TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The ink was barely dry on the 2010 signing class when Nick Saban stepped to the podium last February.
His preemptive strike was planned well in advance. He wasn’t waiting to face a single question about the strength of his latest recruiting class at the signing day news conference.
It was too early, Saban said, to claim victory or defeat with the 18 players who faxed their papers to Tuscaloosa that Wednesday morning.
Champions simply aren’t crowned by adding up stars on a website.
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“Every year I try to come up with some analogy to sort of put in perspective how you should rate recruiting classes,” Saban said that afternoon. “If we went out to buy a hunting dog and it was a puppy, we would buy it based on its potential, its lineage or whatever you want to call it in terms of breeding, and we would know probably when that dog grew up whether it was a good hunting dog or not. We’d never know until we put him out in the field and saw him actually go hunting, but we would buy it without knowing for sure what that result would be.
“I think recruiting is not an exact science and really it takes about two years to really evaluate whether you had a good recruiting class or not.”
Scott Kennedy, the national director of scouting for Scout.com agrees when it comes to the difficulty of appraising the quality of recruiting classes. In fact, he said he’s never done it in the nine-plus years he’s worked in the business full time.
Varying degrees of success
Using Saban’s model of grading out two years after players sign, teams that topped the national recruiting rankings had mixed results by the time the recruits finished their junior seasons using the past five seasons and the team recruiting rankings from Scout and Rivals from two years prior.
Rivals had 56 percent of those viewed as top 10 in the recruiting rankings finish in the top 25 of the final Associated Press poll two years later, while Scout’s rankings had a 52 percent success rate. Both were most accurate with the 2004 signing class that had 8-of-10 teams finishing in the top 25 in 2006.
How the 2008 recruiting class figured into the 2010 AP poll proved the least accurate in the five-year window. Rivals had 4-of-10, while Scout was 3-for-10.
In that five-year span, seven coaches were either fired or forced out of jobs two years after landing a top-10 recruiting class including Auburn’s Tommy Tuberville in 2008 and Tennessee’s Phil Fulmer in 2009.
If forced to double-check his work, Kennedy said he’d look more at how the individual players succeeded in college.
Ideally, he said, a 5-star player would turn into an All-American and/or would be a first-day pick in the NFL draft. For 4-star players, landing on an all-conference team would be optimal followed by hearing his name called at the draft.
Those who received three stars should turn into regular contributors, while 2-star prospects would be more of a “blue-collar role player,” Kennedy said.
Of the 28 players named consensus All-Americans this past season, only two were 5-star prospects as high school seniors in Scout’s assessment and four earned 2-star ratings. The average member of the 2010 All-American entered college with 3.2 Scout stars next to his name.
The first round of last April’s NFL draft featured six former-5 star players and five 2-star players with an average of 4.1 stars.
Of the four Alabama players who were Scout 5-star prospects coming out of high school from 2005-09, Andre Smith, Julio Jones and Mark Barron were All-Americans and Smith was a top-10 draft pick.
Reading into it
How the general public perceives the ratings can be a whole different story. Kennedy said readers often over-emphasize the star-ratings, attach their own meanings while the true definitions get skewed.
“Unfortunately, fans have their own way of looking at stars and they kind of think of 5-star guys as good players on their team, 4-star guys as starters, 3-star guys as guys they shouldn’t even be recruiting,” Kennedy said.
Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was one of those 3-star guys coming out of Southlake Carroll High School in suburban Dallas in 2006. He wasn’t a starter until his senior year when he piled up big numbers in Carroll’s spread offense.
“I came in trying to prove to people that, yeah I might have been the second option to Tim Tebow, but I’m going to make every one of my snaps here worthwhile,” said McElroy, a two-year starter at Bama. “I was able to do that and I think that’s just what a lot of 3-star or the lesser recruited guys do.”
In his years in Tuscaloosa, McElroy set school records for single-season passing yardage and touchdowns. He also witnessed the recruiting phenomenon explode and how it contributed to inflated egos among freshmen.
“The one thing I will say about the 3-star guys, they don’t have that sense of entitlement that a lot of recruits tend to have,” he said. “Recruiting has really changed. My year was really the first year -- maybe the year before my year -- when it really started to pick up and recruits became household names. I think it’s hard for an 18 year-old to juggle that, so they come in with this sense of entitlement.”
The imperfect process means peering into the crystal ball, said Tim Watts, recruiting analyst for the Alabama affiliate of the Rivals network BamaOnLine.com.
“We use the information, compile it and sort it based on who we think is the best player in that class,” Watts said.
“It’s not necessarily the best player right now. It could be a guy that we think will be the best player down the road.”
The past two Alabama teams -- the 2009 national champions and last season’s three-loss squad -- had contrasting levels of experience and potential coming out of high school.
The difference was most noticeable on defense.
The 2010 starters had just one senior but came out of high school with an average of 4.01 stars combining Scout and Rivals ratings compared to the 2009 group that had 3.2. Three players started both seasons.
The group that won the BCS title had seven senior starters including once-undervalued recruits such as linebacker Cory Reamer (2½ stars) and cornerback Javier Arenas (3 stars) who was a second-round NFL draft pick.
Then there is Eryk Anders, the hero of the BCS title game who forced the fumble that led to the game-clinching touchdown. Coming out of Spring Branch, Texas, Anders got a “not rated” next to his name on Scout.com. Rivals.com didn’t even list him in its database.
Offensively, there were eight returning starters, so the difference wasn’t as noticeable.
Still, the 2010 team averaged 3.68 stars compared to the 2009 team who had 3.41 stars.
Last season’s offensive line had three starters who had fewer stars than their backups while the 2009 team had fifth-year seniors Mike Johnson and Drew Davis who received 2-star ratings by one or both of the two major recruiting sites.