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The CSN Way: Glorious Recruiting
By Chuck Burton, The CSN Way Columnist
I have to admit it, years ago I never thought I’d get into the hysteria that is National Signing Day for college football players. Somewhere inside of me, a cynical Hunter Thompson-like clone would tell me that it’s all a lot of ridiculous hooey. Meaningless speculation about kids getting scholarships to attend college — just a bunch of names of players you don’t know. But without a doubt I’ve caught the wave.
From linebacker Michael Abadin (headed to Bryant) to linebacker David Zocco (headed to Rhode Island), I’ve finally come to the point in my life that I was genuinely excited about signing day and the variety of football championship subdivision schools that announced on Signing Day and will be announcing in the coming months. (Or else it’s a midlife crisis, a possibility that can’t be ruled out.)
Sure, it’s overblown. Sure, the ranking systems are ridiculous, subjective and almost certainly incorrect. But “Christmas for College Football” is one day where all fans can look forward and think about conference titles and postseason success without the ugly reality of wins and losses getting in the way. It’s a day where everyone seems like an all-star — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Getting an opportunity for a college education is a great thing, but excelling at a sport to the extent that you can get a full scholarship or partial scholarship to play at the highest collegiate level is something special. And it’s no longer simply niche for hard-core college high school or college football fans: It’s something that football recruits look forward to their entire playing lives.
“I’ve been waiting to sign this paper for a long time,” offensive lineman Levi Brown told the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call on his choice to attend FBS school Temple. “I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to play college football at the next level and further my education.”
Signing day ceremonies are now commonplace in high school gymnasiums nationwide. Not limited to football recruits, the ceremony this year at Parkland High School in Bethlehem, Pa., more resembled a full-blown pep rally, featuring highlight reels of each college-bound player, family members and local media present, and a cake featuring the names of all the honored athletes.
While the tradition for signing day ceremonies started with the mad year-round rush of college football recruiting, it’s now expanded to honor not just football players going to FBS schools such as Penn State or USC. It now honors all sports and all college signings — from Division I to NAIA. For example, Brown wasn’t the only Division I football player to announce his scholastic intentions that day: Linebacker Pete Bross also announced he was going to be attending FCS school Lafayette College in the same ceremony.
It’s a scene with few losers. Athletes get rewarded for hard work. High schools get local publicity, and give back to the athletes who sacrificed so much to get scholarship money to go to college. Some folks work for their high school athletics departments for the reward of this one day a year. It’s a day filled with positivity and excitement.
To get there, however, all football recruits have to go through the ups and downs of the process. As detailed in the book, “Signing Day,” by Corey Clark and Ira Schoeffel, schools often will do and say anything to land certain prized recruits — and run hot and cold, depending on who has committed to them already.
The book details the recruiting story of FBS Vanderbilt tight end Brad Allen, and some of the tricks that college coaches used to try to lure the standout Florida athlete to their school. Some tricks include using girls from the school as recruiting hostesses to show people around and write them recruiting letters, and even having the head coach (in one case) sending a play from their playbook to convince him to come.
Allen was strongly recruited by Stanford when a particular assistant coach was there, but when that coach moved on to Duke, the letters from Stanford stopped. But it largely details a war of attrition, where Vanderbilt eventually won by showing the most “interest.” “I used to get like three letters from Vanderbilt a day,” Brad said to the authors. “It got to the point where it’s like, ‘Holy crap. Stop sending me letters.’¤”
At the FCS level recruiting rarely gets that crazy, but the shenanigans from the upper levels does indirectly affect them. Players see the marketplace for college football players — complete with rankings from sites such as ESPN, Rivals and Scout.com — and frequently see early interest from an FBS school run from hot to cold. “A lot of the schools you talk to, their offers get filled quickly, because kids see that it fits right for them, so they go ahead and make a commitment,” Fordham-bound defensive back Zach Crosby told the Gainesville (Ga.) Times.
That’s not to say that the players are better or worse than the so-called blue chippers on Scout.com, however. Every year, canny FCS coaches nab NFL-caliber players that are on few radars for few FBS schools. For example, Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards — who some say might have a shot at the Heisman award in 2009 — didn’t even get a star ranking from Scout.com in 2006. Listed as an “athlete” instead of a quarterback, he was listed has having interest from FBS schools New Mexico State, Memphis and Vanderbilt before deciding to become a Mountaineer.
Some columnists swear that the rankings of Rivals.com, Scout.com and others demonstrate that the experts on those sites (who, in many cases, have spent their lives covering college football recruiting) are latter-day Nostradamuses at what they do in evaluating recruiting classes.
But if you look at data from their recruits databases, you get a much different picture.
Assuming that the goal of every team in FBS is to end the year ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, if Rivals.com and Scout.com’s predictions on recruiting classes were accurate, the team with the best recruiting classes from the years of 2004-08 should logically have finished the year No. 1.
Without going through all the math, it’s painfully obvious that USC should have more talent than any other school based on its rankings (with three classes ranked No. 1 in Rivals.com and two ranked No. 1 in Scout.com, including a dual No. 1 ranking from Rivals and Scout from their 2004 class where the majority of their best players should be coming from).
While USC had a pretty good year in 2008, it finished at No. 3 — behind No. 2 Utah (whose 2004 recruiting classes rated No. 61 and No. 68, respectively, from Rivals and Scouts) and No. 1 Florida (No. 7 and No. 8, respectively).
More significantly, you wonder about the supposed consensus top-5 classes of 2004 that were supposed to usher in dominance for Florida State (which finished the year 9-4 and ranked No. 21), Miami (which finished 7-6, unranked) and Michigan (which ended the year 3-9, unranked). Some of the other 2004 recruiting classes in the top 25 of both services border on the comical: Texas A&M (who finished 4-8), Washington State (who finished 2-10) and Washington (who finished 0-12).
If you look at Rivals.com and Scout.com’s rankings of FCS recruiting classes, it gets even more ridiculous. Current FCS standouts such as Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards and Richmond’s Justin Rogers are unstarred in Scout.com’s database for 2004, while Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden, Western Illinois running back Herb Donaldson and Montana running back Chase Reynolds didn’t even warrant a mention in Rivals.com or Scout.com in their senior years in high school.
Occasionally, a random recruit can drop from a 3 star recruit to a 1 star recruit simply because an FBS school was interested in them initially, but didn’t sign them. This inherent bias in the recruiting system — that FBS players are better simply because they signed with an FBS school, and worse because they signed with an FCS school — pretty much guarantees that FBS recruiting classes (even those on teams like Washington (0-12) and Army (3-9)) will have higher class rankings than unranked playoff-bound Cal Poly (which beat FBS San Diego State (2-10) and was a missed extra point away from beating FBS Wisconsin (7-6) in 2008) and unranked New Hampshire (which throttled Army 28-10 in 2008).
Even so, the rankings of FCS schools’ recruiting classes in Rivals (Scout.com does not rank recruiting classes of FCS schools) maintain only a vague reflection on reality. It might be believable that FCS playoff team Villanova and FCS national champion Richmond had great recruiting classes, but when you see Illinois State (3-8), Georgetown (0-11), Chattanooga (1-11) perennially in the Top 20 FCS recruiting classes for 2004-08 (including, in some years, Northern Colorado (1-10) and Indiana State (0-12) for good measure), it’s difficult to take the rankings seriously — not to mention the absence of perennial powerhouses Appalachian State, Montana or Northern Iowa from the rankings, too.
Even when you take a closer look at the reasons why Richmond and Villanova were ranked highly, it make you scratch your head. Sure, Rivals is right on some players —Richmond quarterback Eric Ward, runningback Josh Vaughn and wideout Tre Gray certainly merited (at a minimum) two stars in Rivals, while Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney ranked two stars and defensive end Dave Dallesandro one star. But Villanova’s 2005 class also was “highlighted” by two-star runningback prospect Gianluca Ragone, who didn’t get a single carry last year, and Richmond’s 2005 haul involved two-star wideout Scot Riddell, who ended up switching to defensive back in 2008 and was buried on the depth chart during its national championship season.
But in the end, it really doesn’t matter if the rankings are right or wrong. (Ask Nostradamus.) The rankings are harmless, and recruits get national exposure from Division I college football fans of all persuasions, FBS and FCS. It shines a large spotlight on high school athletes that have worked hard to play football and get into college — athletes with unlimited potential ahead of them in football and life.
But the full report of the class that has all the attention right now — the incoming class of 2013 — won’t realistically be known until years down the road. So right now, all folks really have are a dizzying number of names — and speculation. Let’s face it, it’s fun to think about player names such as quarterback Duke deLancellotti (Cal Poly), linebacker Tu Tui (Southern Utah), and runningback Antoinnialrose Coles (North Carolina A&T) providing four years of impact for your school. But who knows whether some of the more impressive high school statistics will translate to the FCS level? While runningback Zach Barket (Lehigh) was the single-season high school rushing leader in all 50 states in 2008 (with an amazing 4,195 yards rushing and 66 touchdowns), who knows if he’ll have even 1/10 of that production next year as a Mountain Hawk?
In the meantime, all we have are names. We wonder why Elvis freak Jerry Glanville didn’t manage to recruit in-state wideout Elvis Akpla for his Portland State Vikings — and instead let him get to conference rival Montana State. We wonder if we’re going to have to worry about how to pronounce offensive lineman Fitisuela Partsch’s (Stephen F. Austin) or cornerback Qucravion Ash’s (Presbyterian) names in the years to come. We wonder how local papers could abuse their headline-writing privileges with incoming recruits like wideout Larry King (Indiana State), defensive end Chris Loveless (McNeese State) or offensive lineman Michael Flash (Southeast Missouri State).
And we hope that the players with names that seem to dictate from birth they were destined to be football players will indeed shine for their FCS teams, like linebacker Gunner Miller (Chattanooga), linebacker Sam Power (Western Illinois), and twin defensive linemen Colt and Rowdy McAuley (Southeast Missouri State).
But the names of the next Armanti Edwards, Ramses Barden and Lawrence Sidbury are in there somewhere. While it’s all speculation now, in the not-too-distant future folks will be looking back at this recruiting class, looking at a team that won a conference championship and/or FCS national championship — and seeing how right the schools were. They are finally here, for everyone to see and to get excited about.
The recruiting process can be grueling and stressful. The ranking services can be — and often are — wrong. Fans get excited about high school football statistics — or sometimes only names — that might not translate at all to FCS success. But on national signing day, and the trickle of signings that get added to the list from now until August, dreams are intact, high schoolers are heroes, and hard-working athletes get a chance to get some or all of their college education paid for.
It’s an American, ridiculous, inaccurate, glorious time of the year. And I love it.