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How Have the Recruiting Rankings Evaluated Northwestern Players?

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Every National Signing Day, or whenever recruiting rankings are brought up, Pat Fitzgerald likes to use the same line.

“Well I was a zero-star recruit,” he’ll say, usually giving one of the Scout or Rivals reporters a hard time in the process.

What Fitzgerald is trying to say is that recruiting rankings don’t matter, and he’s right to an extent. Just because a player has four stars attached to him coming out of high school doesn’t mean he’s going to be a star. On the other hand, a two-star rating doesn’t doom a recruit for the rest of his career.

But recruiting rankings do matter in another sense. Not only are higher recruts generally more talented — there are always exceptions — recruiting rankings are also a measuring stick for the perception of the program. Attracting more four-stars generally means attracting more talent, and when one domino falls, more start falling. After all, NU is considered a program “on the rise,” which is why it’s attracted as many four-stars (4) in the past two years as it had in the previous 10 years.

With that said, let’s take a look at how accurately the recruiting rankings have evaluated Northwestern’s players since 2002, the latest year available on the database. First, let’s take a look at how NU’s best recruits ended up turning out.

NU has never had a five-star recruit, but it has had eight 4-star recruits since 2008. How have they turned out? The results have varied.

We can’t really judge half of them, because they were either freshmen last year or are incoming recruits. Of the freshmen, Ifeadi Odenigbo saw a little bit of action before getting hurt and now will likely be the No. 4 defensive end on next year’s depth chart. The other four-star freshman is Adam DePietro, who redshirted last year, but will crack the two-deeps this year — and could even crack the starting lineup — as a guard. Of the incoming recruits, Matt Alviti is considered to be NU’s “quarterback of the future,” while Godwin Igwebuike has a lot of promise as either a running back or a safety.

But what about the previous four? We’ll run through each one.

2009 — Davon Custis: Custis had a pretty disappointing career at NU, given his four-star status. He redshirted in 2009 and played in two games in 2010, recording two tackles. He saw action in one game in 2011 and one game in 2012 without recording any statistics. He graduated and opted not to come back to the team for his redshirt senior season in 2013.

2007 — Jordan Mabin: Mabin had a very successful career at Northwestern. After redshirting in 2007, he started in 11 games at cornerback in 2008 and was named to freshman All-Big Ten and All-American teams. He started every game in 2009 and 2010 and every regular season game in 2011. He was injured on Senior Day against Michigan State and was unable to play in the bowl game. He played on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad last year and is currently on the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad.

2003 — Deante Battle: Battle was technically a three-year starter at cornerback at NU, though he started only seven games in his sophomore year. He chose NU over Notre Dame, among others. After college, he went to play professionally in Europe.

2002 — Loren Howard: Howard started immediately at defensive end when he came to NU and was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore. He was limited by injures as a junior, then sat out his junior year because of injuries and transferred to Arizona State for his final season. He never got to play his final year at ASU due to injures and had to quit football altogether, despite being considered a potential first round draft pick before the injuries.

It’s an interesting mix. Howard obviously lived up to his potential, while Mabin and Battle both had successful, if not “four-star” careers. Custis clearly didn’t live up to expectations. This doesn’t say anything about how future or current four-stars will turn out, but it shows that there’s really no formula — it all depends on the situation.

Then there are players who vastly exceed the expectations set by star ratings. On this year’s team, a few of NU’s top players stand out in particular.

Three players stand out the most as having been way misjudged. Tyler Scott and Damien Proby were both two-star recruits, but may be NU’s two best defensive players this year. Scott, in particular, will be a first team All-Big Ten candidate. Then there’s Venric Mark, who was a two-star recruit and the 217th-ranked wide receiver in the country.

There are some other oddities, as well. Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were both three-star recruits in 2010, but “1.A.” Colter was ranked as the No. 49 quarterback in the class, while “1.B.” Siemian was No. 33. Meanwhile, current safety Ibraheim Campbell ranked as the No. 87 running back in that class, while safety/linebacker hybrid Jimmy Hall was the No. 231 wide receiver. And who knew that Jeff Budzien, a breakout kicker for NU last year, was the eighth-ranked kicker in the country in 2010?

Here are some other funny ones through the years:

-       Nick Roach, a Chicago Bears linebacker who may get a nice payday soon, was a two-star wide receiver in 2003.

-       Sherrick McManis, a Chicago Bears cornerback, was a two-star running back in 2006.

-       Mike Kafka and Tyrell Sutton were both three-star recruits in 2005.

-       Dan Persa was a two-star recruit — the 71st-ranked quarterback in the nation — in 2007.

-       Drake Dunsmore, a star at superback, was a two-star running back in 2007.

-       Jeremy Ebert was a two-star wide receiver and the No. 251 receiver in the nation in 2008.

-       David Nwabuisi, a starter at linebacker last year was a three-star fullback in 2008.

-       Quentin Williams, an accomplished defensive end, was a three-star tight end in 2008.

When it comes to recruiting rankings, there really isn’t a formula. Sometimes four-stars play like they’re supposed to, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes two-stars turn out, and sometimes they don’t. Really, these numbers are just fun to look at in retrospect.

So what’s the moral of the story with these rankings rankings? Take them with a grain of salt. Yes, they matter, but just remember that Pat Fitzgerald was a zero-star recruit.