Not since the first Twilight book hit the shelves have so many adults paid so close attention to the actions of teenagers. However, that is what happens in the months, weeks, and days leading up to National Signing Day – February 4, 2009 – the high school to college version of the NFL draft.
I have to admit that I follow it as well. I am somewhat embarrassed that in recent years, NSD’s blip on my radar screen is much more prominent. It is simply because teams that have coaching staffs that recruit well, year in and year out, are on top of the conference and the nation. It is not all about recruiting to scheme. You have to recruit playmakers that can make a difference against your primary competition (conference opponents) and that stack up well nationally.
Consistently successful college football teams do many things to be successful and two of those things relate to NSD. One, the coaching staff actually possesses the ability to “coach up” guys with raw talent and turns it into viable playing skill. Second, coaching staffs recruit major, hyped up, five-star, ESPN-special-in-the-making talent to go along with the other solid players on the team.
Take Oklahoma for instance. It has been a long time since Oklahoma was bad. It has been a long time since Oklahoma was even mediocre. Why? Well, because year in and year out the coaches recruit major talent to fit their schemes and at times, they adjust the scheme to fit the major talent. Example: Adrian Peterson. Not exactly a running back built for the “spread” offense (though one could argue his talent transcends the scheme in many ways). So, the years AP was in the backfield we saw a lot more traditional running formations. When he jumped to the NFL, plug in some more wide receivers, running backs more suited to the wide-open offense, and a quarterback with bull’s-eye accuracy and it is back to the spread attack. Oklahoma has routinely finished in the top groupings of the Big 12 conference and the nation.
Recruiting big time talent assures only a few things. First, it gives a coaching staff playmakers on the field. The players are the proverbial human chess pieces of the game. Just like in chess, you need a couple knights, a bishop able to cut and run, and at least one big time threat you can hide and use at the most opportune time. You also need pawns. Every team needs guys who serve the purpose of setting up opportunities for the other players.
Look at Florida. The once-in-a-generation talent they have at the trigger in Tim Tebow may go down as the most hyped high school athlete to hit the SEC ever. And he has lived up to every single bit of it.
Freshman year: used as a change-up to the pocket-passing game of Chris Leak. Kept opposing teams off-balance (except for Auburn for some reason) all season and provided a spark at times. End result: National Championship.
Sophomore year: Attrition hits the Gators hard. Playmakers on offense are young, inexperienced, and, unlike Tebow, aren’t quite ready to shoulder the load. So, Tebow carries the ball, throws the ball, probably maintained air in the ball on the sidelines in between leading and coaching his teammates. End result: First Sophomore to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
Junior year (so far): Young playmakers have matured, help take some load off of Tebow. He now can work on making adjustments in reads and in perfecting his deep throws. Many (including me earlier in the season) question if he has the accuracy and strength to get the ball deep down the field in crucial situations against top-tier defenses. End result (so far): Tebow leads the Gators past a very good Alabama team in the SEC Championship Game making some incredible plays with his arm down the field.
Michael Crabtree is another one of those dynamic recruits who landed in a place previously famous for Buddy Holly (not the Weezer song, the rock and roll icon). He was one of those recruits labeled as “athlete” when he was in the recruiting mix. All the “athlete” tag usually means is this guy played QB in high school because he was by far the superior athlete on the field. He may not project at QB in college, but get the ball in his hands. And get the ball to Michael Crabtree has rolled up some major wins for Texas Tech the past couple of years.
Big time talent brings more than playmaking ability to a team though. These players bring exposure. News coverage. Talk. Blogs. Message board posts. In the modern era of college football, exposure means votes in the polls, games on television, and a better than average chance to get your team over to fans who otherwise might not even know where the town of the college is much less pull for the team. (See Crabtree above.)
Does this whole recruiting thing go over the line at times? Sure. Some of the announced press conferences for players are equivalent to the local garage band hosting a listening party when their CD drops. It sounds cool to do, but there has to be some credibility to the announcement. Otherwise, it is just overhype. Guys like Julio Jones, Tim Tebow, Michael Crabtree are the kind of athletes that deserve the attention. The 3-star RB from Azusa, California may need to wait until he proves his skills belong on the next level. Fair or not, that is how the world works. Superstars get the attention; grinders pave the way. You cannot have one without the other.
And it is damn near impossible to keep up with “your” team and its relevance in the modern era of college football if you are not dialed in to who is committing where on National Signing Day.