A Tale of Two Paths: Why Some Prized Football Recruits Blossom and Why Others Don't

By Patrick Maks on August 10, 2014 at 6:00a
High expectations accompany Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
35 Comments

A few days after Ohio State’s annual Spring Game in April, freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan offered the world a tweet that doubles as a challenge and a credo: 

Meaning, some players can handle the kind of pressure that comes with being one of the nation’s most prized recruits, and some don’t. Some players rise up to meet lofty – and often unfair – expectations, and some don’t. Some players live up to their potential, and some don’t. 

For McMillan, who came to Columbus as a five-star recruit and the top-ranked linebacker in the country last winter, this is a mountain he must stare at each and every day despite gaining the gushing approval of head coach Urban Meyer.

Because for him and other big-time college football recruits across the land, powerhouse schools like Ohio State become an intersection of reality and expectations. Year after year, the Buckeyes haul in crops of high school players brimming with talent. They're bedazzled with every award and accolade possible. Year after year, these classes, full of four and five-star athletes, rank among the nation's best. And year after year, said classes will yield at least a handful of kids who fall well below the hype that accompanied them to college. 

It's not a novel concept, of course, but it remains an intriguing one for schools that consider recruiting its lifeblood: why do some big-time prospects blossom and why do others leave school with the dreaded label of being bust? 

"That’s the million dollar question, that’s what we’re all trying to find out," Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days two weeks ago.

And for the Buckeyes, who tirelessly invest so much time and effort into the players they want walking inside the hallways of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, it's worth trying to find out an answer. 

"You see the NFL Draft every year and guys are getting drafted from small schools or they’re unheard of," Meyer said, "and then five-star guys disappear."

In this world, stars handed to players by recruiting services measure potential and measure worth. Conventional wisdom suggests a five-star kid is better than two-star kid. But maybe it shouldn't be that way. 

"It’s all a number, man. Any guy can beat out any guy in any situation," senior quarterback and former four-star prospect Braxton Miller said. "You never want to overthink somebody got two stars and somebody who got four stars that the four-star guy is better than two-star."

Meyer and Co. alleviate such a conundrum by furiously vetting targets.  

"There’s some ways we try to find out. It’s hard for me because I’m not allowed to go out, it’s the (assistant) coach that goes in and does his work that asks the hard questions that comes back to me and says, he’s a five-star...but," Meyer said before making scrunching up his face and shaking his head. 

But there's also a certain onus that falls upon the players. After all, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink it. 

"You don’t have to be a genius to play football at the college level but you do have to really pay attention to what’s going on," senior defensive lineman and former four star Michael Bennett said. "So I would say maturity and then the ability to learn (are the biggest things). Most five stars that you see coming out of college that have made it as you would say, those guys are probably going to be pretty intelligent and they’re gonna be really hard workers. 

"The five stars that don’t pan out, either they got hurt -- and that just happens -- or they’ve been very resistant to their coaches. And I’d say probably resistance is pretty bad for them."

But that, Meyer said, is the coach's fault in the first place.

"Those are all things our coaches should find out on their own," he said. "Because it didn’t just show up. It’s usually an assistant coach who didn’t do his job right."

Part of that job is a seemingly never-ending quest of evaluating talent at summer camps, high school football games and everything in between. Before the players ever take the field on Saturdays in mighty places like Ohio Stadium, games are won and lost here.

"One thing that I like to do: how does he play in his rivalry game? How winded is he in the fourth quarter against a good team to win a championship. That’s what I try to personally watch, because those are the ones that usually turn out fantastic," Meyer said. "The five-star that pulls his hamstring every year before a rivalry game or gets shut out, you’re like, why did that happen? But it takes time."

In a world where everything is an arms race and recruiting is a 24/7, 365-day grind, time is a luxury few can afford. Like McMillan said, "some do, some don't." You better get it right. 

35 Comments

Comments

JFKBuckeye's picture

Some of these guys just never adjust to the higher level of talent in college. In high school many kids are so big athletic and fast that they can get by on sheer talent alone. They never have to think because everything comes so easy. Some guys grasp the mental aspect of the game and flourish and some simply flame out.

+7 HS
awlinBrutus's picture

Exactly. take Braxton for example. Its taken him awhile to adjust to the hitting. he probably never got hit in HS. Or not nearly as hard as he is getting hit now. Also guys don't have to train as hard to be better than their team mates in HS. So for most this a overwhelming experience. In HS only a few on each team are elite physically. By the sophomore year if they haven't adjusted by then they may never make the adjustment.

MICHIGAN STILL SUCKS

Poison nuts's picture

I was actually surprised back on NSD when Meyer was disappointed that his recruiting class wasn't number one. Seems like there are more important things to strive for, because it's based on star rankings that services give out. I'm sure many of those rankings are accurate, but as everyone here knows - both OSU's first rounders last year were 3 star guys *(see edit below). Meyer himself knows he's a better evaluator of talent than a service is. Like he said, he goes out & looks at how competitive these guys are. He sees if they go all out when it matters most, so I trust them to bring in great players & not worry too much about the class ranking (sure a high rank is a nice bragging point, but not the be all end all) UFM has gotten 3 classes now. All of them top 5, some ranked number one by various services. Still, it hasn't had the overall #1 ranking. For me personally - I don't need OSU to have the top ranked class. I want them to have the class they think will do the best job at the end of the day. 2013 & 2014 were epic classes filled with great players & seemingly even better people. I want them to get the 3, 4, & 5 star guys that they think are the most valuable, competitive & will work the hardest. If they do that, OSU will be just fine & the cream (whatever the star ranking) in each class will rise to the top.

Edit: As per CC below, Shazier was indeed a 4 star, so only 1/2 of the first rounders from OSU last year were 3 stars.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+7 HS
CC's picture

Why do people keep saying RDS was a 3 star?  He was a composite 4 star and the 4th ranked lb in the country per scout.

+7 HS
Poison nuts's picture

Frankly, I won't lie, I had heard many times here on 11W that Shazier was a 3 star. I took that as gospel. I'm not a super big recruiting guy. I don't cruise the recruiting services very much & especially not back in 2010-11 so I was unaware. I just looked back through some archives & looks like most services had him as a 4 star. My bad.

Edit - Just one thing, I don't mean to be a stickler, but Scout had him as the 5th ranked OLB in the country...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+3 HS
gumtape's picture

The fact that Urban wants to have the top ranked class says more about his overall competitiveness. He wants to win at everything and he would choke his opponent over a game of checkers.

Offer lists count more than rankings, but the bottom line is that as a matter of statistics 4 and 5 star players are more likely to succeed. This has been documented in the past by guys like Andy staples on si.com.

High and tight boo boo

+2 HS
Poison nuts's picture

I get that & I understand his competitiveness. My point is that I would think that in recruiting, it's something where you know if you got the best class by your own evaluation, not by what a service says. So yes, try to make the best class you can, but not by only trying to get guys with the most stars next to their name.

The funny thing is UFM doesn't judge guys only by stars & we already know that, which is why I was surprised when he said it. I think that was mainly about motivating his coaches to be the best recruiters they could be...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+1 HS
TobyMagic's picture

We know Urban loses on guys he wants annually. A lot of time losing sticks with you more.  While you're proud of a class you wish it had those 3-4 guys that you missed, and probably would've made you #1..

Poison nuts's picture

Good point. Hadn't thought of this aspect. On the other hand, he rarely misses on someone where he doesn't replace that person with someone even better, but I'm sure you're spot on with this assessment. He does hate losing more than he loves winning.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+2 HS
cinserious's picture

@Poison

I suspect Urban absolutely only cares about his and his coaches evaluations and is VERY pleased with his classes but for the purpose of generating the maximum excitement about the program in the eyes of the top prospects in the country, he would like to top the list every year. That would attract more buzz in the recruiting world, from which he can cherry pick HIS favorites. 

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

dan_isaacs's picture

I think if they are keeping score, he wants to win.

Dan Isaacs

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Totally agree. I'll let Meyer recruit the guys he wants and then let the play on the field speak for itself. If Meyer is the coach I think he is, he will win if he has his guys. Just like Tressel did.

The services and the stars and the summer events are there for pretty much one purpose - to sell stuff to fans. In fact, I think some fans get off more on the recruiting season than the actual play on the field. Yes, you need the players, but I agree with you that Meyer is ultimately the best judge of who the team needs, not ESPN or 247 or Scout or Rivals.

+1 HS
buckguyfan1's picture
+1 HS
FROMTHE18's picture

A lot of it has to do with mindset. When you are told how great you are and how you will be an instant impact player at the college level, that can go to your head very quickly and that leads to complacency. The countless examples of '2-3 star' players developing into College super stars is a testament to how hard work can pay off (also perhaps exposing flaws in recruiting rankings, but thats another matter). Being athletically gifted is just one part, you have to also get the mental part down and that requires discipline. 

+1 HS
IGotAWoody's picture

Spot on! The recruiting rankings are flawed mainly because they ARE evaluating measurables (size and speed) and athletic ability, but have no clue about the mental strengths of most players. It's almost impossible for them to see which guys have the heart and work ethic to be successful.

 - License to kill gophers (wolverines, badgers, etc) by the government of the United Nations

+1 HS
osu78's picture

I think it's generally true that success at one level doesn't automatically translate to success at the next; wether you are a coach, a player,  a college student or in any other job for that matter. It takes hard work, and sometimes when things come easy because of your talents you don't realize how hard you will have to work at the next level where everyone is talented. I also think the pressure to win makes coaches move on more quickly to the next guy in line when a talented prospect isn't achieving at the expected level; reinforcing the downward spiral.

BuckInNashville's picture

I'm glad you wrote this Patrick. Because when a 3* commits, I usually feel  - "meh".    And when a 5* goes north, I'm wondering why we didn't get him.  The numbers of 5*s that don't make it, and 3*s that do ,are evidence that I should just have faith in UFM and staff. Thanks

Hovenaut's picture

I've been impressed with how UFM and staff are bringing in young men with high character...not necessarily high in talent ratings.

Since I've paid attention to recruiting (coincides around the time I joined 11W) I've learned to look past the stars.

I am not very smart, but I recognize that I am not very smart.

allinosu's picture

Thank you Patrick for not bring up Grant and what a disappointment he is. I thought that's where you were headed and you surprised me. The kid is a buckeye and if he stays healthy will shine this year.

+5 HS
sb97's picture

Agreed.   I get really sick of the C Grant bashing.  Frankly, I thought he was starting to look better last year on the rare occasions that he was healthy.

+1 HS
DEF D's picture

It all comes down to work ethic. I was recruited by a lot of schools for basketball because I was tall as shit, ended up at D3, and quit after 1st yr. I didn't realize how much of a grind it was. Study tables, workouts, practices. You hardly have any free time to be a college kid and have fun. I've got a ton of respect for big time college athletes because you have to be committed and put in the work. The dudes that work the hardest end up on top, regardless of talent.

+2 HS
cinserious's picture

In my opinion, hard work is part of the overall 'talent', whether it be sports,education, or the in the workforce!

Eventually the wiz kid who only shows up for tests gets passed up by the slow and steady grinder who studies hard.

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

Mortc15's picture

Recruiting rankings don't always end up being right and all that, but to say it doesn't matter what a school's recruiting ranking is isn't entirely true. FSU just won a national title after having 2-3 great classes in a row. Bama is almost always #1 and competes for titles every year. Sure a Michigan state season is thrown in here and there but they have yet to compete for championships on a regular basis. 

No it isn't the be-all end-all but if you consistently bring in top level talent, like OSU, bama, oregon, etc, you'll be a consistent winner and compete for championships. 

Buck-I4Life

+2 HS
IBLEEDSCARLETANDGRAY's picture

Meyer being the psychologist he is he knows that if you can find players who are really talented and mature beyond their years it makes everything better. More freshmen players who are college level game ready and able to juggle their class loads with their football duties, less "de-recruiting" he has to do, less toxic personalities present that can ruin team chemistry, and most importantly, fewer off-field distractions. We can all agree, we seriously dread those negative news gray boxes. Urbz does too. As we learned last year, those things DO screw everything up.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

+2 HS
whobdis's picture

I enjoy following recruiting..but I don't put much credence in to the star system. I pay more attention to offers. For example the tight end who commited during Friday night lights(Josh Moore) is only a 3 star but had more impressive list of offers than 4 star Conrad. Moore had offers from FSU, Oklahoma, Auburn..ect. Conrad's list was ok..Arkansas, Pitt, VT. I trust the coaches to evaluate talent moreso than recruiting guru's. And we seen that with Michigans Olline haul a couple of years ago..all highly rated (stars anyway). But their offers weren't what you would expect. And we seen why last year

+1 HS
Buckeye1996's picture

McMillan is going to turn out to be a great one. Most see that I'm sure, but what I really like about him is his leadership and business approach to football. I think Urban even mentioned this.

Those leadership qualities will reverberate throughout the other young talents, and especially with the linebacker core. Booker is someone who is going to be great as well. I think we are in for a great run in the linebacking core, one that rivals past great LB units. Not good but great.

cinserious's picture

"Those are all things our coaches should find out on their own," he said. "Because it didn’t just show up. It’s usually an assistant coach who didn’t do his job right."

I feel very confidant that Urban and his assistants do a thorough job of evaluating prospects before extending a scholarship. The Buckeyes want nothing but the best talent in the country and according to Meyer, talent is not just star rankings and physical measurables, its evaluating the heart and soul or a prospect, the work ethic, family background, intelligence, ability to learn/ coachability. We're adding overall quality young men to the program.

Once Urban got to OSU, he swiftly dealt with resistance. It won't be a problem in these parts anytime soon. 

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

Toilrt Paper's picture

Find out if the 4* kid thinks he is REALLY in love. Find out if the 4* rarely participates in every practice between games. Find out if the 4* at a small high school works or coasts because of the talent he plays against, Compared to the 4* from a high school that plays against big boy teams most weeks.

MTBuckeye12's picture

JT got plenty of 3* kids and developed them into superstars. Chekwa, Holmes, Gamble, M Jenkins, Sanzenbacher, etc. Gotta find kids that are hungry to compete and coaches have to develop them no matter what their ranking is. 

"The height of human desire is what wins, whether it's on Normandy Beach or in Ohio Stadium."
-Woody Hayes-

+1 HS
Buckeye1996's picture

The first time I saw Sanzy play, I knew he was going to be good. He had a rough time early on with concussions but overcame the bumps. 

He got blown up coming over the middle a few times early in his career. One tough guy.

D-Day0043's picture

Just give me a bunch of smart kids that understand the game of football. I don't care what their star ranking is. We have Mr. Mariotti to mould them physically.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

Toilrt Paper's picture

You're ok with 5.0 40 TBs and WRs as long as they're smart?

D-Day0043's picture

Speed isn't everything. Jerry Rice ran a 4.71. That's  not exactly world class speed. He used his intelligence to beat defenses.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

+1 HS
Toilrt Paper's picture

He was faster than 5.0. The point is...at Ohio State and for that manner ALL CF schools, ALL have their minimum physical,intellect and social standards that MUST be met, before being considered.

D-Day0043's picture

The difference between a 4.7 and a 5.0 40 is the blink of an eye.

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.