College Football Signing Day 2009: Grades Mean Nothing Until 2014

Buck CargalCorrespondent IJanuary 30, 2009

Next Tuesday, every college football team will be handed a report card.  The big-name schools -- Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Alabama, et al -- will receive no worse than an 'A.'  Everybody else, regardless, will take a lower grade.

Never mind that it takes five years to actually know how a recruiting class turned out.  America wants grades right now.

Big State U. gets a better recruiting report cad padded because it signed three top-rated quarterbacks.  Never mind only one can play at a time.  And disregard two top-notch quarterbacks being signed each of the two previous years.

It's all a farce.

The grading of college football signing classes has more in common with the bookkeeping procedures at Enron than most realize.  Despite claims to the contrary, a recruit's grade has as much -- if not more -- to do with who is recruiting him as it does with what the player actually does, or can do.

A player recruited by Texas will always get a higher rating than the same-position player recruited by TCU.  Same for Tennessee and Memphis, Alabama and Troy, Florida and South Florida, USC and Stanford.

Just like the team voting polls each season, the big-name state schools are always ranked at the top.

Yet, the likes of Utah, TCU, BYU and Boise State force their way into the national rankings each season.  How could they be doing this if their recruiting classes are so inferior?

There is no way to accurately assess or grade every high school senior in a given year.  There are more than 1,100 high school football teams in Texas alone.  There are not even man hours or personnel to watch every game, attend practices, hold individual workouts or even analyze all game film on every senior in Texas -- let alone the other 49 states.

Sure, some kids have greatness written all over them, and it's easy to see they have a big time future.  Tim Tebow, Matthew Stafford, Larry Fitzgerald . . .

Some have greatness written all over them -- and disappear.  Remember Ryan Perrilloux from three years ago?  He was the next great, can't-miss quarterback than signed with LSU.  He's now at Division II Jacksonville State in Alabama, trying to salvage a collegiate career that has gone nowhere.

Too many variables weigh into the equation for immediate grades to mean anything.

How will he handle academics?  How will he adjust to being away from home?  Will he accept going up against players across the field with as much talent as him?  Will he commit to learning new techniques and differencing approaches?  Will he commit to a weight program?  Will he maintain physical flexibility as he gains weight and strength?

Will his coach be there the whole time?  Will the system change?  Will the system take advantages of his talents?  Will he be set back by injury?  Will he show desire to not just be satisfied, but to strive for improvement throughout his career?  Will he avoid off-the-field issues and distractions?

Will problems with his girlfriend get in the way?

Nobody knows the answers to any of these questions about any recruit, with any absolute certainly.  Coaching staffs make calculated guesses on each recruit.  Only in time will they begin to develop answers.

The first can't-miss prospect I remember seeing in high school was Roddy Bone, a running back for Las Cruces (N.M.) Mayfield in 1978.  He was a stud.

After four years at Notre Dame, he was another face in the crowd.

In the late '90s, Midland (Texas) Lee running back Cedric Benson cut through defenses like a knife through butter.  Watching him in the press box of Texas Stadium, one observer said, "We'll be seeing him play on Sundays."

Benson went on to a nice career with the Texas Longhorns, and was a high pick in the NFL Draft.  But, he came out of UT a different player than he entered.  He wasn't the elusive and speedy runner he was in high school.  He was more of a plodder.  His NFL career has been a major disappointment.

LaDainian Tomlinson wasn't a five-star recruit when he signed with the TCU Horned Frogs.  The Waco (Texas) University product was good enough to be in the state All-Star game, but after all, he was being recruited by TCU.  He wasn't worthy, so it seemed, to warrant a top rating.

His freshmen year, Tomlinson rushed for a little over 500 yards, splitting time with more-experienced running backs.  The Frogs were terrible, not winning until the final game of the season.  Pat Sullivan left as coach.  TCU hired Dennis Franchione as the new head coach, coming in from New Mexico.

Two years later, Tomlinson was the featured back.  He broke the 1,000-yard mark shortly after mid-season.  But it wasn't until the final home game of his junior year that "LT" started meaning something other than Lawrence Taylor.  Tomlinson set an NCAA single-game record 400 yards against UTEP.

From that point on, LT's grades climbed.  Suddenly, he was as good as anything that anybody had recruited in the past four years.  He was a Heisman candidate.  He was the first running back taken in the NFL Draft after his senior season.

Furthermore, after getting to the pros, he assessed himself and wanted to improve.  He found that one side of his body was weaker than the other.  He hired a personal trainer to correct that.  And he became the best running back in the NFL, for a time.

Not bad for a kid that wasn't a five-star recruit coming out of high school.

LT got lucky.  He was recruited for a certain style of offense, and when a coaching change came about, the system didn't change so dramatically to something in which he couldn't fit.

Last season, Oklahoma recruited a defensive end from (Keller) Fossil Ridge that many considered the top recruit from the state of Texas.  Those that didn't have him rated first had him rated no lower than second.

R.J. Washington has greatness written all over him.  He's 6-4, 240 -- absolutely chiseled.  His frame defies his weight.  Washington possesses extreme quickness off the line and is a terror speed rusher coming around the end.  His speed now would give NFL offensive tackles nightmares.

As a sophomore, he set the school record for sacks with 10.  While his senior teammate Chris Perry was a Top 100 national prospect at defensive tackle, as a junior Washington immediately stood out as the top athlete and prospect on the field.

But even R.J. Washington isn't a can't-miss prospect.  In fact, he might not even be a prospect at all if it wasn't for a traumatic event his freshman year of high school.

Washington was a standout on the Fossil Ridge freshman team.  One of his best friends, Tyler Bailey, was a standout on offense.  But after the season, Bailey was found dead at another friend's house.  An overdose was the culprit.

R.J. Washington quit being a regular in the principal's office.  He went to being a hard-working kid, a straight-and-narrow kid, a kid that doesn't have the "big head" despite all the accolades that have followed him.

He's given himself a chance to be something extraordinary through football.

It almost came to end in the playoffs his junior year, at the end of the third quarter, Washington laid motionless on the field.  The ambulance came out, picked him up and took him to the hospital across the freeway.

Within an hour, he began to regain movement.  His family's worst fears were alleviated as doctors said he received a pinched nerve and would be fine.  In fact, he played the next week.

R.J. Washington has all the earmarks of being a top-five NFL Draft pick someday.  Maybe No. 1 overall, with the way the NFL emphasizes pass-rushing linemen.

But he has to meet the challenge of major college football first.

No longer will he have to deal with much-less-talented linemen diving to cut him at the knees.  He'll take on bulky, gifted linemen that will meet him head-on.  He'll have to develop more strength, to play against the run more consistently, to be an every-down player, not a situational pass rusher.

He'll have to accept the coaching that he will receive at OU.  He has to learn the game, things he wasn't taught by his high school coaches.  In high school, he was used one way on every play -- get in the backfield, ASAP, with the strong outside rush.

Now, he'll have to learn that even a defensive end doesn't take the same approach on every play.  He has to prove that he can stop the run -- something he wasn't asked to do in high school.

He will no longer face the spread offense, week-in, week-out.  He'll have to adapt his game to battle conventional offenses.

Will he realize how much he has to improve and accept the coaching?  Based on his recent experiences, odds are good that he will.

Will he add bulk and strength through offseason conditioning?  There's hope of that, but until it's done, nobody knows for sure.

If he does add strength and bulk, will he maintain that cat-like quickness and explosiveness off the ball?  Nobody can answer that.

My daughters went to high school with R.J. Washington, and Tyler Bailey lived across just across the street.  I'll never forget racing to the hospital and finding R.J.'s brother in the hallway at the hospital, finding out that doctors were very optimistic.  For 24 Friday nights over two years, I marveled every time R.J. stepped on the field.

I know R.J. Washington better than any recruiting service possibly could, just from watching him up close week after week.  But, while I feel all his recruiting accolades are warranted, I can't guarantee that they will be warranted five years from now.

The ball's in his court.

Hopefully, life's shattering winds don't blow and nothing gets in the way -- injury, personal or family disaster, grades, coaching changes, or even girls.

If everything goes well, he may will be a No. 1 NFL Draft selection.  He might be the LaDainian Tomlinson of defensive ends.

But, if all things don't go well, there's no guarantee he doesn't become the latest Ryan Perrilloux, in a far too-long list of highly-rated prospects that never lived up to their pre-college hype.

Check back in 2014.  Only then we will know for sure.



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