COLUMBIA — When it’s time to make a decision on offering a scholarship to a high school player, Will Muschamp doesn’t go with his instinct. He turns to the paperwork.
That’s where he’ll find a tangible assessment of attributes like explosiveness, use of hands, coverage instincts, and feet change of direction, all of them ranked on a grade scale. He’ll find a judgment on whether the player has the potential to start as a freshman, contribute early in his career, or start eventually. And he’ll find one such sheet filled out by every member of his coaching staff, leaving no question about where each of his assistants stands.
“To me, that’s called quality control,” said Muschamp, South Carolina’s head football coach, who Wednesday oversees his first National Signing Day with the Gamecocks. “It’s checks and balances. People say, ‘Why is this guy a good evaluator?’ Because I’ve been bitten in the (butt) by something a kid couldn’t do on tape.”
Muschamp is renowned as a recruiter, and his obvious zeal and charisma make it easy to see why. During his four-year stint as head coach at Florida, each of his recruiting classes was ranked in the top 10 nationally. But the sales job is half the battle — the other part is evaluation, the murky art of determining whether a high school player will succeed at the next level, and avoiding the busts that can turn a highly-ranked signing class into a losing team on the field.
In college football, there is no more inexact science. Coaches are limited in the number of times they can contact or physically watch players, high school games can be mismatches that often make it difficult to judge ability level, and film can be grainy, dark, or inconclusive. But for a program like USC, which won’t land many sure things and needs to find diamonds in the rough, evaluation is the most critical part of the process.
“If you’re not one of the sexy prograns, if you’re not one of the Florida States or Alabamas or (Southern Californias) of the world, or you don’t have some kind of massive home-state recruiting advantage like LSU, then you’ve got to be very, very good at evaluating,” said Mike Farrell, national recruiting director at Rivals.
A knack for evaluation, Farrell added, is why Michigan State can build a program capable of contending for the national championship despite ranking behind Ohio State, Notre Dame and other Midwest powers in the eyes of many top recruits. And evaluation is the reason behind the forms filled out by Muschamp and his assistants, who use consensus to try and eliminate the unknown.
“The more eyes, the better. We’re trying to get a bunch of eyes on these kids. Maybe you see something that reminds you of a player that you had, and he has that, and it didn’t work. Maybe he’s duck-footed, something like that. You never know. That’s how you eliminate mistakes,” said Gamecocks defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson, who’s worked with Muschamp for five years.
“During the evaluation period, the head coach will look at him, the coordinator will look at him, the position coach will look at him, the area recruiter will look at him. We’ve got a bunch of eyes looking at our kids, identifying what we want. That’s why it’s very important for everybody to kind of see the criteria of the football player we’re looking for.”
In addition to assessing each prospect in a dozen areas spanning intangibles like effort and toughness to the traits specific to their position, Muschamp and his staff also have a size template for each position. “One of the things we did when we first got here and assembled the staff was, we said, ‘A defensive lineman who plays nose, this is exactly what he looks like. This is exactly what a safety looks like,’” Robinson said.
“Obviously, we have some critical factors and things like that. Maybe he’s 5-9, but he’s got a 40-inch vertical. Obviously, you kind of take that into consideration. But we kind of go through the map of what we want exactly our football team to look like, and we take it from there.”
USC’s recruiting lagged in the final years under Steve Spurrier, evident in the number of current or former walk-ons who played pivotal roles in last season’s 3-9 campaign. Many highly rated players didn’t live up to billing. While Farrell won’t knock Spurrier as a talent evaluator — all those years at Florida speak for themselves — the Head Ball Coach clearly didn’t relish recruiting, and delegated much of it to his staff.
“He’s a guy who lets his assistant coaches go out, build the relationships. If a kid comes up on campus, he’ll slap him on he back, tell him a funny story, sit down with him and talk to him about becoming a Gamecock, and he’ll go in and do his home visits,” Farrell said. “His was a very old-school approach to recruiting, where the head coach is the closer.”
Muschamp’s approach is much more hands-on, with the head coach even serving as his own recruiting coordinator. His assessment forms aren’t just to rate prospects, but to hold assistants accountable, should one voice reservations about a player down the line. While busts are inevitable — even NFL teams, with the best scouting tools available, still suffer them — USC can’t afford many, and Muschamp hopes his evaluation process will weed most of them out.
“Don’t let one person make the decision. Because when one person is making the decision, a lot of mistakes can be made,” he said. “I’m the person who’s going to make the decision, but I’m also collectively going to take the information from everybody in the building on offering a young man a scholarship to come to South Carolina. So that’s where I think you eliminate a lot of mistakes.”