Ranking Wrongs

Every year, sports news outlets across  the country produce rankings for high school football and basketball players. The rankings are organized into overall individual player rankings, individual position rankings and program rankings based on the players in a recruiting class. With so much attention and hype surrounding the ranking of high school athletes, the question becomes: how predictive are the rankings of success for both individual players and college sport teams?

If you look at the college football landscape as a whole, one common pattern is that Alabama has dominated recruiting and the game on the field. In the past decade Alabama has had five national championships and has averaged as the number 1 recruiting class per year per 247sports. However, the correlation between recruiting and winning is not as clear as it may seem. Programs like USC have had major success recruiting in the last decade and have little on field success to show for it. Just this year, USC have had the 4th best recruiting class in the nation, but failed to even make a bowl game, something considered unacceptable for a powerhouse school like Southern Cal. On the other hand, there are programs like Wisconsin that rarely land big names out of high school but seem to always find success. Wisconsin had the 44th ranked class in 2018 and failed to break the top 50 in 2017. Yet, the Badgers reached the Big Ten Championship in 2017 and have gone five times and won it twice in the past 12 years. Team recruiting rankings don’t always have legitimate value in predicting on field success.

When it comes to individual rankings there is definitely more of a disparity between stars and real success on the field.  In the recent Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots there are eight total former five-stars and along with 28 former four-star prospects. This means that out of the two 53 man rosters, 79 players were a three star or less coming out of high school. There are countless examples of players who were not highly touted in high school and became all time greats in their respective sports.

Current Minnesota Vikings star wide receiver Adam Thielen went unnoticed and was not recruited in High School. He attended Detroit Lakes High School (in Minnesota ironically) and was solely offered a $500 scholarship to attend Minnesota State University. He was unranked while in high school. However, after a successful career at Minnesota State, he decided to pursue a career in the NFL. He sent highlight videos to all 32 NFL teams but went undrafted. Finally, the Vikings pulled Thielen to the practice squad, and the rest is history. Thielen was 4th in receiving yards in the NFL this year, only a few years removed from being an undrafted former division two player. The rankings certainly misjudged Thielen’s potential. 

Another player that has proven his high school recruiting ranking wrong is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers, widely considered to be the most talented quarterback of all time, was given a three-star rating out of high school and did not receive any scholarship offers. The pro-style quarterback turned down his sole offer of walking on at the University of Illinois to attend Butte Community College. Finally, after leading Butte to a Northern California Conference championship, Rodgers would go on to win a Super Bowl as well as multiple NFL MVP awards.

Many former Paly athletes have been misrepresented in national rankings. This includes current professional athletes Jeremy Lin and Davante Adams. Lin was a two-star recruit in high school and only received five Division One college offers. Lin attended Harvard, went undrafted, and was signed as a bench warmer by the New York Knicks. It didn’t take long for Lin to incite “Linsanity” and make a name for himself with his successful run in 2012. Lin continues to play on the Atlanta Hawks as a valuable role player.

Davante Adams had a similar path to success. Adams was also a two-star recruit but only had two Division One offers. He attended Fresno State alongside Derek Carr, and after a successful college career, he was selected with the 40th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers. Adams is now one of the top wide receivers in the league, finishing seventh in receiving yards and second in receiving TD’s in the 2018 season.

Some players have ended up on the other side of their predictive rankings. One recent player who did not reach his expected potential was former Duke point guard Trevon Duval. Duval was the fourth highest ranked recruit in the class of 2017. He was the starting point guard at Duke for his freshman year of college and declared for the NBA draft after the season. Duval was not selected in the draft after being an expected star as one of the top recruits. Although Duval still has plenty of time in his basketball career to make the NBA, he did not live up to the hype surrounding himself out of high school.

High school recruiting is an imperfect system. Although there is a definite correlation between recruiting rankings and on-field success, many individual players and teams end up performing differently than their high school recruiting rankings.