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Penn State Takes Bold Moves In Recruiting

As all of you are aware by now, Penn State landed verbal commitments from defensive tackles Derek Dowrey and Austin Johnson. Normally this would be a cause for celebration, but instead their commitments sparked a major debate that has been raging in the blogs and the message board for days.

Here at BSD I have tried to encourage a measured approach when it comes to recruiting. We don't report on what potential recruits say and where they visit on a daily basis. When a kid commits to Penn State we'll report it. But we generally try not to get too excited, or too upset, about it. We give you the kid's vital signs, post a YouTube video if we can find one, and from there we let the cards fall where they may. We don't tell you the kid is going to be a star, and we don't tell you he's a failure before he steps on campus. We prefer to see what a kid can do on the field before we make up our mind on him.

But some people aren't like that. They rush to judgment. It's what we do in an internet society. We get together and share opinions on blogs and message boards and twitter, so in order to share an opinion we must first form one. But when it comes to recruiting, we seldom have a lot of information to go on. An alleged offer sheet. Some quotes from an article or two. A fake forty time. Maybe a three minute highlight reel. And of course, the good old subjective star system of the recruiting services.

When he saw Misters Dowrey and Johnson being bashed over the weekend, our own Mr. Collyer felt led to balance the coverage a bit and call people to temper their tones. Collyer didn't go out on a limb and say Dowrey and Johnson will be future All Americans, but he did lay out a logical case that these kids should not be considered "Plan B kids".

This, of course, led to many of the BSD critics to trot out the usual criticisms of our views. Namely, that we're a bunch of Kool Aid drinking group-thinkers incapable of criticizing the program. But most of that was secluded to twitter discussions.



Over at Linebacker-U, our good friend Junny took a stab at Collyer's piece. I'm not sure why he feels the need to respond to BSD every time we mention recruiting, but every time we preach a calm attitude over here, he has to jump in with "STARS DAMMIT STARS."

That's fine, and that's his perspective. I've acknowledged that there is a correlation between stars and performance, and a kid that gets a lot of stars from a recruiting service is probably likely to be a good player. I say this because the recruiting services have a vested interest in getting it right. If they are wrong too often, people will stop subscribing to them. This is why they only rank the top 200 players or so as they see it. They can't possibly rank and evaluate every kid in the country. There are kids they overrate, and kids they underrate, and kids they don't rate at all. This is precisely why I don't get too excited or bent out of shape over stars.

If Junny had left it at STARZ MATTER, I wouldn't bother responding. We've had that argument a dozen times and he's free to believe in stars as a reliable forecast for the performance of a player if he wants to. But he inserted a lot of misrepresentations and straw man arguments into his post that don't represent my position or the point Mr. Collyer was trying to make. Plus some of his arguments are way off. So I feel like we need to clear some things up.

Let's start with this.

These two players seem to be exactly the type of players that Penn State could have waited on while attempting to fill their roster with the higher ranked players on their board.

By whose estimation are these the types of players Penn State could have waited on? Johnson had offers from Boston College, Syracuse, and Rutgers. Dowrey was named the Northern Virginia Defensive Player of the Year after recording 145 tackles and 10.5 sacks as a junior. Think about that a moment: 145 tackles from a defensive tackle. His sin is he played for a Class AA school and didn't get recognized by the big programs or the recruiting services. His coach either didn't know how or didn't care to market him to anyone.

Junny tries to catch Collyer in a contradiction here by pointing out that Collyer admits these kids would be considered Plan B kids if they were offered in January. In Junny's estimation, if they're Plan B kids in January, they must be Plan B kids in June.

Adam’s point, and the one that most people take when Penn State gains a commitment from a relative unknown, centers around the trust put into the staff to make the right decision, regardless of which page of the calendar is showing.

The coaches saw kids who could play, thought they fit the system, and moved them up on their board after spending several days observing them.

This might be true, but you cannot overlook the fact that these kids, by and large, are the type of kids that Adam discusses in the paragraph just above this quote.

Had these offers been given in January after Penn State had missed on several prospects, it would be logical to argue that we were filling out the class by taking fliers on virtual unknowns.  We’ve done that before and we’ll probably do it again.  So goes the recruiting business.



This is exactly what Collyer is NOT saying. By the fact that they are not offered late in the process, and are instead offered now when there is no pressing need to fill the roster or be forced to play a walk on, these don't have the appearance of Plan B offers.

What bugs me about the star gazers like Junny is they have a complete lack of understanding when it comes to human nature. To them, recruiting is just a meat market. You don't buy the ground beef. You walk past it and go down the aisle to where the New York strip steaks are sold. If they're sold out of New York strips, you come back down the aisle a bit and buy a rib eye or delmonico, but you should never consider ground beef as your first option.

If only recruiting were this simple. The flaw in this logic is that the piece of meat gets a say in whether or not he jumps into your grocery cart. You don't just pick him up and put him next to the milk and eggs. He has to willingly jump off of the shelf and into your cart on his own accord. It's not a one way proposition. You can try to talk the steak into jumping on board, but the coaches have a little deadline we like to call "signing day". The store closes on the first Wednesday in February. If the steak's not in the cart by then, you're eating ground beef tacos for dinner.

The truth of the matter is that Penn State got two new commitments on Saturday, two spots that can't be taken up by other players that may have been higher on the actual recruiting board.

What is the "truth of the matter" again? Is it that Penn State got two commitments on Saturday? If so, I can't argue with that, though now I see how lawyers stretch a three page legal brief into 30 pages. Or was the truth of the matter that Penn State "may have" filled up two spots on their roster thus closing the door on "players that may have (Ed. - or may not have) been higher on the actual recruiting board".  Therefore, the "truth of the matter" is that something may or may not have happened. That's one air-tight argument. I guess I can't argue with that either.

Who are we to say these kids aren't as good or better than some of the players Larry Johnson has been pursuing for months? On what basis? Because Rivals never heard of him? Virginia Tech didn't want him? Has anyone seen Larry Johnson's recruiting board? Did he leave it laying around somewhere? Is it possible that after Johnson saw these kids perform in camp he reshuffled his recruiting board? Not saying it happened, but is it possible?

The fact of the matter is that these kids don't fit on Junny's recruiting board. But they wanted a Penn State offer badly. They came up to State College this weekend and worked out for the coaches. Larry Johnson had a chance to evaluate them first hand, Joe Paterno blessed it, and offers were extended. To my knowledge, Johnson didn't consult with Rivals or Scout. He didn't call Alabama and Michigan to see what they think. He didn't post a poll on Linebacker-U. He made his own decision based on his own experience, which leads me to this.

Pro-staff proponents will say that Larry Johnson has a proven track record of producing quality talent, and they're right. But what they don't realize is that Larry Johnson has a proven track record of producing talent that came in highly rated.


So while it may be true that Johnson is a great molder of talent, I wouldn't go as far as saying that he is creating these star players out of thin air. The defensive line prospects of late are highly ranked when they get to Penn State, an advantage for any coach.

Then Junny makes a nice table showing all of the stars the current roster and Johnson's former NFL draft picks had bestowed upon them by the recruiting services. Again, it always comes back to "stars matter".

Interestingly though, Junny leaves off Ollie Ogbu, a two star prospect that started nearly 40 games for Penn State. A lot of three and four star players watched him play from the bench. Or they flipped over to offense. Or they left the team. Junny also leaves off Tom McEowen, a four-star prospect that never did anything. He also didn't say anything about Ed Johnson who had no stars coming out of high school. He didn't get drafted due to his character issues, but he signed with the Colts as an undrafted free agent and started 16 games for them in his rookie year. I guess stars didn't matter with him.

Isn't it interesting how Junny flips the tables? In the earlier part of his argument, it's up to the coaches to get the best talent available and not settle for lesser talent this early in the process. Now, suddenly, high end talent is just falling into Johnson's lap out of the sky? Why, a buffoon could coach these kids to a first round draft pick!

Obviously, you can't have it both ways. Yes, the players that Larry Johnson recruits generally have nice rankings. But again, he's not consulting Scout or Rivals for their approval. He evaluates them on his own. In a sense, he is producing them out of thin air. He finds them. He gets to know them and their coach. He evaluates them on their size, explosiveness, character, and technique. He obviously knows what he's looking for, and I don't think he gives a damn what the recruiting services, message boards, or blogs think. It's not like he wakes up in the morning and checks out the latest Rivals 100 rankings to determine who he's going to recruit today.

It's awfully pretentious to say that after getting to know a kid, watching his film, and spending a weekend watching him perform individually against other talent that Larry Johnson doesn't know what he's doing. His track record clearly speaks otherwise, and while I don't say we should blindly believe the coaches will get it right every time, I'm not going to say they got it wrong when it comes to evaluating a high school kid before I see the end results. When someone like Larry Johnson has a track record of evaluating and developing talent, he's going to get the benefit of the doubt from me.

But yet people doubt away. And why? Because a kid doesn't have enough stars. Alabama never heard of him. Rivals doesn't have any articles about him.

Then, in classical debate fashion, Junny sets up a straw man argument to discredit the other side.

We trust the staff in June of a recruiting year while later criticizing the staff for their play-calling and decision making in November. Fans are quick to jump to the defense of an unknown commitment now but also can't stand a six-loss season. I know those causes and effects aren't exactly comparable, but the point is that sometimes trust in the staff can be unwarranted. And that is when doubt rears its ugly head and people start heading for the ledges.

Well, sometimes distrust can be unwarranted. Junny tries to trap the "pro-staff proponents" into a contradiction by pointing out how they blindly believe in the staff when it comes to recruiting yet criticize the staff after a 7-6 season. But this is apples and oranges. In one case, we criticize what happened in the past. A 7-6 season can be quantified. It's not good. When a fourth down play doesn't work, we can pick out why. But nobody can look at a recruit and accurately predict with 99% certainty how their career will play out. As fans, we know nothing about these kids other than reading a few articles and maybe watching a video. Oh, and stars. So while we may criticize the coaches for decisions they make in the course of arriving at a six-loss season, we're at least humble enough to recognize we can't read the future to tell how well an 18-year old young man can play football sight unseen.

I've said before that I'm not an anti-stars guy. They're just information to me. Subjective, flawed information that can be taken into advisement, but they should not be used to discard kids as not being worthy of playing for Penn State. And they should not be used to accuse the coaching staff of not doing their job in reference to a single kid.

To the people who love the star rankings, great. Good for you. I, like a lot of rational people, like to wait and see how a player's career unfolds before I judge him and the coaches who recruited him. If you want to put your faith in a star system that gets it pretty close 75% of the time, awesome. I'm not going to take that away from you. Just don't point fingers at those of us who refuse to take part in your speculation scheme and accuse us of irrationally putting our faith where you feel it doesn't belong. We simply choose to sit back and watch the events unfold. Win or lose, we nod our head and say, "That's nice." Maybe that drives the "realists" crazy, but I'm kind of proud of the fact that BSD is a place where fans can just discuss recruiting and events without getting too worked up about it.

Also, don't point fingers at the coaches who have dedicated their lives to evaluating and developing talent if you have never played a day of organized football past high school in your life. Larry Johnson should be praised for being bold enough to go out into the rough and flipping over rocks to look for the best talent he can find and taking chances on kids he believes in instead of listening to message boards and twitter while recruiting from his laptop with a $9.95 monthly subscription.