Inside the recruiting machine
by Michael Casagrande
Star sports writer
Jan 30, 2011 | 3537 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Not too long ago, Scott Kennedy’s friends thought he went nuts.

Follow recruiting?

As a career?

“Flash forward about five or six years and my friends’ wives are asking me where Terrelle Pryor was going to school,” Kennedy said.

And so the machine turns.

As the director of scouting at one of the two empires to college recruiting knowledge — Scout.com — the former high school soccer player and self-described “football geek” helped turn a hobby into a national obsession.

Annual subscriptions can run upwards of $100 for all the latest information, evaluations and insider information regarding the college decision-making process for 16-, 17- and 18-year-old blue-chip football and basketball players.

A one-year subscription to the Auburn affiliate of Scout, AUTigers.com, costs $99.96 — if you pay in advance — while the Alabama dedicated offshoot BamaMag.com will set you back $120 for 12 months.

Chief competitor Rivals.com also has affiliates dedicated to each of the major schools.

At Alabama, BamaOnLine.com competes for scoops and ratings with recruiting analyst Tim Watts. Yearly subscriptions cost $99.95, if billed annually.

And that’s just the big boys.

While it’s not their driving force, ESPN has started getting into the game, too. Statewide sites such as CrimsonConfidential.com and AuburnUndercover.com cover the day-to-day events at the school, but recruiting is still a large part of what they do.

And those are just the big boys. Countless other sites exist on the interwebs hoping to become the next Scout or Rivals, who eventually turned their once-small operations into internet behemoths now paired with larger entities such as Yahoo! and Fox Sports.

Information and analysis is the commodity, and for college football crazed fans, the engine can’t crank out news quick enough.

Behind the pay walls sit exclusive information gathered by reporters dedicated solely to nailing down commitments weeks, months, even years before high school seniors can sign letters of intent binding them to a certain school.

The holiest day in the football recruiting calendar falls on Wednesday when pen meets paper on the first day of the signing period.

As the paperwork processes on national signing day, the sites will hit over-drive with some of the biggest names in the 2011 class waiting to announce a destination.

Not convinced of the grip the recruiting machine has on its following?

ESPNU will dedicate 10 straight live hours of coverage on signing day in which seven of the hottest commodities will make announcements, including Alabama targets Isaiah Crowell and Cyrus Kouandjio.

The pervasive nature of the reporting leading up to signing, though, has its critics. Alabama coach Nick Saban emphatically said Monday he’s “not a recruiting website guy.”

“None of these services have any effect on me because that’s not how we recruit,” Saban said. “We try to evaluate, and we’re concerned with what we do and how we do and how we go through our process of recruiting. I do think that a lot of people are getting really upset that so many people call them to find out what’s happening in the world of recruiting.

“We’ve made recruiting a game. We made it a game. It’s like playing a game. Everybody wants to rate somebody and see who’s ahead so they can see who won the game. I’m not sure that’s good, but that’s what you all have done. So, are you proud of yourself or what?”

There’s no shame in Kennedy’s world.

“We do our best to report the information without becoming a nuisance,” Kennedy said. “Players can do a pretty good job of shutting down the process, and they do. When they don’t want to talk, they don’t get talked to anymore. I think it has pushed a lot of them to earlier commitments by the pressure put on them by college coaches. It gets a lot quieter once they make a commitment. I think it’s disingenuous to try and say ‘recruiting sites’ as if it’s one entity the same way that I’d say ‘college coaches.’ Everybody is different.”

Halting the machine

Some players grind the machine to a stop.

Former Alabama receiver Julio Jones was one of those players who made himself inaccessible to recruiting writers during his much-hyped senior season at Foley High in 2007. Watts said the five-star standout may have spoken about recruiting as few as four or five times that fall.

“He didn’t talk, so people left him alone,” said Watts, a 12-year veteran in the business.

Typically before any commitments are made, broken or repaired, top college prospects are evaluated, ranked and assigned a star-rating by the services. Depending how many of these stars appear next to a high school player’s name can determine the level of interest fans focus on the athlete.

At Scout, Kennedy said the star-rating is more of a label instead of evaluation. They are a quick reference as to where the prospect ranks in the national market. A five-star player on Scout.com means he is one of the top 50 recruits in the country. Anyone with four stars means they’re ranked between No. 51-250 and three-star prospects are those in the 251-750 range.

But how do these rankings come about with 50 states full of unknowns?

“We go out and see as much as humanly possible from summer camps to 7-on-7s to games to college games and through endless amounts of film,” Kennedy said.

There are 20 or so members of the team that scour the country for talent. The group includes former college football coaches and players like Jason Jewell, the Southwest analyst who is also the offensive line coach at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College.

Eventually, the regional managers get together with Kennedy and an NFL draft-style conclave begins. A five-star player is equivalent to a first-round player and four-star is more like a second- or third-rounder.

Kennedy calls it “recruiting in a vacuum” because the group ranks players not based on need but talent alone. When it’s complete, every position has complete rankings, the top overall players are picked and stars are assigned.

At Rivals, the evaluation process is similar to Scout’s, but the methodology to star assignment differs.

The number of five-star players varies every year based on the talent level of that given year.

The recruiting classes of 2011 and ’10 had 26 players with five stars, while the 2009 class had 33, and 2008 had 30.

“We try to find where there is an actual cutoff,” Watts said. “Of course, that’s a hard thing. It’s a very, very fine line between the No. 27th-ranked player in the country and the 28th ranked. … We just go where we believe there is a drop-off from one player to the next.”

With two different methods comes varying evaluations.

Going by the commitments secured to this point, Rivals ranks Alabama’s current recruiting class No. 1, while Scout says it’s seventh. Auburn is sixth according to Rivals and third on Scout.

During the past 10 seasons, the two agreed on No. 1 recruits three times including 2002 (Vince Young), 2007 (Jimmy Clausen) and 2008 (Pryor).

Saban, Watts, and Kennedy agree on one thing: There is no perfect science to the process.

“How to figure how the 75th cornerback (in the South) would match up with the 60th cornerback in the West is nearly impossible,” Kennedy said. “So from there, it’s kind of a blending of the different regions based on the weighted amounts of players there are per region. The 50th player in Kansas is not going to be as good as the 50th player in Florida.”

The intangibles

For all the tape, game action and interviews the services can gather, wild cards are found in the intangibles and immeasurables. Not every can’t-miss five-star high school senior turns into a NFL first-rounder.

The machine doesn’t hit them all.

“The frustrating part is a lot of it has to do with character issues which are the hardest part to scout,” Kennedy said. “Nobody expects to hit them all. Half of the first round goes bust. If I pick a small enough sample, I can prove any point that I want to.”

Players like Florida’s Chris Rainey are much more of the exception than the norm. The five-star running back ranked the fifth-best at his position in 2007 was arrested on felony stalking charges last season.

Just 10 months earlier another five-star member of the same recruiting class, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, was arrested for DUI just days before playing Alabama in the 2009 SEC Championship game.

“Recruiting, as much as anything, beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Watts said.

“Where one person’s three-star is another coach’s five-star. I think it basically comes down to the system and who they like. So, for the fan base, it really comes down to the head coaches. If you look at the NFL draft every year, and there’s kids coming from Idaho and Troy and from all these different schools. All those kids weren’t recruited by the high-major Division I schools.”

It’s hard.

“Hits and misses. That’s part of the business.”

Michael Casagrande is a sports writer for The Star.
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