Scouting high school football recruits is a calculated crapshoot
Steve Fullerton never played football until eighth grade, but was 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, and could run the 40-yard dash in a respectable 4.8 seconds by his junior year at Seneca Valley. When a scouting service ranked him among the nation's top 20 tight ends, Fullerton was thrilled.
Eleven years later, Fullerton marvels at the memory.
Instead of going to a major-college program, Fullerton saw his stock — and recruiting ranking — plummet his senior season. He signed instead with Division II Slippery Rock, where he became a four-year letterman and three-year starter.
"Once I saw those rankings come out, I definitely thought I was going to a Division-I school, for sure," said Fullerton, now 29, who lives in Cincinnati. "It was really crazy. I'd never even heard of Rivals.com. Before you know it, the rankings came out. Whenever I found out I was ranked that high is when I went on the site and started following it. Now, it's the premier site for ranking kids."
Scouting service rankings have since become more sophisticated but recruiting remains a calculated crapshoot, as evidenced by the disparity between Rivals.com and its chief competitor, Scout.com. Both services rely on regional analysts to scout players on film, at skills camps and games. Both use a star system to rank college prospects but on separate scales that sometimes sees the same player decidedly different.
"It's as inexact a science as NFL Draft, even more so because there's more of them," Rivals.com national scouting director Mike Farrell said. "Plus they're high school kids; they haven't finished growing yet. It's really a difficult process. You just do the best you can. Our rankings are for the fans. If we're wrong, it's like, oops. The guys still coaching at those schools might be out of a job because of it."
Scout.com director of scouting Scott Kennedy said the service awards five stars, its highest ranking, to the nation's top 50 players. The lone WPIAL player to earn that honor is Hopewell running back Rushel Shell, a Pitt recruit who is ranked the nation's fourth-best running back and No. 18 overall player. Those ranked from Nos. 51 to 300 receive four stars — six WPIAL players fall under this category — and the next 700 get three stars.
Only time will tell whether the scouting services were right.
"The word 'right' I wouldn't use, I'd never use," Kennedy said. "When you're talking about the future, you're never right or wrong. At least let me be wrong before you tell me I'm wrong. ... Half the first round in the NFL goes bust. Those are the best guys in the business, with the most to lose. It's a humbling experience. A lot of it boils down to character. Very rarely do you have a guy with great physical skills, good in classroom and a strong work ethic who fails. There's usually stuff that you can't account for.
"Getting it right is impossible. Nobody gets them all right."
Farrell said Rivals.com awards less five stars, ranging from 24-32 each year, but more four stars (about 300) than its competitor. That explains, in part, why it ranks Shell as the nation's No. 6 running back but only a four-star despite setting WPIAL, state and national rushing records this past fall.
"I don't think Rushel Shell is a five-star running back, and a lot of sites have him as that," Farrell said. "I've watched a lot of film and the level of competition he's playing is not very good. He's put up amazing numbers and everybody wants to put that fifth star on him because he's a record-setting running back. Rushel Shell, from his junior to senior year, I didn't see him improve that much."
Gateway coach Terry Smith has had an up-close look at both the scouting and ranking process, after working regional combine camps for Scout.com and coaching three times in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Among the dozens of Division-I recruits that have played for the Gators, three were five-star prospects: cornerback Justin King (2005) and linebackers Shayne Hale (2008) and Dorian Bell (2009).
"It affects them because they definitely pay attention to it. They look at it. They know if they're five stars or no stars. You overhear them talking in the weight room or at workouts. They're very conscious of it," Smith said. "As a coach, you try to relay the message that it means nothing because it's an outside source creating the ranking. Where did it come from• No one knows.
"For me, I'm basing my opinion on what I see that day in front of me. I haven't watched film on them. I don't even know the kids who are ranked. I just say, 'Here's who the best players were.' Sometimes it matches up. Many times, it doesn't match up. Being in the industry, I understand how the system works. But I'm a football coach who bases it on performance alone. The writers, there's a whole lot of intangibles they're basing their opinion on. Sometimes, I would shake my head."
Fox Chapel's Adam Bisnowaty had a similar reaction upon finding out that he was ranked a four-star recruit and the nation's No. 19 offensive lineman by Rivals.com but only a three-star and No. 36 by Scout.com. When the Pitt recruit played in the Semper Fidelis All-American game, where he had a chance to compete against other highly ranked recruits, he realized that his performance was more important than his reputation.
"That's the first thing you're waiting to see as a junior, as a four-star or three-star. When they first come out, you're shocked or wowed," Bisnowaty said. "I was pretty excited to be ranked one of the top 50 linemen in the country. It made me push myself harder. If the kid I'm going against is a five-star, I wanted to show everybody that I was better than that guy and prove that I'm better than them. At first, it's a big hype to see where you stand among your peers but it really means nothing. Stars are stars but when you're on the field it doesn't matter at all. It's how you perform."