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Star search — who determines star rankings, and what do they really mean?

The two biggest recruiting services shed light on the star-ranking process and dispel some myths

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Corner Canyon High’s Van Fillinger, right, and Josh Wilson smile after signing National Letters of Intent in Draper, Utah.

Corner Canyon High’s Van Fillinger, right, and Josh Wilson smile after signing their National Letters of Intent in Draper, Utah, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Fillinger signed with University of Utah and Wilson signed with BYU.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Galileo used a telescope to identify the stars. College football uses Rivals.com and 247Sports.com to do the same. Through his lens Galileo discovered the Milky Way. Through the evaluation process, the recruiting services help programs like BYU and Utah discover future stars.

Without Rivals and 247sports, determining which players are the best in the country would be like searching for a needle in a nationwide haystack. There are too many kids on too many teams for coaches who have too little time and too many recruiting restrictions to find them.

“A lot of coaches love to say they don’t rank guys off the star system, whether you want to believe that or not, I don’t know,” said Rivals.com national recruiting director Adam Gorney. “We are trying to rank the best high school football players as we see them.”

Ranking the nearly 5,000 kids each year is an enormous task. The schools, however, who attract players with the most stars, are the ones beating their chests on ESPN every signing day.

The process may be subjective and even arbitrary, but signing stars are seen by fans as the gold standard for a college football program, and that makes the people awarding those stars some of the most powerful influencers in the game.

So how do they do it?

Star trek

 A five-star ranking for a high school football player doesn’t come by accident. It doesn’t come from playing in the fall either. Most of those determinations are done long before two-a-day workouts and way before a player’s senior year.

The trek begins at the numerous football camps held throughout the year from coast to coast that are attended by analysts from 247Sports.com and Rivals.com.        

“That’s where evaluators see them up close and personal,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Jeff Hansen, who focuses on BYU recruiting and runs the website cougarsportsinsider.com. “The camps play a bigger role than a season simply because an evaluator may only get to one or two games during the fall. But they can go and see 200 kids at a camp who are rated and going to play college football.”

The kids at these camps are getting attention earlier than ever.

“As you look at our database, we have 60 eighth-graders with offers and double that for freshman and it just goes up from there,” said Gorney. “I live in California where almost every high-level high school program has a recruiting coordinator. They have a list of 25 kids and make sure those kids get to camps. We attend camps every week to watch them.”

Both Rivals and 247Sports evaluate the campers for their NFL potential, not college potential, and treat it like a combine with the focus on size, speed and potential development.

“It takes a keen eye to figure out the difference between a two- or three-star guy, but almost anybody can show up at a camp and say, this five-star kid is clearly better than the others,” said Hansen. “The athletic side and physical side and projecting on development has a bigger role than the average person realizes.”

The opportunity also favors those who can afford to attend the camps. Kids at the camps get the stars and, in most cases, the scholarships.

There are exceptions. BYU’s Payton Wilgar is one of them.

The sophomore linebacker out of St. George arrived at BYU without a scholarship. He was a star at Dixie High, but because money was tight, and he didn’t attend any camps and without any recruiting stars, he didn’t get a single offer — not even from the Cougars.

“Certainly, there are those that slip through the cracks,” Gorney said. “We’ve hit on a lot of guys, and we have missed on some. Trying to project the future is challenging.”

Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Payton Wilgar, who underwent shoulder surgery last November, is expected back for fall camp.

BYU linebacker Payton Wilgar celebrates a sack during game against Arizona at the Vegas Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Wilgar didn’t have the opportunity to attend any of the recruiting camps that attract scouts but still found a home at BYU first as a walk-on and later a scholarship player.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Wilgar turned a walk-on season into a scholarship and head coach Kalani Sitake believes he will play in the NFLwhen his BYU career is over.

Star wars

247Sports.com is owned by Paramount, which owns CBS Sports. The company bought the recruiting service outright in 2015 after three years of a content-sharing partnership. It added some muscle by purchasing the competing Scout.com in 2017.

Rivals.com began its recruiting service in 1998 and was purchased by AllianceSports in 2001. Rivals former boss, Jim Heckman, left the company to start a competing network, The Insiders, which was later renamed Scout.com.

Yahoo! Inc. purchased Rivals.com in 2007 for an estimated $100 million.

While top programs like Alabama and Georgia fight over high school football’s biggest stars, Rivals and 247Sports also square off over awarding the stars. 

“At 247 we use a team of evaluators,” Hansen said. “They review film of every player before they extend a rating. Local and regional evaluations go to our national (nine member) committee, and they determine who gets a star and how many; 247 tries to evaluate on NFL potential, not college potential.”

Hansen uses Britain Covey as an example. 247sports ranked the former Timpview all-purpose athlete as a three-star prospect prior to his signing at Utah. Covey finished as the Utes’ all-time leading punt returner, No. 4 in career receptions (184) and No. 6 in receiving yards (2,011).

“A kid like Covey looked like he was going to be a great college player,” Hansen said. “But no scout is going to say he is going to be a bona fide NFL player. So, his star ranking stayed at three.”

merlin_2901905.jpg

Utah receiver Britain Covey (18) is congratulated after scoring against Ohio State in the 108th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Covey was a three-star recruit, but because scouts often award stars based on NFL potential, he didn’t get rated higher. Now Covey is preparing for the NFL draft, hoping to prove that he does have an NFL game.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Rivals is also looking for future NFL stars in how it ranks high school players. Once it has collected data from camps, coaches and field reporters, a committee of five determine who gets a star and how many. As the national recruiting director, Gorney has the final say.

The decision can be a game-changer for a young player.

“A five-star is someone we project to be an immediate contributor in college and a potential first round NFL draft pick,” Gorney said. “A four-star will be an immediate contributor and big-time player in the program and will be between a second- and fifth-round draft pick.”

Brandon Huffman has been evaluating high school players for 20 years. He is 247Sports’ national recruiting editor and sits on its nine-person committee, which assigns stars and also defends them.

“We are basically betting on the physical and mental development of these kids and how they will project as a potential NFL player four or five years later,” Huffman said. “We have made a lot them household names in our daily coverage. Some have handled it well and some haven’t. It’s a projection and you are blindly doing it with no understanding of how this player is going to develop. But it’s an ongoing projection that can change as they grow older.”

Star power

Imagine the weight of a 15-year-old kid being judged by evaluators on what round he will be drafted years before he steps onto a college campus, and that their evaluation will greatly influence the colleges that recruit him.

Is it too much?

“It would be foolish to say we don’t place unrealistic expectations on kids. We are responsible for a lot of that,” Huffman said. “People overestimate the power we have. They also underestimate it. But we don’t offer the scholarships. We don’t make the promises. So much of the blame is put on the recruiting services for putting those expectations on young kids. I’m not the one who offered an eighth-grader. (BYU’s) Kalani Sitake did that, and he has multiple times.”

Huffman acknowledges the process can be unfair and sometimes their projections prove to be wrong, as in the case of former BYU quarterback Jake Heaps.

“When Jake came out of high school, he was a five-star, the No. 1 quarterback in the country,” he said. “After his freshman year (2010) it looked like we hit on that one. But after his sophomore year (2011) it looked like we missed the boat. He eventually transferred and made it to a few NFL camps, but that was it.”

BYU senior linebacker Chaz Ah You went searching for the stars beginning in the seventh grade.

“He told me he wanted to be a national recruit,” said his father and BYU recruiting coordinator Jasen Ah You. “To get those stars, you’ve got to go to these camps and compete against the best of the best. We went to camps in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Oakland, Oklahoma, we went all over.”

Ah You’s approach paid off and as his stars climbed up to four by both 247Sports and Rivals, the offers followed. The Timpview product received 23 offers, including Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Oregon, Oklahoma State and BYU. He signed with the Cougars in 2017.

For BYU freshman quarterback Jacob Conover, a high school standout in Arizona, his evaluations also began early, whereas freshman quarterback Cade Fennegan’s assessment came later. 

“Evaluators have it a little tough. They are playing with kids,” Hansen said. “Conover, as a 14- 15-year-old, breaks onto the scene and looks like he’s going to be good.”

Conover played in 39 games at Chandler High and finished with 10,098 passing yards, 102 touchdowns and three state championships. In addition to BYU, he received P5 offers from Alabama, Arizona State and Arizona.

247Sports tagged Conover as a four-star prospect, while Fennegan, who threw for 6,454 yards and 94 touchdowns in 32 games as the winningest quarterback in the history of Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas, was given just two stars.

AP20316381703611__1_.jpg

Boise State quarterback Cade Fennegan prepares to throw during game Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Boise, Idaho. Despite being the winningest QB at a prominent Texas high school, Fennegan was only a two-star recruit.

Steve Conner, Associated Press

Fennegan didn’t receive any P5 offers out of high school. The two quarterbacks are in spring practice battling for the No. 2 job as Jaren Hall’s backup this fall.

“In that initial ranking as a 15-year-old, Conover looked two stars better than a guy like Fennegan would look at 15. Zach Wilson at 15 didn’t look like half the player he was as a senior,” Hansen said. “A flaw in the system is recruiting really happens when you are a sophomore and junior. That’s when you get onto the coaches’ lists. If you are like Zach, and don’t break out until you are a senior, the whole recruiting process can overlook you. That’s when guys fly under the radar.”

247Sports ranked Wilson as a three-star prospect out of Corner Canyon High in Draper. Wilson left BYU after his junior season to play for the New York Jets as the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. BYU has already offered Wilson’s younger brother Isaac as a quarterback in the class of 2024.

Tyler Allgeier arrived at BYU as a walk-on with no stars from either 247Sports or Rivals and yet, he left early for the NFL draft after last year as the all-time single-season rushing leader in program history.

One debatable difference between 247Sports and Rivals is the perception that Rivals will raise a player’s star rating based on the number of P5 offers he receives. That is a notion the recruiting service refutes.

“We take it into consideration, but it doesn’t mean we are going to change their ranking,” Gorney said. “Social media has taken a huge role in the recruiting. It seems like everybody offers a lot of kids. There are teams that offer 200 kids for 25 spots. How much of an impact can an offer have on a ranking? Offers are important. They make us revisit a player and take a second look, but it doesn’t automatically change it.”

Star gazers

“We are not going to chase stars.”

BYU defensive end coach Preston Hadley raised more than a few eyebrows among Cougars fans after his spring signing day media session.

“I know everyone wants to make a big deal about stars, but we have had a lot of players who are making a lot of plays for us and impacting the game who didn’t have any stars, but they did have the measurables — the length, speed and athleticism that we look for. I know everyone gets worked up about recruiting classes and everything but those don’t always correlate. At least not with us. We have a proven system that works.”

BYU’s national recruiting ranking this spring was No. 53, including former five-star offensive tackle Kingsley Suamataia, who transferred from Oregon.

“To a lot of fans that may not seem very good, but the difference is one recruit. If one more four-star committed to BYU, they would go from 53 to 39, that’s how tightly congested the middle of the pack is,” said Hansen. “If BYU had landed Jaxson Dart, their overall recruiting ranking would have been a top-30 class. As it was, he goes somewhere else (Ole Miss) and BYU ranks outside the top 50.”

Sitake has one more class to sign before BYU elevates to P5 status and joins the Big 12. While the Cougars may not purposely go chasing stars, they will gladly receive them if anyone should fall their way.

Hansen projects BYU to be in the mix for 10 players who are four-star recruits or higher.

“If they get three or four of those 10, they’ll be knocking on the door of the top 30,” he said. “To be firmly in the top 30, probably five or six need to come. I feel really good about four of them and sort of good about two others.”

BYU’s recruiting starts at home, but it’s growing and the Big 12 is a game-changer.          

“Our core base will be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Sitake said on signing day. “We will look that way first and obviously, it’s important for us to expand across the country.”

“If there is one thing Utah football has held over BYU it’s that they are a P5 and BYU is an independent. Now (with the Big 12) the field is even,” said Huffman. “You can now put BYU potentially in the mix with Oregon and USC as West Coast schools who have a national reach. It will be a lot easier for BYU to convince a kid to come to a Big 12 school and not be playing Coastal Carolina on a Thursday night.”

Star search

With recruiting targeting younger players and the price of fame and success in college football growing larger, the search for future stars will only intensify. Rivals and 247Sports plan to stay in the middle of it all, but within some realm of reason.

“You have websites out there right now ranking fourth- and fifth-graders,” said Huffman. “We won’t even do our first evaluations until just before a player’s sophomore year. We won’t do a full evaluation until they have played two years of high school football.”

“You have websites out there right now ranking fourth- and fifth-graders. We won’t even do our first evaluations until just before a player’s sophomore year. We won’t do a full evaluation until they have played two years of high school football.” — Brandon Huffman, 247Sports’ national recruiting editor

Watching, evaluating, projecting and selling those projections is an endless endeavor.

“It’s like The New York Times and The Washington Post,” Gorney said of the two major recruiting services. “We are the two that do this, and we have done it the longest. We respect each other’s work, but we aren’t sharing information. They go to events and see guys. We go to events and see guys. In the end, we come to conclusions and put out the rankings.”

“I think the star system does an incredible job of getting the best of the best,” said Hansen. “The resources aren’t there to be incredibly accurate on evaluating 5,000 kids every single year. Does it work? I think it does, but I do think it is insufficient given the number of players signing scholarship agreements every year.”

Contrary to what is sometimes said by a coach who downplays the star rankings to protect his players who may have slipped under the radar, they matter and are certainly noticed. Stars attract offers and offers attract more offers.

“I know for us, everybody looks at the offers, every college looks,” said Jason Ah You. “The first thing you look at with a recruit is who is offering? You go through the list to see how many of those are P5 programs? You notice if Alabama offers or Oklahoma offers, and it may cause us to reevaluate a kid and see if we missed in our observations.”

There are an estimated 16,000 high school football teams in the United States. That translates to about 16,000 quarterbacks every year and even more receivers, running backs and linemen with just 14 people (nine from 247Sports and five from Rivals) to determine each player’s star value. Their power and influence are almost out of this world. And, while none of them are astronomers, they are, in their own way, a little like Galileo looking through various lenses trying to identify what’s out there.

Galileo was a pioneer in star-searching and would be the first to support the notion that our future is written in the stars — he’d just be a little surprised that we are referring to college football and not the cosmos.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.