Rashad Johnson is the no-star All-American, the player overlooked by every scouting service in America, and most college coaches, too.
Johnson walked on at Alabama in 2004. Now after 30 starts and 11 career interceptions, the safety is likely bound for the NFL. He wouldn't trade his path for all the attention lavished on blue-chip recruits.
"That's something, when I get older and get my kids and grandkids, that's something I can talk with them about and use it to help them with anything they have in their lives," Johnson said. "If they want to do something or be something in their lives and get disappointed and say they can't do it, I can always relate this story here."
In football-crazy America, more attention than ever gets paid to the annual pursuit of the perfect recruit -- a chase that culminates Wednesday with national signing day, when players officially accept scholarships.
Yet as Johnson's story illustrates, pinpointing the teenagers who will evolve into tomorrow's stars is tricky, even for well-funded scouting services with hundreds of thousands of paid subscribers.
The Associated Press reviewed the top 50 recruits as named by Scout.com and Rivals.com from 2002-04, two services that essentially began as start ups but sold in recent years for tens of millions of dollars.
The AP found that when picking the 10 players with the brightest football futures, the services were right a little more than half the time, based on whether a player started 20 games or more in college, his recognition for awards or whether he made it to the NFL.
When it got to picks 11-50, the services were even more hit and miss.
Longtime talent evaluators for both sites quote similar statistics. They figure they're on target as much as 60 percent of the time, which they see as a decent record given everything that has to go right for a recruit to become a standout.
Bad grades and big parties, immaturity and injuries -- any number of pitfalls can bring down a five-star athlete. On the flip side, avoiding problems can help can push a player thought to be lacking something -- speed, size, toughness -- to the top of the class.
Bobby Burton, a co-founder of Rivals, said the Web site is getting better each year as it puts more resources into talent evaluation.
He also readily acknowledges mistakes. He noted, for instance, that the quarterbacks who finished first and second in Heisman Trophy voting this year, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Texas' Colt McCoy, were rated as three-star quarterbacks on a five-star scale.
"It's not an exact science, period," Burton said. "Part of the reason why is kids are 17 years old and you're trying to predict what's going to happen when they're 21 years old. Who knows what's going to happen when they do go to college and drink beer?"
Not that it seems to matter to fans.
They can go deeper than ever in following their teams in the college football version of the hot stove league, thanks to the services and niche sites on the Internet that specialize in intense day-to-day coverage of recruiting. The search for the nation's best recruits is exhaustive and includes evaluation of thousands of prospects.
Rivals has 185,000 to 200,000 Web-based subscribers, while Scout says it has 110,000 to 150,000. Fans pay $10 to $12 a month each to read about their team's successes and failures in recruiting, obsess over their rankings and follow the latest tip about a hot prospect. Over the years each site has added the latest technology, and subscribers can now watch video clips or track their team's verbal commitments with a widget they can download.
Rivals, based in Brentwood, Tenn., was recently sold to Yahoo for a reported $100 million and Seattle-based Scout went to Fox Interactive Media for about $60 million; staggering price tags for a couple of operations started by fans.
Rivals received more than twice as many visitors as Scout in December, according to information from comScore, a company that tracks Internet use. But the data shows Scout could be closing the gap. Rivals had nearly 5.5 million visitors in December, down 9 percent from December 2007. Scout logged more than 2 million, but gained 5 percent from the previous December.
Each has dozens of independent affiliates who cover most major college programs in-depth and feed content to the main portals.
Like assistant coaches, employees at Scout and Rivals -- and several smaller operations around the country -- look at film and talk to coaches, players, parents and even opponents to make their choices.
"I'll talk with the janitor if need be," said Allen Wallace, Scout's national editor and the longtime publisher of SuperPrep magazine.
They rate players on a star system and rank them both in overall order and by position.
Sometimes they're on the money. Vince Young, for instance, was Scout's No. 1 prospect in 2002 and went on to a 30-2 record as a starter at Texas and a national championship. Rivals hit it just right when analysts placed Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson atop the 2004 class. And both were spot on with Florida State linebacker Ernie Sims in 2003.
For each of those players, though, there's a DiShon Platt, dubbed the next Peter Warrick when he signed at Florida State but who never played a down in college.
Then there's the case of Pat White, the West Virginia quarterback no one thought could play the position except then-Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez. White set NCAA records for bowl victories (four) and career rushing yards for a quarterback. Scout rated him a two-star player and ranked him the 53rd best quarterback prospect in the nation, while Rivals gave him three stars and ranked him 55th. Most evaluators thought he'd be a better defensive back.
When Wallace's 2004 SuperPrep magazine hit subscribers' mail boxes, there was no mention of White (or Johnson) among the 29 players from Alabama evaluated in 2004.
"I'm just going to be embarrassed and say we did not even cover him in SuperPrep magazine," Wallace said.
Recruiting interest grew in the 1980s as a number of lone-wolf talent seekers began working around the country. It has moved toward obsession with the growth of the Internet, the perfect vehicle to reach fans between the ages of 18-49 with disposable income.
Burton, a Texas graduate, spent about $15,000 a year on expenses at a two-man operation preceding the Rivals site. He now has a budget of $1.6 million that allows for extensive travel to see prospects in person, combines and other evaluation opportunities. (Scout also has a seven-figure budget, but Fox Interactive Media vice president and general manager Jeff Husvar wouldn't give an exact amount).
"We spend more than any single college in the country by far and I think that we see more kids and do more things out (of the office) than most people," Burton said.
Burton went so far as to hire Barry Every, who spent time doing initial prospect work at Florida State and Georgia among other schools. The goal is to ratchet up the quality and accuracy of Rivals' evaluations.
"What a lot of people try to do, they try to be the reporter and the evaluator," Burton said. "What we're trying to do is separate the two.
"I think we've taken it to a different level."
Not good enough to satisfy college coaches, though.
Most deny the Web sites and analysts have any sway with them. Dan Mullen, the new Mississippi State coach, who just won his second national championship as Florida's offensive coordinator, says the sites are "a neat deal" because they spur more interest in college athletics.
But the rankings have little to do with the process schools go through to identify top prospects.
"We're digging," Mullen said. "They might have a kid pop up on their screen, especially a secondary or tertiary player that we might not have been looking at. But I can tell you in the state of Mississippi, our top 25 rankings are very different than Scout's or Rivals' top 25 rankings, and those are the ones we go by."
Schools must perform at a higher standard than the services to thrive. Mullen worked under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. He said coaches not only looked forward, but back to figure out how successful they were in identifying talent. Mullen has carried that practice over to Starkville.
"We have a whole research system set up on recruiting for us to really track our success, the success of players, where successful players have come from around the country, to see if we should recruit those areas," Mullen said. "When you're at 85 scholarships now, you can't be 50-50. You better hit at least 80 percent or you're going to be unsuccessful."
Unearthing and developing players others overlook is a particular coup. Two players Meyer's staff at Utah landed are perfect examples.
Alex Smith was a 6-foot-3, 189-pound high school teammate of Reggie Bush who clocked in at 4.9 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He only had offers at Utah and Louisville and chose the Utes because of the chance to play early. Three years later, he was the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
Fast forward to the 2009 Sugar Bowl and Brian Johnson sliced up Alabama's defense as the Utes completed a 13-0 season that put them in the middle of the national championship debate. Before signing, Johnson was a smallish, 6-1 two-star prospect from Texas who ran the 40 in 4.8 seconds.
"He's won two BCS bowls, he's been an all-conference player for multiple years, conference player of the year," Mullen said. "So that shows the inexactness of how the whole process can work."