Though college football recruiting is a year-round venture, January and February remain in focus as coaches put the finishing touches on a class and observers take stock of where teams rank against the competition.
Taking stock means talking stars.
Websites such as Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247Sports each grade and rank the nation’s top high school football prospects. A player’s individual grade comes with a rating — from two to five stars, with five being the best of the best – and those factor into a college’s spot in a company’s ranking of recruiting classes.
South Carolina has been in Rivals’ recruiting top 25 every year under Steve Spurrier, averaging No. 18 for the past eight classes. Most years predominantly feature three-star players and a half-dozen or so four-star prospects.
Coaches are aware of the team rankings, but they aren’t the primary way a team measures its own success, according to Steve Spurrier Jr., South Carolina’s recruiting coordinator.
“You don’t want a bad ranking, but I’ve seen teams with high rankings for a bunch of four-star guys who can’t play,” Spurrier Jr. said. “You’ve got to find out what your needs are and find the guys who can play at the highest level and try to get those guys the best you can, regardless of their ranking.”
SIZING UP 2013
The Gamecocks’ 2013 class is No. 17 in the latest 247Sports Composite rankings, which factors the lists from all the major analysts. Alabama is No. 1, Florida is No. 3 and fellow SEC schools LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia are in the top 10. (Clemson is No. 18.)
South Carolina has five to seven four-star prospects in the class of 2013, depending on the website.
Seven of the Gamecocks’ 20 commitments have four-star grades, according to 247Sports. A closer look at the grades, says 247Sports national analyst Keith Neibuhr, reveals three others were on the cusp of receiving a fourth star.
“There is not much of a difference between a high three and a low four,” Neibuhr said. “To a fan, they’re looking at three and four. If he’s a high three, what does that really mean? He’s rated just a tick below a four star. There isn’t much difference.”
The Gamecocks have four consensus four-star players in this class: linebacker Larenz Bryant (Charlotte); defensive tackle Kelsey Griffin (Hoschton, Ga.); offensive lineman D.J. Park (Dillon); and running back David Williams (Philadephia).
Quarterback Connor Mitch (Raleigh) has four stars from everyone except Scout. He is USC’s first quarterback with four stars from Rivals since Stephen Garcia (2007).
247Sports, Scout and ESPN rank Havelock (N.C.) defensive end Kendal Vickers as the only two-star recruit in this class (there were seven in Spurrier’s first class in 2005).
Outside of Vickers, every recruit has a grade that equals mid-three stars or higher, according to 247Sports.
“We happen to think a mid-three star is a good player, but we’re constantly evaluating,” Niebuhr said. “A high three-star is a guy we essentially think can be a starter, and a solid player, at the college level. But maybe he’s just missing one or two key things at this moment. A rating is based more on long-term physical potential than anything else.”
THE HIGHS AND LOWS
South Carolina has signed three five-star prospects under Spurrier: Chris Culliver in 2007; Marcus Lattimore in 2010; and Jadeveon Clowney in 2011. All three have found their way into the school record books.
Still, two stars doesn’t always mean too bad.
Dylan Thompson, Justice Cunningham and Byron Jerideau were all major contributors to the 2012 team who were graded at two stars out of high school by Rivals.
Cunningham, a tight end from Pageland, worked his way to a career year as a senior, catching 22 balls for 287 yards and earning a spot as a team captain. That two-star rating was one motivating factor, he said.
“That’s pushed me since day one when I got here,” he said. “When I got here there were four and five stars around me. Nobody expected me to touch the field really. I wanted to prove everybody wrong.”
Spurrier Jr. cited a lack of publicity behind Cunningham’s two-star status.
“If you don’t get a lot of press in high school, nobody thinks you can play,” Spurrier Jr. said. “I remember when we got here, Ko Simpson was a two-star and he greyshirted. He played two years and went to the NFL. He was a great player for us. It’s not always accurate, just like every four star that comes out is not always good.”
Other notable two-star athletes in the Spurrier era include offensive lineman Rokevious Watkins, fullback Patrick DiMarco and defensive back Captain Munnerlyn, all players who were productive at USC and went on to an NFL career.
This year, DeVonte Holloman is the lone Gamecock playing in a national all-star game who was considered a four-star prospect by Rivals in high school. D.J. Swearinger, Devin Taylor, T.J. Johnson and Shaq Wilson all had three stars. Jerideau had two stars out of junior college, while place kicker Adam Yates was unrated.
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
There’s little doubt that star ratings and team rankings provide meaningful points of comparison for players and recruiting classes, as well as for fan debate on message boards and around the water cooler.
In the end, a team meeting its needs is what matters most, Spurrier Jr. said.
In this class, coaches targeted players on both lines. South Carolina is on track to sign five offensive linemen and a half-dozen or more defensive linemen. That’s in addition to a quarterback, two running backs and a handful of defensive backs.
“Are you getting quality and are you addressing your needs? I think they’ve got some of both,” Niebuhr said. “With key needs, they are doing well. This is a good group.”
The Gamecocks also went after linebackers and those who could play the team’s spur position. The linebacker search continues and is a key story line as USC heads toward signing day.
South Carolina will finish in the top 25 among recruiting classes again when the final tabulations come in Feb. 6. The team is expected to take as many as four more commitments. Those players and their individual grades will help determine USC’s final spot in the rankings.
“You want to sign a good class, and there are some high-ranked players that are extremely talented,” Spurrier Jr. said. “You want to get as many of those guys as you can. Whether you’re two, three or 15 or 16 (in the final website rankings), I don’t know if that makes a huge difference or not.”