Let’s play a game.
Player A is a walk-on quarterback from Scranton who entertained next to zero scholarship overtures from Division I schools. Player B is a four-star rated dual-threat quarterback who was courted by upward of 15 Division I programs and was ranked by Rivals as the second-best dual-threat signal caller in the nation.
One of these players orchestrated a touchdown drive in his NFL debut just over a week ago. The other sits past the three-deep on the LSU depth chart and shows no signs of breaking out with the Tigers any time soon.
By looking at solely their credentials coming out of high school, can you guess which one is which?
OK, so my game was a cinch if you follow Penn State football in the slightest. Player A is Matt McGloin, the fifth-year senior in 2012 who, under Bill O’Brien, made one of the greatest improvements a quarterback at Penn State has in decades.
He never believed in those rankings. Two classes ahead of Player B (Rob Bolden), McGloin said last year that when Bolden was an incoming freshman in 2010, he was skeptical.
“They’re going to bring in this kid, who’s a four-star recruit and all that garbage,” McGloin said to The Daily Collegian in 2012, after Bolden had transferred. “You’re going to rate a kid based on what he does against high school kids who aren’t even going to play at the next level? What they’re rating is potential. You don’t know what a kid’s going to do when he gets here.”
McGloin brings up a good question. These recruiting rankings that so many fans and prospects themselves see as gospel — are they actually an indicator of how a recruit is going to perform when they get to the big stage?
The same year Bolden was brought in, four-star pro-style quarterback Paul Jones made his entrance. Plagued by a lack of playing time and academic struggles, Jones left too after finding himself firmly on the bench. He’s now at Robert Morris, most recently playing in front of 2,004 fans.
How can someone so highly-touted coming out of high school, flop so royally when they reach the next level?
I reviewed the 75 signees since 2005 who were ranked by Rivals and stayed through their eligibility to compare their performance with the star ranking awarded to them by the time they joined the program.
I used the following point system to quantify success:
- One start is one point
- First-team all-conference is three points
- Second-team all-conference is two points
- Honorable mention all-conference is one point
- All-America honors is five points
- Practicing with an NFL squad in any capacity is five points
- Playing a down in a regular season NFL game is ten points
This system is inherently flawed. I can’t account for the depth on the team when a freshman stepped foot in Happy Valley, I can’t consider every injury, every academic ineligibility, every sickness and every kid who came in, balled out, and shocked everyone for no scientific reason.
But this is what I have to quantify success in its most simple terms. After each player was assigned a point value based on these criteria, I averaged the point values for each star rating.
Here are the results:
Five-star recruits averaged 42 points.
Four-star recruits averaged 21 points.
Three-star recruits averaged 25 points.
Two-star recruits averaged 17 points.
On a large scale, recruiting rankings serve as a probability. Will some five-star players flop? Sure. But not many. Jadeveon Clowney was a five-star recruit. So was Jameis Winston. So was Christian Hackenberg. Those five-star rated players are more likely than those unranked players to perform well on the big stage.
Between 2008 and 2012, just over a quarter of all five-star recruits were named All-Americans. In that same time, just over 5 percent of four-star recruits were afforded the same recognition.
Looking at it in terms of probability, a five-star recruit nationally has a 1 in 4 chance of being named All-American at some point in his college career. For four-star prospects, it’s 1 in 16, for three-star it’s 1 in 56, and for two-star, the odds drop to 1 in 127.
Ryan Snyder, a Penn State and Maryland recruiting analyst with Rivals, said the recruiting network ranks and rates players based on how they perform at camps, what they show in games and the things their high school coach says about them in terms of work ethic, academics and leadership.
At Rivals, a five-star prospect is considered to be one of the nation's top 25 to 30 players, four star is a top 250 to 300 or so player, three stars is a top 750 level player, two stars means the player is a mid-major prospect and one star means the player is not ranked.
Most coaches don’t admit to using the star ratings as a way to evaluate players. They’re looking deeper than camp performance or game highlights. Coaches want to know how a prospect is going to fit in with their team.
“At the end of the day, that has nothing to do with how I look at a student-athlete, a prospective student-athlete,” coach Bill O’Brien said in February on National Signing Day. “I look at a prospective student-athlete with our staff and I say, ‘Look, this is what we need, okay? So how does this guy fit what we need? What does he do well? What are his weaknesses? How is he going to fit in with our locker room? How is he going to do in class his freshman year? How is he going to do working in the community for us, because he's going to have to do a lot of that? How does he fit?’ ”
It’s impossible for a few dozen analysts to accurately rank and rate thousands of prospects each year. But Snyder said while sometimes four-star recruits are overrated or three-star prospects don’t get the love they deserve, Rivals and other recruiting networks usually get it right with the nation’s elite.
“It’s not hard to tell who deserves to really, truly be a five-star guy,” he said. “If you look back through the five-star guys, it’s more accurate than trying to determine who deserves to be a four-star or a three-star. When it comes to the very top, the elite of the elite though, it’s not really hard to tell.”
Penn State’s numbers show that. In my research, the few five-star recruits Penn State has drawn in over the years have performed better, on average, than those ranked lower.
Moral of the story? Scouting services and recruiting networks do evaluate well in terms of identifying the best of the best. But when it comes to those ranked in the three- or four-star range? Don’t look as far into it.
And remember: There will always be outliers.
Allen Robinson was a three-star recruit with just four Division I scholarship offers. Now, he’s one of the best receivers in the nation and must think hard about declaring early for the NFL.
Defensive lineman Jordan Hill was a two-star recruit as ranked by Rivals and had three Division I scholarship offers other than Penn State. Now, he’s playing in the NFL and anchored the defensive line on the Lions’ 2012 squad.
Snyder said, every now and then, a five-star prospect gets a big head and doesn’t perform up to expectations.
And once in a blue moon, you’ll see an unranked walk-on with an exceptional amount of moxie, poised to start an NFL game for the first time in his career.
That guy, whoever he is, will shock them all.
Anna Orso is a senior majoring in print journalism and is a Daily Collegian football reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @anna_orso.