On Wednesday afternoon, a little after 3, Kansas University football coach Mark Mangino released his 2009 recruiting class, a 24-member group that, in the eyes of many, is a very promising class of players.
It is largely believed, in fact, to be the best recruiting class in Mangino’s tenure at Kansas. It features four players designated as four-star prospects by Rivals.com, and has been anointed by the same Web site as the nation’s 31st-best group of players.
But while Mangino acknowledged Wednesday that he feels good about the promise of his incoming class, he also insisted — with good reason — that he won’t know what he’s got until the players have all arrived on campus in June.
“We think we’ve got some talented kids,” Mangino said. “But you never know what they’re going to do until they get onto a Big 12 field.”
Indeed. As national college recruiting has gained steam, and as various Web sites and publications have begun producing thorough scouting reports of promising high school athletes, fans have rushed to project future success based on the material available. Many times, that’s the evaluations of various online recruiting publications.
Based on the most popular player evaluation system, a prospect is given a designation of “stars” — a five-star recruit represents one with exceptional promise, and theoretically, a one-star recruit would be the least promising.
But if history has taught Kansas coaches anything, it’s that rankings — at least in some cases —aren’t necessarily the most accurate gauge of future success.
Between 2005 and 2007, for instance, Mangino signed four four-star prospects, generally the highest-rated a recruit a school like Kansas will sign. Those players were: Rodney Allen, Brandon Duncan, Anthony Webb and Ryan Murphy.
None is currently a starter, and just one — Murphy — is still with the team.
The most recent example, meanwhile, is four-star transfer Jocques Crawford, a running back who was named the national junior college offensive player of the year in 2007. Largely expected to replace departed senior running back Brandon McAnderson, Crawford struggled in his jump to the Division-I level, wound up playing limited snaps behind junior Jake Sharp and finished his junior season with just 62 carries for 232 yards.
On the other hand, players who have arrived in Lawrence with little fanfare have managed to make quick names for themselves. What, for instance, do Chris Harris, Jake Laptad, Jeff Spikes and Johnathan Wilson have in common? Each was rated as a two-star recruit out of high school, and each played a significant role in Kansas’ 8-5, Insight Bowl-championship season in 2008.
What’s more, of the five players Kansas has put into the NFL under Mangino — including collegiate all-Americans Aqib Talib and Anthony Colllins — each was a two-star recruit coming out of high school.
“I think a lot of people get caught up in the various rankings that are out there,” said former KU center David Ochoa, a three-star prospect out of high school who developed into an all-conference center for the Jayhawks. “I know for a fact that (Mangino) doesn’t subscribe to any of the rankings. He’s been around long enough to know what he’s doing. He’s a master of the intangibles. ... He has a formula that he follows, and he doesn’t let outside influences put a clog in that formula, so to speak.”
This is not to say, of course, that player rankings aren’t valuable in the grand scheme of things. The teams with the highest numbers of five-star players over the past five years reads like a Who’s Who list of collegiate programs: Florida, USC, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama. Further, it’s safe to say there are more four- and five-star players currently in the NFL than there are three and two star players.
But for reasons unknown, this hasn’t necessarily been the case in Lawrence. Some brush off the Jayhawks’ luck (or lack of it, depending on the situation) as coincidence. Others point to the fact that Kansas’ extensive recruiting system lends itself toward picking up players who have flown largely under the radar.
“At Kansas, it’s a pretty thorough system,” said Jon Kirby, who covers Kansas recruiting for Rivals.com. “Those players are evaluated by a lot of different sets of eyes before they get to Mangino’s desk. I think it’s a team effort. I think he’s got a great, great group of coaches, and they know how to go out and find (players), as well.”
But even Mangino, who seems to have developed a knack for turning overlooked preps into collegiate standouts, doesn’t deny the number of miscalculations he’s made throughout his coaching career.
“Over the years, I’ve had some kids that I thought, ‘Oh, wow; this guy will play in the NFL,’ and he couldn’t get a sniff,” said Mangino. “And there’s others that I said, ‘His last game will be in our uniform,’ and he played in the NFL.”
Players, meanwhile, have taken differing viewpoints on the matter. Some have voiced four- and five-star ratings as something to strive for in the final stages of their high school careers. Others, like recently-signed four-star recruit Toben Opurum out of Texas’ Plano East High, take a different approach.
“I think a lot of it has to do with exposure,” said Opurum, who selected Kansas over Florida, Notre Dame and Nebraska. “I think as long as you prove yourself, it shouldn’t really matter how many stars you have.”
This isn’t to say, however, that highly-rated prospects are in any hurry to give up their favorable ranking.
After thoughtfully opining on the over-emphasis on prep rankings, Opurum stopped himself and said, a bit sheepishly, “That being said, being a four-star guy is definitely something I’m proud of.”