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NFL Success of Matthews, Rodgers Offers Rebuttal to High School Recruiting Trends

Johnie Freatman |
February 14, 2011 | 9:52 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Clay Matthews was a no-star recruit coming out of high school. (Creative Commons)
Clay Matthews was a no-star recruit coming out of high school. (Creative Commons)
Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Troy Polamalu have a lot in common: former Pac-10 greats, NFL Pro Bowlers, and now, Super Bowl Champions. It’s easy to forget another of their similarities: players who were lightly recruited.   

This time of year, we are accustomed to hearing about the supposed NFL greatness in store for five-star recruits, chatter that continued today when the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Jadeveon Clowney, announced his decision to attend South Carolina.

Here’s the question though: is all this hype justified?

For all of the talk the last couple weeks about the ESPN 150 and five-star recruits, Matthews and Rodgers were no-star recruits.

For all of the pomp and circumstance in the elaborate, often narcissistic, national press conferences where players announce their college intentions by picking the hat of one of the national powers that offered them a scholarship, Polamalu only got a scholarship from USC because of his relative: former USC great Kennedy Pola.

Matthews couldn’t even parlay his family’s incomparable legacy into a USC scholarship, choosing instead to walk on at 'SC and bypass Idaho, his only scholarship offer.

Rodgers’ best non-junior college offer was to walk on at Illinois.

Projecting success in college football is an inexact science, at best. The main problem is that the people being judged are 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids. There’s no telling how they will handle the adoration.

Take the class of 2005, which, according to Rivals.com, had 28 five-star recruits. Some of these players got drafted -- in this case, 11. Guys like Mark Sanchez and DeSean Jackson have already become household names.

However, a startling 14 of those five-stars have been arrested. That’s right, more five-star 2005 recruits have been arrested than have made it to the NFL. For every Sanchez or Jackson, there are players like Melvin Alaeze and Fred Rouse, players who were seemingly destined for greatness only to have their careers derailed by off-the-field problems.

Talent evaluators measure a lot of different variables, but one of the most important characteristics is one that isn’t easily quantifiable: maturity.

Of course, the risk for lack of maturity can be blamed on the recruiting process itself. These five-star recruits have been put on a pedestal. Not only are talent evaluators writing about them hyperbolically, they are frequently flattered and told everything they want to hear from coaches desperate to land them.

It’s not difficult to see where the complacency and entitlement stem from; it is difficult to predict who will and who won’t fall prey to it.

Another fundamental problem with recruiting rankings is the emphasis on measurables. If a wide receiver is 6-foot-5, 210 pounds and runs a sub 4.5 40, there’s a good chance he’ll receive a high ranking, no matter his actual football skills.

Players who fit this bill can usually dominate in high school against inferior competition on size and athleticism alone, without refining their actual football skills. However, it can be problematic in college once they’re no longer the biggest or fastest player on the field.

Players like this can stay out of trouble but simply not pan out because they were overrated in the first place.

A perfect example is someone whose name makes USC fans cringe: Patrick Turner. 

Turner was expected to take college football by storm and become the latest in a long line of dominant USC receivers. Pete Carroll even gave him the vaunted No. 1 jersey.

Though he had a much-improved senior year, Turner was given every chance in the world to become a star and did not come close to reaching expectations. He is now regarded by many as a bust.

The other problem with the measurable phenomenon is it marginalizes the players who have excellent football skills but aren’t as blessed physically.

Kellen Moore broke almost every Washington state high school passing record yet was considered too slow and too short at 6-foot to make an effective college quarterback. Not even Washington State offered him a scholarship. All he’s done at Boise State is lead his team to a 38-2 record, receive All-America honors and be named a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Though Moore has stayed the same size, many of the 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old kids being evaluated are not done growing, rendering the measurables incomplete.

Matthews is a perfect example. He was a measly 165 pounds during his junior year of high school, the peak of recruiting interest for players. Now he’s a 6-foot-3, 255-pound behemoth who just finished second in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting.

Of course, Matthews can now laugh about his recruiting experience as he gazes at his Super Bowl ring.

He may not have won the recruiting “game," but he did win the most important game of them all.

To reach Johnie Freatman, click here.



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