Boyd, Clemson (2009)
- John Brantley, Florida (2007)
- Aaron Corp, USC (2007)
- Dayne Crist, Notre Dame (2008)
- Jonathan Crompton, Tennessee (2005)
- Mike Glennon, N.C. State (2008)
- Demetrius Jones, Notre Dame (2006)
- Jake Locker, Washington (2006)
- Andrew Luck, Stanford (2008)
- E.J. Manuel, Florida State (2008)
- Aaron Murray, Georgia (2009)
- Ryan Perriloux, LSU (2005)
- Tyrik Rollison, Auburn (2009)
- Mark Sanchez, USC (2005)
For most quarterbacks on this list, there was already an entrenched, likely blue-chip incumbent at their school of choice when they enrolled, from Tim Tebow at Florida, to Brady Quinn at Notre Dame, to Matt Leinart at USC. Some perhaps needed a bit more seasoning during a redshirt year; Murray redshirted despite having a clear incumbent at Georgia in 2009, but it paid off -- he has passed for nearly 6,200 yards, 59 touchdowns and 22 interceptions in two years as the Dawgs' starter. And to say the least, others like Sanchez, Luck and Manuel thrived when given the opportunity.
Of course, others either never, or barely, got the opportunity they were looking for at their chosen school. Perriloux was kicked off the team after a couple of years, Jones transferred when he lost the quarterback job to fellow blue-chipper Jimmy Clausen, Corp did the same after losing the job to Matt Barkley, Crist eventually transferred after a few years of trying and failing to land the Notre Dame starting job post-Clausen, and Rollison was the backup quarterback for FCS runner-up Sam Houston this year.
Both situation and capability factor into decisions to redshirt incoming stars. It will be the same for the incoming batch of blue-chippers. Kiel will have to overtake Tommy Rees to see early playing time, while Winston will sit behind E.J. Manuel, Miles behind Keith Price, et cetera.
Mop-Up Duty (Fewer Than 100 Plays) -- Six Players
- Cam Newton, Florida (26 plays, 143 total yards in 2007)
- Blaine Gabbert, Missouri (19 plays, 65 total yards in 2008)
- Ben Olson, UCLA (four plays, 11 total yards in 2005)
Two of these three players were backups to heavily-entrenched stars. Gabbert served as Chase Daniel's backup during Daniel's senior season in 2008, while Newton backed up sophomore Tim Tebow during his Heisman campaign. The timing was better for Gabbert, who took over as a starter in 2009, than for Newton. After taking a medical redshirt in 2008, Newton ended up transferring first to Blinn College, then to Auburn after facing the combination of a) one more year behind Tebow in 2009 and b) an arrest for laptop theft in November 2008.
(Olson, meanwhile, is an odd case. He technically wasn't a redshirt freshman in 2005 -- he had redshirted at BYU in 2002 before taking a medical redshirt and transferring. But he was still listed as a five-star commit for UCLA in 2005. He ended up plagued by injuries throughout his short career at Westwood.)
When Missouri coach Gary Pinkel elected to burn Gabbert's redshirt despite the fact that he would barely receive any snaps, he stated that the goal was primarily to get Gabbert true, week-to-week preparation in anticipation of becoming the starter in 2009. Whatever the logic, it basically worked -- Gabbert threw for over 6,700 yards, 40 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in two years, then was picked in the top ten of the 2011 NFL Draft. And needless to say, it worked out pretty well for Newton, who only won a national title and a Heisman Trophy in his single year as an FBS-level starter in 2010, then was picked No. 1 in the 2011 draft.
- Jevan Snead, Texas (76 plays, 458 yards in 2006)
- Garrett Gilbert, Texas (77 plays, 315 yards in 2009)
- Jeff Driskel, Florida (50 plays, 166 yards in 2011)
These three players were primed for either a redshirt or for mop-up duty until injuries thrust them into more action than they anticipated, and they are tied together in unique ways. Both Gilbert and Snead subbed in for an injured Colt McCoy, while both Gilbert and Driskel saw their first serious action against a ferocious Alabama defense. Snead ended up transferring to Ole Miss, where he posted solid, if somewhat careless (46 touchdowns, 33 interceptions), numbers in two years as a starter for the Rebels.
Part-Timer (Fewer Than 250 Plays) -- Four Players
- Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech (236 plays, 1,356 yards in 2007)
- Mitch Mustain, Arkansas (145 plays, 874 yards in 2006)
- Tim Tebow, Florida (122 plays, 827 yards in 2006)
- Ryan Mallett, Michigan (165 plays, 772 yards in 2007)
These four players fell into two arrangements: two split time with starters (Tebow and Taylor), and two saw extended time due to injuries (Mallett, Mustain). All four acquitted themselves at least reasonably well. Tebow basically served as a short-yardage back, and Taylor provided a nice change of pace; both averaged at least 5.7 yards per "play," as did Mustain. Mallett was limited and inefficient in his time in Ann Arbor (61-for-141 passing, seven touchdowns, five interceptions), but he obviously rectified that to a degree once he transferred to Arkansas. Mustain, meanwhile, transferred to USC and barely saw the field, instead falling behind on the depth chart to fellow blue-chippers Aaron Corp and, eventually, Matt Barkley.
All four of these players saw solid playing time for Top 25 programs, and three ended up succeeding at a high level (two for their original schools). Chances are, if you are getting this much early playing time, it is going to end up paying off.
Thrown Into The Deep End (More Than 300 Plays) -- Five Players
- Matt Barkley, USC (397 plays, 2,697 yards in 2009)
- Terrelle Pryor, Ohio State (304 plays, 1,942 yards in 2008)
- Matthew Stafford, Georgia (303 plays, 1,940 yards in 2006)
- Braxton Miller, Ohio State (316 plays, 1,874 yards in 2011)
- Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (307 plays, 1,067 yards in 2007)
Each of these five players began the season behind a limited veteran and eventually overtook them for the starting job. Four of these five were five-star athletes, and three of the four who are done at their given schools, were picked among the top five in the NFL Draft. Since recruits this elite tend not to end up at anything other than an elite school, it is rare for one to be so completely handed the keys this early. Of course, when it happens, transfers are basically removed from the equation.
Of the five most elite quarterbacks in this year's class (listed above), it is safe to say that one to two of them will see serious action in 2012, about two to three will redshirt, and around two will end up transferring to another school for one reason or another. On average, one will become a Matt Barkley or Tyrod Taylor-level player, one will become a Blaine Gabbert or E.J. Manuel, one will become a Mike Glennon or Jonathan Crompton, one will become a Dayne Crist or Jevan Snead, and one will become an Aaron Corp or Mitch Mustain. Quarterbacks who receive a high-four- or five-star designation have already proven quite a bit, and with experience, most will end up playing at a reasonably high level. But it would probably be smart for the schools who land these types of players to go ahead and try to land another one next year.