CLEMSON — Bryce Brown was the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in 2009. Many football programs, including Clemson, recruited the running back heavily.
Some recruiting analysts preferred Michael Dyer to former South Carolina star back Marcus Lattimore in 2010.
In 2011, Mike Bellamy signed with Clemson to become just the second five-star recruit from Florida to leave for an out-of-state ACC school. The first? Former Clemson star C.J. Spiller.
Like Spiller, Bellamy’s speed was remarkable, he took his first college handoff 75 yards for a touchdown.
Last season, Bellamy, Brown and Dyer did not play Division I college football. All three could be labeled busts.
Recruiting is often called an inexact science and the level of inaccuracy, even with the best prospects, is surprisingly high.
An analysis of Rivals.com’s top 100 players from 2006 to 2009 reveals that 42 percent of the nation’s top prospects became busts, meaning they failed to either play in 40 games, start 20 games, or have one above-average season in their college careers.
More than 1 million boys play high school football each fall. The chance of one of them being ranked as a Rivals.com top 100 prospect as a senior is 0.0004 percent. Yet, 42 percent of the best of the top one percentile still fail.
In contrast, only 14 percent of those 100 prospects have been, or are projected to be, first- or second-round picks in the NFL Draft.
Why do so many of the top prospects fail to live up to expectations?
ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill says the public often believes prospects fail because they lack a physical trait. They are too slow or too small. Luginbill says this conventional wisdom is misguided.
“When a guy doesn’t pan out, when there is an error in evaluation, more often than not it’s not something athletic,” Luginbill said. “It can be as simple as not being mature enough not to wake up at 5 a.m. for winter workouts and study halls without having mommy and daddy tap you on the shoulder. Or it could be as severe as finding yourself hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
Busts happen for different reasons and they often have little to do with physical talent.
Limits of scouting
If intangibles are key in determining success, why aren’t more red flags identified and employed as a part of the decision-making process?
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says it is difficult to project talent and intangibles.
“These are young people that change,” Swinney said. “Put them in a different environment at 18 years old and some of them adjust, some of them don’t. Some of them take the next step, some don’t. Some lose their focus. There are girls, there are parties, there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made to take the next step.”
There are other factors, too.
Unlike the NFL, there isn’t a player personnel staff solely devoted to scouting and collecting background on players. That role falls upon the coaching staff.
The NCAA limits the amount of time head coaches can spend on the road recruiting, lessening their ability to get a feel for prospects’ intangibles. But the rules are being loosened to expand coaches’ ability to communicate with prospects, including an elimination of restrictions on “methods and modes of communication during recruiting,” meaning no limits on texting.
But even with unfettered communication with recruits and people close to them, accurate information can be difficult to acquire.
“You ask the guidance counselors, the principals, the athletic trainers (about a player’s character) and you may not always get an honest answer,” Luginbill said, “because they want the kid to have a chance.”
Lexington High coach Scott Earley’s teams have produced successful college players like Virginia Tech linebacker Bruce Taylor and Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson. Earley said many high school coaches are honest with recruiters, but that doesn’t seem to make any difference.
“You can tell a college evaluator that a player is lazy,” Earley said, “and they’ll take them anyway because they think they can fix it.”
Earley believes the star-rating system itself contributes to the high failure rate of top prospects.
“I think being a (top-rated prospect) is a hindrance, not a help,” Earley said. “I think that it leads to an attitude. They have it so easy at the high school level, people have catered to them, then they go to the next level and they are just like anybody else. Then their character and work ethic comes into play and (some) end up dropping off the map.”
Luginbill is a former player and professional coach in the defunct XFL. He knows the process is imperfect. But even if coaches and recruiting services had unlimited resources in evaluating, Luginbill said there would still be mistakes in evaluations. His evidence? The NFL.
“They have unlimited resources to uncover any red flag you could possibly have to avoid making a $40 million mistake on one guy, and you know what? They still make them,” Luginbill said. “If you hit on 60 percent of your class you’ve probably done a pretty good job. That’s a staggering number. ... There is no bigger inexact science.”