Commentary

Eyes on Texas prospects

Football bigger, but that doesn't mean players from Texas more likely to succeed

Originally Published: January 30, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

Mario Edwards, a ferocious, gravity-defying defensive end, and Johnathan Gray, a record-setting, workhorse running back, on Wednesday make official their college decisions.

Edwards plans to sign with Florida State, Gray with Texas.

They are the best of the best, Nos. 1 and 2 in the ESPNU 150, seemingly destined for stardom at the college level and beyond.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comJohnathan Gray, the nation's No. 2 prospect and top running back, says where you come from doesn't matter. It's who is willing to put the work in to succeed that is the key.
Edwards and Gray grew into these uber-prospects as products of the same Texas culture -- Edwards from Denton's Billy Ryan High School north of Dallas and Gray from Aledo High west of Fort Worth.

The football environment across their home state fosters such growth of its native sons. The sport, in particular at the high school level, impacts the lives of Texans in ways that outsiders do not -- cannot -- comprehend.

"It reminds me of a religion," said Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville, who spent just one of his more than 40 years playing and coaching football in Texas before 2010. "The allegiances to the high schools are just unbelievable."

New-age stadiums that seat 10,000 or more dot the Texas landscape like pump jacks above the oil fields. Crowds of 30,000 for neutral-site, rivalry games gather regularly.

Football is year-round, from the state finals at Cowboys Stadium in December to spring practice and the state-sanctioned 7-on-7 championships in July. Most high school programs mirror the big colleges in how they structure activity, and many of the high school coaching staffs grow larger than their college counterparts, limited to nine assistants by the NCAA.

In Texas, ultimately, it's not about winning. It's not about the competition. It's not about earning a college scholarship.

It's about fitting among the culture, said Tony Heath, coach at 2010 5A champion Pearland High School, south of Houston.

"When we play, it's more than football," said Heath, who came to Pearland in 1997 and has made 12 straight playoff appearances at a school that averaged one win per year in the six seasons before his arrival. "It's the whole atmosphere.

"The core is football. Kids want to be a part of this program, because they don't want to be known as the one who didn't get the job done."

Last season, 340 boys played football at Pearland. Even at a school once accustomed to disappointment, the appetite for football is insatiable.

It's no wonder, then, that Texas turns out prospects every year like Edwards and Gray.

"People play harder in Texas," said TCU-bound linebacker Devonte Fields, the No. 73-rated prospect nationally out of Arlington's James Martin High School.

This, though, is unexpected: When it comes to elite recruits, throw out your conceptions about the importance of learning the game in a football hotbed.

Numbers say Texas prospects are just like everyone else

ESPN.com examined the post-high school football careers of 772 consensus prep All-America players from 1998 to 2007, using a composite of the Parade All-America and SuperPrep Elite 50 teams.

Each player was assigned a value of 1 through 5, similar to the star-ranking systems used to commonly classify recruits -- with 1 as a bust and 5 as an All-America-caliber college player, first-round NFL draft pick or All-Pro.

The study compared 81 prospects who played high school football in Texas to 176 in California and Florida, regarded as the other top talent-producing states, and 515 from everywhere else.

The results showed no discernible difference in level of success between any of the regions. Players from Texas scored a decade-long average of 3.06. California and Florida players averaged 3.16, and the national average was 3.10.

Despite the intense and unmatched environment of Texas high school football, a top-tier prospect from Texas, statistically, fares no better or worse in college and the NFL than a player of equal acclaim from Arkansas or Massachusetts or Hawaii. Texas serves as a microcosm of the nation as a whole in generating bona fide football stars. What happens before college makes no more difference to elite recruits in Texas than in the rest of the country.

For every Adrian Peterson, DeSean Jackson or Julius Peppers, the study found star prospects like Ofa Mohetau, a lineman from Euless, Texas, who attended Brigham Young briefly en route to his calling as an MMA fighter, and Kelly Baraka, a Michigan running back who flamed out amid injuries and drug-related arrests.

So for Mario Edwards, Johnathan Gray and the remainder of the ESPNU 150, which factors shape their successes and failures from here?

Talent only part of the equation

Dan Tudor is glad you asked.

Tudor, president of Tudor Collegiate Strategies, advises college coaches on how to effectively recruit student-athletes. His company works with 460 programs in multiple sports nationally, including schools in the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference. Tudor's weekly publication reaches 46,500 college coaches and athletic directors.

And he's surprised at coaches' inability to decode the formula for success in recruiting the right players.

The personality of a football coach, by nature, is to "get it done, no matter what," Tudor said.

"In recruiting," Tudor said, "very few kids resonate with that. They're trying to figure out, 'Who wants me? Where do I belong?'"

College coaches, in constructing goals for a recruiting class, look at the measurements first, according to Tudor. They examine the film and the stats.

"They look at the prototype and want to fit players into it," Tudor said.

Meanwhile, coaches often ignore elements that influence the careers of players at every level -- like their readiness to adjust in a new environment, to cope away from home, to deal with college life and live independently.

"It's amazing the number of stories we hear where athletes talk about a coach who told them to ignore the external factors," Tudor said.

It matters. Listen to Andrew Luck.

"There are so many external factors that can inhibit or help a high school kid going to college," he said. "I was fortunate enough to go to a program that was quarterback-friendly. Others don't always find the same kind of situation."

Luck, rated as the No. 61 prospect nationally out of Houston's Stratford High School in 2008, picked Stanford for the right reasons. He was paired with the right coaches. And look, he's leaving this spring as the two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up and likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

Too often, it works the other way. Coaches and prospects, from Texas and elsewhere, come together with mismatched priorities in a stressed environment -- and players pick the wrong school for the right reason or the right school for the wrong one.

Either way, it's a recipe for, well, a recruiting bust.

Eyes of Texas are upon you

Mismatched priorities can doom recruits of any football upbringing.

Other factors that negate the inherent Texas advantage are more exclusive to that state.

Consider the setting at Austin's Lake Travis High School, the king of 4A football in Texas with five consecutive state titles.

"When we play a home game on Friday night, it's unbelievable," Lake Travis coach Hank Carter said. Lake Travis met rival Cedar Park in the state quarterfinals Dec. 2 at the 100,000-seat DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium, home of the Texas Longhorns and their 7,370-square foot LED scoreboard.

It wasn't exactly a Saturday afternoon in the Big 12, but the environment lacked little, with Lady Gaga piped in and some adult fans so excited in the wake of the Cavaliers' 14-9 win that coaches had to order them off the field.

"It can't get any better than this," Lake Travis tight end Griffin Gilbert said after the game. "This is every kid's dream."

Exactly. And perhaps that's a problem. Sometimes, Texas high school football provides the ultimate experience.

"At the next level," Carter said, "they're more like a piece of meat. Coaches are going to plug them into their systems, and you'll have to see what happens. The kids here, they have it real, real good. And a lot of times in college, it's not the same. We tell them to relish what they've got here."

Incidentally, Gilbert's brother, former University of Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert, won a pair of state titles at Lake Travis and rated as the No. 2 QB recruit nationally in 2009 -- ahead of Georgia's Aaron Murray, Alabama's AJ McCarron and Clemson's Tajh Boyd. The elder Gilbert transferred to SMU after 2½ seasons at Texas.

Griffin Gilbert, the No. 8 player at his position nationally, plans to sign with TCU this week.

"In high school it's a game," said Hal Wasson, coach at Southlake Carroll, an unbeaten state champ in 5A last season. "You go to college, and it's all about money, capital M-O-N-E-Y. What does it become? It becomes a business.

"I think as coaches we spend so much time on the X's and O's, we forget about that part of it."

The elite high school player may actually require a more significant adjustment to college than the marginal prospect, new Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said.

"Some guys," Sumlin said, "quite frankly, were better than everybody and didn't have that work ethic in high school. Some guys can adapt to it, and for others, it's too much of a culture shock."

Recruiting myth or reality?

Then, there's the max-out factor, the existence of which is open for debate.

The theory goes like this: A Texas prospect, because of his superior coaching and extensive exposure to a better quality of football, offers less room for growth in college. He's closer to his peak as an athlete than a comparable recruit from elsewhere.

Heath, who rebuilt the Pearland program, scoffs at the suggestion. No player, especially at age 18, has finished learning how to play football, he said, and that's half the game.

"If a recruiter is saying a kid's maxed out mentally, I don't want that coach on my staff," Heath said. "You're telling me you can't coach up that kid even more? They're young. They're still maturing."

Still, it's out there.

"I don't buy that," said Mark Schmid, 25-year coach at The Woodlands High School north of Houston, "but I've heard it."

Michael Thomas, a graduate of Nimitz High School in Houston and two-year starting safety at Stanford, said he understands the sentiment.

"I can honestly say, yes, I agree that some Texas kids don't have as much room to grow," Thomas said. "That's just how it is. Some people make it. Some don't."

And really, every state has its underachievers and overachievers. Look at a large enough sample, and you'll find Texans who exceed every expectation in addition to those who fall flat.

At Katy High School west of Houston, longtime coach Gary Joseph built a perennial powerhouse without sending a string of recruits off to star in college.

Katy's more famous, in fact, for actress Renee Zellweger than for any of its football alumni. But the trophy case in the lobby of the field house sends a powerful message, holding reminders of five state championships in 5A since 1997.

Joseph said he often heard the maxed-out argument used against his players. In 2005, though, quarterback Andy Dalton led Katy to the state title game, holding scholarship offers from only TCU and UTEP.

In the six years since he left, Dalton shattered Sammy Baugh's win record for a QB at TCU, won MVP honors of the Rose Bowl to cap an undefeated senior season in 2010 and earned a Pro Bowl invite in his rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I tried to tell people the kid was going to be good," Joseph said.

So yes, it works both ways.

Just rollin' the bones

The facts say Texas is no different than anywhere else; its star prospects don't accelerate to a level beyond their peers.

Even Gray, the Texas-bound back who scored a national-record 205 touchdowns in high school, recognizes the unpredictable nature of projecting top recruits. Don't let high school stats blur your vision, he said.

"It's whoever wants it more," Gray said, "whoever works the hardest."

But what about the player who's not a high school All-American? What about the next generation of prospects like Andy Dalton?

"We're basically playing God now," Tech's Tuberville said. "You're looking at a 16-, 17-year-old kid and asking what his body's going to look like in three or four years."

It's more difficult to measure, what with hundreds of Texas players in such a category every year and thousands nationally. Anecdotal evidence suggests those prospects possess an intangible quality that makes a difference at the next level.

"The biggest thing you want to know as a college coach when you're recruiting a player," Tuberville said, "is how much does it mean to him?

"And that's usually one thing you can tell about a kid from Texas. If they've worked their way up through the system, if they've been trained and they've competed, you pretty much know that they'll lay it on the line."

Sabian Holmes fits the mold of a Dalton-type prospect. Recruited by Baylor and a series of mid-majors, he added a scholarship offer from Texas A&M after Sumlin took over in December. Holmes committed in January.

He received top-notch coaching as a slightly undersized receiver and defensive back at Southlake Carroll. He played before huge crowds and reached a pinnacle that many college players never attain, winning a 5A Texas title. Short of a national championship or Southeastern Conference crown in Texas A&M's new league, it may not get any better for Holmes.

But should he be penalized for his success and the environment in which it happened?

"I know what's ahead of me," Holmes said, "and I would say I'm more excited than I am concerned."

Kids in Texas seem to understand.

Schmid, like so many Texas high school coaches, grew up in the community where he works. His son, Eric, a seventh-grader, watched from the sideline at age 5 and idolized the players at The Woodlands who stood around him.

"He can't wait to become a Highlander," Schmid said. "This year, he was a junior-high Highlander, and the sense of pride he feels already is amazing."

Numbers don't measure pride. But that same pride drove the people of Pearland to build a striking new stadium at the school four years after Heath came to town and a woman fell through the bleachers in his first season.

The same pride drove Brandon Thompson every day as a 6-foot-4, 215-pound freshman at The Woodlands to work overtime in the weight room.

He signed with Nebraska in 2008 as a heralded offensive lineman. Thompson, a fifth-year senior next fall, hasn't started a college game. Injuries, including a double abdominal-wall hernia that required surgery, derailed his career.

Looking back, Thompson said he pushed himself too hard at a young age, fueled by the knowledge that his team would face the likes of Jamarkus McFarland or Dez Bryant nearly every week.

"At times, it was almost ridiculous," Thompson said. "People care so much about it. I think it's too much. It's that competitive. It helped me in a way, but I think it hurt me, too, because you want to just keep going and going."

No doubt, a delicate balance exists between the perils associated with the passionate Texas culture and its benefits.

Remember this on national signing day as college programs celebrate their newest members, from Edwards and Gray on down the line: They don't know. No one knows.

Again, Luck offers wisdom. Must be the Stanford education.

"What sometimes gets lost is that there are good football players everywhere in the country," the quarterback said. "It's hard to say how a 17-year-old kid is going to pan out. I don't know if it's got anything to do with Texas or where you may be from. It's a crapshoot."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman