Jordan Kovacs was a walk-on at Michigan and was not rated by the recruiting services but he became an All-Big Ten safety. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
The various national recruiting services can be forgiven for not even rating former Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs.
No one did.Not even the majority of college coaches.
Kovacs, the 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Clay High in suburban Toledo, went through two walk-on tryouts before making the Michigan roster. He eventually distinguished himself as a hard-nosed, hard-working player who became captain in 2012 and was All-Big Ten second team that season.
But coming out of high school, who could have predicted he’d make the Miami Dolphins roster as an undrafted free agent, let alone a college roster?
“I was a no-star,” Kovacs said, laughing. “I think (Michigan) coach (Brady) Hoke called me a moon. Being a no-star was definitely a chip on my shoulder, because no one thought enough of me to give me a star. It definitely fueled me.”
Recruiting services like Scout, Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN are highly regarded by college football fans wanting to know which high school players their teams are recruiting and the quality and expectations of those players. The services typically have individuals around the country who evaluate the players on film and in person, attending high school games and summer camps, and then the players are rated with stars, two to five, with five being a top prospect.
So today when high school recruits can officially sign letters-of-intent to attend college and play football, star ratings will be bandied about and overall class rankings discussed.
It’s by no means a perfect science, and the recruiting services will tell you while they provide a solid gauge regarding talent, they don’t have a crystal ball. And while the recruiting analysts try to spend enough time with the recruits to get a sense if they’re hard workers, it is difficult to project how a player might perform at the next level.
“If you took high school kids who wanted to be accountants and tried to rank them, you’d get it wrong,” said Allen Trieu, Midwest recruiting manger for Scout. “But you’d get some right — if you studied those kids and their work habits like we study football players in high school.
“What we provide is a snapshot of an individual in a team sport. We can’t rate them on how well they fit into a system, what kind of situations they’re going to be in (in college). It’s a measure of individual talent. The kids we rank the highest are kids we think could play in any system in the country. We’re also not saying a mid-range kid couldn’t find a perfect situation and exceed those expectations.”
Trieu used Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who led the Spartans to a Big Ten championship and a victory in the Rose Bowl, as an example. Cook was a two-star quarterback out of Walsh Jesuit in northeast Ohio. He received offers from Mid-American Conference programs and Michigan State.
“Connor Cook has taken advantage of a system that’s a perfect for him,” Trieu said. “But he might not have had the same success at a different school.”
Only a guide
Recruiting services and star ratings are not targeted for college coaches. Coaches identify their own program needs and have their own player-evaluation process. For the most part, they say the services are of little use to them.
“I don’t put much stock in (the star-rating system),” Hoke said.
Curtis Blackwell, in his first season at Michigan State, oversees the program’s recruiting. He said the recruiting services help in one way — they provide a database with easy access to the basics about each player and video clips.
“You’ve got to use all that information,” Blackwell said. “Any coach that tells you they don’t use that stuff to help is telling a lie. They provide you with an enormous amount of information that wasn’t available years ago.”
But Blackwell said the services offer an assist, and that’s all. The work comes from the hours of identifying players who can fulfill the team’s personnel needs, and that has nothing to do whether the player is a two-star, five-star or moon.
“We recruit the guys we feel fit our program,” Blackwell said. “We’re pretty efficient at using our own evaluations more than anything. That’s the biggest thing. That’s why the camps are so important. That gives us our own opportunity to evaluate.”
Kansas State’s Ryan Mueller, the Big 12 defensive lineman of the year, was a walk-on. Before playing Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in late December, he remarked that Michigan freshman quarterback Shane Morris was a “five-star” while he was a “no-star.”
He said he makes little of recruiting rankings.
“I think it’s a joke,” Mueller said. “I believe there’s some talented guys, and it’s obvious to point out who the elite college football players are coming out of high school, but there are a lot of guys who get overlooked. There’s a lot of guys on my team, no-stars or half-stars, that have helped out our team tremendously.”
Kovacs said he never put much stock in stars.
“When I was at Michigan, I tried to never look at the recruiting ranking, because it’s not fair to have that pre-conceived notions before the kid’s stepped on campus,” Kovacs said.
“Let’s put them in pads, and let’s see what he can do.”
Trieu said that while the ranking system isn’t perfect, it is definitely improving.
With the advent of Hudl — which provides video clips of players to recruiting analysts and coaches — and YouTube, players can be better evaluated. Trieu began scouting the state of Michigan in 2005.
“When I go back to my first year, the amount of kids I saw in person was much lower than now,” Trieu said. “I’m confident in saying of the BCS kids in my region who signed (scholarships), I’ve seen 75 percent of them.”
It is Trieu’s job, he said, to give fans a “reasonable view” of the high school recruits their schools are recruiting. He certainly understands the star system can create issues.
“It serves fans the most,” Trieu said. “I do not think it really does anything for any of the college coaches — the star system at least. The kids themselves and parents, it’s more of a headache. We give them something to worry about that they shouldn’t worry about.”
Downside of rankings
Blackwell, who founded the Sound Mind Sound Body camp that has been a huge success each summer in Metro Detroit — attracting players from around the country — has seen the negative of the star rankings.
“A kid gets ranked high early on, and they stop working,” Blackwell said. “They don’t want to listen to their high school coaches. They think, ‘I don’t have to work hard, I was ranked No. 1.’ You can’t get that kid to do anything.
“Then you get another kid, who was considered just a good player, and he does everything you ask him to do, and he works hard. He doesn’t think he’s entitled to play out of high school. Now you get a chance to prove how you’re better than the four- or five-star. Those guys listen to their coach. The other guys can get on cruise control from 10th grade.”
There are up to three dozen five-star players nationally each year, Trieu said. He said there are misconceptions about the ranking system that are frustrating to him. One is that services rank a player based on the school he chooses or because of a relationship the recruiting analyst has with the player and his family.
The other issue is the general perception of the mid-star rankings.
“That a three-star is somehow average,” Trieu said. “A better way to look at a rankings is how is a player ranked at his position and how is he ranked in the state. There are so many three-stars, first of all. We have 300 players who are four-stars, so the 301st kid in the country is a three-star. That kid is really good. He’s in the top 15 percent.
“We have almost 1,000 three-stars. There’s such a range there, so that’s why you have to look at positional ranking. Those are the kids who if they turn out (to be good players), people say, ‘Well, he was just a three-star.”
Former Michigan running back Mike Hart, the program’s career leading rusher was “just a three-star” coming out of high school. But Trieu said he was the first of the three-star rated players, just missing out on being a four-star.
“People are always like, ‘Man, he was only a three-star, but he was the No. 18 running back (nationally); the top 17 running backs that year were four-stars. This year, the No. 18 running back is a four-star.”
Ultimately, while the information is plentiful and the analysts have worked hard to rank players, Trieu wants people to be careful how much stock they put into recruiting rankings.
“It’s a thin line,” Trieu said. “I want people to think it’s important to care about it, because we do put so much work into it. I want people to realize we’re doing the best we can do.”
“At the same time, I don’t want people to take it as the gospel. That’s when the problems come in, when people take what’s on the page and that this is absolutely how the kid is going to turn out. I look at it the same way as I look at the NFL draft— not every kid turns out, and it’s interesting to see why this guy worked and this guy didn’t work.”