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They Come To State College With Stars In Their Eyes, But How Do They Leave?

Whether you like it or not, the college football scouting industry is here to stay, and will only continue to grow as the sport we love skyrockets in popularity. What started as a couple of fringe companies has expanded into at least four mainstream media outlets, each of which cover more than just high school football. In addition, there are dozens of smaller providers of quality recruiting content. But it doesn't stop there. They provide further coverage of the particular school (see for example the great weekly segment at Lions247 "Upon Further Review"). The bread and butter, though, remains the scouting, reviewing and ranking of collegiate-bound athletes.

The star debate has been covered almost ad nauseum on this, and countless other, websites. We debate the merits of the services against each other. We decide whether certain players are truly deserving of such high or low ranks. We go so far as to suggest there are ulterior motives behind these services. Primarily, we debate whether a school's success can be attributed to the "stars" they recruit.

Between 2002 and 2009, 158 players have signed letters of intent to play football at Penn State. Some never got here for a variety of reasons; some leave quickly, opting for a different course; and some come to play and end up legends. Over those eight years, Penn State has seen varied levels of success and failure, ranging from the deepest lows to the highest highs.

Arguments can be made that Penn State's level of success has been directly attributed to the recruiting efforts put forth by the staff. A higher average star ranking per class correlates with a higher winning percentage, that much is true. Whether or not there is a direct correlation remains the subject of debate, but once the players are on campus, the star debate tends to die down. At that point, coaching and natural maturation take over.

With that in mind, I asked three of our staff members to put time and thought into a project that might help answer some questions that loom over the star debate. The common rebuttal to those who put moderate weight into star rankings is that the coaches are selecting the best players, and that we should trust the coaches. And there is a good deal of truth in that statement, but I wanted to see the star rankings of these athletes on their way out to see if these kids really were being coached up to a higher level. What we found was pretty telling; the results and some methodology explanations after the jump.

When defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Derek Dowrey committed to the Penn State Class of 2012 in late June, many fans questioned the commitments, myself included. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I will never say a bad word about a current commit; they are set to be member's of the great Penn State football family, and that is something to be proud of. But the offers and commitments of two two-star or less players had many scratching their heads. Certainly there were better players out there.

The Experiment

On the flip side, other fans were excited, because they knew defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Sr. would coach these players up to a level heretofore unseen. And it is this flip side that we seek to test today. We listed all 158 commitments from 2002 to 2009 and their corresponding star data. The three analysts, who range across the pro-staff, pro-star spectrum, then assessed what they felt was a fair "Stars Out" ranking. Sure Derrick Williams was the best player in the country coming into the class of 2005...but how many stars did he have when he graduated? (Five.) To account for bias, the Stars Out rankings were averaged, and then examined against their "Stars In" ranking given by Scout. What we found may surprise you.

The Results

Of the 158 commits, 111 of them had a star deviance of less than two stars (68 of which deviated less than 1 star). These players weren't further analyzed; a three-star recruit that left a four-star player doesn't fall into this experiment because that minor deviation during the athlete's tenure doesn't affect the results, at least not enough to make generalizations.

Rather, the data remaining were analyzed - 47 players who came to Penn State with a certain star ranking and left with at least two stars higher or lower. Some quick notes before we get to the raw resutls:

  • Anyone who signed an LOI was included. As such, players like Darrell Givens and Tom Ricketts, neither of whom ever played a snap for Penn State, were given Stars Out rankings of 1.
  • Though it only happened a handful of times, some of the players were given a 0 by Scout. I believe Scout has since adopted a two-star minimum policy, but the Stars In ranking is reflective of the stars of the recruit at the time of the LOI.
  • The analysts still assessed the 2009 recruits, despite some of them just now seeing the playing field for the first time. They still have a chance to turn around their issues (Eric Shrive) or improve on their as-of-yet solid showing (Justin Brown).
  • Finally, the Stars Out were based on a five-star sliding scale, relative to the amount of individual success experienced during that player's tenure (though team success was also a factor). The rough outline used looks something like this: 1 - never contributed, washout; 2 - minimal contribution, career backup; 3 - solid playing time, minimal amount of individual success, sometime starter; 4 - multi-year contributor/starter, watchlists/honorable mentions; 5 - multi-year starter, team leader, regular figure in awards season.

Of the 47 players that remained in the experiment pool, the negative deviations outnumbered the positive deviations 2:1. 31 players came to Penn State with rankings between 3- and 5-stars, and left at least two whole stars less. Three players went from five to one (Chris Bell, Antonio Logan-El, and Greg Harrison), while one went from five to two and nine more went from four to one.

Stars In Analyst A Analyst B Analyst C AvgStar Diff
Greg Harrison 5 1 1 1 1 -4
Antonio Logan-El 5 1 1 1 1 -4
Chris Bell 5 1 1 1 1 -4
Eric Shrive 5 2 1 1 1.3 -3.7
Brian Borgoyn 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Jim Kanuch 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Mark Farris 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Joel Holler 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Jon Ditto 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Josh Marks 4 1 1 1 1 -3
J.B. Walton 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Mark Wedderburn 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Darrell Givens 4 1 1 1 1 -3
Curtis Dukes 4 2 1 1 1.3 -2.7
Josh Hannum 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Lee Lispi 3 1 1 1 1 -2
J.R. Zwierzynski 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Jonathan Jackson 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Dan Mazan 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Austin Scott 4 2 1 3 2 -2
Anthony Morelli 5 3 3 3 3 -2
Trent Varva 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Wyatt Bowman 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Pat Devlin 4 2 2 2 2 -2
Travis McBride 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Tom McEowen 4 2 2 2 2 -2
Andrew Szczerba 4 2 2 2 2 -2
A.J. Price 3 1 1 1 1 -2
Mike Yancich 4 2 2 2 2 -2
Kevin Newsome 4 2 2 2 2 -2
Mark Arcidiacono 4 2 2 2 2 -2

On the flip side, 16 players improved by more than two stars, playing well beyond their targeted potential. Jordan Norwood is the clear leader of this group, coming to Happy Valley with a goose egg in the stars column and leaving a five-star wide receiver.

Stars In Analyst A Analyst B Analyst C AvgStar Diff
Jordan Norwood 0 5 5 5 5 5
Ed Johnson 0 3 3 4 3.3 3.3
Daryll Clark 2 5 5 5 5 3
Anthony Scirrotto 2 4 5 5 4.7 2.7
Kevin Kelly 2 4 5 5 4.7 2.7
Ollie Ogbu 2 4 5 4 4.3 2.3
Jay Alford 3 5 5 5 5 2
Tim Shaw 2 4 4 4 4 2
Patrick Hall 0 2 1 3 2 2
Amani Purcell 0 2 1 3 2 2
Gerald Cadogan 3 5 5 5 5 2
Mickey Shuler 2 3 5 4 4 2
Sean Lee 3 5 5 5 5 2
Dennis Landolt 3 5 5 5 5 2
Evan Royster 3 5 5 5 5 2
Joe Suhey 2 3 5 4 4 2

I'm sure some will disagree with the rankings, but that's why we had three sets of eyes on the data. And of course, we can explain away some of the bad rankings and debate some of the good ones. But the analysts were pretty consistent across ranks, with a deviance among analysts exceeding two stars (e.g., Analyst A awarded five Stars Out while Analyst B awarded three Stars Out) occurring only eight times in 158 reviews. So what can we conclude?

Well, for one, it's that the staff isn't the be-all-end-all of talent assessment as some would have you believe. Like the recruiting services, sometimes (well, if you agree with the assessments above, many time), the staff simply misses on a recruit. Other times, the staff finds a way to turn a lower rated prospect into a star. Of the commits in this experiment, 31/158 came in with two or less stars, and only 8, or about 25%, left with four or more stars. Conversely, 60/158 recruits came in with four or more stars, and only one-third of them left with four or more stars (12 of them left with one star). Finally, if you look at the players that left with four or more stars coming in, they were more likely to come from the pool of players that came in with four or more stars. Those that "exited" successfully were more likely to "enter" successfully.

So when the commitments of Dowrey and Johnson were announced a few months ago, many fans were confused and upset about the timing of the offers. Nothing against the kids, but they were probably offers that could have waited. Could the staff have held out for a player with a higher star ranking? Or did they decide to try their hand once again at the "diamond in the rough" tactic? Seeing as how we'll never know, all we can do is continue to discuss the players that choose to play for Penn State. Most, if not all, fans will root for these players once they are Penn Staters. Unfortunately, not every camp offer or diamond in the rough is going to turn out to be a Daryll Clark or Jordan Norwood. Likewise, and at a surprisingly high rate, many of the highly ranked recruits will end up like Anthony Morelli - not living up to their true potential.

What's the answer, then? As with the current team's troubles, the answer lays with better coaching and recruiting. A stronger front including a full effort by all the coaches begets better players, and better coaching produces better efficiency from those players. There is no definite answer; success is a mixture of recruiting talent (stars in) and coaching (stars out). Penn State simply needs a better dose of both.