Twenty-five Years of #1 High School Recruits

ESPN the Magazine ran an interesting “where are they now” story a few weeks ago about the #1 ranked high school recruits over the past 25 years. The top recruits ranged from solid NFL players like Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, and Anquan Boldin; to NFL busts like Tim Couch and Kevin Jones; to college busts like Randy Fasani and Kyle Wright; to busts in all walks of life like rape and incest suspect Xavier Crawford.

Top recruits have certainly met varying degrees of college and professional success. Some are still too young to tell how good they will be. Off the top of my head, the list of successful pros would look like this:

1. Hines Ward (WR, 1994, Georgia) – still active with 2 Super Bowl rings, 4 Pro Bowls, and 11,702 career receiving yards
2. Ricky Watters (RB, 1987, Notre Dame) – rushed for 10,643 yards and made 5 Pro Bowls in 10 seasons
3. Anquan Boldin (WR, 1999, Florida State) – one of best active receivers in NFL, has 8,357 yards, 51 TDs, and 3 Pro Bowls in 8 seasons
4. Shaun Alexander (RB, 1995, Alabam) – rushed for 9,453 yards and made 3 Pro Bowls in 9 seasons; briefly held single season rushing TD record with 27 TDs in 2005
5. Amani Toomer (WR, 1992, Michigan) – an above average receiver for 13-year career, retired with 9,497 career receiving yards
6. Jeff George (QB, 1986, Illinois by way of Purdue) – passed for 27,602 yards (154 TD, 113 INT) in 12 seasons
7. D.J. Williams (LB, 2000, Miami) – a solid starting linebacker for Broncos for last 8 seasons
8. Terry Kirby (RB, 1989, Virginia) – accounted for 8,471 yards as a returner/third down back for 4 teams in 10 seasons
9. Vince Young (QB, 2002, Texas) – two-time Pro Bowler has below average stats and may be on way out of Tennessee
10. Tim Couch (QB, 1996, Kentucky) – #1 draft pick bust wasn’t as horrendous as people remember (11,131 yards, 64 TD, 67 INT in 62 games)
11. Eugene Monroe (LT, 2005, Virginia) – already an established left tackle for Jaguars in second year in league
12. Kevin Jones (RB, 2001, Virginia Tech) – ran for 3,067 yards as starting running back for Lions for 4 seasons
13. David Givens (WR, 1998, Notre Dame) – 166 catches over 5 NFL seasons
14. Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, 2004, Ohio State) – #9 draft pick in 2007 is used primarily as a returner and is edging dangerously close to the “bust” label
15. Da’Quan Bowers (DE, 2008, Clemson) – projected #1 draft pick in 2011 Draft; that’s already a bigger accomplishment than everyone below him on this list
16. Chris Weinke (QB, 1990, Florida State) – after minor league baseball career, went 1-14 in 1 season as starter before riding the bench for his last six years in the league
17. Joe McKnight (RB, 2007, USC) – 189 rushing yards in rookie season as Jets backup (4.8 yards per carry)
18. Randy Fasani (QB, 1997, Stanford) – 44 passes thrown (0 TD, 4 INT) in 1 NFL season
19. Myron Rolle (DB, 2006, Florida State) – rookie spent year on Titans practice squad
20. Marquette Smith (RB, 1991, UCF by way of Florida State) – drafted but never played a regular season game
21. Ron Powlus (QB, 1993, Notre Dame) – saw some action in three preseasons; never played a regular season game
22. Kyle Wright (QB, 2003, Miami) – saw some action in one preseason; never played a regular season game
23. Xavier Crawford (RB, 1988, Memphis State) – never played in pros; currently an alleged rapist

Matt Barkley (QB, 2009, USC) and Ronald Powell (LB, 2010, Florida) are still active in college. Barkley has had an ugly USC career: the team is 17-7 in the 24 games he has started after going 72-7 in their previous six seasons (although we can’t really blame Barkley for all of that). Powell made the All-SEC Freshman Team as a linebacker in his first season with the Gators.

Interesting stuff. I don’t really have a whole article on the list, but I had a bunch of random thoughts.

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Five of the 22 #1 high school recruits that already graduated have made a Pro Bowl. I’m not sure if that’s a high number or a low number. On one hand, it seems low, as it seems to imply that 18 of the kids were busts. But on the other, that actually seems really high. Eugene Monroe seems like a great bet to make a Pro Bowl in the near future; D.J. Williams certainly might (he was an alternate in 2009). So we could be looking at seven of the best 18-year old football players in the country that could make Pro Bowl.

That’s really not too bad. Imagine picking 22 very good 18-year old football players that would make good professionals at some point in the future. If five actually ended up making the Pro Bowl, I feel like you’d consider that a success.

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I am sure that high school scouting overall has improved. It has become a huge industry in the Internet era: Rivals, Scouts, and every random football fan on the street has an opinion. I actually watched a game on ESPNU this year in which a potential Nebraska quarterback recruit played. High school recruiting is a BIG DEAL.

But with that said, these recruiting agencies have sure whiffed on a lot of #1 overall prospects. The six best pros on my list all graduated high school before 2000. Some of the #1 players from the past decade could potentially still crack the list, but that would be a long shot for most of them. D.J. Williams seems to have fallen into a role as an above average, but not great linebacker. Vince Young might be looking for a new team this offseason to try to resurrect his career. Eugene Monroe probably is a good bet to keep rising higher, but there’s not much of a chance for the rest of the #1 recruits of the 2000s. Kevin Jones and Kyle Wright have already left football; Ted Ginn Jr. has all the makings of a bust; Myron Rolle could not crack the Titans’ 53-man roster this season; and Joe McKnight is the Jets’ third-string running back. Da’Quan Bowers looks promising, but Matt Barkley hardly looks like a pro quarterback. That’s an awful lot of busts from this industry.

Compare that to the earlier years of recruiting, before the Internet turned recruiting into an entire industry. Jeff George, Hines Ward, Shaun Alexander, Ricky Watters, and Amani Toomer all put together great college and pro careers. At the same time, the busts were bigger than they are now. Marquette Smith, Randy Fasani, Xavier Crawford, and Ron Powlus were all huge busts. In the last twelve years, only Kyle Wright has been an overwhelming bust.

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I have an interesting theory on the type of college program these recruits go to. The highest picks in the NFL draft on the list were Jeff George and Tim Couch (#1 overall in 1990 and 1999), Da’Quan Bowers (will be top-three pick in 2011), Vince Young (#3 in 2006), and Eugene Monroe (#8 in 2008). Here are the records of the college teams that these players went to in the three years previous to each player’s first college season:

Illinois (Jeff George): 3-7-1, 4-7, 6-5-1
Kentucky (Tim Couch): 4-7, 1-10, 6-6
Clemson (Da’Quan Bowers): 9-4, 8-5, 8-4
Texas (Vince Young): 11-2, 9-3, 9-5
Virginia (Eugene Monroe): 8-4, 8-5, 9-5

All five of those schools struggled prior to signing the #1 overall recruit. Only Texas really carried any kind of national prestige at the time.* So far, George, Couch, and Young are considered busts, while the verdict is still out on Bowers and Monroe.

* I could count Clemson, but Bowers joined the Tigers in 2008. Clemson really hasn’t been relevant for the past couple of decades.

Each of these players was a rousing success in college. As a result, they were all drafted high. They have had better NFL careers than most of the #1 high school recruits, but how much of that comes from the simple fact that they were a high draft pick? Teams are much more willing to give their top draft picks a longer leash – what if these players really weren’t better than their fellow top high school recruits, but they just stood out in college more because their teammates weren’t that great?

On the flip side, look at the schools of the top five players on my NFL list:

Georgia (Hines Ward, 92nd overall pick in 1998): 5-6, 10-2, 9-3
Notre Dame (Ricky Watters, 45th overall in 1991): 5-6, 5-6, 7-5
Florida State (Anquan Boldin, 54th overall in 2003): 11-2, 11-1, 11-1
Alabama (Shaun Alexander, 19th overall in 2000): 12-1, 9-3-1, 13-0
Michigan (Amani Toomer, 34th overall in 1996): 10-2, 9-3, 10-2

Notre Dame and Georgia are the weak links, but all five of those players went to schools with a fair amount of national prestige. We have a really small sample size here, but maybe this tells us something about which schools a top ranked player should go to. Better schools and better competition prepares players for the NFL more than lesser schools. But there is a huge risk and reward with going to a top school: leaving aside certified headcase Xavier Crawford, the other three players who never played in the NFL went to:

Miami (Kyle Wright, undrafted): 12-1, 12-0, 11-1
Notre Dame (Ron Pawlus, undrafted): 10-1-1, 10-3, 9-3
Florida State (Marquette Smith, 142nd overall pick in 1996): 10-2, 10-2, 11-1

I have a hunch that Matt Barkley (12-1, 11-2, 11-2) joins them soon. The common theme is that those top recruits that go to powerhouse schools are battle-tested. Those that have the talent to survive to make it to the professional ranks are likely to thrive. Those that don’t will be badly exposed in college.

On the other hand, it is quite a bit easier for the top recruits to stand out at lower programs. This is somewhat obvious – look no further than Matt Barkley and Joe McKnight for proof. Both were #1 recruits, both went to talent-laden USC, and neither has done much to show he was worthy of being the #1 recruit. If McKnight went to UCLA instead of USC, we could very well be talking about him as a first round NFL running back. Instead of focusing on his inadequacies, it would have been much easier to blame his teammates for his lack of production. The same goes for #1 picks Jeff George (16-7-1 in two seasons as a starter) and Tim Couch (12-11). Neither were battle-tested and both are considered among the biggest busts from the #1 draft slot.

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Finally, I was curious as to how far these players traveled to school. College away from home sounds good on paper and these guys have a chance to go anywhere in the country that they want. That can certainly lead to trouble: an 18-year old kid leaving to a different part of the country, living on his own for the first time, and pretty much being worshiped by everyone around them? Talk about a recipe for disaster.

But remarkably most of these players were not intrigued by the possibility of being a hero/partier in a different part of the country and instead stayed closed to home. Here is the list of players that went to school more than 500 miles away from home:

D.J. Williams (Miami): 3,033 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Kyle Wright (Miami): 3,020 miles from Monte Vista High (Danville, CA)
Ronald Powell (Florida): 2,346 miles from Rancho Verde High (Moreno Valley, CA)
Amani Toomer (Michigan): 2,340 miles from De La Salle High (Concord, CA)
Joe McKnight (USC): 1,889 miles from John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, LA)
Chris Weinke (Florida State): 1,330 miles from Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, MN)
David Givens (Notre Dame): 1,132 miles from Humble High (Humble, TX)
Myron Rolle (Florida State): 1,064 from The Hun School (Princeton, NJ)
Ricky Watters (Notre Dame): 568 miles from Bishop McDevitt High (Harrisburg, PA)
Ron Powlus (Notre Dame): 566 miles from Berwick High (Berwick, PA)

That seemed surprising to me at first, but I suppose it really isn’t. A kid that has worked hard enough to be the best high school football player in the country probably has a college in mind already. He is likely to stick close to home to go to the school he has been idolizing.

Looking at the list again we can discount the three players who went to Notre Dame because the Irish have such a large national presence. Wright, Weinke, and Rolle come from areas of the country where professional football is far more important than college football. Williams and Toomer both went to De La Salle, which fancies itself as the best high school football program in the country – in a way, high school football is the biggest game for De La Salle. So that really only leaves Powell and McKnight as surprising college choices.

Both Powell and McKnight were the #1 recruit in the last five years. Will the surprising college choices continue in the future now that recruiting is a huge nationwide industry? Or will local colleges still dominate recruiting? I’m not sure. That might be a post for another day.

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