The Old Texas Two-Step
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I've always said it -- "if you commit to Texas, you move up in the rankings; if you commit to Illinois, you move down" -- but I've never shown you. And because I've never shown you, you just think it's one of those Things Fans Say. "Bitter that your football team's recruits aren't ranked very high? Claim that they're only ranked low because they picked your school and the ranking services hate your school."
I talked about this in my recruiting rant a few weeks ago. I was talking about how no Texas Longhorns players were drafted this spring but 32 players who played high school ball in the state of Texas were drafted. So I went back to the 2018 recruiting class in the Texas (the state) and it looked like this:
11 of the 14 "best" players in the state were going to Texas. Only one of them (so far) was drafted - Caden Stearns last year. And this year, 32 kids from the state of Texas were drafted but zero played for the Longhorns. Call me crazy but I think the rankings might be a little skewed to sell 247 subscriptions to Texas fans. Which means the answer to "why can't Texas win with all this talent" might be "because it's not really 'talent'?"
Someone on Slack asked me for specific examples of Texas players getting a boost because they picked Texas and I posted these there. Starting halfway through that 2018 class, 247 started tracking the rankings each time they updated. We don't have a full data set for that 2018 Texas class, but we do for the 2019 class (initial ranking all the way through final ranking). So that question (and my subsequent research) became this article.
The best example of what I'm talking about: Tyler Owens. Here's his ranking history (keep in mind this is his 247 ranking, not his composite rankings combining all services):
Here's how to read that. On 9/14/2018, he was a 3-star with a rating of 87. Two weeks later, on 9/28/2018, he jumped up to a rating of 95. This moved him from the 630th-best player in the class to the 74th-best player in the class. What happened in those two weeks that might have changed his ranking? He committed to Texas on 9/24/2018. He then made an even higher climb in the 247 rankings, moving up to a 5-star (and the #24 player in the entire class) on 1/31/2019 when the final rankings came out for that class.
Except he wasn't a 5-star. He was a 3-star. He didn't play much in three years and, this offseason, transferred to Texas Tech.
As I said in the last article, I fully understand this business model. Fans of football schools will be turned off by landing a 3-star safety. But they'll climb all over themselves to read about a 5-star safety. So making these subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) adjustments to the rankings doesn't really hurt anyone. Who's to say he isn't a 5-star?
And really, the safest bet in the history of safe bets is to assume that the players who picked Oklahoma might deserve a little boost and the players who picked Kansas should be dropped. You're not trying to deliver the message "you know, Kansas has been quietly acquiring talent". You're trying to say "is Texas back?" ten years in a row. Because history has proven that there's no "boy who cried wolf" moment when it comes to recruiting rankings. You can scream "wolf!" 56 times, no wolf is seen, and your 57th "wolf!" cry will still cause a wolf panic. We're fans and we want to believe.
Another thing to note here before I go through all the data. It's not just players moving up when they commit to Texas (or some other big-name program). They'll also move before they commit when it becomes clear that they're headed for one of those big-name programs. And that's another fairly safe bet. If a kid is considering Illinois and Washington State and then suddenly Auburn and Florida offer, yes, all of the services are going to move him up because he's clearly better than the evaluation they put together for him. It's smart business.
I just wrote about a similar thing with Matthew Bailey. He was considering Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois and given a rating of 73. He then got an Illinois offer (and signed a few days later) and was bumped from 73 to 82. Did he suddenly get better? No. It's just that the range of scores for a kid who picks Illinois is generally between 82 and 85. I'm OK with that hedge. I have an issue with them calling it a "ranking", but whatever. Nobody cares if Illinois has the #48 class or the #56 class. They care where Texas stands when you compare them to Texas A&M.
Here's an example from the class of 2019 with the only player I could find who took an official visit to both Texas and Illinois. Isaiah Hookfin was an offensive lineman who visited Illinois for the Purdue game in the fall of 2018. When he made that visit, he had a 247 score of 82 and was ranked 1,797th in the 2019 class. By the time he committed to Texas, he was a 4-star ranked 234th:
How does that work? Well, just follow his recruiting timeline. In the two weeks following his Illinois official he added offers from Arizona State, Baylor, Mississippi State, and then Auburn. The day after the Auburn offer, he jumped from 1797th to 575th.
Then, on November 3rd, the Texas kid gets a Texas offer. The next week, Clint Brewster with 247 puts in a Crystal Ball pick for Texas and moves Hookfin's rating from an 87 (after the Auburn offer) to a 91 (four-star). Hookfin picks Texas in December and then, in the final rankings on January 31st, his rating moves from a 91 to a 92. How to climb from 1797th to 238th in three easy steps.
Should Tyler Owens have been a 5-star? Should Isaiah Hookfin have been a 4-star? Probably not. Why were they? Because they picked Texas and Texas fans like being told they landed a 4-star and a 5-star. It's really just as simple as that.
Again, I'm not saying it's "rigged." This is not some big conspiracy theory about Illinois recruits or something. This is not why we have sucked for 25 years. Slotting Illinois recruits between 82 and 85 until proven otherwise is probably the smartest way to do it. My only issue is with the claim that these players are "evaluated." They're slotted based on offers + the schools they chose. A system like that won't catch that Texas has no talent (or that Wake Forest has really been acquiring talent), but again, no one cares.
And the big schools with the big fanbases get the biggest boosts. Here's a few more Texas examples from that 2019 class:
Jake Smith from 189 to 77 because he chose Texas:
Jordan Whittington getting that subtle jump from 136 to 59 in the final rankings:
And perhaps the best example here: Myron Warren. When first evaluated in March of 2018 he gets a score of 85. He commits to TCU in May and in the July ranking he's bumped to an 88 (high three-star seems correct for a TCU "slot"). Then he decommits from TCU in October and commits to Texas in November. His final rating moves up from 88 to 93:
That's simply how it works. It's not going to be every single player (too obvious). It doesn't mean an Illinois recruit will immediately drop to an 83 (WAY too obvious). Just... move a Myron Warren from an 88 to a 93 in the final rankings six weeks after he signed. Warren, by the way, ended up transferring to Texas State. Which means the initial rating of 85 in March was probably right on. Or maybe even a little high.
Look throughout the 2019 Texas recruiting class (ranked 3rd, wasn't even top-25) and you'll find that. Tight End Brayden Liebrock was rated a 90 - he committed to Texas and was bumped to 92. Safety Chris Adimora was bumped from 89 to 92. Linebacker David Gbenda a very subtle bump from 91 to 92 in the final rankings. Keep bumping and bumping and bumping and then boom, you can write Texas Lands Number Three Class articles. And then, four years later, in December 2021, Oh My God What Happened To Texas' Number Three Class articles.
The answer is simple: there's no attempt being made at ranking the players. The slots are simply being maxed out. A few massive bumps (Tyler Owens from 3-star to 5-star), a few late-riser bumps (Isaiah Hookfin from 1797 to 238), and then a bunch of subtle bumps ("if a guy is 89 I can get him to 92 but no higher"). In general, the way I see it, there's a range established for a player and then he slides up or down depending on the school he chooses.
Because that same class (2019) for Illinois has several examples of that. Marquez Beason fell from 78 to 133 after picking Illinois. Once the Crystal Balls started to come in for Shammond Cooper to Illinois, he dropped from a rating of 91 to an 88. Isaiah Williams picked Illinois and dropped from a rating of 94 to a 90 which dropped him from #28 when he initially committed to all the way out of their top-247.
Other services didn't drop him as far of that, so his Composite ranking "only" dropped from 25th nationally to 116th. And I should also note here that this is the reason 247 doesn't publish their own rankings beyond 250 players. It looks too bad when their ranking is so far below the Composite (since Rivals and ESPN have the player ranked higher). So for guys outside the top-250, the little number-under-the-number in the Composite rankings is just left blank (like it is for IW here):
Back to my point: the big place where you see the difference between Texas and Illinois is the lack of late movement. All of those "89 to 92" bumps I linked above with Texas? They're very rare for Illinois. The only one I can find in our class is Seth Coleman. And that was a unique situation because Coleman hadn't played football his junior year of high school and committed with no real film out there (I believe the Illinois staff spotted him at a summer satellite camp). Once he played his senior season and film was out there, he got offers from Utah, Nebraska, TCU, Baylor, and Pitt (plus rumors of several other big names involved in December), he visited Utah and Baylor (I thought for sure he was going to flip), but he stuck with his original verbal and signed with Illinois. And he got quite the bump, from 80 to 90.
(Of note there: every year, in my Tom Cruise rankings, I allow myself one player bump based on film. For that class it was easily Coleman. There was no film to evaluate when he verballed that summer. But after the fall film came out, I, too, gave him a huge bump.)
So it's not like 247 doesn't follow along with those things. It's not this massive "he picked Illinois - leave him at 80" thing. It's just... slotted. Keith Randolph has a big senior year and picks up big offers like Florida State? His rating stayed at 87. No doubt in my mind that if he picked FSU, it would have bumped to a 91. Of the other higher-ranked players in that class, Tarique Barnes stayed at 85, Moses Okpala stayed at 87, and Joseph Thompson (who ended up not making it into school but had a high rating at Rivals and ESPN) stayed at 83.
And the lower-ranked players all mostly stayed the same as well. Casey Washington made some noise as a senior but stayed at 83. Nick Fedanzo? 84 never changed. Evan Kirts got a bump from 80 to 82, but that won't move the needle on your team score like 90 to 92 will move the needle. Josh Plohr, Dalevon Campbell, and Devon Witherspoon didn't even get an 247 Composite score. The only movement I can find (besides Seth Coleman) is Kyron Cumby who got a 83 to 86 bump (and, like Coleman, that was boosted by a late visit to Texas Tech and rumors that he was going to flip).
My point with Illinois: Is Keith Randoph better than his score? Absolutely. But he's not going to get the Texas bump even if we did hold off Florida State, Michigan State, and Iowa at the end. Is Isaiah Williams still the 5-star he was the day he picked Illinois? Of course. But he picked Illinois so he dropped from a 94 rating to a 90. There are going to be ratings misses on the high end (Marquez Beason) and on the low end (Casey Washington), but I'm not looking for "get every rating correct" here. I just want to point out that the incentives behind bumping Tyler Owens and Isaiah Hookfin in Texas' class do not exist for Isaiah Williams and Keith Randolph.
In fact, probably the single best way to say this is to just talk about Hookfin and Williams. I'll call this The Isaiah Principle:
- When Isaiah Williams visited Illinois, his rating was 94. He then picked Illinois. His final rating: 90. That dropped him out of the Top 247.
- When Isaiah Hookfin visited Illinois, his rating was 82. He then got a Texas offer and committed to Texas. His final rating: 92. That slid him into the Top 247 at 238.
In no world is Isaiah Hookfin a better football player than Isaiah Williams. Not then, not now. If you showed Nick Saban (who offered Isaiah Williams) film of both players and told him that Hookfin was rated higher than Williams, he would laugh for three consecutive weeks. Take film of both players to any college football analyst - seriously, any single one - and they'll have the same reaction: "how is it even possible to rate Player B higher than Player A?"
Maybe I should put it like this: You have a friend who doesn't know much about football. He grew up in Spain and really only cares about tennis and "real football." You show him video of five "ATH" recruits in the 2019 class and he picks Isaiah Williams as the best. Doesn't matter what kind of football you're talking about - the guy who is super fast and can cut on a dime is going to stand out above all the rest. You then explain to him what an offensive lineman does and show him video of Isaiah Hookfin and four other offensive line recruits. It's quite doubtful he picks Hookfin. Compare him to the others and he's just not as explosive nor as athletic. It's extremely easy, even for your friend who doesn't know how the game is played, to see why Isaiah Williams was initially 28th in the individual 247 rankings and Isaiah Hookfin was initially 1,797th.
So then just think of what would be required for Isaiah Hookfin to be rated a 92 and Isaiah Williams to be rated a 90 by the time the final rankings are compiled. Just think of how confused your friend from Spain would be when you presented him with this information. Two guys are evaluated, one is the 28th-best, the other is the 1797th-best, but by the time those ratings are moved around (because of the schools they chose), the guy evaluated as the 1797th-best would finish in front of the guy evaluated as the 28th-best.
The players then followed the same 28th/1797th path in college. Hookfin didn't crack the rotation at Texas in three years and will be reportedly switching to a medical scholarship for his final year of school after a motorcycle accident this offseason kept him out of spring practice and might limit him this fall as well. Williams will be one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten this fall. There's a reason Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, and LSU offered Williams and did not offer Hookfin. The initial evaluations remain spot on.
So what happened? Rankings happened. Rankings have nothing to do with evaluations. Rankings are the only way to take players evaluated (and offered) at those two levels and push the second guy in front of the first guy.
You know, it's interesting that IW was 28th at the time (when initially rated early on in the 2019 cycle). I've always quoted the number 2,800 as the number of Division I recruits each year (an average class of 21-22 players times 130 FBS programs). So that would make Williams exactly 99th percentile in his class when initially evaluated (28/2800). Hookfin? 36th percentile.
What's the Texas Two Step? Developing a system where you not only move one guy down and one guy up based on the schools they chose, you can actually push enough buttons that the 36th percentile guy is eventually ranked ahead of the 99th percentile guy. Where you can take a guy who, on the day he picked Illinois, was described as, and I quote, "one of the ten most devastating athletes in the country" and, little by little, bit by bit, slide him out of the top-250. Nobody notices, and nobody cares.
Because actually ranking the players isn't the point.