Recruiting rankings are quite good at predicting the teams that will be at the top of college football.
But have recruiting rankings improved that much over time? The experts say yes. I spoke with national recruiting directors Tom Luginbill of ESPN, Scott Kennedy of Scout.com, and JC Shurburtt of 247 Sports. Each has more than a decade in the business of ranking college football recruits.
"Oh I think they've improved a lot," said Kennedy. "The old standby is you judge based on the offers, and most of the time you're going to get them right if you go with the kid who gets the most offers, and those are usually the best players -- but that's not always."
One of the most noticeable differences between the rankings from the early beginnings of the industry (around the turn of the century) and now is the smaller percentage of elite players who fall through the cracks.
"I think we do a better job these days of finding the in-state talents who stay in the state, from-a-smaller-place kind of guy. Like a Darren McFadden, who picked Arkansas and is from Arkansas, and no one else really paid close attention to him [Scout ranked McFadden the No. 9 running back nationally]," Kennedy said. "Twenty years ago, maybe no one paid attention to him at all. Now, everybody is going to see a guy like Darren McFadden, even in a small state like Arkansas, even though he stayed home and didn't do the publicity tour like many of these guys have."
Schools offering players scholarships earlier earlier in the annual recruiting calendar has also helped the industry get a head start on finding the best of the best.
"Five, 10 years ago, in-state schools usually waited to offer their best in-state players until the end," Kennedy said. "So the old saying was: offer the guys you're not going to get first. And that still happens to a certain extent, but if I'm in the state of Georgia, as soon as Georgia offers a guy, that sends a signal that this is the guy -- who's going to know the state of Georgia better than Georgia? So, basically, as soon as Georgia would offer a guy, then everybody else in the world would offer a guy."
And in turn, that causes the recruiting analysts to go out and attempt to find the players earlier than ever.
"Well, Georgia can't afford to wait anymore, because there's 10 scouts working for media companies telling everybody how good this kid is," Kennedy said. "The in-state schools can't wait to offer the in-state guys the way they used to."
But how are more players being seen?
Digital film the most important advancement
The nine-year-old YouTube and its successive digital video providers were repeatedly cited as the most important driving force that allows recruiting rankings to become more accurate and comprehensive. It is exceedingly rare for a player not to have digital film that is easily accessible.
"I'd probably say that the biggest change to affect everybody is internet-based film," Luginbill said. "That more than anything, especially with YouTube, Hudl and XOS, that's really changed everything in the recruiting industry. It's changed the job of every coach at every university."
"It is more difficult [for players to fall through the cracks]," Luginbill said. "I think without a doubt, it's provided more opportunities for more kids. In the past, [coaches] could say, 'Well, we didn't send any foot traffic in [to a school], because in the past, they didn't have any kids. Not worth our time.' Well now, you don't have to send any foot traffic in there. If you can see ahead of time that there's somebody there, you can make your assessment and then decide if you need to go. I do believe that it's enhanced opportunities for a lot of kids, but maybe more than anything, it's taken the opportunity for the college coaches and folks like ourselves to get an early start on building a database, putting together each and every class."
Having digital film has also allowed the media outlets to shift their resources from preparation to evaluation.
"It's made it a lot easier," Shurburtt said. "Our job's easier as far as time resources spent on collecting film. At Rivals.com, I remember we'd go on the road and come back with a box of film. We'd have to UPS it back to the office to get them to cut it up. Now with everything on Hudl -- and the guys at Hudl do a great job; that's probably the number one online resource for high school teams, high school players, recruits, and college coaches, in my opinion. Just because it's all out there, you can get game film, highlights, just about every player is on it, etc. It's a great resource for us, too, from an evaluation standpoint."
Viewing the film beforehand makes the in-person evaluation that much more efficient.
"If you know going into a combine or a camp or an all-star game or a school's practice, you've already watched some film on those guys," Shurburtt said. "At that point it's not about going out there and making a call on the evaluation. You've got an idea in your head. It's about going out there and seeing if the film checks out."
LSU's Leonard Fournette, 2014's No. 1 freshman. Kim Klement, USA Today
Digital film also allows ranking services to more closely emulate the processes used by colleges.
"That's sort of how they do it at the college level," Shurburtt said. "The film is broken down and all that, and the in-person thing is more about to see, well, is this guy really this fast, or is this guy really gonna move this way, or is he really shaped this way? With the different states and different competition levels and the way you can kind of make film look, there's a BS factor you have to consider, so you have to fact-check it in person. Because we have so much film available to us, it gives us a chance to go and complete an evaluation by seeing a kid in person rather than that being the starting point of the evaluation."
The quality of the film has also improved the accuracy of evaluations. Details are more easily picked out.
"To me, that's the biggest difference. Good, quality video is easier to come by," Kennedy said. "There's no excuse for not having good video anymore. Seven years ago, digital cameras dropped under $1,000. Every school should have a digital camera. Now, they're part of someone's phone. Your [cell phone] shoots better video than anything I saw 10 years ago."
While the availability of digital film is the most significant change to the evaluation process over the last decade, other developments have also contributed.
One of the biggest is the explosion of the camp, combine, and seven-on-seven schedule. Camps allow potentially good players to get on the radars of recruiting services before they break out on the field -- sometimes even before they enter high school. I can remember seeing superstar athlete Jacques Patrick in March of 2012 at a rather small camp when he had no scholarship offers. Now, entering his senior season, he has more than 30. If Patrick had not gone to that camp, and others that spring, it might have been a little while before he emerged on the scene. Sure, Patrick would still have received all of his eventual offers, but the recruiting media has had a chance to see him for four years.
"It's tenfold," Luginbill said when asked to compare the camp and combine landscape today against a decade ago. "It's dramatically enhanced. There's so many more opportunities now for kids, whether it's the Under Armour camps or the Nike camps or The Opening. All that stuff."
"If you include all the seven-on-sevens it's probably quintupled, at least," Kennedy said. The number of seven-on-sevens, it used to just be Nike. Then Adidas dabbled around for a few years, Scout had a combine series for a couple years, Rivals just got into one and filled the space Scout had as the No. 2 camp behind Nike."
Using camps to confirm what an analyst sees on film, or as cause to go back and reevaluate, is a common theme. Is the player as tall or as fast as he or his coach says? What about his wingspan? How are his frame and bone structure put together?
"Yeah, they're either going to confirm or prove us wrong," Luginbill said. "And then flexibility, which is really important, in our opinion, when it comes to linemen. You can see a lot of that stuff in a camp and combine setting, which is valuable."
Because levels of competition in high school can vary to such a great extent, camps also offer an opportunity for comparison.
"And also athleticism. How quick is this DT really?" Shurburtt asked. "Or is he up against OL who are slower than owl poop? It's a confirmation. I try to tell my guys all the time at 247 -- and this is a work in progress to be quite frank -- don't write about a guy at a camp that because he lost reps or because he won all these reps he's great, and all the sudden a Division I guy. Those are just reps. That's not football. If he lost a bunch of reps, why is it? Is it because he was slow? Or is it because he's 6'8, 350 and he's going up against a guy that's 5'11, 150 in that drill where the guy can take five yards and go around him? I think too often, because we're all sportswriters, we sit there and we want a scoreboard. 'Seven reps to two, okay that means this guy ...' well, it's not that kind of deal. It's more of an evaluation rather than a test, if that's a good way to put it. It's not an exam. It's an evaluation."
Kennedy also noted that camps and competitions can be important to gauge how a player acts, competes, and interacts with his teammates or competitors.
Best of 2015
Not all analysts agree that more camps are a good thing.
"I think there's too many of them," Shurburtt said. "I think there's too many guys out there that are good guys, that their heart's in the right place, that think they can make a lot of money doing it and demand exposure. It causes hard feelings with the media, because we can't get out and cover every single thing out there. It's diluted. Whereas you used to have one or two camp circuits a year; you could just about see everybody, and you could use those as great tools. Nowadays, with the way it's diluted, if you go to one camp and there's 10 D-I guys on a local level, you're fired up about it. Especially in the current cycle."
Opinions were more mixed on the specific value of seven-on-seven competitions. For the most part, camps consist of drills and individual competition, while seven-on-seven is a team competition, usually in a tournament format and essentially football without linemen or running the football, all for the purpose of improving passing game fundamentals.
"To me seven-on-seven is more valuable than the camp and combine stuff," Luginbill said. "It really is. You have one-on-one matchups, you have competitive temperament, you have a variation of the game actually being played. Those things are all valuable tools and have provided more opportunities and exposure to make assessments more accurately."
Shurburtt also had an interesting take on the seven-on-seven phenomenon as it pertains to quarterback evaluations:
JC Shurburtt: Well, it depends on which position. I think receivers and DBs, it pretty much is what it is. It's one-on-one. Can a guy cover, can a guy make a good catch?
I think it's hurt the quarterback position. I think so much of playing quarterback at a high level is about competing and competition and pressure. There's no pressure in seven-on-seven. There's no pressure literally coming from a defensive lineman, and there's no pressure figuratively to win, because these are basically just backyard football scrimmages.
One thing I liked about Teddy Bridgewater when he came out was when he played seven-on-seven he almost put some pressure on himself for his team to win. That was rare. I saw Teddy drive his team down the field and win down at The Opening one year. They were behind, and it was just like he had this look in his eye. I always respected that about him. A lot of these quarterbacks are just out there throwing, going through the motions. It doesn't really matter.
All of us -- coaches, analysts, scouts -- we get a look at quarterbacks throwing without pressure so many times, it's easier to go, 'Hey, this guy's got a great arm," or, 'He's got this, he's got that.' We're all guilty of it.
But a lot of times these guys, when they get to college, are really bad. Because they fall apart when the physical part of the game comes and they've been working on playing quarterback against air and no pads for most of the year at specialized quarterback camps or whatnot, trying to get the fundamentals down and all that. When the lights come on at that next level, it's a different thing.
I think the guy that goes out and plays baseball or that goes out and is part of a state championship basketball team, and maybe isn't out there doing seven-on-sevens the entire offseason, maybe isn't working with the quarterbacks coach: I'll take that guy. Because I'll tell you, the college coaches are going to teach him and develop him. There's something to be said about having experience in high-pressure situations when you have to compete at that position, and I‘m sorry, but seven-on-seven doesn't do it. Private quarterback coaching camps don't do it. If you're on a high school team where you're running a spread offense tempo and you never get touched and you're in the shotgun the whole time, I'm sorry, that's not going to do it.
As far as the realities of college football -- Jameis Winston, one of the reasons I'm convinced he was so good this year is he's used to competing.
BE: He's Florida State's closer in baseball.
JS: If Jameis had come out and never played any other sports and just kind of been a quarterback prodigy, my guess is he probably wouldn't have been as good. It probably would have been a lot like a Jimmy Clausen situation or something.
I think there's something to be said about that. So as far as quarterback evaluations go, I think it's given us a lot of false sense of potential and has led to a lot of mis-evals, both in terms of guys going up and guys being ranked too low.
BE: As evaluators, do you think we put too much on seven-on-seven quarterbacks who do really well and maybe we need to focus on the negative a little more, like "Why are they still bad throwing picks in no-pressure situations?" as opposed to "Hey, they're doing so well." Maybe what we need to look for is red flags that emerge when no pressure is even on.
JS: Yes, and there's two ways to look at that, too. Because at times, there's guys that when there's no pressure, they can't perform.
BE: Sure, some kids suck in practice.
JS: But I think you're on to something there as far as if a guy lights up a seven-on-seven, how's he doing it? What's he missing? Is he throwing the ball into tight spaces? Is it the things in a game that will help him, or is it just he's good at running tempo and has great chemistry with his receivers and all that? That's the difference there.
I do think as an industry we have to start looking more at how we look at quarterbacks when we look at them in seven-on-seven.
In the next installment of our conversation, we'll expand on Shurburtt's comments and discuss how the industry and ranking process can improve.