Ranking the Top Recruiting College Football Flops of the Past 20 Years
No matter how much better recruiting evaluations have gotten over the years, there are always going to be mistakes, swings and misses and dudes who don't live up to their potential.
You can call them busts or flops or disappointments, but there are highly ranked players in every recruiting class who simply don't pan out.
When it comes to ranking the biggest blunders, everybody's got a list.
The players who made this one flamed out despite high rankings and even higher expectations. All were at least top-25 prospects, and none of them did what analysts expected once they got to college.
In some cases, injuries may have played a small role, but it would be unfair to put a player on this list if it were the only reason. In those instances, their game time carried much more weight than the time they missed.
Others had legal issues or couldn't get on the field because of better players. Despite disappointing in college football, some of these players bounced around (or are still in) the NFL, and that's OK. They still struggled mightily in the college game and fell short of expectations.
Looking at where they were in the recruiting rankings, what was expected of them, the opportunities that presented themselves and their production (or lack thereof), let's take a look at college football's biggest recruiting flops of the past 20 years.
10. Mitch Mustain, Arkansas Quarterback
2006 recruiting class: No. 9 overall, No. 2 pro-style quarterback
Long before he was residing over the Auburn Tigers on the Plains, Gus Malzahn was a high school coaching dynamo who was revolutionizing offenses in the state of Arkansas. His biggest and most highly regarded protege was Mitch Mustain.
Major programs across the nation recruited the 6'3", 205-pound strong-armed signal-caller out of Springdale High School. The drama unfolded like a soap opera. Arkansas coach Houston Nutt hired Malzahn—Mustain's high school coach—to be on his staff, and Mustain followed him to the Razorbacks.
It was big news when recruiting was just becoming big business.
The only quarterback more highly ranked in the class was Matthew Stafford, who had a strong collegiate career at Georgia and has been the longtime Detroit Lions starter after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2009 NFL draft.
Mustain's career didn't work out the same way.
He started in Week 2 of his freshman year for the Hogs, leading them to an 7-0 record, and the nation was talking about him. But he lost the starting job to Casey Dick after completing just 52.2 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and six interceptions.
He ultimately bolted his home state for the bright lights of Pete Carroll's USC Trojans, but he attempted just 89 passes in 21 games over two seasons, throwing three touchdowns and three interceptions across 2008 and 2010. Mustain never beat out Mark Sanchez or Matt Barkley for the starting job.
The NFL never came calling, and Mustain played in the Arena Football League before his football career ended.
9. Byron Cowart, Auburn Defensive End
2015 recruiting class: No. 3 overall, No. 1 strong-side defensive end
The SEC loaded up on elite defensive line prospects in the 2015 recruiting class, with Georgia grabbing No. 1 overall player Trenton Thompson. Auburn won the hotly contested battle for Byron Cowart, and Tennessee scored big with 5-star legacy Kahlil McKenzie.
None of those guys had the college careers analysts expected.
Cowart may have been the biggest disappointment. The Seffner, Florida, native was a huge recruiting victory for Gus Malzahn, whose program drew him away from the big in-state schools like Florida and Miami. But he never was content at Auburn, disgruntled with playing time and never really seemed to fit in.
He had just 15 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss and no sacks in 25 games over three seasons.
Most everybody expected Cowart would be unblockable, even in the rugged SEC. After his junior year, he asked for his release primarily to be closer to his mother, who was dealing with a health issue, and because he was unhappy with his playing time.
"I'm happy with my decision, and I know that this ain't it for me," Cowart told AL.com's James Crepea. "My main reason was my mother's health is more important. Me being an only child, got to get back to home to her. Plus I already wasn't playing enough and contributing to the team."
Cowart joined the Maryland Terrapins, and he had a bounce-back senior season with 38 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for loss and two interceptions. But he never lived up to the massive expectations and is still trying to catch on in the NFL. He had a couple of tackles in five appearances for the New England Patriots in 2019 after coming into the league as a fifth-round pick.
There's still time for Cowart, who has the talent to make a name for himself, but it didn't come in college.
8. Max Browne, USC Quarterback
2013 recruiting class: No. 11 overall, No. 1 pro-style quarterback
Max Browne's career at USC didn't go the way anybody expected.
As the nation's top-ranked pro-style quarterback out of Sammamish, Washington, in the 2015 class, he seemed primed to eventually be the Trojans' starting signal-caller during a time at which they were expected to be the Pac-12's best.
Instead, the 6'5", 210-pound strong-armed signal-caller couldn't ever win the job outright, battling with Cody Kessler twice for the gig and losing before finally getting his opportunity during his last year with USC in 2016. Leading the Trojans onto the field in the season opener against Alabama, Browne struggled in a 52-6 loss.
It wasn't long before Sam Darnold beat him out for the job, and he never looked back. Browne wound up leaving the Pac-12 school for Pittsburgh, where, again, he encountered a quarterback battle. He split time with Ben DiNucci despite having a couple of quality performances.
Before he ever could seize the job outright, a shoulder injury required surgery and ended his collegiate career prematurely.
"It's difficult for anybody. I don't care if it's a senior that transferred in or a freshman, it's difficult anytime you lose a guy for a year," Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Brian Batko. "It's something he's worked hard for; an entire year goes into that."
The worst part about Browne's career is he had plenty of opportunities but was never quite good enough for any coaching staff to feel like it could turn the reins over to him. His career left everybody asking what might have been.
7. Jason Gwaltney, West Virginia Running Back
2005 recruiting class: No. 15 overall, No. 3 running back (Rivals)
In the days before 247Sports was a recruiting authority, everybody who cared about following blue-chip football prospects knew about running back Jason Gwaltney.
There aren't a lot of elite football players who come from New York, so the Long Island native got a bunch of publicity. Everybody from USC to Ohio State tried to get him to play for them. At 6'0", 234 pounds, he possessed the size and the speed to be an elite player for then-coach Rich Rodriguez's Mountaineers.
"I'm for real," Gwaltney told the crowd at his school when he committed to West Virginia, according to Newsday's Jim Baumbach. "You'll see me in the NFL."
It never worked out that way for the back was compared to legend Jim Brown.
He dealt with a knee injury as a freshman, playing six games and finishing with 186 yards before reportedly being dismissed for not attending class. In spring of 2007, he received another shot at West Virginia but was arrested for underage consumption of alcohol, speeding and failure to produce a driver's license.
He tried to resurface in Division II and III football, but he could not recapture the form that made him such a highly regarded prospect and continued to miss practice.
Gwaltney was a swing-and-miss recruit who couldn't stay on the field and, quite frankly, wasn't very good when he did.
6. Tyler Love, Alabama Offensive Lineman
2008 recruiting class: No. 23 overall, No. 3 offensive tackle
When Nick Saban's historic, championship-filled career as head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide is chronicled, the 2008 recruiting class will go down as the one that started the dynasty.
It featured guys like top wide receiver prospect Julio Jones, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw, B.J. Scott, Barrett Jones, Mark Ingram, Terrence Cody and Dont'a Hightower.
This proved to be one of the best classes of all time, even if Alabama finished the recruiting cycle at No. 3 nationally.
One of the guys who didn't live up to the billing, though, was 6'6", 307-pound Birmingham, Alabama, native Tyler Love, who was expected to be a multiyear road-paver.
Instead, he never cracked the starting lineup, playing in mostly mop-up duty or in a reserve role as his teammates won championships. Love never transferred, but he elected to forgo his final season in Tuscaloosa and enter the workforce.
Saban is known for his recruiting prowess, finding jewels and bringing the nation's top talent to Alabama. But Love will be remembered as one of the misevaluations who couldn't live up to his high school billing.
He's still got the rings, though.
5. Ben Olson, BYU Quarterback
2002 recruiting class: No. 4 overall, No. 1 pro-style quarterback (Rivals)
The only quarterback ranked higher than Ben Olson in the 2002 recruiting class was some guy named Vince Young who went to Texas. Young wound up being one of the best college football players ever, and you'll not find him on any bust lists unless you have one for the NFL.
Olson didn't experience anywhere near the same success.
The 6'5", 205-pound quarterback went to the same quarterback factory (Thousand Oaks High School) as Jimmy Clausen, and he followed his Mormon faith and committed to Brigham Young University despite having offers from some of the major programs around the country.
Rather than follow in the footsteps of Cougars greats like Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer, Olson took his two-year mission right after his freshman year in college, during which he didn't play a down.
He transferred to UCLA upon his return and later told the Deseret News' Jeff Call why he left BYU:
"I was told multiple times during that season that I was going to start. People are going to do things in life. We’ve all made mistakes and wish we would have handled things better. At the end of the day, it was pretty frustrating, the whole experience that I had at BYU, feeling like I was in a position to help the team but not given an opportunity to do that."
While then-head coach Gary Crowton didn't give Olson a chance to prove himself at BYU, Olson never lived up to expectations in the Pac-12.
From 2005-07, he completed just 55.3 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and his career was cut short by a broken toe.
4. Willie Williams, Miami Linebacker
2004 recruiting class: No. 6 overall, No. 1 outside linebacker (Rivals)
The 2004 recruiting class was absolutely loaded, with guys like Adrian Peterson and Ted Ginn Jr. at the top of a list that also included guys like Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson.
The best linebacker in that year's cycle was Carol City High School’s Willie Williams, who could have gone anywhere but elected to stay home and play for Larry Coker and The U. This program was just three years removed from its 2001 national title.
While at Miami, Williams redshirted his freshman year as he recovered from a knee injury but showed the flashes that made him a top prospect in 2005, registering 28 tackles.
He transferred to Louisville, where he was dismissed for drug possession after being arrested multiple times prior to his college career.
"I'm very disappointed in Willie," former Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich told 247Sports' Mike Hughes. "I was confident that he had turned the corner in his life and was ready to be a valuable contributor to society and our football program."
After transferring to NAIA, Williams continued to have trouble off the field. In 2013, Williams was found guilty of second-degree burglary and being a persistent felony offender and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
3. Ryan Perrilloux, LSU Quarterback
2005 recruiting class: No. 16 overall, No. 1 dual-threat quarterback (Rivals)
As good as the 2005 recruiting cycle was, three of the top 10 on this list came from that class. One of those players is LSU 5-star signal-caller Ryan Perrilloux, who failed to unseat JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn at LSU.
During his time with the Tigers, the Reserve, Louisiana, native repeatedly broke team rules and ultimately got booted from the squad in 2008 after testing positive on a drug test. He transferred to Jacksonville State.
He eventually signed a reserve/futures contract with the New York Giants but fizzled. He also saw time with the Hartford Colonials in the United Football League and the New Orleans VooDoo of the Arena Football League.
That's far from the type of career expected of Perrilloux when he was starring at East St. John High School. He could fling the ball all over, evade pressure and looked like a running back at times in the open field. He was a dynamic, confident athlete.
Once he left LSU, he had a stellar two-year career for the FCS Gamecocks, passing for 42 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while rushing for 811 yards and 15 more scores.
But those are the kind of numbers he was expected to post in the SEC.
2. Fred Rouse, Florida State Wide Receiver
2005 recruiting class: No. 6 overall, No. 2 wide receiver (Rivals)
Our third and final flameout from the 2005 recruiting class is Florida State wide receiver Fred Rouse, a 6'4" pass-catcher from Tallahassee who was expected to dominate once he got to the powerhouse Seminoles.
After a freshman season in which he had just six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown, Rouse was dismissed from the Seminoles by former coach Bobby Bowden.
"Both players [Rouse and offensive lineman Cornelius Lewis] are dismissed for conduct detrimental to the welfare of the football team," Bowden said in a statement, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). The article also said Bowden had disciplined Rouse for arguing with coaches during a game.
After transferring to UTEP, Rouse played 10 games and caught 25 passes for 379 yards. He then transferred to Texas Southern but clashed with the coaching staff before leaving yet another program and finishing his career at Concordia College in Selma, Alabama.
Rouse went undrafted in 2011 and went on to spend time in the CFL.
That was a far fall for the Sunshine State's former top-ranked high school player. According to 247Sports, his offer sheet included teams like Alabama, Texas, Miami and Florida.
1. Bryce Brown, Tennessee Running Back
2009 recruiting class: No. 1 overall, No. 1 running back (Rivals)
Lane Kiffin's one season at Tennessee was full of sound and fury, but he bolted Knoxville for USC in January 2010.
One of the perfect examples of Kiffin's flurry of a stint as the Volunteers head coach was his only full recruiting class. The group included high-profile signees like Nu'Keese Richardson and Janzen Jackson, who had flameout careers in Knoxville.
But the biggest one-hit wonder (other than Kiffin, of course) was Bryce Brown, the nation's top-ranked prospect who played one season in Knoxville.
As Rivals.com's Mike Farrell wrote: "Brown's recruiting process was a circus, full of NCAA investigations, recruiting websites, threats of playing in the CFL and questionable family advisors. He initially committed to Miami, but then re-opened his process and finally committed to Tennessee over a month after signing day."
Splitting time with Montario Hardesty, Brown ran for 460 yards and three touchdowns and had 137 receiving yards and another score as a true freshman. But once Kiffin left, Brown didn't stick around.
The Wichita, Kansas, native transferred to the Kansas State Wildcats, where his brother, Arthur, was after transferring himself from Miami. Bryce ran just three times for 16 yards in that 2011 campaign before declaring for the NFL draft.
Brown looked like a budding star as a Philadelphia Eagles rookie, but he was traded to the Bills prior to the 2014 season and couldn't latch on with either them or the Seattle Seahawks afterward.
All recruiting information via the 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted.