College Football Recruiting Eye: The Limits of the Role Playing Theory
A few weeks ago I briefly touched on the effects of Jim Harbaugh’s recruiting efforts at Stanford, and how the program was defying conventional wisdom when it comes to getting both quality football players and top-notch student athletes. Since then Harbaugh has reeled in another top prospect, this time getting the commitment of California’s own Mr. Football in Cathedral Prep running back Tyler Gaffney.
Gaffney, who ran for 2,866 yards and scored 56 touchdowns this past season for the undefeated Dons, chose the Cardinal over offers from USC and Notre Dame, who recruited him primarily as a fullback.
Let me repeat that: Who recruited him primarily as a fullback.
They weren’t alone in their assessment. ESPN.com’s Scouts Inc. had this to say about Gaffney:
...he currently lacks the vision, suddenness and feel for the cutback lane to project well as zone runner at the next level. Struggles picking and sliding through traffic, slipping through the small creases and making something out of nothing. A true north-south back that could continue to develop the size and strength necessary to wear down a defense as a college runner and occasionally break off a long run with his good top-end speed. Overall, Gaffney could be productive in the right downhill, power running system or potentially make a slide down to fullback or over to defense as an outside linebacker with his great size to speed measurables...
Flattering to an extent, but not exactly the most stellar review for a guy who rushed for more yards in a high school single season than former Heisman trophy winners Marcus Allen, Ricky Williams, Reggie Bush, or Rashaan Salaam.
Yet all worn-out jokes about white running backs being “power runners” aside, Gaffney’s commitment to Stanford shows, in my mind anyway, the limits of even the best college football recruiters. And make no mistake about it; when it comes to recruiting young men to play football in college, Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis are second to none.
While I don’t presume to know exactly what Gaffney was thinking when he made his commitment, it does not take a rocket scientist or professional psychological analyst to figure that after literally having unprecedented success rushing the ball in high school that Gaffney would want to continue that success—or at the very least go somewhere with the opportunity to do so—in college.
What better place to do so than Stanford, which currently features another “bruising” yet athletic back in Toby Gerhart, who oh-by-the-way holds the California career high school rushing record at over 9,000 yards.
Gerhart’s story is almost the mirror image of Gaffney’s, especially considering that the 6'1", 236-lb. Gerhart was also listed as a fullback by many scouting services out of high school and also was a two-sport star who wanted the chance to play college baseball. Yet Gerhart received comparatively little interest from schools as a runner and ended up signing with a swooning Stanford program that was trying to rebuild itself under Walt Harris.
A major injury and a couple of losing seasons later, and Gerhart was all but forgotten by college football—that is until a 2008 campaign in which he returned to lead the Cardinal offense with over 1,100 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns while splitting time with Anthony Kimble, another potential NFL running back.
Now if I’m Gaffney, where would I rather go? The up-and-coming program which will give me a chance to play my natural and preferred position while also playing college baseball, or the perennial power where I can go mash shoulder pads with linebackers for four years while some dude who rushed for half as many yards as me in high school gets all the glory?
The answer is—and I think we can all agree—quite simple. I’d choose the former, especially knowing Stanford’s recent history with Gerhart. After all, why let Rivals.com or Scout.com or whoever tell me who and what I am as a football player, especially when my ridiculous production at the high school level should speak for itself?
Let’s be honest here people; these young men (despite a few and often very noteworthy exceptions) are not stupid. If they’ve been a playmaker all their lives, their natural instinct is to want to go to a program which will feature them in that same capacity, and one which will give them the opportunity to show their talents in the best way possible.
And how can you blame them? Isn’t it natural for anyone to want to receive maximum exposure doing what they do best?
Therein lays the limits of selling a player on a program—however strong—if you’re only going to promise him the chance to be a role player. For as much as you can sugarcoat the fullback position with promises of short-yardage carries or H-back status, the position remains one of such ignominy that it practically screams glorified offensive lineman in most pro style offenses. Never mind that most programs now run spread offenses and would shuffle a player of Gaffney’s ability into a defensive role.
And you know what? It’s not just productive running backs being forecast at fullback either we’re talking about. It’s tweener defenders who get typecast as “hybrids” at the college level, or undersized wide receivers who are given the chance to walk-on to programs as the proverbial special teams “demon” when they’ve really been excelling at catching passes their entire careers.
My point here isn’t to fault Gaffney or others like him. In fact, it’s just the opposite. While there is much to be said for the inflated egos of the high school football superstar, the reality is that players should understand their own value in the recruiting process.
For as many times as we see high school athletes let the “star” ratings go to their heads, we see players like Gaffney or Gerhart get slotted down to role player status because they may not conform to prototypical and often unrealistic standards those same scouting services have defined for their position.
Yet given the right offense and the right coaching staff, players such as these can often thrive at the next level, taking advantage of their natural ability and not letting it go to waste in a program that fails to accurately define that player’s inherent value.
That, my friends, is why parity will continue in the college game. Because as long as recruiters and scouts continue to misunderstand the value of players and offer them only on the basis of being a “role player,” the more we will see highly talented athletes like the Tyler Gaffneys of the world sign with rising programs like Stanford over a traditional heavyweight like USC.
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