Seeing Stars: The Recruiting Debate

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Seeing Stars:  The Recruiting Debate

With not much meaningful football activity to consume (at least from a fans point of view) in the summer, recruiting becomes a big topic of interest and conversation. But the danger is we can make mountains out of molehills, we can have raging debates over issues of little genuine consequence, and we can again divide the Husker nation into believers and non-believers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discussion of recruiting to date. Some fans seem especially concerned that the players that have committed to date have been assigned three star rankings. Needless to say, this won’t be the final rankings for these players. It’s not uncommon for players to get a bump up from three to four stars (or vice versa) as sites like Scout.com and Rivals.com revisit their rankings.

But beyond whether or not the grades are “final”, is the issue of whether it makes sense to be concerned that a player has received “only” a three-star grade. For example, Major Culbert received “only” three stars as a prospect and yet logged more meaningful playing time as a true freshman than anyone in his recruiting class. Likewise, Brandon Jackson emerged ahead of players like Marlon Lucky and Kenny Wilson who received more stars from recruiting services.

One of the main weaknesses with the “star system” is that these services impose a false distribution on players. That is, they pre-determine how many players can receive a particular number of stars regardless of how many players might be equally good prospects. They rank players as best they can, despite the fact that they’re all facing different competition, receive different levels of help from the teams and coaches around them, and have different potential in terms of future physical and mental development.

So of course the rankings will be loaded with error. Then they force a hard cutoff for assigning stars on what are very shaky rankings. They say, it keeps them from giving 1000 four-star rankings to players that could be viewed as equally gifted. I say, if 1000 players are basically equivalent prospects, then the rankings ought to reflect that equality because that’s the reality.

That’s not to say star rankings are useless. A five-star player is someone who stands out in a rare way. There might be a few other players the sites would like to rank similarly (but don't), but if one or two players are selected as being worthy of being singled out in that way, you can bet that it’s a recruit worth getting excited about. Four star players are generally better than three star players – but not by much because many in both groups are essentially equivalent. Two star rankings are fairly informative. They tell you that in one way or another, the recruit is fairly unimpressive either because of the competition they faced, their production, their measurables, or all of the above. A zero or one star player is either completely disrespected (e.g. Cory Timm) or completely unknown (e.g. Matt Slauson).

Getting specific about the first five recruits in Nebraska's 2009 recruiting class, we see that Scout.com ranks three of them as among the top ten at their positions. These players get three-star rankings in part because fullback and center are not positions where they rank a lot of players, so the artificial distribution says that since they aren’t ranked #1 or #2 that they have to be three-star players. But if the goal is become a perennial top ten team again, shouldn’t fans be happy to find players that are considered among the ten best at their position (even if they might be equivalent to the 15th or 20th best)? No, they haven’t been singled out as being otherworldly. But they are absolutely good enough to compete with the best teams in the country. Isn’t that what matters most?

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