Hot Reads: The Benefit of Rural Recruiting
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Hot Reads: The Benefit of Rural Recruiting

May 07, 2018

Two years ago about this time I was wrapping up a months-long project on recruiting and geography for a story that originally ran in the 2016 Hail Varsity Football Yearbook. I took years of Rivals250 recruits (2004-16), geo-coded their location and used it was a way to look at recruiting as a whole but also Nebraska's strategy in what would turn out to be the middle, roughly, of the Mike Riley era.

SB Nation contributor RedmondLonghorn recently published an excellent story using a similar data set––the top 400 recruits per 247 from each season between 2006 and 2018––to look at talent distribution. There's a lot of interesting information there including which states produce the most blue-chip prospects (the top five states produce more than half), which states produce the most per capita (not the same top five) and which states produce the most NFL talent.

Things get interesting when you add that last element. That's a way to check the "output" of the whole talent equation. The blue-chip designation of course is solely the domain of the recruiting services and is a projection. NFL rosters, on the other hand, are less about projection and more about practicality, cold and cruel: Can you play at this level or not?

And when you add that "output," things start to even out. The southern states are producing the most blue-chip prospects relative to population, but those rates largely don't hold when it comes to producing NFL players. States like Oregon, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio and, yes, Nebraska are all producing NFL players at a rate that outpaces their blue-chip production. To put it another way, the talent there can be viewed as undervalued.

Why? In an also-excellent follow-up story, Ian Boyd unpacks some of those potential explanations. As he argues, recruiting services are incentivized to more closely scout the south (see more players with fewer stops) and thus the opportunities for those players to get seen (and rated) are greater. Are they actually greater in terms of talent? Here's how Boyd puts it.

While places like North Dakota and Idaho probably punched above their weight in bluechip prospects because of the football programs that are nearby, that just stands to confirm the fact that while America’s rural population is smaller, more dispersed, and harder/more costly to evaluate, it still produces a lot of football talent. The better players out in nowhere Wisconsin or up in Bismarck are often as good or better than the players in Atlanta or Houston but they are rarely going to be rated as such because it’s hard to verify something like that until they prove it on a college field.
Leighton Vander Esch is the extreme example of the rural prospect but as crazy as his story is it’s not that irregular. The essence of the story is this: a small town produces a big, athletic kid who ends up playing QB for the eight-man football team because they want to get the ball into the hands of their best athlete. He’s a big fish in a small pond with little chance at exposure outside of it and Boise State barely hears about him and only offers him a preferred walk-on spot.
The 6-3, 190 pound kid shows up at a program where football is taken very seriously, gets a redshirt, and gets high level nutrition, strength coaching, and football development for a couple of years before emerging on the field as a 6-4, 250 pound freak. He dominates, the NFL catches on, and now he’s on the Dallas Cowboys.

Doesn't the past and present of college football show us that this almost has to be true? If there were actual differences in talent between regions, and not just the concentration of talent, how does a 40-year run like Nebraska's ever happen? How is Ohio State, if you look beyond just national titles, the most consistent blue-blood program of the past 60 years? How does Oregon go on a decade run as one of the game's elite programs?

There are a lot of factors to consider when asking those types of questions, but one that often isn't asked is this: What if the supposedly lesser talent local to those programs isn't actually lesser? What if it's just undervalued due to an inefficiency in the reluctantly agreed-upon metric we all use?

York athlete Garrett Snodgrass has spent most of his time as a Nebraska commit "unranked." Players form this part of the country don't often get ranked as sophomores or juniors. He's still unranked by 247Sports. But two weeks ago he went to Nike's The Opening in Dallas (note: he had to go to Dallas), and posted 99th-percentile results. Snodgrass measured 6-foot-3, 217 pounds with a 4.8 40 and a 4.25 shuttle run. That looks like a guy, on paper alone, who might be a pretty good football player.

Yet it's harder for him to be labeled as such than it is for a player with the exact same numbers in, say, Atlanta.

That's a good thing for schools like Nebraska. Scott Frost has said on more than one occasion that the Huskers need top 25 recruiting classes to win big. Not top five or top 10. Top 25 is much more in line with what the Huskers have historically done.

But maybe that specific number isn't about history at all. Maybe it's about value. If we know Nebraska is always going to sign at least a portion of its class from local, under-evaluated states, how does that 20th-ranked class actually stack up against the school with the 7th-rated class stocked almost exclusively with players from places where the potential rankings bias may work against it in the long run?

To put it another way: Which class actually has the better odds of being a top-10 class when its members are leaving college football?

Now that's a game Nebraska used to win a lot.

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