Football: A look inside the world of recruiting

Matt Forman

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There are only a few instances in life when you can be wrong more times than right and still be considered successful. Weathermen consistently make poor predictions. Baseball players who get a hit one out of every three plate appearances are all-stars.

Football recruiting services are the same way. No matter how many times they’re wrong, we keep going back to them. For no legitimate reason.

Recruiting services make a living of evaluating 17-year-old boys, juniors in high school who will be playing against men at the collegiate ranks. They aren’t physically or mentally ready to compete with full-grown, mature machines.

“The tape is great on high school film for everybody, but they haven’t played a down of Big Ten football yet,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The game changes dramatically – the size, the speed, the discipline, the expectations.”

Although it might be fun to analyze prospects in the short term, in the long run teams get burned time and time again. National Signing Day 2009 passed just two weeks ago, Feb. 4, when pundits and prognosticators predicted whose class will be the most successful.

“Recruiting might be the most inexact science there is out there,” Adam Cushing, Northwestern’s recruiting coordinator said.

And now it’s time to start thinking of who’s next.

Welcome to the recruiting crapshoot.

DEFYING THE ODDS

In 2004, a 5-foot-9-inch, 205-pound running back was recruited to play at NU. The three-star prospect from Akron, Ohio grew up just two hours away from national powerhouse Ohio State, fresh off a National Championship. But he was too small and too scrawny to play for the Buckeyes.

Four years later, Tyrell Sutton walked off of the turf at the Alamo Bowl as the Wildcats’ second-leading rusher in school history. In the process, he became the face of the program and a school legend. Just four weeks into his freshman campaign, Sutton was featured in a Sports Illustrated weekly section titled the “Sutto-meter,” where he was compared to fellow freshman five-star recruits Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma) and Mike Hart (Michigan).

“The Buckeyes decided that maybe he wasn’t a fit for them,” Fitzgerald said on signing day, in reference to the success that players from Ohio have had at NU. “(Sutton) was able to come in here and be a four-year starter and have an illustrious career for us.”

The same year, Ohio State passed up another 5-foot-9 running back, this one from Dayton, Ohio. Javon Ringer ended up at Michigan State and rushed for 1,637 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.

While Ringer and Sutton are perfect examples of the problem with recruiting systems, there’s an even better example, again in the Big Ten. A little known, unrated player from New Berlin, N.Y., received offers from four schools, including Syracuse, Wisconsin and Rutgers. Shonn Greene chose Iowa. The future NFL draft pick finished second in the nation in rushing yards a season ago. In each of the Hawkeyes’ 13 games, Green ran for at least 100 yards on his way to 1,850 for the season and 20 touchdowns, averaging six yards per attempt.

EXPLAIN THIS MATH…

It’s not just individual players that are evaluated. Teams are ranked too, and those projections prove just as useless.

And you can’t analyze a recruiting class’s worth until four to five years after its prospects committed to a school. At that point, they have been through several hundred practices, pre-season camps, spring football and wars on the gridiron.

Look no further than Utah, who stomped on Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl in January. The Utes finished the year ranked No. 2 behind only Florida. They beat Michigan and Oregon State, who beat USC.

But that’s the furthest from what should have been expected by Utah. In the last four seasons, Utah’s recruiting classes have been ranked No. 55, 69, 60 and 71 by Rivals.com. Michigan (No. 6, 10, 12, and 13) and Alabama (No. 1, 10, 11 and 18), on the other hand, brought in much higher ranked classes. It’s safe to say the results on the field didn’t say the same thing.

According to Rivals.com, NU’s average recruiting class over the last four seasons ranked ninth in the Big Ten. The Cats’ highest team ranking in the same time span is No. 52 and the lowest is 81. But only five teams have a better composite conference record since 2005. NU has compiled a 15-17 Big Ten record, worse than only Ohio State (29-3), Penn State (23-9), Michigan (20-12), Wisconsin (20-12) and Iowa (16-16).

While the numbers don’t add up, recruiting has become a point of pride for Fitzgerald.

“I absolutely love it,” he said. “It’s critical to your program’s success. It’s the lifeblood of your program is recruiting… It’s an opportunity to compete.”

FITZ’S FOCUS

Fitzgerald’s job is simple: get it right. It’s what the recruiting services can’t seem to do consistently.

Fitzgerald, with Cushing’s help, is supposed to do everything he can to avoid falling in the trap. He’s too small. He’s not tough enough.

Clearly, Fitzgerald doesn’t buy into the ratings.

“I don’t know what these guys rankings were when they came in here,” Fitzgerald said of seniors C.J. Bachér and Prince Kwateng along with Sutton after the Alamo Bowl. “But they had pretty good careers. I know when I came here I had zero stars.”

And we all remember Fitzgerald’s career – a trip to the Rose Bowl and two Bednarik and Nagurski awards as the most heralded player in school history.

So if he doesn’t buy into the hype, then what does Fitzgerald look for in the recruiting process?

“We want size, we want speed and we want tough,” Fitzgerald said. “And that’s going to be our theme as we recruit.”

But it doesn’t end by simply bringing the players into Evanston. Once the players are in the program, the coaching staff still has to develop the players. And the way NU has gone about it is through utilizing the redshirt. Last season, all but two of the 20 members of Fitzgerald’s recruiting class redshirted.

“The best thing for the program is that most of them redshirt. They’re going to be better football players when they’re 22-years old than when they’re 18. That way they can get stronger, faster, and get used to the Big Ten game.”

NU takes advantage of an extending weight lifting program during the redshirt season to help players add muscle mass. It also implements a strict dietary plan to ensure proper weight gain. These two factors become the guiding formula for development.

“The only quantifiable measure we have is in the weight room and on the track,” Cushing said. “We focus on the young guys getting bigger. They just have no concept of how big and strong guys are in the Big Ten.”

Whatever Fitzgerald and NU are doing, recruiting services should take notice.

matthewforman2007@u.northwestern.edu

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