How To Cover Recruiting
Gonna get all BACK IN MY DAY for a second. I realize that this is a regular occurrence these days, but I'm 50 years old now, so I'm pretty sure this is what I'm supposed to be doing. The distance between my first class freshman year (August of 1991) and today is the same as the distance between 1991 and 1959. So I'm the guy at the bar at Deluxe in the fall of 1991 turning to some students and saying "back in my day...", referencing 1959.
(Deluxe was a bar where Legends is now located. It had pool tables the size of Naperville, a tin ceiling like some bank from 1922, and the famous fish sandwich that Legends now says it continues to serve but I swear it's different.)
But seriously, back in my day, here's how we followed college football recruiting:
You'd go buy this at the grocery store, usually in July, and you'd flip through to the recruiting section to see if any of your freshmen were ranked nationally. As you can see from the cover there, this magazine (1992) was the 10th anniversary of their "All Prep Team", so Street & Smith's had been ranking high school players for ten years at this point. It wasn't perfect, and, like now, it was shaded towards Alabama and Michigan, but it was something.
(There were other ways to know about recruiting back then, of course. For people my dad's age, Kellen Winslow (Sr.) was a legend at East St. Louis in the 70's and it was a big deal that he chose to go to Missouri. You knew of local superstars and stars who led their team to the state title or whatever. You just didn't really know how those players stacked up against everyone else.)
(Also, it was a big deal, to me, that Jason Verduzco was on the regional cover for the Midwest. I cannot tell you the joy that came from finding an Illini player on the cover. Ayo on the front page of ESPN.com in 2021 times ten.)
The reason I'm talking about all of this: recruiting used to be covered signing day and forward. You learned about the "newcomers" between signing day in February and training camp in August. The season was over, the coaches had gone out recruiting, a bunch of players signed in early February, and THEN you started discussing those players.
Now it's just the opposite. Kaden Feagin had a recruiting profile when he was a sophomore. Players are ranked when they're 14 years old. Football recruiting gurus, un-ironically, say things like "one of the top players in the 2026 class".
This is not a dig at the internet for allowing recruiting coverage to grow. For my dad, he had to guess whether all of these jucos from California that Mike White was bringing in would be any good. For us, we have a composite point rating for TJ McMillen which extends to the ten thousandth. TJ McMillen is rated 0.8597. Jonathan Akins, a cornerback going to Maryland, is rated 0.8594. McMillen, obviously, is three-tenthousandths better than Akins.
We have more information now, and it has allowed recruiting coverage to explode. Websites make millions - literal millions - off fans who simply want to know if there team will get better next year. I both love it and hate it.
The hate grows a little more each year, though. Mostly for reasons I've written about before. I took a couple days last May and researched how players going to Texas get an immediate ranking boost when they choose Texas. Like any industry, once the websites learned how much money they could make off recruiting coverage, someone asked "how do we make even more money?", and some guy at the end of the table raised his hand and said "whenever we boost a Texas recruit from a ranking in the 500's to a ranking in the 100's we see Texas subscriptions grow" and so the rankings started to skew towards the school you chose, not things like "film" or "offers".
And so what used to be great is now skewed. Grades are inflated every year (players ranked .8300 don't sell subscriptions; players rated .8800 kinda do), and so the numbers don't really mean anything anymore. Don't believe me? Just look at the last 10 years:
Chunky Clements (class of 2013) composite rating: .8590
His ranking nationally in that class: #651
TJ McMillen (class of 2023) composite rating: .8597
His ranking nationally in this class: #1116
We've entered "$200 for a screwdriver at the Pentagon" territory. The numbers don't really mean anything. You have a pretty good idea who the top 300 players are - they're the players everyone wants - and beyond that, the rankings basically mean nothing.
You've heard me rant about this many times. I used to love following football recruiting and now I kinda hate it. I'll give you one last example here and then move on to "so here's how I'm going about it now."
Last year I praised the newest ranking service - On3 - for their commitment to true consensus rankings. 247's Composite rankings are skewed towards their own ratings, but On3 was committed to doing basically the RSCI thing. Here's four rankings for this kid, here's where that averages out, here's where that ranking stands compared to other players in the class. Bravo.
This week, they announced that they were going to start weighting their consensus rankings. They said a bunch of stuff about how "ESPN does not send the resources towards player evaluation like they used to..." and blah blah blah but there's only one reason for doing this: they need to be able to manipulate the rankings to follow the subscription dollars.
People follow those "consensus" rankings more than they follow the site-specific rankings (often confusing them for that site's rankings and saying things like "On3 only has him as a 3-star" when it's the consensus rankings that have him as a 3-star), and because of that, they need to be able to shift those rankings. So they pushed their own rankings up to 35% of the formula and reduced Rivals to 20% and ESPN to 10%. Again, there is one and only reason for doing this (and it's the same reason 247 weights their own rankings the highest as well): you have to reserve the right to manipulate. If you want to sell Auburn subscriptions, you've gotta have a mechanism to push that Auburn commit up to a consensus 4-star.
(I still can't believe that they get away with it, to be honest. On3 made a huge deal out of being able to say "the only consensus rankings that can't be manipulated"... and then a year later someone at some meeting says "yeah, the business model demands the ability to manipulate the consensus rankings" and they go back on the whole thing. So freaking gross.)
My view or recruiting rankings more or less looks like this:
- 1980's through maybe 1999 or so: "Can't wait for this magazine to come out so I can scan the entire list looking for Illinois recruits."
- 2000 through 2015 or so: "Wow, we actually get real-time recruiting information and know the quality of most players the moment they commit because of the world wide internet."
- 2015 through today: "OF COURSE someone found a way to exploit this and hedge the rankings to sell subscriptions. Every great thing eventually ends up in this same basket."
I've been working this out (in at least a dozen articles) over the last year and I've come to the following conclusion: the main reason Illini classes are not ranked correctly is the timing of the evaluation. Because rankings more or less have to go up within 24 hours of a commitment these days, the placeholder rankings become the actual rankings. Matt Bailey is probably going to an FCS in-state school? Rate him a .7300. Oh, Matt Bailey actually signed with Illinois? Move him up to .8200. The film is right there (and it's great), but nobody cares about film. His ranking is solely based on the school he chose and nothing else. Which means it isn't a ranking at all.
This happens throughout the recruiting calendar, of course. Yes, some players get a ranking boost when they draw more interest (and grab bigger offers), but for the most part, the entire process can best be described as "slotting". If you read the Texas Two Step article linked above and want to skip this next part, you can. But if you're curious how slotting works, I described it using Isaiah Williams (Illinois) and Isaiah Hoofkin (Texas) in the 2019 class:
In fact, probably the single best way to say this is to just talk about Hookfin and Williams. I'll call this The Isaiah Principle:
- When Isaiah Williams visited Illinois, his rating was 94. He then picked Illinois. His final rating: 90. That dropped him out of the Top 247.
- When Isaiah Hookfin visited Illinois, his rating was 82. He then got a Texas offer and committed to Texas. His final rating: 92. That slid him into the Top 247 at 238.
In no world is Isaiah Hookfin a better football player than Isaiah Williams. Not then, not now. If you showed Nick Saban (who offered Isaiah Williams) film of both players and told him that Hookfin was rated higher than Williams, he would laugh for three consecutive weeks. Take film of both players to any college football analyst - seriously, any single one - and they'll have the same reaction: "how is it even possible to rate Player B higher than Player A?"
Maybe I should put it like this: You have a friend who doesn't know much about football. He grew up in Spain and really only cares about tennis and "real football." You show him video of five "ATH" recruits in the 2019 class and he picks Isaiah Williams as the best. Doesn't matter what kind of football you're talking about - the guy who is super fast and can cut on a dime is going to stand out above all the rest. You then explain to him what an offensive lineman does and show him video of Isaiah Hookfin and four other offensive line recruits. It's quite doubtful he picks Hookfin. Compare him to the others and he's just not as explosive nor as athletic. It's extremely easy, even for your friend who doesn't know how the game is played, to see why Isaiah Williams was initially 28th in the individual 247 rankings and Isaiah Hookfin was initially 1,797th.
So then just think of what would be required for Isaiah Hookfin to be rated a 92 and Isaiah Williams to be rated a 90 by the time the final rankings are compiled. Just think of how confused your friend from Spain would be when you presented him with this information. Two guys are evaluated, one is the 28th-best, the other is the 1797th-best, but by the time those ratings are moved around (because of the schools they chose), the guy evaluated as the 1797th-best would finish in front of the guy evaluated as the 28th-best.
The players then followed the same 28th/1797th path in college. Hookfin didn't crack the rotation at Texas in three years and will be reportedly switching to a medical scholarship for his final year of school after a motorcycle accident this offseason kept him out of spring practice and might limit him this fall as well. Williams will be one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten this fall. There's a reason Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, and LSU offered Williams and did not offer Hookfin. The initial evaluations remain spot on.
So what happened? Rankings happened. Rankings have nothing to do with evaluations. Rankings are the only way to take players evaluated (and offered) at those two levels and push the second guy in front of the first guy.
Because of all that, I came to one conclusion: the best way to do this is to not care about the news cycle and to ignore the year-long cooking of the books. Street & Smith's knew the best way to do this back in 1988: once classes are signed and senior film is evaluated, put together a list that ranks the players. It allows you to eliminate the term "sleeper" and kills every "Illinois was lucky to get in on him early" narrative. It's just a cold, hard look at the players who have signed.
I first considered this when catching up on Looks Like University Of Illinois (LLUOI) articles last spring. I felt so, so, SO much better about those evaluations with all of the time that had passed between their verbal and my article. Get out from under the pressure of "need to drive subscriptions here by telling the fans that this is a great player" and just evaluate the player (with senior film included). No, it's not a great business move, but I've come to hate all business moves. I set out to evaluate recruits, and this, to me, is the very best way to do it.
So we enter a new LLUOI era today. If you've read all of my offseason football stuff, you know the order I'm going with here. First I looked at the returning lettermen at every position and then I looked at the third-string guys who might move up into the rotation (also at every position). So now it's time to look at the newcomers at every position. Both the freshmen AND the transfers because that's how college football works in 2023.
Up first will be "2023 LLUOI - The Quarterbacks". I'll evaluate the freshman (Cal Swanson) and the transfers (Luke Altmyer and John Paddock). I'll give them a Tom Cruise rating and then talk about the QB room for 2023 (just like I talked about the QB room in the Lettermen section and the Third String section). Then I'll move through, position by position, and give you a full breakdown of every newcomer. Yes, everyone will be getting their Cruises.
Is that too little, too late in today's "BOOOM - Illini get verbal from sleeper QB!!" world? Absolutely. Am I once again choosing to do a magazine thing in the Internet era? 100%. But I've spent years thinking about all of this, and "the problem is the rush to evaluate everyone" is where I landed. If you want to know why nearly every college football coach laughs at every single recruiting ranking (seriously, every single one), it's all right here. Actually evaluating the players stopped being the focus a long time ago.
So get ready for my 2023 Street & Smith's-like Illini recruiting magazine. There won't be an "Alive With Pleasure!" ad for Newport cigarettes on the back cover, but it should still be a fun read.
Might even give out 4.5 Cruises to a player you'd never expect (tease!).