Hot Reads: Hacking Recruiting
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: Hacking Recruiting

January 24, 2017

Progress comes slow to sports, and perhaps slowest of all to football. If football coaches are hesitant to embrace data-based decision-making on the field, then recruiting probably lags even behind that. It is a process that is closely followed by fans but little understood beyond the basic concept of evaluate hundreds of prospects, offer a couple hundred of those prospects, sign 20 to 25 of those prospects every year.

Change comes to recruiting when the NCAA changes the rules, and that’s about it. It’s not a very efficient process, but a group of Northwestern students are trying to change that with their company, Zcruit, which according to its website has “developed statistical solutions to help your program target the right players at the right time, ultimately improving your identification and decision making processes.”

Paul Myerberg of USA Today spoke with Ben Weiss, a Northwestern senior and one of the company’s co-creators, about how Zcruit could benefit coaching staffs:

By and large, FBS programs land roughly 10% of the student-athletes they recruit. “Most of that time is wasted chasing the wrong guys,” Weiss said. It can be a cruel cycle: A program misses on one group of players before chasing its second tier of prospects, many of whom have already been offered by a number of recruiting rivals.

Many programs simply provide a blanket of offers, extending scholarships to upwards of 25 players at a single position in hopes of landing just two or three on signing day. Instead, if a program was able to offer just six or seven prospects — and know that each one is gettable — it would allow for more time to devote to a single recruit; every second counts, especially when going head-to-head for a prospect’s signature.

It is an intriguing pitch, though football coaches typically aren’t very keen on giving up control. To use a service like this, and it’s the only service like this at the moment, would be to place a lot of faith in the company’s data-gathering and analysis. According to Myerberg’s story, three programs are using Zcruit right now, including Northwestern:

Zcruit worked alongside [Northwestern director of player personnel Chris] Bowers and the coaching staff during this current recruiting cycle, helping the Wildcats identify and evaluate a number of recruits at positions of need. With one week until national signing day, the algorithms created by Zcruit have predicated which recruits would not sign with Northwestern with 94% accuracy; the same algorithms predicted which recruits would sign with the Wildcats with 80% accuracy.

According to 247Sports’ database, Northwestern currently has 19 verbal commitments for the 2017 class and has offered 86 prospects scholarships to this point. Nebraska, just to use the local comparison, has 17 commits from 280 offers, though academic standards make that an uneven measuring stick. Northwestern’s pool of players is smaller from the start.

That said, Northwestern’s offer number still feels pretty precise when compared to some of its highly-selective, football-playing contemporaries: Stanford (which has a small class this cycle) has 12 commits from 61 offers, Duke has 21 commits from 198 offers and Vanderbilt has 15 commits from 249 offers.

Big Vince

Great read from Charlie Pierce — no surprise, that — for Sports Illustrated on former Husker Vincent Valentine’s rookie development in the football Death Star known as the New England Patriots:

Which is the point in our drama in which we introduce you to one Vincent Valentine, a massive rookie defensive tackle from Nebraska who’s spent his first season in the NFL doing what most rookies do in Foxborough—learning how much he didn’t know about playing defensive tackle. Day in and day out, through the grind of practice and frying his retinas in the film room, Valentine studied leverage and pad level and the thousand tiny jeweled movements that huge men need to make instinctive in themselves unless they want to be huge men working in their father-in-law’s feed store for the rest of their lives. He learned, a little at a time because, sooner or later, he was going to have to call on these things without thinking about them too much. And if Valentine, at 6′ 3″ and 320 pounds, sounds like a ballet dancer when he explains it all, that’s only because technique is technique and it’s when that technique becomes instinct that you find the place where your art comes from.

“Coaches are coaching everything here, hand-placement, just everything. Practice is like a game here,” Valentine said. “It’s just focusing every day, making sure I get my technique right, my leverage and everything. That’s what I did. “I was so surprised by how much I didn’t know, but I’m putting in the work every day with these guys. They’re helping me, bring me alone, and I’m just trying to keep learning from everybody.  Patience is a virtue. Just working hard every day, you’re going to reap what you sow.”

The story goes on to go pretty deep on Valentine’s big tackle in the AFC Championship Game. Highly recommended.

The Grab Bag

  • ICYMI: Charlie McBride offered some thoughts on defense and Bob Diaco on Hail Varsity Radio yesterday.
  • It’s no longer a rumor: Michigan’s football team is headed to Rome. There’s some potential for “sheesh, Harbaugh” head shaking here, but this seems pretty altruistic to me. It’s what college should be the types of opportunities football players tend to miss out on.
  • Jon Solomon writes that the NCAA’s proposed time demand rules miss the mark.
  • Not about sports, but it is about beer and one of the best stories I’ve read in the past week.

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