Who’s the best player in high-school football? Bobby Burton, the publisher of Rivals.com, a forensic report on the best high-school players in the country, says he’s got it narrowed to three candidates. Californian Matt Barkley, Rivals’ current No. 1 player and a future USC Trojan, is your standard-issue star quarterback: good size, good mobility, great arm strength, blond hair, million-dollar smile. Rueben Randle, a Louisiana wide receiver prospect, is such a great athlete that he’s led his team to the top of the state rankings while playing out of position at quarterback. The final contender: LSU-bound quarterback Russell Shepard. The day he arrives on campus, Burton says, he’ll be the best running quarterback in college.
Burton and his small staff narrowed in on these three fellows after scrutinizing thousands of players in all 50 states. This is an incredible undertaking. Imagine having to determine the country’s three best high-school cellists or the top three trig students. Stop a moment and consider the differences in high-school facilities in your own district, much less districts around the nation. How do you compare a guy who plays six-man football in Texas with someone who attends a 4,000-student mega-school in California or assess whether a player who runs the wing-T offense is better than a kid who plays in the spread?
Despite these obstacles, Rivals.com and its competitors—Scout.com, ESPN’s Scouts Inc., Tom Lemming of CBS College Sports—are eerily good at sussing out which high-school athletes will excel in college. Since Burton started anointing the No. 1 high-school football player in the country in 1994, he’s botched the pick only once—and Ronald Curry, a schoolboy basketball and football legend who never amounted to much as a college athlete, did eventually become a passable NFL receiver. (OK, maybe Burton’s botched it twice: The jury’s still out on Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen.) Every other player Burton has touted—in order, that’s Peyton Manning, Kevin Faulk, Tim Couch, Andre Carter, Curry, Chris Simms, D.J. Williams, Kevin Jones, Vince Young, Ernie Sims, Adrian Peterson, Derrick Williams, Percy Harvin, Clausen, and Terrelle Pryor—developed into one of the nation’s very best college players. All of them except the last four, who are still plying their trade in the NCAA, have also enjoyed substantive NFL careers.
Burton’s feat is more impressive when you compare his talent evaluation with those of the NFL pros. NFL teams have multimillion-dollar budgets; years of game tape to scrutinize; and a much smaller, much more thoroughly vetted pool of players to sift through. And yet, in the last 15 years, pro football franchises have repeatedly fumbled the top selection in the NFL Draft, spending millions on duds like Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, Courtney Brown, David Carr, and Alex Smith. (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Michael Vick should be considered a bust.)
So what’s Rivals’ secret to divining football stardom? Burton claims it’s easy to spot high-school talent if you’re looking for it; he says it took him all of a couple of seconds to know that star running back Adrian Peterson, now with the Minnesota Vikings, would be his top guy—even in high school, he “looked like Adrian Peterson.” The talents of Percy Harvin, now starring at receiver for the University of Florida, were similarly apparent to the naked eye; as a junior, Harvin piled up 476 all-purpose yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions in the Virginia state championship game. Though Burton has a strong track record, he doesn’t have a special gift for finding exemplary players; Scout.com and others were similarly agog over Peterson and Harvin. The question, then, isn’t why Rivals is so good but why high-school scouts are better in general.
In many ways, they have an easier job than their pro counterparts. To understand why, think of football as a pyramid. At the bottom is Pop Warner, where the vast majority of players aren’t particularly gifted—as such, the biggest, fastest, and strongest kids dominate everybody else. The competition gets a little better in high school, but the best athletes—again, the kids who are biggest, fastest, and strongest—can still physically dominate the slow and the weak. In college, the pyramid narrows yet again. Although the competition is much stiffer than in high school, the No. 1 players—scary-good physical talents like Vince Young, Percy Harvin, and Reggie Bush (Rivals’ No. 2 player in 2003)—are still a cut above the competition. As if those natural gifts aren’t enough, these best-of-the-best recruits go to the top collegiate programs, where they’re surrounded by the best teammates and their skills are honed in the best facilities by the best coaches.
Now consider the plight of the top NFL Draft pick. He’s likely going to one of the worst teams in the league, and he can no longer count on having a physical advantage over his opponents. Vince Young, drafted third by the Titans in 2006, could outrun every college linebacker—in the NFL, not so much. Moreover, the NFL draftee has to deal with sophisticated schemes that mitigate the influence of individual players. Football is also a brutal game, and the more you play, the more your body will betray you. Ki-Jana Carter, a star running back at Penn State, had oodles of talent, but he became known as an NFL bust after turning into “the human MRI machine.”
Tom Luginbill, the national recruiting director for ESPN’s Scouts Inc., says that his group’s high-school rankings are (for the most part) a measure of pure athletic ability. That’s not how scouting works in the NFL. The vast majority of pro football players are guys who weren’t high-school or college legends. In explaining that recruiting is often more art than science, Orlando Sentinel prep football writer Bill Buchalter cites the astounding number of Floridian NFL cornerbacks who never cracked the top 100 in the state’s high-school rankings—players like Drayton Florence of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who played his college ball at Tuskegee, and Packers safety Nick Collins (Bethune-Cookman). There are a couple of legitimate reasons for this: Cornerbacks are notoriously hard to evaluate because so many high-school teams prefer to run the ball, and there are so many great athletes in Florida that it’s easy to get overshadowed. But the best explanation is that there’s a bigger supply of great football players than there are spots on NFL rosters. With so many pro-level athletes fighting for so few spots, no ranking based purely on athletic ability—and apologies in advance for this deep descent into sports clichédom—can take into account the tiebreakers that ultimately determine success: a person’s work ethic, ability to seize opportunities, or desire to improve (or, I suppose, desire to cheat to get ahead).
In the last decade, as the Internet has spawned Rivals and its ilk, player evaluations have gotten more thorough and sophisticated. Web video has made it possible to scrutinize thousands of prospects, and a slew of camps, combines, and All-American games give scouts a chance to size up players side by side. (ESPN’s Scouts Inc., for one, now writes up the same kind of detailed dossiers on high-schoolers that it creates for NFL prospects.) The increased breadth of today’s recruiting services has doubtless been a boon to middle-of-the-road prospects; it’s possible that players like Drayton Florence and Nick Collins, while overlooked in comparison with some of their classmates, might never have been seen or promoted as potential college athletes in an earlier era. For the best of the best, however, more eyeballs simply mean more of the exact same superlatives. Rivals, Scout, and Lemming all named Terrelle Pryor—now starting at quarterback for Ohio State as a freshman—their No. 1 last season. The top guy isn’t as obvious this year, but everybody loves Barkley and Randle and Shepard.
The No. 1 ranking isn’t a free pass to the NFL. It’s easy to produce a long list of highly touted high-schoolers who never lived up to the hype whether due to injuries, knuckleheadery, or simply not being good enough at football; in recent years, that number includes Ron Powlus, Dan Kendra, Willie Williams, and (probably) Ryan Perrilloux. More often, though, the big men on campus in high school tend to stay that way in college. When the recruiting gurus do go wrong, though, it’s usually on a quarterback. Of course, the NFL guys have the same problem—for every Matt Ryan, there’s a David Carr. Again, blame the pyramid: It’s amazingly hard to play quarterback in college, and verging on impossible to pull off the feat in the NFL. While Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard are such great athletes that they’re pretty much guaranteed to succeed, someone like Matt Barkley will always be more dependent on his teammates—and perhaps on ethereal qualities that the recruiting gurus can’t measure: moxie and leadership and all that mumbo-jumbo. Anyway, it’s better that the recruiting gurus are occasionally human. If they were right all the time, how much fun would it be to watch the games?