April 12, 2013

Evaluating some positions is tricky business

Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks, lockdown cornerbacks, and road-grading offensive linemen are the positions most coveted by college coaches.

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

Hitting the trifecta in recruiting and landing those prospects can lead to a national championship run. It is also near impossible to do.

According to coaches looking to build programs, two issues complicate recruiting at those positions: first, the amount of competition to lure those players, and second, the difficulty in evaluating those positions at the high school level.

The position that confounds more than others is quarterback.

San Jose State coach Ron Caragher played the position in high school at San Jose (Calif.) Bellarmine Prep before earning a scholarship and backing up Troy Aikman at UCLA.

He did not like what he saw last season and of the 19 prospects San Jose State signed in the Class of 2013, the Spartans did not take a quarterback. Caragher instead opted to sign 13 players on the offensive and defensive lines and add skill players on offense.

As well as he knows the position, he said that experience in certain situations is the only way to see if a player can handle the demands of leading a program.

"I have seen guys with great numbers in high school and when you put in his highlight tape you are totally awed by the touchdown passes, but you still don't know anything about their makeup," Caragher said. "First, you don't know the competition level and that is important. You also don't know if his team is dominant and always in the lead, so he is throwing with no pressure. The intangibles of leadership are impossible to evaluate. You can't see how a guy handles pressure and you can't see how he will play when the chips are down."

SKILL PLAYER SIMPLICITY
Offensive skill positions were noted as the least difficult to judge when compared to quarterback, cornerback and offensive linemen.

Cal coach Sonny Dykes said game film gives you a clear picture of running backs and wide receivers.

"What a kid can or cannot do with the ball is obvious," Dykes said. "If a guy can catch the ball, break tackles, block, finish runs or make six people miss translates. Some things -- like route-running -- can be coached, but most of the other things are black or white."

Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell said that game film of running backs contains specific evaluation points.

"You look for tempered aggression," Farrell said. "In running backs, you want to see guys that can hit the hole hard as well as have the vision to see when there is a chance to pop it outside instead of always looking to go outside. Once they are outside, you can see if they are getting caught from behind or have the acceleration to finish the run."

The evolution of the receiver position has made for a buffet of options.

Temple head coach Matt Rhule said that while it can make for tough choices, having them is better than not.

"Receivers come in all shapes and sizes now," he said. "It doesn't matter if kids are 5-foot-6 or 6-foot-6, they can play the position.

"What you look for is that one skill that can be a game-changer. Some guys are big and physical, which make them red zone threats. Shifty slot guys are smaller but need toughness, speed and route-running, while the prototypes are still out there that can be a threat from anywhere.

"The position has become so flexible that finding kids with an added dimension is the key."

According to Farrell there is one more important factor that differentiates offensive skill players from others: attitude.

"I think those positions are less mental and more reactive and instinctual," he said. "You don't have the same worry about things that are impossible to identify. Skill guys tend to not be too worried about pressure situations because they usually want the spotlight."

Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said that quarterback is the most difficult position for him to evaluate and for many of the same reasons.

As one of the longest tenured analysts in the recruiting industry, Farrell said that his line of failures at the position is now what he uses to make him better -- but that quarterbacks can still confound even the closest scrutiny.

"There is no way to eliminate error that I have found," Farrell said. "Kids can look physically gifted and make every throw you would ever ask of them but once Jadeveon Clowney is bearing down on him, everything can go wrong. There is nothing I have found on film or at a camp that tells me when a team is down four and need to drive for a winning score with 100,000 people screaming, what anyone will do.

"I have never seen an incomplete pass on a highlight tape and even the best players in camps may not pan out. Just like everyone else, I thought (former five-star from Austin (Texas) Lake Travis) Garrett Gilbert was going to be very good and I thought that (former five-star from Pittsburgh (Pa.) Penn Hills) Anthony Morelli was the best 7-on-7 quarterback I have ever seen. What goes on mentally and emotionally with quarterbacks is just impossible to project."

Farrell said viewing full-game video for quarterbacks can help show a little about more about how a player will handle adversity, but the level of competition from high school to college will likely increase negative responses.

He added that players in the defensive backfield are just behind quarterbacks in finding ways to evaluate them.

That difficulty was not lost on new California head coach Sonny Dykes.

Dykes is one of the best offensive minds in the country and this past season while at Louisiana Tech, the program finished No. 1 in the country in total offense. A branch of the Mike Leach coaching tree, Dykes finds weaknesses in the secondary to exploit every Saturday, but admitted his own shortcomings in finding players at the position.

The recently signed recruiting class produced just three defensive backs out of 26 prospects signed.

"If you watch film on a cornerback -- and he is really good -- the tape may be really short so you don't have a good sample size to see his technique and other things," Dykes said. "On the other side of that if he is making a lot of plays, that means he is getting thrown at a lot. Either way you still have questions."

Farrell added that game tape and traveling to see players in person may still be prove to be an exercise in futility.

"I have flown to watch a kid play and he didn't get a ball thrown his way all night just because of the hype he had. That really stinks because you can't see so many things you want to with a corner," he said. "I have watched videos and even when a player gets beat it isn't always his fault, because not everything is a man situation. He could have been expecting help that never came.

"On film, I think cornerback is toughest to judge because there could be nothing to see."

First-year Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre said that because of how he manages his roster, offensive linemen have proven to be most difficult to unearth.

"Most of the guys I recruit there will come in and redshirt," MacIntyre said. "It is in that year that you really see what you've got.

"You get to see if they have innate toughness and drive to compete; you see if they can fight through the adversity of preparing, but not playing. You also will see if they can control their weight and if they can maintain good habits. It is hard to tell any of those things from film or from recruiting."

MacIntyre was hired at Colorado on Dec. 10 with the goal of rebuilding a program which had dropped from five victories in 2010 to one in 2012. He came to the school from San Jose State, where he elevated the football team from two wins in 2009 to the No. 24 ranking in the final BCS standings in 2012.

His first class with Colorado signed 19 players, five of which are offensive linemen.

Orange (Calif.) Lutheran guard Colin Sutton was the highest-rated of the group that included four, three-star prospects.

Farrell said that while he agrees with many points that MacIntyre made about linemen, evaluating the position is part of the job he likes the most.

"Game film of offensive linemen can be misleading since it is rare an elite player will go against someone as good as he is in the regular season," Farrell said. "I have found that the camp setting has become a really great place to see linemen."

Farrell worked diligently during the creation of the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour to ensure that he and his team of analysts would have ample opportunity to see the best players line up in one-on-one settings.

It is in those trenches that he finds things that are often impossible to see on tape.

"Without a full uniform on, you can really see who has bad body weight and what frame a prospect has," Farrell said. "Also, we get to see a guy's aggression and physicality.

"There are no pads on and it gets pretty rough. You can see the guys that want to get aggressive and tough and those that just slide to the back of the pack and don't take reps. Those are things that I have really started to notice and pay attention to in the last couple of years.

"It started out as just something I would take note of -- the guys that didn't want to get after it -- and those guys tended get onto campus and disappear in the system," Farrell said. "I think that camps are a way to take away one of those intangibles and make it a measurable point."

Finding ways to eliminate error is what everyone involved in the process is hoping to do.

For analysts, it is to refine the evaluation and ranking process while the coaches would be happy to eliminate busts from their recruiting class.

"It is an inexact science," Caragher said. "We have to do our best to project and develop. If someone found a foolproof system they probably wouldn't share it anyways."




 

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