The first Wednesday of February is like Christmas for college football fans. They get to spend the day seeing their favorite football team bring in a whole new class of prospects.
Up until today, the players were merely dating schools, with varying levels of commitment. Now, with the signature on a national letter of intent, the players and schools have officially "put a ring on it."
But many are wrapped up in the stars debate. Is this guy really a 5-star? Do stars matter? Is it batter to have a lot of players with high-star ratings in your class or players that truly fit your system? Stars, stars, stars.
While the controversy over the correlation between star rankings and wins is a battle fans will always wage, the real issue is where the stars come from. How the scouting services—those that so many fans rely on to tell them which players are great and which are merely okay—arrive at their star-rating conclusions.
Make no mistake about it; the stars are for the fans, with next to no science behind them. College coaches do their own evaluations, their own canvasing of the landscape and rating of kids on their big board. Sure, they look at the services as references, but if Scout, Rivals, ESPN and 247Sports ceased to exist tomorrow, their hustle wouldn't stop on the recruiting trail.
As for the rest of us, here's a look at where the stars come from.
Both ESPN and 247Sports provide very clear reasoning for why players fall into certain categories. Both explanations are similar, as are their ratings boards. When they slot kids, they are looking at a combination of things, including next-level potential, and that shines through in their rankings.
Elite players, per ESPN:
These players demonstrate rare abilities and can create mismatches that have an obvious impact on the game. These players have all the skills to take over a game and could make a possible impact as true freshmen. They should also push for All-America honors with the potential to have a three-and-out college career with early entry into the NFL draft.
Which 247 Sports describes as:
Franchise Player. One of the best players to come along in years, if not decades. Odds of having a player in this category every year is slim. This prospect has "can’t-miss" talent.
In the grand scheme of things, this is still somewhat vague at times, as the process to slot players is a journey that takes hours of watching tape, live games and camp performances. It is a fragile juggling of potential, natural talent, work ethic and technique in an effort to arrive at a final "score" of sorts for players.
First come the tangibles, the measurables that separate players into classes of athleticism. This includes a recruit's 40-yard dash time, vertical leap, broad jump, bench press and the like. The recently developed "Sparq Rating" is helping normalize those numbers.
Players who are off the charts from a run, jump and strength standpoint come into the ratings with a leg up on their opponents. However, as we all know, football is about so much more than merely raw talent. In fact, raw or underdeveloped talent is the type of gamble that gives a coach a roster full of projects.
Which brings us to the next element: evaluating football skills. This is where you'll see offensive linemen working against defensive linemen on kick-slides versus running the hump. Defensive backs trying to cover wide receivers one-on-one. Quarterbacks showing off accuracy and arm strength. These are essentially all of the things you can get from camps, seven-on-seven tournaments, etc.
Much like the NFL combine, these two measures help slot players from a ceiling and ability standpoint. However, like the NFL combine, the real measure still comes when the tape is popped in. Services want to see, just like coaches, if the kid can actually play the game of football.
Does that cornerback understand the difference between playing zone and man-to-man, and is he capable of coming down and making a run fit? Does the defensive tackle stay low and fire off the ball, or is he a waist bender that stands up and just uses brute strength to make plays on smaller high school players?
On the offensive side, evaluators are looking at wide receivers to see if they understand route running and can get loose after the catch, or are they players who just run straight and catch deep balls? Can the quarterback go through a progression, or is he just merely pointing and clicking in his high school offense?
The tape always has the final call, and unlike the NFL draft, evaluating high school players on film is a bit of a chore. It requires understanding the quality of the league or division that the player plays in. It also requires knowledge of how well he is coached. Sure, that's all taken into account (to a degree) in developing draft profiles, but remember that high school guys have significantly less exposure than collegians.
Some kids are really good in high school because they are well coached. Other players do not look so good on film because they are poorly coached, underdeveloped and allowed to freelance on the field.
It is an inexact science, and what services like 247Sports, ESPN, Rivals and Scout look to do is help fans understand the whole ordeal. It's a big project, and while it is not perfect, it does help give a clear look at what these players, with good coaching in a solid system, can grow into.