In an era saturated with star rankings and armchair scouts, what does it take to be a good evaluator?
Number of ACC players selected in NFL Draft from 2009-12 who were rated as three-star prospects or less coming out of high school:North Carolina 10Wake Forest 10NC State 9Clemson 7Georgia Tech 7Virginia Tech 5Boston College 5Maryland 5Virginia 5Florida State 4Miami 4Duke 0Total number of ACC players taken in the NFL Draft from 2009-12.Clemson 19Miami 19North Carolina 18Virginia Tech 12Florida State 11NC State 11Wake 10Maryland 9Georgia Tech 9Virginia 7Boston College 5Duke 0
We focus on lists of the top 100 football prospects as February approaches.
But any armchair scout with access to YouTube could predict stardom for players like Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Jadeveon Clowney.
The reality is the majority of college football rosters, including those of top 25 teams, are built upon three-star and lesser prospects. The ability to identify future contributors not found on top 100 lists is critical for college staffs.
Evaluation is a skill and some coaches are more adept at scouting than others.
Since 2009, Clemson and Miami each have had 19 NFL draft picks. But the majority of those players were five- and four-star prospects entering college. North Carolina and Wake Forest each produced 10 players selected in the NFL draft since 2009 that were rated as three-star prospect or less. N.C. State was right behind with nine. Florida State (4), Miami (4) and Duke (0) ranked at the bottom of the list in evaluating under-the-radar players.
So what traits do football’s top talent evaluators possess? College analysts and coaches say it is about having the right eye, the right process and finding the right fit.
Chase Thomas was a 6-4, 210-pound senior at Walton High in Marietta, Ga., in 2008. He looked more receiver than linebacker due to his lithe frame. Few saw a future defensive star, let alone a three-time all-conference Division I player. But that’s exactly what Thomas became at Stanford.
Stanford has built itself into a college power not through top 10 classes, rather through quality evaluation of prospects.
Evaluation requires a keen eye, says ESPN national analyst Tom Luginbill.
“The people who are good evaluators are the people who are able to see what a guy is going to be two or three years down the road,” Luginbill said. “Stanford looked at (Thomas) and said ‘Wow, in three years this guy is going to be 230 pounds and a completely different guy.’ The guys who can project forward and envision what a guy is going to be are good evaluators.”
Wake Forest redshirts the majority of its freshmen to help them reach their full projection.
J.C. Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports.com, said the key to finding talent outside of the top 300 consensus players each year is being able to identify traits beyond the 40-yard dash, vertical leap, height and weight. Shurburtt said his national director of scouting, Gerry Hamilton, has an ability to see under-the-radar physical traits, having been around the game his entire life as the son of a long-time high school coach.
“If an offensive lineman is knock-kneed he’ll see that quickly,” Shurburtt “He’ll see that at the snap of finger. Not everyone that does it professionally can find those little things.”
Alabama recruits some of the most talented players every year. Shurburtt said Alabama has fewer busts than other programs that recruit star prospects because of the Crimson Tide’s stringent evaluation process and accountability fostered by coach Nick Saban. If a prospect fails, Saban will pull out an assistant coach’s old scouting report and ask why the error happened, Shurburtt said.
“That level of accountability keeps his entire staff on their toes and forces them to do a good job,” Shurburtt said. “They are recruiting the best players in the country, but they are also good evaluators. How do you judge them as a whole? You look at their bust rate. They have a more thorough process than most schools as far as getting eyes on kids and having a more thorough checklist.”
Dabo Swinney implemented a new evaluation process when he took over as Clemson’s head coach in 2009. Swinney’s system includes checklists and full scouting reports on physical ability and mental makeup.
Swinney said he learned a lot about evaluating players from former Alabama coach Gene Stallings.
“He was much more interested in their intangibles,” Swinney said. “Their toughness, their desire, their love to work and play and the game. We have a whole list of questions (related to intangibles) I want answered.”
Swinney cited the process as turning out players like wide receiver Adam Humphries and defensive end Malliciah Goodman, who were initially not highly regarded.
Swinney also prefers a collaboration-focused effort in the evaluation process.
“I want a position coach to stand on the table (and argue for a prospect) because he’s going to be the one who is held accountable, ultimately,” Swinney said. “I want him to really own his position.”
Luginbill learned the importance of finding the right fit when he was a quarterbacks coach with the Los Angeles Xtreme in the defunct XFL.
Luginbill scoured the country for quarterback prospects and he came across tape of former first-round NFL pick Tommy Maddox playing in the Arena League. Maddox had sat behind John Elway with the Denver Broncos and never earned a chance to play everyday. He was relegated to the scrap heap of professional football, playing with the New Jersey Red Dogs in 2000.
“Everyone called him a bust, but he really just never got a chance to be the guy,” Luginbill said. “We evaluated him and I just watched him take an absolute physical beating one year in the arena football league. He just kept getting up off of the carpet. He wasn’t on a good team. But he showed a lot of mental toughness, and he got rid of the football quickly.”
Intrigued with Maddox, the Xtreme signed him.
“What I learned is you find what a player’s strengths are and what their deficiencies are and mold a team around that,” Luginbill said. “
That involves taking some of your ego out as a coach because everyone wants to say this is ‘my system.’”
Maddox was named the MVP of the XFL in 2001. In 2002, he was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. It’s an example of fitting an offensive scheme to a player’s talent, which is what Texas A&M did with redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel.
“You are talking about a 6-foot quarterback who is a dynamic athlete with a good but not a great arm, who gets rid of the ball quickly,” Luginbill said. “Texas A&M took his skill set and designed its entire offense around his strengths while masking his weaknesses.”
It certainly worked for the Aggies and Manziel, who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy.
“Recruiting is not just about getting the best player,” Luginbill said. “It’s about getting the right player.”