Paul Chryst photo

Coach Paul Chryst's newest class of recruits is ranked 37th in the nation by Rivals, 39th by ESPN and 43nd by 247sports.

Although the importance of National Signing Day has been greatly diminished by the new early signing period, most schools wrapped up their recruiting classes Wednesday by adding another player or two to the group they signed in December.

As usual, the Alabamas, Ohio States, Clemsons and Georgias dominated the rankings compiled by the major recruiting websites. As usual, the University of Wisconsin’s haul was ranked in the low 30s nationally and near the middle in the Big Ten Conference. And as usual, no one who follows the Badgers should care one bit about the rankings.

No, the rankings aren’t totally bogus. They do identify many of the elite prospects in terms of size and athleticism and they usually are reflected in the programs that contend for national titles. But they are educated guesses at best, something that should be used as a guideline, not a bible, in predicting future success.

Year in and year out, the Badgers are the prime example of the lack of accuracy in the rankings.

UW has a 101-34 record in the past 10 seasons, which is tied with Florida State for fifth behind Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Clemson among power-five conference programs. Those other schools routinely finish in the top 10 in the recruiting rankings. This year, UW was ranked 37th by Rivals, 39th by ESPN and 43nd by 247sports — right about its average.

Yet, the same UW program finished in the Top 25 rankings in 13 of the past 14 seasons, including five times in the top 10. And it reached five of the seven Big Ten championship games.

There are only two possible explanations for that disparity: Either UW knows something about player development that no one else knows or the recruiting rankings just don’t mean much. No offense to UW’s coaches, but I’m going with the latter.

That doesn’t diminish UW’s long-standing reliance on player development. But while the coaches are good at identifying prospects who have the desire to improve and then developing them as players, they’re not that good. There has to be something more to explain how UW routinely takes 3-star athletes and turns them into All-Big Ten players and NFL draft picks.

The answer, of course, is UW is recruiting players who are better prospects than anyone thinks. Fault the recruiting websites for that because high school players from Wisconsin — along with many upper Midwest states — are chronically underrated by the scouting gurus.

The best example is J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL defensive player of the year for the Houston Texans. At Pewaukee, Watt was universally regarded as a 2-star recruit. One website had him as the 1,320th-best senior in the nation.

Another example is Cleveland Browns linebacker Joe Schobert, who was unranked by any of the websites coming out of Waukesha West and walked on at UW. Schobert tied for the NFL lead in tackles this season.

Even Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas, a certain Hall of Famer, was underrated at Brookfield Central. He was only a 4-star prospect even though he was 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, was the state defensive player of the year in football, led the Lancers to the state basketball tournament three straight years and won state titles in the shot put and discus. Had Thomas grown up in the south or far west, he would have been a top-10 player in the nation.

Since Thomas was picked third in the 2007 NFL draft, seven other Badgers have been taken in the first round (all from Wisconsin): Watt and Gabe Carimi (Monona Grove) in 2011, Kevin Zeitler (Wisconsin Lutheran) in 2012, Travis Frederick (Walworth Big Foot) in 2013, Melvin Gordon (Kenosha Bradford) in 2015 and Ryan Ramczyk (Stevens Point) and T.J. Watt (Pewaukee) in 2017. Of the seven, only Gordon received a 4-star rating, and that was by just two of the four websites that did rankings back then. The rest were 3-stars except for Ramczyk, who wasn’t ranked at all.

The only conclusion one can draw is the recruiting websites are failing the players from Wisconsin and the surrounding states.

To be fair, there are valid reasons for that. It’s hard to judge football players because they don’t play many games and the quality of their opposition is often suspect. More important, the job of accurately ranking thousands of high school prospects is next to impossible, so websites concentrate their limited resources on recruiting hotbeds such as California, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Ohio. That means players from Wisconsin and elsewhere get lost in the shuffle. They’re off the beaten path and they pay for it.

The inability of the websites to cover every area of the nation is understandable, but it usually means they lack first-hand knowledge on most recruits. That’s one reason you’ll see a recruit’s rating immediately jump up when one of the big-name schools offers him a scholarship.

There is some truth to the notion that with no spring practice in high school, northern players are late-bloomers who have more room for development. But that just supports my rule of thumb, which is that you can automatically add a half-star to a star to any recruit from Wisconsin or the upper Midwest.

That’s why this UW class, like many before it, will be better than its ranking.


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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.