Recruiting is college football's lifeblood.
Excuse the cliché. There just isn't a more succinct way to describe it. From now until robots or androids become the gladiators of choice, college football will be defined by the ability acquire and cultivate talent: Every national title game participant since 2002 featured at least one five-star prospect on its roster.
Development, the labor of transforming talent to production, is what closes the gap between those with recruiting riches and those without. It can also serve as a wedge that separates powerhouses from everyone else.
As we approach the 2019 NFL Draft, there isn't a better time to reexamine the development process. 247Sports' annual list of 32 five-star recruits mirrors the first round of the NFL Draft, making the Top247 an ideal place to start. Top247 players are considered the can't-miss members of their class, talents that will translate to the NFL if refined under the right circumstances – health, a good work ethic, character and high-level coaching.
247Sports examined the first five years of Top247 data in order to determine how top programs nationally have developed four and five-star players. Those classes, 2010-14, span a full spectrum of eligibility across a five-year period. There are some holdouts from the 2014 class (fifth-year seniors). For the most part, however, the 1,235 prospects have exhausted their eligibility or filtered out of college football.
To fairly access a successful development, 247Sports created a "Development Rating." It’s a measure that takes into account the total number of Top247 prospects a program had along with where/if those players were drafted (3 points for 1st rounders, 2 points for 2nd-3rd, 1 for 4th-7th), dividing the total number of prospects by the point total to create the rating. This removes any advantage created by a program's ability to recruit an overwhelming number of Top247 players. It also rewards programs that produce more first- and second-day picks. The NFL often will draft late-round fliers on talent alone – think Kahlil McKenzie in the sixth round last year.
To more accurately represent how a program develops players, 247Sports removed four categories of prospects from the data: 1. Players who were dismissed. 2. Players who didn't qualify. 3. Players who medically retired. 4. Players who transferred after two or fewer seasons on campus. If a player stayed three years and transferred, they count against a team's ‘not drafted’ tab. If a player transferred and was drafted elsewhere, they count for the team to which they transferred.
Lastly, Top247 players don't fully speak to a program's ability to develop. The more impressive examples are often when teams find undervalued talent and shape it into NFL potential. That's why schools like TCU, Wisconsin and Boise State have found outsized success since 2000. Yet, as we annually salivate over four and five-star prospects, this study is meant to spotlight the programs that do the most with those players.
It should come as no surprise some of the most successful teams of this decade sit near the top of this list.
A Clear Top Four
Seven of the nine available national championships since 2010 have been claimed by teams within the top four of 247Sports' Development Rating. Alabama, which DOMINATES five-star development , sits at No. 2, while Clemson and Ohio State follow at third and fourth.
The first team in the rankings might come as a bit of a surprise: Florida!
It hasn't necessarily translated to championships since Urban Meyer departed Gainesville. But the Gators put players in the league. Of the 37 prospects who qualified for the data set, 20 of them were drafted. It's quality that separates Florida – albeit by the slimmest margins – from everyone else. Seven of those 31 players were drafted within the first round, while six others went on Day 2.
Alabama is a victim of its own recruiting success in some ways. The Tide had 60 players qualify for this data, which is 16 more than any other program – the more players you have, the less likely they'll all pan out. Alabama's 10 first-round picks and 12 Day 2 picks top everyone else. Its development rating of 1.07 is a hair behind Florida's at 1.08. The formula for Alabama's success is clear when you combine the way the Tide recruit (eight of nine recruiting classes have finished No. 1 overall) with that sort of development. Alabama recruits the nation's best and largely keeps them that way.
Clemson's been an Alabama foil over the last half decade, and no program with 10-plus Top247 players had a higher NFL hit rate than the Tigers. Eleven of Clemson's 18 Top247 players between 2010-14 were drafted, including a trio of first rounders. Clemson recruits in a more surgical fashion than other programs – generally smaller classes and fewer transfers – but it develops prospects as well as anyone. That will be evident Thursday as a trio of Clemson defensive linemen are projected to go in the first round.
Ohio State rounds out the top four with a 1.05 Development Rating. Meyer turned the Buckeyes into a recruiting juggernaut, and many of those players went early in the NFL Draft. The Buckeyes had seven first-round picks from its 42-player pool to go along with eight Day 2 prospects.
What does this data tell us? The best teams in the country put players in the league at the highest rate. That seems obvious, but it shows why there’s such a clear divide between college football’s upper crust the last half decade (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State) and everyone else.
While Florida might not have a national championship to show for it – that program had some messy turns of coaching instability that the other three do not – there's a reason Dan Mullen found a way to turn the program around so quickly in Year 1. The talent never really went anywhere. Well, except to the league.
The "That Explains A Lot" Programs
On the other end of the spectrum is Texas.
This will not come as a surprise if you’ve watched the Longhorns for most of the decade, but this study illustrates just how dismal the program's recruiting hit rate was. Just four of Texas’ qualifying 38 Top247 players turned into NFL Draft selections. That 10 percent ratio is the only sub-20 percent rate of the 29 programs to sign 10-plus Top247 prospects. Texas' Development Rate of .18 is by far the lowest of any program to sign a Top 10 class within that stretch.
The Longhorns' fortunes are changing in that regard under Tom Herman – Texas should have at least one former Top247 draftee this draft cycle. Yet it's clear what caused the Longhorns to struggle in the latter portion of Mack Brown's tenure and in Charlie Strong's. The team didn't turn talent into production. Even the richest and most storied programs can fall off without proper development.
Virginia (.25) and Cal (.26) carry the next lowest rate among teams that signed 10-plus Top247 players, while Oregon, Arkansas and Virginia Tech checked in with a rate of .5 or lower. All three programs had their moments this decade, especially Oregon, but each also experienced lows to a different degree.
Five other programs have a Development Rating of .6 or lower: Michigan, Penn State, South Carolina, Auburn, USC and Tennessee. The decline of South Carolina (Steve Spurrier's abrupt retirement) and Penn State (the Jerry Sandusky scandal) are easy to figure out. The Nittany Lions are a true aberration, as we saw six Nittany Lions selected during last season’s NFL Draft. But Michigan, Auburn, USC and Tennessee are notable cases of squandered talent. The quartet had a combined 134 Top247 players qualify for this study; eight of them turned into first-round NFL Draft picks.
Michigan's Top247 players during this era only became NFL Draft picks at a 26 percent rate. Auburn, which had as many Top247 qualifying players as Florida, produced just one first-rounder. USC had a reasonably high draft percentage (38), but eight of those 14 prospects were drafted on Day 3. Tennessee saw only 32 percent of its players drafted.
Those four programs had flashes of contention the last few years. Yet their developmental success rate is telling in terms of why none of them have managed to maintain.
The Middle Tier
Switching back toward the top, LSU is an unsurprising member of the top 6, checking in with a .89 Development Rating. The Tigers turned 50 percent of their 44 qualified players into NFL Draft picks, including 12 Day 1 or 2 prospects.
Somewhat surprising is the No. 5 team, Miami, which holds a .91 Development Rating. The Hurricanes have largely struggled throughout the decade, but talent can shine through regardless. Miami managed to produce a pair of first rounders and a 13 of 22 hit rate in terms of draftees. It is somewhat telling the majority of them (8) went on Day 3.
From there the order is scattered: Ole Miss (.89), Florida State (.89), Texas A&M (.85), Notre Dame (.84), Washington (.83), Georgia (.79), Stanford (.79), UCLA (.77), Oklahoma (.66) and North Carolina (.64).
Those teams have their moments, but all of them (perhaps with the exception of Oklahoma) had severe swoons in play. The teams best protected against that like Florida State, Georgia and Notre Dame had the recruiting base – 30-plus Top247 players – to endure some busts. Even then, each experienced at least one season with eight or fewer wins within the last three years. In the Sooners' case, landing a pair of transcendent transfer quarterbacks (and a potentially a coach) can make up for a lot.
Even considering those outside factors, the differences between schools like North Carolina (36.4 percent of 11 Top247 prospects drafted) and Florida State (50 percent of 36 Top247 players drafted) are clear. There's a reason the Seminoles have six 10-win seasons this decade while the Tar Heels claim just one.
Some Other Notable Programs
Nobody had higher drafted hit rate than Louisville (71.4%), which produced five draft picks in seven opportunities. Interestingly, three of those five drafted players came to Louisville as transfers for career revitalization.
Not too far behind was Michigan State at 62.5 percent with five of eight players drafted. Four of those five players were drafted in the fourth round or earlier, and all the qualified players were initially recruited by the Spartans.
On the opposite end of development is Nebraska. The Huskers had nine qualified Top247 players between 2010-14, none of which were drafted. Nebraska is the only team with five-plus Top247 players period not to produce a single draft pick.
Other schools with five-plus qualified Top247 players with just one draft pick include: Maryland, Rutgers and Mississippi State.
This is far from all-encompassing data set.
Development expands beyond the reach of Top247 players. Wisconsin produced 12 non-Top247 draft picks between the 2010-14 classes (along with a pair of Top247 draftees). TCU had 12 as well. Boise State and Iowa developed nine such players each. Not to say non-Top247 development is singularly the realm of those schools that mine undervalued talent — Alabama produced six draft picks that rated as a three-star prospect or worse in high school during that same time period. LSU had 11 such players turn into draft picks.
Yet for the programs that pitch highly-recruited prospects on their ability to put players into the NFL, these numbers are critical. This data shows which schools and coaching staffs best develop blue-chip talent.
Keep that in mind as you look toward the 2019 NFL Draft. More likely than not, Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama will dominate the first round. Top247 prospects flock to those programs for a reason.
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