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Sunday, January 29, 2012
Updated: February 1, 10:06 AM ET
The numbers game

By Jon Mahoney
ESPNHS.com

Montee Ball
Wisconsin star running back and Heisman finalist Montee Ball ran for 8,222 yards and 107 touchdowns in high school but was told by some recruiters he didn't have the speed to excel in college.

Patrick Towles didn't know what else he could do to get noticed.

In February 2011, just two months after leading Highlands (Fort Thomas, Ky.) to its fourth consecutive state title and second straight with him at the helm, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound quarterback could count on one hand the number of schools that had offered him a scholarship.

Then a junior, Towles had only heard from Cincinnati, Louisville, Illinois and Vanderbilt, and he grew increasingly annoyed by seeing the dozens of offers other players he had beaten on the field were receiving.

"There were people getting more offers than me who I outproduced," recalled Towles. "It was frustrating."

Towles started to question whether he would get any more offers. He received only two more after that -- from Kentucky and Arkansas -- and he ended up committing to UK in early March. While he's excited to stay home and play for the Wildcats, Towles was surprised he didn't receive any more high-major scholarships, especially after he won his third straight state title as a starter.

"Truthfully, I think I fell under the radar," said Towles.

Neal Burcham knows the feeling. The Greenbrier (Ark.) senior quarterback received his first scholarship in June 2011, and it was from Central Arkansas, an FCS program.

Neal Burcham
SMU recruit Neal Burcham had only a handful of offers despite earning co-MVP honors at last summer's Elite 11.

Even after besting a number of the nation's top quarterbacks to earn co-MVP honors last summer at the Elite 11, Burcham's mailbox wasn't exactly overflowing. He picked up only three more scholarship offers after that -- from Arkansas State, Cincinnati and SMU -- and ended up committing to the Mustangs in November.

"People were telling me more offers would come in after Elite 11," said Burcham. "But I didn't put any expectations on it. I felt like if more schools wanted to offer, they would."

Unfortunately for players like Burcham and Towles, more schools don't offer because they don't possess the ideal measurables or mechanics of some other top players at their position.

So even if Burcham earned Elite 11 co-MVP honors and threw for 42 touchdowns in 10 games, like he did this season, coaches will focus on his 185-pound frame. And though Towles, who also competed at Elite 11, earned Gatorade State Player of the Year and ESPNHS All-American honors this fall after throwing for 3,820 yards, 42 touchdowns and just one pick, coaches will point to his unrefined mechanics.

In the win-now, big-money world of major BCS programs, those elite schools choose to look at a kid with size, speed and power first before they can take a chance on a recruit who wins big on the field but doesn't have the same freakish athleticism as his peers.

"College coaches are dealing with evaluating 16- and 17-year-old kids," said Tom Luginbill, ESPN's director of football recruiting. "They don't have a crystal ball. They have to make tough choices and you can only go with what you know.

"So much of it has to do with being a late-bloomer. But top-tier BCS schools don't have time for a late-bloomer. They want a guy who, if they needed him to, could play for them early."

Which explains why a guy like Montee Ball slipped through the cracks.

Now a junior at Wisconsin, Ball was a stud at Timberland (Wentzville, Mo.), rushing for 8,222 yards and 107 touchdowns during his four-year career. Yet all he heard throughout the recruiting process was that he wasn't fast enough to play at a high level.

"I thought I had the right body type and speed to contribute to a major BCS program," said Ball. "It aggravated me a little bit, but everything happens for a reason. A huge motivation when I came [to Wisconsin] was to prove all the critics wrong."

He certainly did. This year, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist and tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record with 39 touchdowns.

On the way to the Heisman ceremonies, Ball got to talk to fellow finalist Tyrann Mathieu, the LSU star defensive back. Turns out the Honey Badger, like Ball, had his fair share of coaches who thought he couldn't cut it at a major program, fearing the St. Augustine (New Orleans) standout was too small. LSU was the only major program to offer.

"Some of these people don't look at stats," said Ball, referring to recruiters. "They see how you project in college. But you have no idea how a kid is going to turn out."

Oftentimes, the kids without the ideal measurables and mechanics don't pan out. And that makes exceptions like Ball stand out even more.

"Ultimately, what you're trying to do is not make a mistake," said Luginbill.

And major BCS programs would rather make a mistake on a 6-foot-5 quarterback than one who barely stands 6-foot, like Drew Brees, who largely because of his height didn't receive an offer from the major Texas programs despite starring at Westlake (Austin, Texas). Brees ended up at Purdue, where he became a Heisman finalist.

Luginbill sees the same type of slights directed toward members of this year's high school class, in particular at Kenton (Ohio) quarterback Maty Mauk, a 6-foot-1 Missouri commit who set national career records in passing yards (18,932), touchdown passes (219), completions (1,353), attempts (2,110) and total yards (22,681).

"You talk to college coaches and they love him on tape," said Luginbill. "Then the next phrase out of their mouth is, 'I just wish he were taller.' I'm not saying it's right, but it's part of the process."

These types of evaluations aren't just limited to the college game. In the NFL, players like Wes Welker have often been overlooked in favor of guys who've dominated at the combine.

And like Welker, Burcham and Towles will just have to prove the naysayers wrong.

"I want to be the best there is," said Burcham. "If other schools didn't see that, then I'm going to work harder to get noticed at SMU."