Recruiting almost never seems to happen like this anymore. Certainly not at a place like Alabama.
One January day seven years ago, around 1 a.m. Alabama’s director of player personnel got a call from the team’s new defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt, about some “pretty decent” wildcat quarterback a coach had told him about.
Jody Wright clicked on the HUDL link Pruitt had forwarded and watched about 45 minutes of film. The more Wright watched, the more intrigued he became. The player was explosive, displaying excellent quickness in tight spaces, and he just seemed to have a sense where he could feel things around him. Wright hesitated to put this comparison out there, but he reminded him of “a poor man’s Barry Sanders.”
The player was from an unfamiliar Oklahoma high school whose games were sparsely crowded. Wright searched for the player on the internet. He was rated a three-star prospect but only had offers from Tulsa and New Mexico State. Why aren’t more schools on this kid? Wright wondered.
Wright had the Tide recruiting staff splice the film and load it onto Nick Saban’s laptop. When he watched it in the morning, Saban liked what he saw.
So did running backs coach Burton Burns, who flew to Oklahoma to visit the prospect, watch him play a high school basketball game and learn more about him.
“Everybody speaks so highly of him as a person,” Burns reported back.
By then, Missouri also entered the picture and scheduled him for an official visit the last weekend of January. The prospect and his family visited Missouri and then drove 600 miles to Tuscaloosa. Trouble was, Alabama was tight on scholarship space, and the lone open spot was being saved for a prized defensive lineman, Jeffrey Simmons.
Alabama was direct: “Hang with us. Mizzou is going to wait on you. We probably won’t know until about 11 o’clock.” On National Signing Day, Simmons opted to go to Mississippi State.
Alabama had one spot left, and it went to that surprise prospect, running back Josh Jacobs.
He was the last man in for the 2016 No. 1 class in the country. It didn’t matter to Jacobs that also in that signing class was the second-ranked back in the country, B.J. Emmons. Or that the Tide had signed the No. 1 running back in the country the year prior, Damien Harris.
“Josh was the same as (another member of the 2016 class) Jalen Hurts. He never once asked about the depth chart,” Wright said. “They weren’t afraid of competition. They just believed in themselves. All they cared about was, how do I get to be the best version of themself?”
Wright, who left Alabama in 2019 to become the Cleveland Browns’ assistant running backs coach, said he’s not surprised at all that Jacobs has become an NFL player. But he wouldn’t have dreamed that the wildcat quarterback he watched that night in 2016 would someday lead the NFL in rushing.
Jacobs’ rise to superstardom is just the latest example of an interesting scouting oddity of sorts. On this year’s NFLPA All-Pro Team, none of the 11 offensive players selected had been a five-star recruit; only one of them, guard Zack Martin, was even ranked as a four-star prospect. The average star ranking of the 11 players was 2.0. It’s on the opposite side of the ball where stars apparently really matter. Of the 11 defensive players on the All-Pro team, seven had been five-star recruits and two more were four-stars prospects. The other two were three-star players, making the average 4.5.
The Athletic asked 13 individuals in the evaluation and coaching world why they think there is such a disparity in how the star system works related to offensive and defensive players. The individuals were granted anonymity in order to speak freely about player evaluation and college football recruiting.
“My theory: You can disguise a good player on offense and also uplift and over-evaluate a player with an unbelievable supporting cast,” said former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, a draft analyst with NFL Network. “With defensive guys, it’s more, ‘Did you beat the guy in front of you?’ And when it comes to D-linemen, there’s only so many of those guys. It’s like with cornerbacks: There are physical requirements for those positions. You can play with a 4.6 wide receiver. You can’t play with a 4.6 cornerback.”
One Big Ten recruiting coordinator echoed Jeremiah’s comments. “If a defensive player does their assignment and wins their box or one-on-one, they can have immediate impact and success,” he said. “On the other hand, offensive players are heavily dependent on scheme — and each other. Like a dynamic wide receiver is highly dependent upon the QB and O-line. The QB depends on the OL. A good running back can be neutralized if the offense can’t spread defenders to make space.
“I think you can identify the talent and the traits that make them elite. The challenge is projecting the fit based on offensive schemes. Kenneth Walker’s running style was a fit for Michigan State.”
Walker, too, was a curious evaluation study. He was ranked by 247Sports as a two-star prospect, the 229th-best running back in the Class of 2019. Wake Forest was his only reported Power 5 offer. In two seasons in the ACC, he was a solid back but didn’t break out until he transferred to Michigan State, where he ran for 1,636 yards and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back. The Seattle Seahawks took him 41st overall last year, and he’s one of six finalists for NFL Rookie of the Year.
“Running backs are a dime a dozen, and it’s all about fit,” a Big 12 recruiting coordinator said, “same reason Willie Parker was a backup at North Carolina and ends up being a Super Bowl hero.”
The theories about the evaluation process are all over the map — literally.
“Most of that (online recruiting) industry lies in the Southeast, where the big money and interest is. That’s where most of the best defensive talent exists too, with D-linemen and DBs. Hence the Rivals and 247 guys can see and evaluate them more in the Southeast,” said FSU director of high school relations Ryan Bartow, who previously spent a dozen years covering recruiting for 247Sports and Rivals. “The best spots for QBs (California and Texas) and for O-line (the Midwest and Northeast) are seen by less in that space and industry.”
The average star rankings of 11-man units also can be skewed by the fact that the two toughest positions to evaluate, quarterback and offensive line, would make up more than half of that starting unit. The All-Pro quarterback this year is former three-star recruit Patrick Mahomes.
Feldman: Why offensive line is the toughest position for college football recruiters to evaluate
The skill positions, however, also reflect how tricky the evaluation business can be. Jacobs is the running back. Travis Kelce, a former two-star prospect, ranked as the 85th-best tight end in 2008. He arrived in the NFL as a third-round pick and has now been All-Pro four times. Kyle Juszczyk, a former zero-star prospect who played at Harvard, is the fullback. Justin Jefferson, ranked as the 308th-best wide receiver in the 2017 class, is one wideout; former two-star prospect Davante Adams, the 281st-best receiver in the 2011 class, is the other.
Among the five O-linemen on this year’s All-Pro team, only one, Martin was ranked higher than a three-star. Trent Williams, the fourth pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, was evaluated by 247Sports as a three-star prospect and the 22nd-best guard in the 2006 class. Joel Bitonio, a two-star prospect in the 2009 class as the No. 136 offensive tackle prospect in the country, made the All-Pro team for the second consecutive season. Lane Johnson, another fourth overall draft pick, was a zero-star prospect out of high school, as was center Jason Kelce, now a five-time first-team All-Pro.
“The O-line (recruiting rankings) are the best crapshoot,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who spent four seasons coaching in the NFL and had some of the best offensive linemen in the NFL in Philadelphia. “The best center in football, Jason Kelce, was a former walk-on linebacker. Lane Johnson was a high school quarterback. Jason Peters was a tight end in college. Offensive line is kinda like the last stop. That’s the one position where you really have to project or push people to. When it comes to quarterback and O-line, they’re really their own little worlds.”
The All-Pro defensive line evaluation history is the polar opposite. There are five defensive linemen on the 2022 All-Pro team. Four were five-star recruits: Myles Garrett, Chris Jones, Dexter Lawrence and Nick Bosa. Aaron Donald, a three-star prospect, was the exception.
“Evaluating D-line guys is probably the easiest thing,” said one NFL coordinator who has coached at the Power 5 level recently. “Those are your biggest freak athletes, and the best place to put them is near the ball and tell them just to wreck the play.”
“Playing defense you have to be more athletic than offense, maybe other than the running back because defense is so reactive,” an NFL defensive line coach said.
A veteran NFL scout who began his career as a college coach agreed.
“Your best athletes end up on defense,” he said. “It’s always been, if you’re not good enough on D-line, you’re gonna end up on the offensive line. With offense, it’s more mental and how they think and process.”
Schemes often vary from high school to college and to the NFL, but the nature of lining up across from another player and trying to whip him is still the core of what makes a player stand out at each level, said an SEC recruiting coordinator.
“D-linemen have to address blocks every single play, and what they are asked to do in college is not as drastically different as the offensive line, so you are watching them do what they will be truly asked to do,” he said. “So you can see their twitch, their ability to bend off of the edge, but they have to constantly do it across from an O-line.”
The other position that best tracks from the high school evaluations to the top performers in the NFL is defensive back. Three of the four defensive backs on the All-Pro team — Derwin James, Patrick Surtain and Minkah Fitzpatrick — were all five-star prospects. Darius Slay, a former three-star prospect, was the other.
“DBs have to make plays on the ball and compete with wide receivers, where a receiver can simply just be open and make a catch. If a DB is in man, you see that he has to be able to sink his hips, track the ball and have good hands to finish the play, and they are isolated and forced to make tough plays,” the SEC recruiting coordinator said.
Wright, now back in the SEC as South Carolina’s tight ends coach, said it’s fascinating to look back at the rankings and see which players made it big and which did not.
“You see that maybe some of them turn out to not be as tough as you thought,” he said. “You just can’t measure their heart and their grit and that football mentality. That’s stuff you just can’t measure at a combine and now a lot of them get coached up on how to fake it at a combine.”
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Kevin Sabitus, Michael Owens, Chris Unger / Getty)
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