College Football's Most Underrated Recruits of the Last 5 Years

Luke Brietzke@FireEverybodyContributor IIIFebruary 4, 2014

College Football's Most Underrated Recruits of the Last 5 Years

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    In two days, thousands of high school football players will sign with the colleges of their choosing.

    Headlines are typically reserved for the 5-star can’t-miss prospects.

    Yet unheralded, overlooked signees make a huge difference down the road. 

    Today we take a look back over the past five signing classes to examine some of the most underrated prospects to make impacts on their programs.

    To gauge how valued recruits were before signing, we used composite recruiting scores from 247Sports.

    The rankings took several factors into consideration, including national award voting, All-America voting, all-conference selections and conference awards.

    Here is a closer look at the top 25 most underrated recruits of the last five years.

25. CB Chris Davis, Auburn

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    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Auburn lore will forever remember Chris Davis for his 100-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown to beat Alabama on the final play.

    What might not be remembered as clearly is the fact that Davis wasn’t a mega-recruit.

    A 3-star, in-state talent, Davis came to Auburn as the No. 895 overall prospect—and No. 72 cornerback—in 247Sports’ composite rankings.

    Davis blossomed into an all-SEC performer who helped the Tigers reach the 2014 BCS National Championship Game.

    The Sporting News and CBS Sports named Davis to their All-America teams as an all-purpose player in 2013 as well.

    Davis recorded 74 tackles—second-best on the team. He also posted 15 pass breakups and scored touchdowns both on the missed field goal and on a punt return.

24. QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Though the national narrative seemingly became that programs barely recruited Johnny Manziel out of high school, he was the No. 393 overall prospect in the class of 2010.

    Texas A&M ultimately signed Manziel when Texas infamously passed on him.

    Manziel subsequently passed all over the SEC for two seasons.

    The reason Manziel earns a spot on the list is because fans don’t often equate Heisman Trophy winners with 3-star prospects.

    The Dallas Morning News even declared Manziel’s signing class as the “weakest class of the Mike Sherman era.”

    Manziel, somehow rated as just the No. 13 dual-threat quarterback by 247Sports composite rankings, won the 2012 Heisman Trophy.

    He earned another trip to New York City in 2013 as a Heisman finalist and earned first-team all-SEC honors in 2012-13.

    In two seasons, Manziel threw for 7,920 yards with 63 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. He also rushed for 2,169 yards and 30 touchdowns.

23. DT Chris Jones, Bowling Green

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Like many MAC players on this list, Chris Jones didn’t receive much recruiting attention.

    The 2012 MAC Defensive Player of the Year fielded just three offers—from Bowling Green, Toledo and Ball State.

    As an undersized tackle, 247Sports composite rankings listed Jones as a 2-star prospect. He came in as the No. 1,473 national prospect and the No. 96 defensive tackle.

    None of that mattered on the field.

    Jones finished his senior season with 19 TFLs and 12.5 sacks. He also posted sacks in eight games.

    The Football Writers Association of America named Jones a first-team All-America selection in 2012.

22. RB Dri Archer, Kent State

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    G.M. Andrews/Associated Press

    Dri Archer brought Florida speed to the MAC and set the conference ablaze as a junior.

    The Kent State star had limited choices during his recruitment.

    247Sports composite rankings listed Archer as a 2-star recruit who ranked as the No. 1,496 overall prospect.

    He barely cracked the top 200 Florida prospects, coming in at No. 193.

    Archer shook off the lack of recruiting attention and turned in a stellar career at Kent State.

    He scored a school-record 23 touchdowns in 2012, helping him earn consensus All-America honors as an all-purpose player.

    Archer posted 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns as a rusher as a junior, adding 561 yards and four TDs as a receiver.

    He also returned three kickoffs for touchdowns.

    Behind Archer, Kent State reached the MAC Championship Game. Archer earned first-team all-conference honors and was named the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year.

    Injuries limited Archer to just 68 carries as a senior.

21. DT Will Sutton, Arizona State

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Unlike several players on this list, Will Sutton had major programs competing for his services.

    The 3-star prospect received offers from Arizona, Boise State and Fresno State among others before ultimately choosing the Sun Devils.

    Still, Sutton didn’t exactly impress the recruiting services.

    247Sports composite rankings placed Sutton as the No. 566 overall prospect and the No. 48 defensive tackle.

    Fast-forward several years and Sutton can boast about a mantle filled with a pair of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year trophies.

    In addition to all-conference honors in 2012 and 2013, Sutton earned consensus All-America honors in 2012.

    The Associated Press, CBS Sports and USA Today had Sutton on their first-team All-America rosters again in 2013.

    Sutton recorded 23.5 TFLs, 13 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2012.

    He backed up those numbers with 13.5 TFLs and four sacks as a senior, helping Arizona State reach the Pac-12 Championship Game.

20. WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Jordan Matthews went from an overlooked 3-star recruit to a two-time all-SEC performer.

    The job Matthews did in 2013 was perhaps his finest accomplishment.

    With a first-year starter and an average run game, Matthews still managed to haul in 112 passes for 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns.

    He helped the Commodores to consecutive nine-win seasons in the process of emerging as a top talent in the league.

    Amazingly, Matthews generated minimal interest from in-state schools Alabama and Auburn.

    The 3-star prospect ranked No. 1,285 in the 247Sports composite rankings and No. 169 among receivers.

    Matthews ended his career with several more accolades, including first-team All-America honors from USA Today and Athlon.

19. S Ed Reynolds, Stanford

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    Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

    Stanford didn’t face tremendous competition when going after Ed Reynolds.

    That’s because recruiting services didn’t think too highly of the safety as a high school prospect.

    247Sports composite rankings had Reynolds as a 3-star recruit and the No. 1,125 prospect in the nation. He was also rated as the No. 79 safety.

    None of that fazed Stanford.

    The Cardinal signed Reynolds and watched him develop into one of the nation’s top safeties.

    He finished as a two-time all-Pac-12 performer. CBS Sports and Athlon named Reynolds a first-team All-America performer as well.

    Reynolds recorded 87 tackles—ranking third on a dominating Stanford defense—and had five pass defenses as a senior.

    In 2012, Reynolds posted a team-best six interceptions.

18. T Eric Fisher, Central Michigan

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    In 2009, 247Sports composite rankings held Fisher as the No. 116 offensive tackle in the national class.

    Four years later the Kansas City Chiefs selected Fisher with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

    The former 2-star recruit had no experience as an offensive lineman heading into his senior year of high school.

    Elite college programs subsequently overlooked Fisher, who went on to first-team all-MAC honors.

    Pro Football Weekly made Fisher a first-team All-America selection in 2012 as well.

    Fisher received no offers from BCS conference programs—a reflection of his inexperience at his position and a product of his weighing 70 pounds less.

    If Fisher doesn’t perfectly fit the “underrated” recruits list, he certainly qualifies as an “overperformer.”

17. RB Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State

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    Amazingly, the wrecking ball that is Le’Veon Bell had few options coming out of Groveport Madison High School in Groveport, Ohio.

    247Sports composite rankings showed Bell, a 3-star prospect, as the No. 1,613 overall player and the No. 135 running back.

    Michigan State provided Bell the only offer he received from a BCS conference school.

    Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and Marshall extended offers as well.

    Perhaps that explains the anger with which Bell ran throughout his collegiate career.

    Bell led the Big Ten with 1,793 rushing yards as a junior in 2012.

    He earned first-team all-Big Ten honors with his production, and College Football Network declared him a first-team All-America player.

16. S Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois

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    How did Jimmie Ward go from Davidson High School in Mobile, Ala. to a first-team All-America selection at Northern Illinois?

    Ward was barely a recruiting afterthought in the recruiting hotbed that is the Southeast.

    He couldn’t even crack the top 2,000 recruits as a senior, coming in at No. 2,028 in the 247Sports composite rankings.

    The 2-star prospect, rated as the No. 156 safety in the nation, took advantage of the opportunity afforded to him by former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill, though.

    Kill extended one of few offers given to Ward, who Sports Illustrated and USA Today named a first-team All-America selection.

    Ward led the team with 95 tackles as a senior. He also hauled in seven interceptions and broke up 10 more passes.

    In 2012, Ward headlined a defense that helped Northern Illinois to become the first MAC team to ever reach a BCS bowl game.

15. LB Trent Murphy, Stanford

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    The 2009 Stanford recruiting class will go down as perhaps the best the program has ever signed.

    Yet a couple underrated prospects helped earn that distinction.

    Linebacker Trent Murphy and defensive end Ben Gardner, rated by 247Sports as a 2-star prospect, didn’t draw many headlines when they signed with the Cardinal.

    Murphy finished as a consensus All-America selection.

    Both players were named first-team all-Pac-12.

    247Sports gave Murphy a 3-star rating, but listed him as the No. 892 overall prospect and the No. 34 weak-side defensive end.

    Murphy finished his senior season with 23.5 TFLs and 15 sacks.

    Over the course of his career, he helped lead Stanford to two Pac-12 championships and four BCS bowl appearances.

14. WR Allen Robinson, Penn State

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    Penn State was one of just six schools that actively pursued receiver Allen Robinson out of St. Mary Preparatory School in Orchard Lake, Mich.

    Robinson rewarded the Nittany Lions by blossoming into a go-to, big-play receiver.

    A two-time all-Big Ten selection, Robinson also earned Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013.

    247Sports composite rankings listed Robinson as a 3-star talent and the No. 980 overall recruit.

    Recruiting services averaged Robinson as the No. 115 receiver in the class as well.

    Robinson helped break in quarterback Christian Hackenberg this season by giving the true freshman a definitive first option.

    Robinson finished the season with 97 receptions for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns.

    He earned first-team All-America honors from The Sporting News and CBS Sports in 2013.

13. T Cameron Erving, Florida State

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    If not for a position change, Cameron Erving might not be a household name around Florida State.

    Erving signed with the Seminoles as a defensive tackle. He struggled to crack the lineup at the position, ultimately moving to offensive tackle.

    There, Erving found his home.

    Erving was named the ACC Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2013, earning first-team all-conference honors as well.

    The Florida State offensive line paved the way for a tremendous balanced attack that propelled the Seminoles to the 2013 National Championship.

    Players like Erving also helped quarterback Jameis Winston secure the Heisman Trophy.

    Several media outlets—The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and USA Today—selected Erving to their All-America first-teams.

    Erving made his mark after coming to Florida State as a 3-star defensive tackle who ranked No. 750 overall by 247Sports’ composite rankings.

12. WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M

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    It seems worth mentioning again at this point that The Dallas Morning News labeled Texas A&M’s signing class of 2011 as the weakest in the Mike Sherman era.

    To be fair, the post did highlight both receiver Mike Evans and quarterback Johnny Manziel.

    Suffice it to say, though, that Sherman’s “weakest class” mapped out just fine.

    Evans flew under the radar in part because he didn’t start playing football until 2010.

    He still climbed the ranks as a football recruit.

    247Sports composite rankings had him as a 3-star prospect, though as just the No. 766 overall player and the No. 87 receiver.

    Evans and Manziel redshirted in 2011, forming a tremendous all-freshman bond a year later.

    Manziel went on to win the 2012 Heisman Trophy.

    Evans, meanwhile, broke Texas A&M freshman records in receptions and receiving yards—82 catches for 1,105 yards. He also made the SEC all-freshman team.

    A year later, Evans earned consensus All-America honors and made the all-SEC first team.

11. DE Marcus Smith, Louisville

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    Marcus Smith made a wise career decision shortly after he arrived on Louisville’s campus in 2010.

    He spent two days as a quarterback hopeful for the Cardinals before coach Charlie Strong convinced him a move to defensive end would serve him better.

    Perhaps it was Smith’s insistence on playing quarterback that allowed him to slip under the radar as a national recruit.

    247Sports composite rankings listed Smith as a 3-star prospect, but at just No. 1,104 overall.

    Rivals listed Smith as a quarterback coming out of Hardaway High School in Columbus, Ga.

    The move to quarterback worked out very well for all parties involved.

    Smith became a dominating rush end.

    In earning the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year honors, he recorded 18.5 TFLs, 14.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles.

    The Cardinals made out OK at the quarterback position as well, ultimately going with Teddy Bridgewater.

10. RB Venric Mark, Northwestern

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    Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Northwestern slumped to a tremendously disappointing 5-7 season after tailback Venric Mark suffered a broken ankle early in the season.

    Mark started his senior season on the Doak Walker Award watch list coming on the heels of a 1,366-rushing yard year in 2012.

    His play both as a tailback and as a return specialist landed him a first-team All-America spot from the Football Writers Association of America, The Sporting News and CBS Sports.

    Mark made an impact on a regular basis, rushing for at least 100 yards eight times and scoring 14 total touchdowns, including two on punt returns.

    Yet Mark came to Northwestern as a lowly sought 3-star recruit.

    247Sports composite rankings held Mark as the No. 159 wide receiver and the No. 1,196 overall prospect coming out of St. Pius X in Houston.

    Mark barely cracked the top 200 prospects in Texas, coming in at No. 194.

9. QB Bryce Petty, Baylor

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    Bryce Petty, the architect of college football’s No. 1 scoring offense once dreamed of taking home snaps inside Neyland Stadium.

    That changed shortly after Lane Kiffin replaced Phillip Fulmer as Tennessee coach.

    Petty committed to play at Tennessee shortly before Fulmer resigned under pressure.

    Kiffin showed no interest in Petty, causing the 2013 Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year to reopen his recruitment.

    Count that as a major score for a Baylor program that knows plenty about the category.

    Even Baylor slow-played Petty as a prospect, though.

    The Bears offered Petty—rated by 247Sports as a 3-star recruit—but did so only as a grayshirt option.

    That meant Petty spent his first collegiate fall on a community college campus.

    Quarterback recruiting rankings can be deceiving because most services break the position into “pro-style” and “dual-threat” players.

    247Sports ranked Petty No. 28 as a pro-style passer and No. 739 as an overall prospect.

    Fast-forward to 2013 when Petty posted Playstation-like numbers.

    The first-year starter threw for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also ran for 14 more scores.

8. RB Andre Williams, Boston College

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    The Eagles’ punishing runner hardly came onto campus with expectations of contending for the Heisman Trophy.

    Yet Williams did just that as a senior.

    He engineered Boston College’s five-win improvement by rushing for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns.

    Williams knocked down and sped past defenders on his way to racking up accolades.

    In addition to attending the Heisman Trophy presentation, Williams was named a unanimous All-America selection.

    He won the Doak Walker Award, which honors the nation’s top running back.

    Ironically, 247Sports had Williams as the No. 60 running back in his 2010 signing class.

    Williams also earned first-team all-ACC honors.

    All this from a player labeled a 3-star recruit coming out of Parkland High School in Allentown, Penn.

    247Sports composite rankings had Williams as the No. 645 overall prospect, partly because his family moved during the recruiting process.

7. G Cyril Richardson, Baylor

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Baylor benefited from guard Cyril Richardson blooming late.

    247Sports rated Richardson as the No. 58 offensive tackle in the nation—the No. 793 overall prospect—when he was a senior at North Crowley High School in Fort Worth, Tex.

    Two years later, Richardson started a run of three consecutive first-team all-Big 12 honors.

    That stretch included a pair of Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year distinctions, a second-team All-America honor in 2012 and a unanimous All-America selection in 2013.

    He was also a finalist for the Outland Trophy.

    Richardson helped transform Baylor from Big 12 doormat to Big 12 champion.

    An explosive offense behind a dominating offensive line served as the catalyst for the turnaround.

    The Bears finished 2013 as the nation’s top-scoring offensive unit.

6. LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin

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    A man without a position when he entered college left as perhaps the best at his position.

    Wisconsin recruited Chris Borland as an “athlete,” meaning he had no definitive position.

    247Sports listed Borland as a 3-star prospect who ranked No. 1,077 nationally.

    It took Borland no time to develop a reputation once the Badgers unleashed him as a linebacker.

    Coaches named Borland the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 and then first-team all-Big Ten from 2011-13.

    During each of his final three seasons, Borland made at least 100 tackles. He set a career high in 2011 with 143 tackles, including 19 TFLs.

    He earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, registering 112 tackles, including 8.5 for loss.

    The Football Writers Association of America named Borland a first-team All-America selection in 2013.

5. LB Khalil Mack, Buffalo

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    Mike Groll/Associated Press

    Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack serves as another prime example that no matter how good recruiting services get, talented players will be missed.

    Mack, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, went largely unrecruited as a high school prospect.

    Then-Buffalo coach Turner Gill gave Mack his lone scholarship offer.

    “I had zero stars,” Mack said to The Idaho Statesman.

    Once Mack received an offer, he found his way—albeit barely—onto the recruiting radar.

    By the time signing day came, 247Sports had Mack as a 2-star player and the No. 1,508 overall prospect in the 2009 class.

    Mack did it all as a senior. He recorded a team-high 100 tackles, including 19 TFLs and 10.5 sacks.

    Mack further filled out the stat sheet with six quarterback hurries, seven pass break-ups, three interceptions, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

    National media took notice. Three outlets—the Football Writers Association of America, CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated—named Mack a first-team All-America selection. 

4. CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan State

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Getting lost as a lowly rated recruit in the Southeast is never difficult.

    Darqueze Dennard can tell that story from start to end.

    The 2013 Jim Thorpe Award winner went into his final game at Twiggs County (Ga.) High School without a scholarship offer.

    As luck had it, Michigan State assistant coach Dave Warner recruited that game to watch another player only to leave knowing the Spartans should pursue Dennard.

    Once word spread about Dennard, his recruiting stock rose.

    By the time his signing class became official, he had moved to a 3-star prospect, though he still ranked just No. 1,059 in the nation and as the No. 88 cornerback.

    Dennard declared his side of the field a “no-fly zone” this year and backed up the proclamation by earning the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

    The leader of a talented secondary, Dennard helped the Spartans to the Big Ten title in 2013 and a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.

    He also earned consensus first-team All-America honors.

3. DE Michael Sam, Missouri

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    Missouri enjoyed a significant jump in the SEC standings this year partly because of a dangerous, dynamic pass rush.

    Senior defensive end Michael Sam headed up that charge with 19 TFLs and 11.5 sacks.

    Sam also recorded nine quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to help the Tigers to their first-ever SEC Championship Game appearance.

    The remarkable final chapter to Sam’s career resulted in his being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and earning consensus All-America honors.

    Even the most optimistic Missouri fans couldn’t have seen such results coming when Sam signed with the Tigers out of Hitchcock (Tex.) High School in 2009.

    247Sports composite rankings labeled Sam as a 2-star who ranked 1,321st as an overall prospect. Recruiting services rated Sam on average as the No. 55 weak-side defensive end—not even overall defensive end.

    In 2013, though, the little-recruited, 2-star prospect beat out myriad 5-star, blue-chip talents for the SEC’s top defensive honors.

2. CB Jordan Poyer, Oregon State

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    In 2009, teams weren’t exactly banging down Jordan Poyer’s door.

    By the end of the 2010 season, several of those same teams were learning to throw—and kick—away from the Oregon State superstar.

    Poyer excelled in three sports at Astoria (Ore.) High School, but landed just a 2-star rating in the 247Sports composite rankings.

    Recruiting sites across the country, on average, listed Poyer as the No. 105 cornerback in the nation and the No. 1,313 overall prospect.

    It didn’t take long for opponents and voters alike to take notice of the in-state product.

    Poyer made a name for himself as a return specialist before breaking out with four interceptions in 2011.

    His big season netted him a second-team all-Pac-12 distinction.

    As a senior in 2012, Poyer registered seven interceptions and cashed them in for touchdowns twice.

    His stellar play garnered consensus All-America honors as well as a spot on the all-Pac-12 team.

1. QB Jordan Lynch, Northern Illinois

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    When Jordan Lynch chose to sign with Northern Illinois, he did so as a lightly sought commodity.

    This year he finished his final collegiate season as a Heisman Trophy finalist—finishing third behind far bigger recruits Jameis Winston and AJ McCarron.

    Lynch also finished seventh in Heisman voting as a junior in 2012 and earned Associated Press first-team All-America honors in 2013.

    Not bad for a 3-star recruit who ranked as the No. 1,208 overall prospect in 2009.

    Lynch served as the Huskies starting quarterback for two seasons.

    In 2012, Lynch led Northern Illinois to the MAC title by throwing for 3,138 yards with 25 touchdowns against six interceptions. He also rushed for 1,815 yards and 19 more touchdowns.

    Behind Lynch, Northern Illinois became the first MAC team to qualify for a BCS bowl when it played Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

    As a senior, Lynch threw for 2,892 yards, 28 TDs and eight INTs. His rushing numbers increased, with 1,920 yards and 23 TDs.