Fans always enjoy following their school’s alumni playing in the pro leagues. They get used to seeing a college star struggle to make it on the bigger stage of the NFL. They never get used to seeing the less-heralded player's (i.e. "scrub") star shine brighter in the pros than his more recognized teammates. This is a good part of the year to take a look at some of the unknown Longhorns that became NFL stars.
Spec Sanders was a backup back on Bible’s great Longhorn teams of 1940 – 1941. I can’t find any mention of him making significant plays in any of the games in that period. That was the single-platoon era, so to an extent he was the victim of the rules of his time (in a two-platoon period he certainly would have started in either the offensive or defensive backfield).
He attracted somebody’s attention because he was drafted 6th in the NFL’s 1st round in 1942. WWII delayed his NFL career, but from 1946 – 1949, he was one of the biggest offensive stars of the All-American Football League (the NFL rival dominated by the Browns), and after the merger played another few years on defense for the Giants (where his teammate was a fellow Longhorn war veteran Tom Landry). I have an old football book from the late ‘40s that describes him as the game’s best player. His star was not able to shine long, but it certainly shone bright.
I’m not sure that I should include Bob Young, who starred for 16 years in the NFL as a guard, mostly for the Cardinals. He started his collegiate career at Texas, but finished at Howard Payne. I think it’s safe to say that when he left Austin, few expected him to become an NFL All-Pro. He was an early adapter of weight training and nutritional (cough, cough) supplements. Let’s just put him in here and let him represent Joe Don Looney, JaMarcus Webb, and all other star players who flunked out, quit, or were kicked of the Longhorn team, and still made it to the pros.
George Sauer, Jr., was a starter at end for Royals’ first batch of great teams in the early ‘60s. Few realized how skilled he was because those were not the teams to display pass-catching skills on. He played six years for the Jets, and was a star of their Superbowl team. Although he never led the Longhorns in receptions (some years, eight catches would have been enough), he might still be Texas’ most accomplished alumni wide out in the pros. Alfred Jackson had a similar experience (much more attention in the NFL than in college), but I’m going with Sauer because of his ring (besides, Alfred Jackson’s post-football life in the business world is outshining even his terrific pro career).
Priest Holmes could have/should have been a bigger star in college. Injuries held him back, although he certainly had his moments. He was a huge star in the NFL, perhaps the dominant all-purpose back of his time.
Marcus Wilkins was a top-rated recruit from Round Rock, and reeling him in was one of the major coups of Mack Brown’s first year recruiting. He was promptly lost in the shuffle, and only picked up 50 non- special teams tackles over a four year career in Austin. He played six years in the NFL, primarily on special teams and as a key sub. He makes this list because he earned an NFL pension (four active years required) while the guys he played behind in college learned how to sell insurance. It’s quite possible that the LB coach at the time, Bull Reese, was kind of neglecting the position.
Know of any others?
How does this last recruiting class rank among Mack’s best? Hell, I don't know. Ask me in three years and I'll tell you. Our 2006 and 2007 classes were highly rated, too, but ended as huge disappointments, particularly on offense.
Mack has had some great classes. 1999's class restocked our talent and finished in the Top 5 (2001) for the 1st time in 18 years. 2002, of course, was the major component of the MNC team. 2005 was not highly ranked, due to its size (only 15 commits), but 7 of them ended up drafted. 2011 is looking good so far.
I saw a WSJ article recently that said 46% of 5-stars get drafted, 19% of 4-stars do too, and 9% of 3stars are also drafted. Here's a look at UT's recruit classes going back to 2002 (Rivals.com database limit), how many drafted players would be expected based on the above ratios, and how many actually were. I'm not counting players that finish somewhere else and are drafted.
I understand there was some grade inflation with the 2002 5-stars. Still, 2002 and 2005 were the years that really pumped out the stars, and fed MNC runs (or attempts). It looks like Texas has more players drafted than predicted, supporting my belief that we get to pick the better 3 stars. Note that all drafted players post-2005 (i.e. our underperforming classes) were on defense. One side of the ball was napping instead of scouting and recruiting.
Here is how OU did-
Wow, the only 2003 recruits drafted finished up at other schools. Their 2005 - 2006 classes almost provide a NFL lineup. I always thought that the 2004 RRS had the most stars on the field, but I was wrong. The 2008 game was the one the NFL would have liked to back a truck up to.
Here are the Ags-
They actually underperform to their predictions. For all the talk you hear from the Ags about Texas recruiting, and its image-consciousness, they are the ones who seem to obsess about getting 4-stars. At least, that's my guess for their underperforming- that they are taking guys based on their recruit ranking more than their actual scouted ability.
This is just one metric of a class' quality. Others would be wins, total NFL players (even undrafted), things like that. This is an easy one though- compare estimated quality entering to estimated quality leaving.
Scipio has had a lot of great insights in his recruit review posts. He has written a lot about the kind of athletes you take for different positions, where to find them, etc. I’d like to muse a little on this topic, and hope you’ll participate.
He made a great point arguing that in recruiting OL, you should prefer the guy with the great athletic potential but raw technique over the guy with the "okay" physique and polished technique from one of the large "machine" suburban programs in Texas. Can I offer an example in support? I’ve noted the last few years to friends that ex-OL coach McWhorter had yet to recruit, sign, and coach an offensive lineman at Texas that got drafted. There are a few clarifications- Tony Hills was signed as a TE, Studdard and Sendlein were signed as DL, and Blalock was already committed when McWhorter was hired. Still, he had years and years to select and train OL, and none could be drafted? I think the explanation is in Scipio’s point about recruiting OL.
About the guys that made it to the NFL - again, note that Hills, Sendlein and Studdard were recruited for other positions. In other words, they were really good, really big athletes, and took well to the OL position once they received coaching at it. The guys that didn’t make it in the pros – Huey, Ulatoski, Hall, and Tanner- were guys that came to Texas knowing nearly as much about the position as they would know leaving. That explains how these guys could start nearly four years on top teams and yet not interest the NFL. I think that a key mistake we made in OL recruiting was making choices based on how well a guy played in HS, instead of how well he could play after a few years of coaching. I know that there is more to this than putting guys in the NFL. It’s about winning in D-1A, and we did better with the 2005 OL consisting of future pro stars than we did with the 2009 OL consisting of multi-year starters that had nearly peaked out as RS freshmen.
Another position of recruiting failure was Wide Receiver. There are three characteristics of a dominant college receiver- elite size/speed, ability to catch, and willingness to work with the QB after hours. I believe we placed too high a premium on the first characteristic (the easiest to measure). I think we compounded a lot of recruiting mistakes at WR and TE by redshirting guys that struggled to get traction on the depth chart as freshmen, despite having played the position for years. If a guy was a star WR at a Texas 5A HS for three years, and has great size and speed, and can’t challenge for playing time as a freshman, you have to consider that he might just be a bust (the axiom is that the positions farthest from the set football are the easiest for freshmen to make a splash in). Instead of starting a four year clock on these guys, we were giving them extra seasons so they could reach their potential as 5th year role players and backups. Again, refer to Scipio’s post about recruiting great athletes that aren’t automatically slotted for a position they have years of experience at. Those are the guys you want to redshirt, so they can grow and learn their positions in college.
Side note- it’s easy for us to forget that the Texas schoolboy gets a lot more instruction than his peers, even the ones in other football-crazy states like in the southeast. In Texas, football is a credit class with after-school and during-school work. In most other states, it’s all after-school, and the HS staffs aren’t as big. That means the Texas schoolboy is better "out of the box", and college coaches love that. If a recruiting class is like a diversified investment portfolio, the polished Texas schoolboy with good measurables is a "blue chip". The raw athlete is the growth stock. You should take both, and it’s very encouraging that the Texas staff is willing to take on some high potential projects now.
One more musing, about the TE position. Think of what you look for in an elite college TE- good size for blocking, great hands, enough speed in that large frame to make it difficult for a LB or even SS to cover. Do the HS players with those traits actually play TE in HS? Or do the HS coaches figure they will be more effective as Left Tackles, or Wide Receivers? Is the HS player without field stretching speed on the 4A or 5A level ever going to be fast enough to be a consistent mid-range threat in college? At TE, should we be scouting HS Des, LTs, and WRs? Or HS basketball centers?
I’m curious about (most of) your thoughts.