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More than half of the recruits currently in Florida State's 2015 recruiting class are not rated as a four- or five-star prospect by Rivals.com. The lack of highly-rated early commitments has some fans concerned that FSU's next recruiting haul may not be up to its usual high standards.
But recent history tells us that a recruit's ranking isn't much of a factor when that player signs with the Seminoles.
There's little debate that Florida State has dramatically increased its talent base over the past few years. In the last two years alone FSU has placed a whopping 18 players into the NFL draft and nearly a dozen more have been signed through free agency. Only SEC power LSU has had as many players drafted over the same time period.
There is clearly a direct correlation between FSU's remarkable uptick in talent and the arrival of current head coach Jimbo Fisher.
In addition to cranking out a large number of players destined for the NFL, Florida State has steadily improved on the field since the former Seminoles' offensive coordinator became head coach in 2010, including a 2013 national championship. But surprisingly FSU's recruiting class rankings, at least on paper, haven't changed during his tenure. In three years before his arrival as an assistant coach in 2007, the Seminoles posted recruiting classes ranked No. 3, No. 2 and No. 4, respectfully, by Rivals.com. The 'Noles' recruiting ranking over the first three years with Fisher at the helm have been ranked No. 10, No. 2 and No. 6, respectfully.
The threesome of classes signed between 2004-06 struggled mightily both on the field and making it to the pros, while the most recent ones have had tremendous success.
In the three seasons prior to Fisher becoming head coach, and the seasons that most directly correlate with these highly ranked recruiting classes, FSU had a combined record of just 24-16 (58.5%). In contrast, the Seminoles' combined record over the last three seasons is 35-6 (85.4%), including two conference championships and one national championship.
The simple explanation is that Fisher and his staff have done an amazing job both in evaluating and developing talent.
"Jimbo does as good a job as anyone in the country in targeting needs at specific positions regardless of stars, offers or anyone else's opinion," said Rivals.com National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell. "I love the way he's not only improved the skill positions but he's found nasty, angry and physical offensive linemen that have changed the offense and a combination of jumbo-sized defensive linemen to complement the standard FSU undersized edge rusher. He has changed the roster to make it his own and made it the most talented roster from top to bottom in the country last year."
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the staff's ability to identify an underrated recruit with huge upside. While plenty of four- and five-star recruits signed during the Jimbo Fisher era have gone on to have tremendous success, there has been an unusually high number of recruits rated three stars or lower that have gone on to have phenomenal college careers, with many moving on to the NFL.
"We are constantly evaluating - we go through all those tapes and a (recruit is) maybe evaluated 10-12 times," Fisher said. "It's not just a once or twice thing, we'll go back and watch it, and rewatch it, and then we'll get other guys in the group (to look at it) and then we'll compare him to this guy."
That constant evaluation has paid off, especially when it comes to finding diamonds in the rough.
Ten underrated recruits signed between 2008-12, who were either directly recruited by Fisher when he was an assistant or while head coach, have gone on to earn first team all-ACC honors and seven from this group have been picked in recent NFL drafts. Those numbers will continue to grow as several three-star or lower players like Cameron Erving, P.J. Williams, Tre Jackson and Terrance Smith are current members of the team with more honors and the NFL draft ahead of them.
"He's not only good at finding kids who might be slightly under the radar, but also in coaching them up to fit his needs," Farrell said. "FSU recruits the studs as usual but you mix in the sleepers that top teams like Virginia Tech, WVU, Wisconsin, Michigan State and others have built their programs around for years and you have a dangerous mix. No one combines the two better than Jimbo."
The success rate of the sleeper recruits in most recent classes is dramatically improved from the groups immediately before Jimbo Fisher was on staff (2004-07). From those four classes only four players out of 38 that were rated as a three-star prospect or lower were drafted. Moreover, two of those four were Rodney Hudson in 2007, who was recruited exclusively by Fisher hire Rick Trickett, and Christian Ponder who went from third string to starter and first round NFL pick under Fisher's coaching. The only other underrated recruits drafted during this timeframe were Dekoda Watson (7th round) and Letroy Guion (5th round).
So what is the secret to Fisher's ability to identify and cultivate talent?
"First of all, I think our assistants do a great job of bringing a large number of people in here," Fisher said. "They do a great job of making the initial evaluation and say 'Hey, we need to look at this guy.' They do their due diligence in all areas of finding guys and not just taking the status quo but actually watching practice, really studying film and noticing guys. We make our own evaluations and we encourage guys to do that but then we all look at it and decide what we want to do."
While studying film is a part of the process, Fisher insists it's not the most important part when the staff evaluates a recruit's potential. Instead, the staff puts significant stock in how a recruit looks in person.
"Our eye evaluation is the most critical," Fisher said. "It's hard to evaluate a guy on tape. You can never truly evaluate a guy, in my opinion, until he's been told what to do. Maybe he hasn't been told that, or he has been and he can't process it."
The best way to make that eye evaluation and determine how a recruit will take to coaching is through a football camp.
"When they get to camp, we can see them together, and I can get my eyes on them," Fisher said. "A large majority of those (underrated recruits) were all camp guys. Almost all of those players were able to come to our camp so we were able to see them in person and really evaluate.
"We test them not only in their character, work ethic and intelligence, but in their ability to learn and where they are in their development. We can see how much potential they have in the future."
Another aspect of the evaluation process that Fisher has taken to the next level is a scientific breakdown of a recruit's physical makeup. By gathering physical measurements early, the coaching staff can more easily determine if a prospect will have the tools that will enable him to achieve at an high level in college.
"We spend a lot of time with our body development things in where a guy's wingspan is, what his family is, his genetics, his hand size, his head size, what's the width of his shoulders, arm length, is he a high-hip guy or a low-hip guy, where is height at and things like that," Fisher said. "All those things to me really factor in because size does matter in this sport. Now, Lamarcus Joyner and Greg Reid were two of the best players I've ever had and they were small guys. Small guys can play the game but as a general consensus size does matter."
The study of body types during the evaluation process is commonplace in the NFL but not as much in college. Fisher embraced the science of evaluation early as an assistant coach at LSU and that study has continued and been refined since he took over as FSU's head coach.
"Over time with evaluations in studying history, and I think there was a big emphasis from the NFL people, which I got a lot from," Fisher said. "Coach (Nick) Saban was big in that process and probably brought that to my attention the most. I think we really started to develop that when we were down there, over time looking at the NFL guys and studying it."
The NFL is also taking notice as some early mock drafts project that FSU will have up to six players taken in next year's first round. Not surprisingly, the trend of FSU's sleeper recruits making it big should continue as three of these six - Cameron Erving (2-star), P.J. Williams (3-star) and Tre' Jackson (2-star) - could potentially be first round picks.