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NATIONAL FOOTBALL SIGNINGS

Success is hard to predict

Recruiting experts fuel fans' desire for news and analysis, but the unforeseen is inevitable

February 08, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The excitement and hype that have grown up around college football recruiting nearly killed Tom Lemming the other day.

Lemming is one of those recruiting experts whose every word the most-rabid fans devour at this time of year. He was driving through upstate New York to visit a high school prospect when a blizzard trapped him on a rural stretch of road.

"I was there 12 hours," he said. "I didn't even have a hat or gloves. I'm thinking this is the end of me."

During the football signing period, which started again Wednesday, the annual recruiting wars can seem as grim as life or death. Fans want to know how many five-star players their team wooed, where their alma mater ranks among the top incoming classes.

Lemming, editor of Prep Football Report and an analyst for CSTV, offers this advice: "It's a good indicator but don't take it as gospel," he said. "Take it as fun."

The hunger for recruiting news and analysis has spawned a cottage industry of Internet sites and publications in the last 20 years. As UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell says, "It's a lot different now than it has ever been. There are so many services out there."

Yet for all the attention devoted to the subject, predicting a team's future by way of its incoming freshmen can be tricky.

Consider the top-10 classes on two major sites -- Scout.com and Rivals.com -- over the last five years.

The lists were populated by programs that have enjoyed tremendous success on the field, teams such as Florida, USC, Texas and Louisiana State.

But the difference between a top-10 class and a top-10 finish in the polls can be one close loss, one key injury over the course of a season.

Oklahoma signed highly ranked classes in each of the last three years only to struggle with injuries to tailback Adrian Peterson and the loss of starting quarterback Rhett Bomar, dismissed from the team last summer after allegations that he received improper benefits.

Florida State has failed to compete for a national championship despite a similar string of recruiting victories.

Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor at Scout.com and publisher of SuperPrep magazine, says that stringing together three or more talented classes is key, but there might be a better indicator.

"Fans should focus on coaching, because it's really more important than the recruiting classes," he said. "You see coaches go into situations where they markedly change a team without changing the talent."

So predicting success for any given prospect can be difficult.

Over the last five years, the experts saw greatness in Vince Young, Ted Ginn Jr., JaMarcus Russell and Calvin Johnson.

But Greg Biggins, the national recruiting editor for StudentSportsFootball.com, recalls when he and others tabbed Whitney Lewis as the star of USC's 2003 class, rating him above Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

Biggins and other experts say they are satisfied with a .500 to .600 batting average when it comes to identifying which high school players can perform at the next level.

"You'd think we could do better because we do so much homework," Wallace said. "But there are so many things you can't see."

While most services rely on a staff of reporters scattered across the nation, Lemming still drives five or six months each year, trying to visit the top 1,500 prospects.

Many college coaches and their assistants have consulted with him over the years or, at the very least, have stopped by his house to look at the high school game film that he gathers.

"That's how I learned to evaluate talent," he said. "I would ask questions. I learned a lot from these coaches."

Lemming knows to look for physical attributes and a knack for making big plays but still characterizes his rankings as an educated guess.

"The NFL spends millions of dollars dealing with 22-year-olds in the draft and makes a ton of mistakes," he said. "We're dealing with 18-year-olds who haven't reached their full potential."

Injuries, family problems, drugs and academic struggles -- the list of potential stumbling blocks runs long.

"By far, the hardest thing is you have no idea how this kid is going to physically mature," Biggins said.

Still, college coaches say they scan the Internet sites for information on the prospects they are courting.

"We use it sometimes to watch plays on guys or get updates on their thoughts," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "You get stuff all the time."

And the uncertainties of recruiting have not seemed to temper fans' anticipation of signing day.

By 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, Wallace was already tracking last-second machinations, noting that Notre Dame had lost two prized recruits to other schools.

"Is it an exact science? Certainly not," he said. "But generally speaking, if your school can sign four- and five-star guys instead of three-star guys, that's what you want."

Times staff writers Gary Klein and Lonnie White contributed to this report.

david.wharton@latimes.com

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COLLEGE SIGNINGS, D9

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