Studying blue-chip freshman wideouts and instant impacts

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Maryland’s signing of wide receiver Stefon Diggs earlier this year was hailed as a recruiting breakthrough for the Terrapins. It was the Terrapins’ most heralded player procurement coup since landing defensive end Melvin Alaeze in 2005.

In the months since, Diggs’ decision provided plenty of optimism for the future, a belief Maryland’s middle-of-the-ACC recruiting fortunes could be on the rise and, perhaps most importantly, something to point to other than last year’s 2-10 record and the long line of players who packed up and left College Park in the first year and change of coach Randy Edsall’s tenure.

Diggs may well prove to be a pivotal figure in the course of Maryland’s football fortunes. Yet what’s fascinating is an underlying sense that he could be a breakout star instantaneously.

Which begs the question: How realistic are those expectations?

Let’s get a disclaimer out of the way: I am neither a recruiting devotee nor a personnel evaluator, and have never professed to be either. But it doesn’t take long to learn to be skeptical of recruiting hype. Usually, it takes time for players to develop and transition from high school to college. There are only a handful of freshman stars every season, in part because of available opportunities and in part because not everyone can instantaneously adapt.

Intuitively, a receiver probably needs at least decent play from his quarterback (the guy getting the wideout the ball) and the offensive line (the guys protecting the guy who gets the wideout the ball) to be effective. It’s not easy to become a superstar wideout without some help.

At the same time, speed is speed, and it can do a lot to permit a player to contribute immediately.

“If you’re a receiver or a defensive back, I think those are probably the easiest positions to be able to make the transition from high school to going in and contributing the very first game that you play in your college career,” Edsall said last week. “I think that’s why you see so many freshmen playing basketball because it doesn’t have so much to do with the physicality of the game, but it’s a little more on the athletic portion of it. You’re not going against certain guys. If you’re on the offensive line, you’re 18 years old going against a 22-, 23-year-old that’s been in a college weight program for four years. That’s tough.”

Edsall said Diggs would “get opportunities” as both a receiver and a return man and “if he can contribute and make plays for us, he’ll be in there.” It was not an unsurprising description.

Yet the whole situation also prompted a question: Just how well do the most hyped receivers fare in their first year out of high school, using every top-five and five-star wideout from Rivals.com since 2002 as the sample size (it comes out to 51 players)?

Some variables are tough to fully account for. Some guys choose programs where there is plenty of incumbent talent. Some don’t qualify. Some get hurt. There are old-fashioned lousy evaluations from recruiting services (which in turn make one freshman’s quiet season vastly and somewhat unfairly more disappointing than another’s in the eyes of fans demanding instant gratification and short-sighted media types).

All that said, it isn’t easy to make an instant impact. Just eight of the 51 wideouts in the study had 500 receiving yards as true freshmen. Only 13 managed 300 receiving yards.

An acknowledgment: The top-five/five-star qualification was made for the sake of a convenient cut-off and not for cherry-picking purposes. It would be remiss, though, not to note the strong freshman years enjoyed by Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson in 2004, Oklahoma’s Malcolm Kelly in 2005 and Louisiana State’s Odell Beckham Jr. in 2011. All three were the No. 6 wideouts in their respective classes and topped 470 yards as true freshmen. Johnson did quite a bit better (48 receptions, 837 yards, 7 TD).

As for the highest ranked players, their immediate impacts can be broken down into four groups: None, Minor (0-200 yards), Moderate (201-500 yards) and Major (501+ yards). Players who earned four-star labels from Rivals are indicated with an asterisk.

NONE

Player, School
YearRec.YardsTD
Dwight Jones, North Carolina
2007000
Andre Debose, Florida
2009  
RS-INJ  
RS-INJ  
RS-INJ   
Robert Meachem, Tennessee
2003RS-INJRS-INJRS-INJ
Kyle Prater, Southern Cal
2010RS-INJRS-INJRS-INJ
David Ausberry*, Southern Cal  
2006RSRSRS
Devon Blackman*, Oregon
2011RSRSRS
Tim Hawthorne*, Auburn
2006RSRSRS
Marquis Johnson, Texas
2002DNQDNQDNQ
Trey Metoyer, Oklahoma2011DNQDNQDNQ
DiShon Platt, Florida State
2002DNQDNQDNQ

 

Roughly one in five of the most touted wideouts of the last decade didn’t manage a catch in their first year out of high school. Metoyer, by the way, spent last fall at Hargrave Military Academy and earned plenty of praise for his work at Oklahoma this past spring.

MINOR

Player, SchoolYear   
Rec.  
Yards   
TD  
Cameron Colvin, Oregon
2004141912
Adarius Bowman*, North Carolina   
2003101812
Patrick Patterson, Ole Miss
2009121801
Andre Caldwell, Florida
2003191740
Reuben Randle, Louisiana State
2009111732
Patrick Turner, Southern Cal
2005121702
Da’Rick Rogers, Tennessee
2010111672
Xavier Carter, Louisiana State
200451182
DeVier Posey, Ohio State
2008111171
Fred Rouse, Florida State
200561141
Ronald Johnson, Southern Cal
200771100
Rhema McKnight*, Notre Dame
20029910
Sean Bailey*, Georgia
20036660
Jarvis Landry, Louisiana State
20114430
George Farmer, Southern Cal
20114420
Chad Jackson, Florida
20033381
Fred Davis, Southern Cal
20044300
Ryan Moore, Miami
20021290
Adron Tennell*, Oklahoma
20062260
Marlon Brown*, Georgia
20092150
Vidal Hazelton, Southern Cal
2006180
Ivan McCartney*, West Virginia
2010140
Markeith Ambles, Southern Cal
2010130
Chris Culliver, South Carolina
2007000

 

This rather large bunch provides the median producer of the 51 players included in the study: DeVier Posey’s 11-117-1 line as a true freshman at Ohio State in 2008.

A few player notes from this group:

Rogers added 12 kickoff returns for 298 yards. … Carter also had 10 kickoff returns for 203 yards. … Rouse also had 11 punt returns for 97 yards and six kickoff returns for 107 yards. …

Johnson had 25 kickoff returns for 620 yards for Southern Cal in 2007 … Moore appeared in a few games early in the 2002 season and eventually took a redshirt. … Culliver barely played as a wideout, but did have 34 kickoff returns for 809 yards to create a tangible impact as a true freshman. South Carolina used him as a defensive back over his final three seasons, and he wound up as a third-round NFL draft pick.

MODERATE

Player, SchoolYear   
Rec.  
Yards   
TD  
Mike Davis*, Texas
2010474782
Mario Manningham*, Michigan
2005274336
Percy Harvin, Florida
2006344272
Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh
2008184043
Lance Leggett, Miami
2004173494
Early Doucet, Louisiana State
2004182572
Terrance Toliver, Louisiana State   2007102493
Ben Obomanu, Auburn
2002172243
Jheranie Boyd*, North Carolina
2009122144

 

Probably the most inaccurately categorized player in this exercise is Harvin, who also had 41 carries for 428 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman during Florida’s national title run in 2006.

MAJOR

Player, SchoolYear   
Rec.  
Yards   
TD  
Team W-L  
Sammy Watkins, Clemson
2011771153710-4
DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss
2008671117127-6
A.J. Green, Georgia
200856963810-3
Julio Jones, Alabama
200858924412-2
Michael Floyd, Notre Dame
20084871927-6
Arrelious Benn, Illinois
20075467629-4
DeSean Jackson, California
20053860178-4
Mohamed Massaquoi*, Georgia    
200538505210-3

 

A few quick observations: Watkins also had 26 kickoff returns for 683 yards and a touchdown, and 2008 was clearly an exceptional year for receivers expected to make an overnight difference. None of the guys who were instantly effective played on bad teams.

Benn’s offensive coordinator was Mike Locksley, who now holds the same position at Maryland. That certainly doesn’t hurt Diggs’ chances of an immediate impact. Nor does the absence of a deep reservoir of established options at Maryland (only seniors Kerry Boykins and Kevin Dorsey have more than 100 career receiving yards). That’s had a way of limiting opportunities elsewhere; just ask the seven uber-touted wideouts at Southern Cal who couldn’t crack 200 yards receiving as freshmen over the last 10 years.

Ultimately this series of charts shows it is not impossible (but also not particularly likely) for highly touted wideouts to make an instant difference. Of the top-five/five-star wideouts of the last 10 years, a dozen managed 400 receiving yards a year out of high school and eleven didn’t have a reception. About half had at least one catch but less than 250 yards.

Strictly a guess: Barring injury, Diggs will receive the opportunity to make at least a moderate impact as a true freshman and surpass the typical touted wideout recruit. If he adjusts to the college game, he’ll probably do a bit better.

Nonetheless, he’ll probably need a fair bit of help – just like nearly all of the recent immediate stars – to produce a truly spectacular debut season. Even with some positional advantages, it still isn’t easy for hyped wideouts to immediately translate their skills in college with any consistency. Maryland fans might want to keep that in mind this fall.

Patrick Stevens

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