Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses knows exactly what he was ranked during the recruiting process.
“I think I was No. 5 overall on ESPN and No. 1 overall athlete in the country,” the sophomore said this week.
It’s true. He was a unanimous five-star recruit in Alabama’s loaded 2017 class, ranked as the No. 2 outside linebacker and No. 32 overall player nationally by both 247Sports and Rivals.
Most recruits know what their ranking or at least their star rating is. Rivals National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell said he thinks “99.9 percent” know their rating. 247Sports Director of Scouting Barton Simmons estimated that 95 percent of recruits have some level of awareness of their ranking.
“It’s almost endearing when we talk to a kid who doesn’t know what his rating is or what 247Sports is,” Simmons said. “That is a kid that is not focused on external factors that don’t matter.”
The rankings come early and often. 247Sports issues its first rankings for football prospects as their sophomore year of high school begins. Rivals begins ranking them upon the conclusion of their sophomore seasons. That means players may be ranked as young as 15 or 16 years old.
Recruiting can begin even earlier. Moses was an extreme case, receiving unofficial offers and attention from major programs while he was still in eighth grade.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has often spoken about problems that can arise from the acute attention young players receive during the recruiting process. Some of that attention comes from college coaches, but players also begin hearing from other sources.
“It’s almost unfair in a way,” Saban said. “I know that probably seems unreasonable for me to say, but a lot of these guys get a lot of positive self-gratification from the attention that they get, and that’s great. But when it sets an expectation and a standard for what they think they ought to be able to accomplish and how soon they should be able to do that and they lose the focus on ‘What do I have to do to be a good player rather than be frustrated that I’m not playing?’ Because those things don’t work in a very positive way for someone.”
Those expectations can remain even when a player arrives on campus and the stars by his name no longer matter. Recruiting analysts say rankings aren’t the only factor in those expectations.
“I think that’s a misplaced criticism,” Simmons said. “All that five-star ranking does is quantify a recruiting process in which that kid is being told by every multi-million dollar coach in the country how great he is. So if you take away that five-star, he’s still getting calls from Nick Saban before a game in front of 100,000 people saying ‘We need you.’ He’s still getting wined and dined on official visits in multi-million dollar facilities with barber shops and waterfalls and slides. The recruiting process is what creates this entitlement. If a kid is being told by a coach that is making $7.5 million a year that he is critical to their success, what’s the kid supposed to think? I think to blame recruiting rankings for that is a little bit of passing the buck.”
Both Simmons and Farrell have known of players who didn’t handle attention during the recruiting process well. Character and off-field issues can be a part of their evaluation process, but only in specific cases. It’s hard enough to judge players based on athletic ability with limited evaluation time.
“We’ve had classes like that over the years where so many five-star kids didn’t pan out,” Farrell said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they didn’t feel like they had to work hard.”
In other instances, the reverse has been true. NFL stars like J.J. Watt and Antonio Brown were barely ranked by recruiting sites. Both players have cited the lack of attention as a motivating factor in their development.
A recruiting ranking can be a wake-up call for a player who dominated one level of competition but struggled against other talented players. Some players have also gained confidence from seeing their recruiting rankings; Simmons remembers one player who posted a 247Sports story about him on his wall in hopes of living up to their evaluation of him.
Recruiting sites can serve other purposes as well. They shine a light on a part of the college football process that would otherwise go unseen.
“College coaches can’t take advantage of kids and be dishonest with kids when everything that’s going on in the recruiting world is being reported and kids know what the landscape is around them,” Simmons said. “… I think the rankings are just sort of the front porch to the recruiting industry.”
On one hand, players in sports other than football are often evaluated at a younger age. Baseball, basketball and hockey players can be drafted at a younger age and are often scouted well before football prospects.
On the other hand, there are few arenas where teenagers are evaluated and then publicly ranked against one another outside of sports.
“I think it’s tough for everyone,” Alabama running back Damien Harris said. “You’re 15 or 16 years old and thrown into a national spotlight you’re not used to. Something you have to adjust to. Some people have more trouble with it than others. It’s a big change, something not a lot people are not used to; you have to deal with it as best you can.”
The practice of ranking and rating players isn’t meant to influence players themselves. They are the subject of the rankings, but the object is the readers consuming the rankings.
“There’s a business side of this,” Farrell said. “You have to give the fans what they want. It always goes back to what the fans want. If the fans want us to start ranking fifth-graders, we’re going to rank fifth-graders. Luckily, that’s not the case.”
Simmons said they don’t seek to be part of the recruiting process itself. Farrell said recruits can read his published stories or scouting reports but he won’t tell them specifically where to improve so as not to be “involved in the process.” Still, if nearly every prospect has some level of awareness of his ranking or rating, it stands to reason that it plays some part of the process, however large or small.
Both Farrell sand Simmons said they wouldn’t base a player’s ranking on whether or not he thought he could handle the attention that came with the number by his name.
“I don’t think we look at our rankings as an influencer to that degree, where we can derail a kids career based on having him ranked higher or lower,” Simmons said. “That’s just not a perspective that we’ve ever really considered.”
Alabama has had plenty of players who have handled their high rankings and fulfilled or even exceeded significant expectations that were set on them. Moses and Harris were both projected as star college players and have grown into those roles. Others, like former safety Eddie Jackson or running back Josh Jacobs, were ranked lower and have become major contributors.
Other highly-ranked players have struggled. Some never became starters or left the program after a time.
“I think when you have tremendously high expectations for when you come in and you’re not focused on what you need to do to be a good player, learn your position so you can be a complete player at your position, then you struggle and you have issues and you get frustrated because you feel like you’re not meeting the standard and the expectation that somebody else created for you,” Saban said. “It takes a lot of maturity for guys to do that.”
Farrell said there’s a balance to be achieved between players that don’t care at all about rankings and players that are too caught up in it. Much of it comes back to how a player is grounded by his family or high school coaches.
“Kids that don’t know about what they’re ranked probably have a higher hit rate than kids that do,” Simmons said.
Thousands of high school players receive rankings and star ratings every year. What happens after the ranking process is another game entirely.
“No kid is ever sentenced to a ranking,” Simmons said. “A ranking is an evaluation, but that kid, it’s on him whether to exceed that or underachieve that. I say this all the time when fans get upset, we’re not sentencing him to a two-star future. We’re not sentencing him to a five-star future. We’re just telling you what we think of them and the rest is on them. Ultimately, these kids still control what happens to them on the field.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.