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Projecting how high school athletes will develop in a college program -- physical growth, dealing with distractions and adapting to position changes -- is an inexact science.
Associated Press | File April
Tackle Eric Fisher from Central Michigan stands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected first overall in the NFL Draft.
Associated Press | File 2012
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones (12) goes back to pass as tackle Lane Johnson blocks for him. Johnson was a quarterback in high school before bulking up and moving to the offensive line.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Watching the NFL Draft every year tests Mike Farrell’s reserve.
The national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com makes his living projecting how high school players will do at the college level, and each year’s draft serves as a referendum on classes he ranked four or five years ago.
“I cringe a little bit watching it,” he said. “Because I just know what’s coming: all the naysayers. I get a lot of interview requests after the draft.”
He won’t get many questions about the 17 five- and four-star players taken in the first round this year. But the two-star offensive lineman who went No. 1? He’ll hear about that.
“We’re projecting 17-year-old kids as for how they’re going to be when they’re 22 years old after all the trials and tribulations of college football and being away from home for the first time, and parties and girls and all the things that can derail you from being a terrific football player,” Farrell said.
“If I could predict the future, I wouldn’t be working. I’d have an island.”
Which is to say, the difficulty of projecting the success of high school players at the college level is a reality for recruiting analysts like Farrell but also for college coaches, whose job is tied to the success of those recruits.
It’s a process that involves not only projecting how a high schooler will develop physically over four or five years but also measuring his mental makeup. There are plenty of hits and misses from everybody, which makes all the more silly the obsession with recruiting rankings.
“I think nowadays, because there’s so much coverage, there’s so much stuff that fans can look at, that they get intrigued so much by the stars and who all has offered these kids,” Virginia Tech offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “I don’t care about any of that. I’m trying to sign the best players I can sign.”
Hard to project
What’s the hardest position to project? It depends on who you ask. Both Farrell and his 247 Sports counterpart J.C. Shurburtt didn’t hesitate with their answer: quarterbacks.
“Without a doubt,” Shurburtt said. “Because so much depends on the mental end of it.”
“There’s so much that’s between the ears that you can’t really get a grip on when you’re trying to evaluate guys: how they’re going to handle pressure, pass rush, clutch situations, two-minute drills,” Farrell said.
“I’ve had some guys that I thought were just absolute no-brainer stars at the next level and beyond who have just turned out to be horrible. Because the first time a 240-pound linebacker came off the edge and hit him in the face, everything fell apart. And that’s something that you’re never going to see in high school.”
Yet, the recent data suggest that positions that require the biggest players are the toughest to project. Looking at first-round NFL picks back to the 2007 draft — the first in which every player had a star ranking by Rivals coming out of high school — tight end, offensive line and defensive line had the most success stories from lower-ranked prospects.
Of the 43 offensive linemen taken in the first round in that time, 25 were three-star recruits or lower. That was true of 48.1 percent of defensive linemen taken. (Tight ends were the highest, at 60 percent, but from a sample size of only five players.)
April’s draft was a prime example. Nine offensive linemen were first-rounders. Of that group, seven were three stars or lower coming out of high school, including No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher out of Central Michigan, who had just two college offers as a 6-foot-7, 240-pound prep prospect.
“You couldn’t put a guy who was 6-7, 240, that played offensive tackle that had one offer from a MAC school in the top 10 [of the rankings],” Shurburtt said. “… Because based on what you know at the time, it’s like, my gosh, you’re betting on this kid gaining 50 pounds.”
Offensive tackle Lane Johnson, the fourth overall pick out of Oklahoma, was a 6-foot-6, 202-pound high school quarterback who was unrated in high school and didn’t get noticed until switching to tight end in junior college. He ended up playing defensive end and then offensive tackle with the Sooners.
“If there’s anybody out there other than Lane Johnson’s parents and uncles and distant relatives saying, ‘Ahh, I knew he’d be a first-rounder at offensive tackle,’ they’re just lying,” Farrell said. “Completely lying.”
The bigger, the tougher
Grimes thinks offensive linemen are tough to scout because they often develop late.
“I’m a dog person,” he said. “I love dogs. And small dogs, poodles and terriers, these little dogs, they’re fully matured at 10-12 months. They’re as big as they’re going to be. Big dogs, like mastiffs and Great Danes and St. Bernard’s, those dogs at the same point in their lives aren’t going to be halfway done growing. They’re not fully matured until 2½-3 years old.
“Offensive linemen are like big dogs. When they’re at the same point in their career, often they still look like big, gangly puppies that have these long bodies that they don’t know what to do with. And often when we’re recruiting, we’re right in the middle of that growth spurt when their strength and their coordination hasn’t quite caught up with their body yet.”
Part of the problem is the accelerated timetable of the recruiting calendar.
“Nowadays, because we offer so many guys so early, very often you eliminate the guy who is undersized,” said Grimes, who says he focuses mostly on a player’s frame and mobility .
“You eliminate the guy who is 6-3, 250 pounds because he isn’t big enough yet when that’s not really the right thing to do. … The question is, do they have the frame and can you project that they’re going to someday be 300 pounds?”
Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder agrees that bigger players are tougher to scout, although he thinks skilled big guys — linebackers, defensive ends, tight ends, fullbacks — are tougher to find, since so much of their success is based on movement and athleticism.
“You’ve probably heard this phrase before: The O-line is the last stop before the bus stop,” Wilder said. “What we’ll do a lot of times with recruiting, we’ll look at a guy as a defensive lineman, and we might say he doesn’t have the movement skills to project as a D-lineman. But he’s got them for an offensive lineman.”
The recruiting analysts said offensive line is difficult to scout because so few high school players want to play there. That’s often a tough sales pitch in the competitive world of recruiting.
“There are so many kids out there these days that play D-line in high school and they’re 6-6, 270, have a huge wing span, but they’re not athletic enough for the D-line,” Shurburtt said. “But they’re very athletic for the offensive line. They just don’t want to play it. … You can’t tell that kid, ‘You’re an O-tackle,’ because you’re not going to get him.”
Some of Grimes’ biggest success stories were underrated prospects. Offensive tackle Levi Jones was a walk-on at Arizona State who played eight years in the NFL. Nate Solder was a three-star recruit who played for him at Colorado and was a first-round pick of the Patriots in 2011.
Both developed over time.
“A kid that’s a running back or quarterback, his innate skill set, his God-given abilities, are things he’s had his entire life,” Grimes said. “A lineman may or may not have had all those things, or they may or may not have been as evident earlier in his career.”
Virginia Tech fans should be aware of such tales. The best offensive lineman the Hokies have had in recent memory was Duane Brown, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound three-star prospect at tight end in high school. But he could move and had the potential to add size.
“If a kid’s 6-6, 260, that’s light for a tackle, but if he’s got a great frame, that kid’s going to be 290 in no time and killing it because he’s not going to lose any athleticism,” Shurburtt said. “So I think that’s the key. It’s much more about frame and size.”
Oftentimes those late bloomers make for better players through greater motivation.
“I’ve seen guys that have all the skill in the world, all the size in the world ... and their job is taken by some guy who is hungrier, who is angry because nobody else offered him and who is motivated,” Farrell said.
“Sometimes the best thing for a kid is not getting 45 scholarship offers. Every year you see in the NFL Draft — and this is the NFL Draft, this is the highest level you can get — kids from I-AA schools getting drafted in the first round, top 10, top 20 sometimes. Those are all guys that every college coach in the country missed, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid that.”
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