Life was more than football for defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Shea McClellin.
Poe played the bass drum in the Wooddale High School band in Memphis, Tenn. McClellin milked goats on his grandfather's 20-acre farm on Chicken Dinner Road in Marsing, Idaho.
In the end, when scouting services ranked each player, they barely had enough stars next to their names to light up a room. They looked like anything but NFL prospects.
Yet check out the 32 players selected in the first round of this year's draft, and you'll see Poe (No. 11) and McClellin (No. 19) prominent among more recognized names such as Andrew Luck (No. 1) and Trent Richardson (No. 3).
According to scouting service Rivals.com, the first round had as many five-star players as two-stars (four), including two-stars Poe and McClellin. The more stars, the higher the ranking.
Tom Donahoe, who has coached and evaluated high school, college and NFL players for five decades, was surprised to hear that Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon — drafted fifth by the Jacksonville Jaguars — was ranked 91st at wide receiver in 2008.
“That's incredible,” he said. “That just shows the difficulty of those evaluations. Whether you are talking about high school to college or college to pro, you are trying to evaluate them to play at a whole different level and brand of competition.”
Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals, has a six-man team of scouts who travel across the nation working “100 hours a week,” he said. They begin the day after Signing Day in February, attending games, camps and seven-on-seven tournaments, talking to players and coaches and watching video.
He believes in the ranking system but knows it's not foolproof. “It's based on athletic ability coming out of high school,” he said. “It's a simple formula. Just like with everything else, you see five-star kids flame out for whatever reason — character, injuries, work ethic or they were just overrated and never developed beyond their ability. The NFL misses, colleges miss, we miss — everybody misses.”
Some players develop later in their careers, he said, pointing to lightly regarded high school quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who became the Super Bowl MVP.
West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin is a good example from this year. A high school dropout in Stone Mountain, Ga., he went to junior college after earning his GED, became a talented pass rusher for the Mountaineers and was the first defensive end drafted (No. 15 by the Seattle Seahawks).
Former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, now defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, said making accurate projections is difficult, especially for linemen.
“Skill players are pretty much as fast as they are going to be,” he said. “The position you really need to know what you are doing is the offensive and defensive line. They have a tendency to grow more and have a tendency to mature later.
“We had guys who were clumsy and not very strong (when they were recruited) who put on anywhere from 25 to 50 pounds at Pitt. If you really know what you are dealing with, you can make some headway.”
Wannstedt recruited 16 offensive and defensive linemen in his first two years at Pitt. “People thought I was crazy,” he said.
But two of the defensive linemen — Jason Pinkston and John Malecki — were moved to the other side of the ball and became two of Pitt's best offensive linemen under Wannstedt.
Woodland Hills coach George Novak, who had eight former players in the NFL last season, said rankings are subjective and unfair.
“I never even look at the stars,” he said.
Novak noted that players who go to camps and get increased exposure are often ranked higher than those who don't (or can't afford it).
“Most of the time, someone is making money on high school kids,” he said. “Just like the Heisman — whoever gets the most publicity.”
Mistakes emerge. Wannstedt said, by his third season at Pitt, he could identify the top high school players down to the sophomore class.
“But in your first year,” he said, “you are going on recommendations and who everyone else is recruiting.”
Wannstedt's first recruiting class in 2005 included Duquesne High School three-star running back Shane Brooks, who also had offers from Virginia and Wisconsin. Wannstedt won the battle when Brooks chose the Panthers, but that he played only two seasons at Pitt underlines the guessing game college coaches play.
In contrast, Novak said players who are ignored in high school can become productive players at higher levels.
“(Former Woodland Hills player) Terrence Johnson wasn't even ranked coming out of high school,” he said. “He went to Cal U, was signed as a free agent by the Patriots and he started at cornerback for the Colts last year.”
When Robert Griffin III left high school four years ago, Rivals ranked him fourth among dual-threat quarterbacks. Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor was a highly celebrated No. 1 in that category.
Griffin went to Baylor, won the Heisman Trophy and was the second selection in this year's draft. Pryor had an up-and-down career at Ohio State, was suspended for making poor off-the-field choices and now is a backup with the Oakland Raiders.
“It's an inexact science,” said Donahoe, who writes player evaluations for ESPN to use in its draft coverage. “You can see on the pro level how many high picks didn't make it and how many sure-fire, blue-chips coming out of high school didn't have a college career to speak of.”
In Poe's case, the concerns college coaches had about his failure to make plays emerged during his career at Memphis.
Mike Adams, the Steelers' second-round choice (No. 56), was the top-ranked offensive tackle in the nation coming out of high school in 2008. Projected as a first-rounder before he was caught with marijuana in his system, he watched as seven tackles were picked ahead of him last week.
Due to NCAA recruiting regulations, Donahoe understands how colleges can misjudge players. The NFL has no excuse, he said.
“We work them out, interview them, spend as much time with them as we want,” he said. “We should have a better percentage, but we probably don't. It just shows you that nobody knows.
“A lot of people think they know, but they don't know.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7997.