Column: Recruit rankings missing a critical new element of recruiting shift

The college football transfer portal has added a new twist to college football recruiting and a confounding challenge for those who attempt to rank college football signing classes.

You may have noticed the rankings do not consider transfer players. At all. While Florida State’s seven signed transfers , many of whom have significant collegiate playing time, count against the NCAA limit of 25 incoming players. Schools like FSU receive no points in the ranking for transfers, who like McKenzie Milton have already adapted to the speed of the college game (with 8,000 passing yards) but would have scored points for a pimple-faced playe, facing a daunting adjustment to the speed of the college game.

Strange, right? 

Listen, I don’t blame the services who rank the classes, nor am I trying to gaslight FSU’s 2021 recruiting class. The portal is new and I suspect in years to come the recruting services will find a way to factor those transfers into the rankings. The portal has now become a major factor in recruiting, much more so than players coming from the junior college ranks (Koby Gross counts toward the 2021 class rankings for FSU).

Below are the 247Sports’ 2021 team recruiting rankings for ACC schools, which factor in just the 17 high school or junior-college signees for FSU.

Let me be very clear about my personal beliefs as I move into my sixth decade of following recruiting. It matters. For all it’s flaws, there has always been a significant correlation between class rankings and future results.

Here are a half dozen of my observations based on six decades of following the most fan-interactive aspect of college fooball. 

1. Context to the rankings

FSU earned a No. 22 ranking according to 247Sports. Like other services, 247 bases their ranking on the total number of high school and junior college kids a school signs. As mentioned previously, this leaves seven of FSU’s 24 signees out of the total points. The services also offer an average rating of the players signed and if you rank the classes by the average rating, rather than the total points, FSU’s 17 high school players would rank No. 19, jumping Ole Miss, Nebraska and Maryland. If the services included the seven signed transfers, two of whom were four-star players in high school, FSU’s ranking may have climbed a touch higher (15 or 16).

Yes, other schools also signed transfer players but no one signed as many as FSU. Of the top 20 teams in the 247 Sports ranking, the top seven schools signed no transfers. Two schools — Oklahoma (No. 11 in the ranking) and Florida (13) — signed five, Southern Cal (8), Texas (17) and Nebraska (20) signed four, Miami (12) and Tennessee (16) signed three, Notre Dame (9), Michigan (10), North Carolina (14), Ole Miss (18) and Maryland (19) signed one each.

2. Whether No. 15 of No. 22, this class ain’t bad

No matter how you slice it, this class ranking is good for this (15-month-old) coaching staff. And it is damn near miraculous coming off a 3-6 season and the Covid restrictions. I don’t think there’s much question the Covid restrictions, which eliminated face to face contact with prospects or high school coaches, disproportionately affected said young coaches more than programs who have longstanding relationships with coaches and prospects in their primary recruiting area. It should come as a relief to those of us who were worried about this particular FSU coaching staff which, other than Odell Haggins and Ron Dugans, was relatively new to the area. The young and energetic Norvell proved he can recruit even with one arm tied behind his back. 

“When you look at this signing class it is a wonderful mix,” Norvell said. “There’s a tremendous group of high school players that are going to be joining our program. There are junior college and four-year transfers that will be coming in. All bring tremendous value not only to who we are but where we are going. This is going to be a key class to push our program toward where we want to go. Great football players but also just tremendous young men. There is potential for a couple more additions within this class. We addressed many of our needs not only immediately but also for what the future holds for this program.” 

3. Class could be better than its ranking

As noted, this is not a top 10 class but, in actuality, it may be better than its ranking, especially in the short term. The late Gene McDowell, who coordinated recruiting in the years prior to becoming head coach at the University of Central Florida, was a mentor to me when the Osceola first started in 1982. Mac impressed upon me that the true value of a recruiting class, what you really need to concern yourself with, is simply need. Did you meet your needs. If you did, you’ve had a successful class. Forget about what other schools signed. Did you properly identify your needs and get them signed?

“We spent a lot of time identifying our needs,” Norvell said. “I’m excited about the group of young men we have returning on this team but it’s also about surrounding them with the right pieces.”

Generally, meeting your needs means getting a player at every position needed, to improve your roster. I think FSU did meet its position needs at quarterback, wide receiver, defensive ends/linebackers and in the secondary. I would like to see them get an offensive and defensive lineman, which I think they can still do by August. But I think Mac would agree, meeting your needs has a much broader meaning. Meeting your needs could also mean improving the intangibles — needs like — work ethic, “want to,” dependability, unselfishness, program pride — which have been sorely missing round here for five years. 

“It’s about finding the right fit not only from the physical skill set — those three receivers can impact this football team day one — but also the right mindset,” Norvell said. “We hit an absolute home run at that position.”

Only time will tell, but the tea leaves tell me FSU went a long way toward meeting both physical and intangible needs at a lot of positions.

FSU’s No. 1 need was to transition players out and to find the right transfers to bring in. Make no mistake about this being a transition class. I’ve always believed you don’t fix a problem by firing someone. You fix it by replacing them with someone who can get it done. FSU needed to replace players who either didn’t want to be at FSU or didn’t have the skill sets needed. Both require skilled evaluators.

Norvell needed to help the players leaving find a new home as much as he needed to replace them with players who could have success here. Don’t sleep on the first part of that sentence. Transitioning 13 players out in good academic standing affects the team’s Academic Performance Rating, which FSU has had to focus on the past three years. Players who transfer with a 2.6 or better GPA don’t count against your APR so it was imperative FSU stayed on top of players entering the portal in terms of attending class and study hall. It’s also important to help them fulfill their football dreams, wherever that is, as the attitude they take with them from FSU is important in building relationships with their high school coaches. Time will tell but I think FSU took a big step forward with this roster flip. 

4. Transfers can be leaders

The composition of FSU’s roster was 75 percent underclassmen at the end of the 2020 season, so there was clearly a need to inject experienced junior and seniors by signing the right transfers. I must confess, when the transfer portal first surfaced, I thought it would be a good place to find instant fixes at a specific position but not a place you would look to find the leadership it takes to change a culture. I was wrong and so were a lot of other old school coaches. Look at Devontay Love-Taylor and Jashaun Corbin, who proved to me transfers can become leaders quickly. So can guys like McKenzie Milton and six other incoming veterans. 

“We want to have great balance within our roster and when you look at our roster this past year we were 75 percent of it was freshmen and sophomores,” Norvell said. “So to be able to add the experience we have been able to bring in. Some of those guys are still going to be in their sophomore or junior class (as a transfer). When you are able to bring in guys that understand what it takes, they have already had that production at the college level. That helps kind of bridge the (experience and leadership) gap. We are able to add tremendous leadership but also guys at the high school level who fit in with what we are trying to do moving forward, who already have production at the college level.”

5. Caveat to meeting needs

There will come a day when FSU can meet its position needs with more four- and five-star prospects who possess the intangibles but today is not that day. This class can help the program improve from a 3-6 season to a winning season, which is the next step in the Norvell program progression. And if the coaches did a good job of evaluating the intangibles, the seven four-star and 10 three-star players — and the seven transfer players — will bring the “want to” it takes to get to eight or more wins. Once Norvell establishes his program with 7 or more wins, then the door will open to more four- and five-star players with the intangibles lacking in some highly-rated players.

6. Evaluations were critical

A wise college coach once told me that any good salesman can be a good recruiter but very few coaches are good evaluators. It is amazing how many three-, four- or five-star players FSU has signed over the past 10 years who could not play dead in a cowboy movie. With Covid keeping coaches on campus and not being able to evaluate on high school campuses, I give the coaches props for leaning heavily into signing players with whom they had a prior relationship in the recruiting areas before signing on with Norvell at FSU.

Recruiting coordinator and runningback coach David Johnson is one example. “Coach Johnson is No. 1 heart-led. It is all about relationships,” Norvell said about the former New Orleans St. Augustine high school coach. “The relationships he still has there not only in the city of New Orleans but also the state and the Southeast region. He is a great coach but just a wonderful person. To be able to rely on those relationships especially in a year like this, where we weren’t able to get out as much as we wanted to be in the homes and to share the vision face to face, evaluating all aspects was big. To be able to pull a couple of the best players in the City of New Orleans to Florida State is exciting for now and even for our classes moving forward. 

I think the portal also helped Norvell with evaluation as the college transfers enabled him to be a little more judicious in evaluating and approving the remaining high school kids. If you can’t get a kid you want from high school, take an transfer who you have a better chance to evaluate.

“I mentioned some of the restrictions we’ve had due to the dead period not being able to get out in person and have those in-person evaluations,” Norvell said. “When you get guys who have already done it at (the college) level you get a better sample base of who they are and how they fit in what we are trying to do.”

As we say with each and every recruiting class — even those in the top 10 — only time will tell but I for one believe the transfer portal came along at exactly the right time for Mike Norvell to turn this Florida State program around a couple of years earlier than if there was no portal. I see the day coming soon, when Florida State will have the standing and the relationships to pull top-rated kids out of the Sunshine State. When that day comes, I think we’ll see less portal players but for right now I see the portal as a godsend.