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How a Northwestern startup plans to revolutionize college football recruiting

The Zcruit team works on its software platform. The company will operate out of The Garage at Northwestern this summer, while it works to expand its reach.

Dan Waldman/Daily Senior Staffer

The Zcruit team works on its software platform. The company will operate out of The Garage at Northwestern this summer, while it works to expand its reach.

Dan Waldman, Assistant Summer Editor

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When Wake Forest’s football program hired Taylor Redd in February to head the program’s recruiting efforts, coach Dave Clawson took Redd aside and handed him an article he had printed out. “You might want to look into this,” Clawson told him.

The Demon Deacons coach gave Redd a recent USA TODAY article that profiled Zcruit, a sports analytics company started by a group of Northwestern students that uses its algorithms to make the college football recruiting process more efficient.

Top Dogs

Located in the corner of The Garage — NU’s startup incubator — a group of six recent graduates sat at the venue’s largest workspace. The space was previously inhabited by Intelligent Flying Machines, a company that won $30,000 at last year’s VentureCat competition, and is considered prime real estate in the incubator, given only to the most promising ventures.

“I guess this means we’re the top dogs,” joked Ben Weiss, Zcruit’s co-founder and CEO.

Since he was 14 years old, Weiss has been scouring football recruiting blogs, tracking his favorite teams’ commitments and offers, to give him a glimpse of the future of the programs. Weiss grew up a fan of the Wildcats (both his parents attended NU) and Michigan (where his father hails from).

But four years ago, when Weiss was getting ready to begin his own Northwestern career, he noticed a lack of available information on NU recruiting. The incoming freshman started writing his own recruiting content for the NU sports blog Lake The Posts, and one his articles found its way onto the desk of the program’s head of football recruiting.

“He shot an email over my way, offering me to come on in and meet with them,” Weiss said. “So I talked with him one of the first few weeks of my freshman year at Northwestern, and he offered me an unpaid gig working in the Northwestern football recruiting department.”

Pioneers

After working in the recruiting department for a couple years, Weiss took a class co-taught by University President Morton Schapiro and Slavic languages and literatures Prof. Gary Saul Morson. The professors assigned the class a reading on how college admissions programs use statistical models to predict how likely a student would be to come to their respective schools.

Weiss began thinking about how he could apply this statistical model to recruiting. He spent the next few months working with a friend in the recruiting department, gathering as much data as they could find on the players Northwestern had offered in the past.

After countless hours of plugging data into spreadsheets, Weiss had his database. But the Zcruit co-founder needed someone to manipulate that data into an algorithm.

Danny Baker, who took classes in the Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences program, met Weiss during his freshman year at NU, when they both joined the same fraternity. Knowing Baker’s background in econometrics and statistics, Weiss asked him to try to construct an algorithm.

“It sort of came naturally,” Baker said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I can probably try to do this,’ and I’ve definitely gotten a lot better at it since it’s gone on.”

It didn’t take long for Baker to improve.

The two tested the finished algorithm on the past two years of NU recruiting and found it correctly predicted recruits 94 percent of the time.

Zcruit, which began developing its business plan back in April 2015, started working with NU football in 2016, using the team as the company’s guinea pigs. The Cats started using Zcruit to recruit its 2017 and 2018 classes.

According to Weiss, NU’s 2017 recruiting class is the first fully “Zcruited” class, seeing increases in the program’s talent level and efficiency. 247 Sports shows that the Cats’ 2017 recruiting class was two spots better in the national rankings from 2016, and has increased notably to No. 25 in the country for the 2018 class.

Northwestern improved its commit-to-offer ratio from 17 percent in 2016 to 22 percent in 2017, and Zcruit found that the program increased the percent of time spent on recruiting players who wound up committing to NU from 5 percent to 14 percent, Weiss said. The algorithm also helped the Cats reduce the time they spent recruiting players whom Zcruit deemed unlikely to commit.

Developers

After building out its software platform, the company received certification from the NCAA to sell to colleges, and now has three customers: NU, Wake Forest and Old Dominion.

“Since we’re really pioneering a brand new technology, applying analytics into the football recruiting space, there has been some pushback on adoption and it’s not like every school we’ve talked to has agreed to implement this,” Baker said. “That being said, our technology really does work and it really can help schools.”

Weiss said NU was so much more efficient in recruiting this year that the team wrapped up its 2017 recruiting class roughly 51 days earlier than in previous years. Weiss said this allowed the team to get off to a very early start with the 2018 class, which at one point reached No. 6 in the country.

And with the team’s 2017 and 2018 classes effectively finished, Northwestern has started to focus on its 2019 and 2020 classes, giving the program another early start over its competitors.

Baker said the real value proposition with Zcruit is that if schools can identify potential targets faster, then those schools will have significantly better chances getting those targets to commit.

“If they can use Zcruit to identify which prospects they actually have a chance of getting at an earlier stage,” Baker said, “then we think schools will end up with a more talented class as well as finishing that process earlier.”

Expanders

After receiving the article from Clawson, Redd quickly reached out to Weiss about bringing Zcruit to Wake Forest. Redd said he spent the past few months perfecting the algorithm, which is customized to his school, and the entire coaching staff got on board.

“Analytics has a future in recruiting,” Redd said. “One thing that analytics has shown us is that it gives you a number to the traditional gut feeling. We’ve seen it a bunch of times when our coach will say, ‘I don’t think this kid is feeling us anymore and really percentages all align and it makes sense.’”

Wake Forest has used Zcruit with its 2018 recruiting class, which already has commitments from 13 players. The Demon Deacons’ 2018 class ranks No. 44 in the country, up 23 spots from the 2017 class, according to 247 Sports. Redd said the program uses the software on a regular basis and has helped the program make decisions faster about whether or not to move on from recruits.

Redd said he recently finished compiling the team’s recruiting board and said it was nearly identical to the recruits that Zcruit suggested the program target. He said there were only a few discrepancies, which could possibly be attributed to individual relationships.

As for Weiss, who graduated from NU this June, he plans on continuing to operate Zcruit, working to expand the company’s reach in college athletics.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring this across collegiate athletics,” Weiss said. “To become an overarching analytical and management tool for schools in order for them to both track, store and manage all the recruiting data along.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @dan_waldman

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