College Football Recruiting For Beginners Part I: How Are Players Ranked?

C.W. O'BrienCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2009

I tried to write a short article to help explain some of the lesser known aspects of recruiting:  how players are ranked, how classes are ranked, over-signing classes, etc.  The truth is that most B/R readers don't know much about recruiting except for how high their favorite school's class is ranked, or who their favorite school's prized prospect is. 

After sifting through literally hundreds of pages of useful reference material, I realized that it would be impossible to cram everything into a single article and keep the article under 15 pages.

I am not going to kid myself into believing that more than three people would read the entire article if it was that long.  I know I wouldn't.  Instead, I have broken it up.  I will be publishing it in installments leading up to National Signing Day.  Hopefully this can take some of the confusion and misinformation out of recruiting. 

Also, while there will be some of my own opinions thrown in for analytical purposes, for the most part I will deal strictly in facts and figures. I will be happy to provide a bibliography and source list for anyone that wants it. Enjoy!

Part I:  How Are Players Ranked?

I have been following recruiting since 1998, back in the days before websites like Rivals and Scout.  I read SuperPrep, Max Emfinger's Recruiting, The Prep Football Report, and Dave Campbell's Texas Football

When Rivals and Scout went up, I just took my hobby a step further.  I have been following football recruiting year-round for almost six years.  I'm no Tom Lemming or Dave Campbell, but I know a little bit. 

This one is about as true a statement as it gets:  Recruiting is not an exact science.  Signing a great class does not guarantee success.  Not every "can't miss" prospect is actually "can't miss."  I wanted to get that out of the way at the beginning.

The fact remains that there is a lot that can happen between the time a player signs with a program and when their eligibility runs out.  Some recruits can't academically qualify.  Coaches leave the recruit's program.  Players get injured.  They transfer.  They quit school.  They get caught up in legal woes.

After talking with a lot of people, I have found that the biggest confusion comes from the fact that most people lack a basic understanding of how various recruiting services track and rate prospects.  They don't understand how there can be a disparity between the way a recruit is ranked on different recruiting services.

Common questions include:  What makes a 5-Star prospect a 5-Star?  Why is this recruit rated as a 4-Star on (insert source) but only a 2-Star on (insert service)?  The recruit looked good on the clip I saw, why is he only a 3-Star? 

They are all very important questions that I hope to answer.

While there are tons of different recruiting services out there, there are three main recruiting services that really set the bar.  They are:,, and ESPN.  They each have their own unique way of grading potential prospects.  They have their own evaluators and they look at different things. 

They do share four basic traits:

  1. Game film study:  All prospects are evaluated using as much film as possible.  The more film on a prospect, the better the service's analysis.  They get to see more than the 30 second clips that they post for viewers.
  2. Live game study:  Each service has evaluators in different regions throughout the country.  While it is virtually impossible for them to see every potential prospect in person, almost every high-ranking prospect will be seen at least once.  Both Scout and Rivals claim to attend several hundred games per year.  This allows them to get a better feel of how prospects are rated and ranked. 
  3. Combines and camps:  Recruiting services use these as an opportunity to get accurate measurements on height, weight, speed, vertical, etc.  It also gives them a chance to how these prospects matchup against other top notch prospects.
  4. Players are evaluated on today, not tomorrow:  These services evaluate how good a player is currently, not how good they may be eventually.  It is hard enough projecting how good a player is going to perform in college based on his current measurables and skill set.  It is impossible to determine how well a player will perform based on how his body might develop or how good his skills might become.
  5. Athlete:  Players are given the position of "athlete" if a service feels that a particular player has a skill set or physical attributes that would allow him to play many different positions in college.  It acts to prevent the service from projecting a player's position incorrectly.  No recruiting service will have the exact same list of players at the "athlete" position, but all will make use of the title. 

Contrary to popular belief, these recruiting services aren't looking into a crystal ball to get analysis.  They also aren't throwing spaghetti noodles at the refrigerator to determine how many stars a player gets.  What they do isn't ho-hum.  There is a lot of work and preparation that goes into evaluating recruits. 

No, they aren't always right, but it isn't because they aren't trying. 

Here is a quick run-down of how each service rates recruits:


Rivals uses a two-prong grading system to rate prospects.  Each player is given 1 to 5 stars based on their talent, size, skill, etc.  Then each player is given a number that corresponds to how they rank among prospects of the same position nationally.  This helps to differentiate between the quality of players with the same general talent, size, skill, etc.  Rivals has also begun grading players on their expected impact, but it does not actually factor into their over-all prospect grade. 

It is important to note that these rankings are done independently.  One does not have an impact on the other.


***** = Great prospect.  Game ready as a true freshman.  Prospect has the ability to be a difference-maker immediately. 

**** = Very good prospect.  The recruit can contribute as a freshman and be a difference-maker early in his career

*** = Good prospect.  Can contribute to a program and eventually start but still needs some development to be effective. 

** = Average prospect.  Needs time to develop but has the potential to become a contributor to a program late in their career. 

* = Evaluation pending/not enough film to evaluate

The base of all of these rankings is a player's skill set.  A highly skilled player can still have a decent star rating, regardless of size.  The inverse is not true.  Rivals will not rank a prospect with poor skills and great size as high. 

That said, Rivals may add or deduct stars based on height, weight, or speed.  Often times, the biggest difference between a 3-Star quarterback and a 4-Star quarterback is a couple of inches.  The difference between two physically similar wide receivers could be less than a tenth of a second in the 40. 

While adjusting a players stars based on an inch or two, a few pounds, or a couple tenths of a second in the 40 may seem arbitrary, it is very important in projecting a player. 

In a sport dominated by 300 pound lineman, 6'3" receivers, and defensive backs that run sub-4.4 40's, it is hard to really predict which undersized players will have an impact. 

It is usually the 2-star, undersized, less skilled prospects that opponents of recruit-tracking point to.  It is a fact that recruiting services get these wrong from time to time.  One thing to consider is that for every undersized QB like Todd Reesing or Chase Daniel, there are hundreds of similarly sized QB's that never see the field as a starter. 

Once players have been issued a star-ranking, they are compared to the other prospects at a given position.  They are ranked numerically in order from best to worst. 

While Rivals may only list the top 100 and show the remaining prospects as NR, they have, in fact, rated every prospect at a given position.  This becomes a factor when ranking classes because not every 3-Star prospect is equal. 


Joe Snuffy 
Johnston (IA) Johnston




Scout uses a grading scale to evaluate potential recruits.  Once the prospects have been given their grade, they are assigned stars and positional rankings.  The score on their evaluation determines how many stars that player receives and how that player ranks at their position. 

Players are graded based on size, speed, talent, and current skills. 

90-100:  Rare prospect.  Player can create mismatches and can have a major impact on the game as a true freshman.

80-89:  Outstanding prospect.  Player may be able to create some mismatches against most opponents and could potentially contribute as a true freshman. 

70-79:  Good prospect.  Player doesn't dominate in every game, especially against quality competition. Could eventually become a starter. 

60-69:  Average prospect. This player is over-matched against the better players in the nation.  Weaknesses will be exposed against tougher competition.  Could develop into a solid contributor on the FBS level. 

50-59:  Prospect. Player has some redeeming qualities but is not projected to contribute at the FBS level.

45:  Pending prospect with film

40:  Pending prospect

Once prospects have been graded, they are assigned stars and positional rankings. 

While the cut-off for stars can vary from year to year, it generally falls:  

90 or more points=5-Stars

80 or more points=4-Stars

70 or more points=3-Stars

60 or more points=2-Stars

less than 60 and pending prospects are assigned 1-Star.

Prospects are then placed in order from highest grade to lowest by position.  Positional grades are assigned from high to low.  The recruits are not directly compared and analyzed, only their scores are. 


QB Joe Snuffy
(Johnston HS)
Johnston, IA
6-3/227KU, OU, Iowa State, Iowa, Texas 


The World Wide Leader in Sports uses the same grading scale that Scouts uses, although ESPN does not assign stars.  ESPN evaluates only a fraction of the recruits that Scout and Rivals do.  ESPN uses Scouts' analysis for any player that they are unable to evaluate themselves. 

ESPN takes the combined analysis and issues grades, positional rankings, and over-all national rankings independent of Scout.  However, like Scout, prospects are not compared to one another, only their scores are.


Joe SnuffyQB6'3"222Johnston H.S. (IA)QB #7 89 View Schools ESPNU 150 All American 



Even though all three major recruiting services tend to use some of the same general guidelines, they all have their own areas of importance.  They grade differently.  They evaluate differently. 

As always, differently people see things differently—even when they are looking at the same picture.  One service may see a prospect and think that recruit is great.  Another service may see something differently and evaluate accordingly.

While Rivals and Scout evaluate almost three times as many prospects as ESPN does, some people seem to trust ESPN's evaluations more. 

Rivals and Scout begin player evaluations the winter of a prospects junior year.  ESPN begins in the spring. 

ESPN contacts teams on who they are recruiting and adjusts its evaluations accordingly, compared to Scout and Rivals who attempt to scout every potential recruit. 

Rivals attempts to update it's player evaluations weekly. Scout updates theirs monthly.  ESPN updates their evaluations as needed. 

ESPN is free. The other two charge.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way to evaluate potential prospects. There is no right or wrong answer, there is only personal preference. 


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