Nick Fitzgerald, a two- or three-star recruit, has played like a five-star for Mississippi State.


Long-time readers know my feelings about the star system in college football recruiting. It’s a good conversation piece, but the stars – even four and five at a time – don’t always translate into victories.

Rick Cleveland

If recruiting stars were the be-all, end-all, there’s no reason to even play the Mississippi State-Georgia game in Athens Saturday.

Stars-wise, it’s a total mismatch.

For our purposes today, I am going to use the ratings system. State fans, read it and weep:

• Georgia’s roster includes an even dozen five-star players, compared to State’s one, Jeffery Simmons. And I know what some of you are thinking: If Georgia has 12 Jeffery Simmons, the Peach State Bulldogs ought to just go ahead and petition to join the NFL.

• Georgia’s 85-man roster also is populated by 42 four-star recruits, giving Kirby Smart 54 players at the top two levels. State’s 85-man roster includes 15 four-star players, giving Dan Mullen 16 players at the four- and five-star recruit levels. That’s 54 to 16, if you are keeping score – but, of course, that’s not how we keep score in football.

Mississippi State has 55 three-star athletes, compared to 29 for Georgia. Talent-wise, using the stars system, Georgia has the fourth best team in the country, behind only Alabama, Ohio State and Southern Cal, in that order. Meanwhile, Mississippi State is No. 26, which also makes State the 11th most talented SEC team.

So how come Mississippi State, the 26th most talented team, smashed LSU, the country’s sixth-most talented team 37-7 last Saturday night? Currently, from this viewpoint, State looks like the second best team in the SEC West, but stars-wise, the Bulldogs rank seventh and last.

The fallacy of the system is that two- three-star athletes sometimes develop into five-star players. State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald was a three-star recruit (by, lower by others), LSU’s Danny Etling was a four-star. Whom would you rather have?

At Georgia, five-star quarterback Jacob Eason was injured in the opener, so the Bulldogs’ have turned to four-star Jake Fromm without any noticeable dropoff. But if you think that’s something, consider Georgia’s depth at running back. Nick Chubb, the senior starter, averages 6.6 yards per carry. He’s a five-star. Sony Michel, another senior, is a five-star, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Aptly named DeAndre Swift, a five-star freshman, averages a whopping 7.5 per carry. Three running backs, 15 stars.

But I doubt Mississippi State would want to trade four-star Aeris Williams, who averages seven yards per carry, for any of them.

So what do the stars mean? What does it mean that Georgia has 54 four- and five-star athletes, compared to State’s 16?

Dan Mullen?

“It means they have an awful lot of talent on that Georgia team, but not much else to me,” Mullen answered on the SEC teleconference Wednesday. “You can only have 11 guys on the field at a time. It does tell you that every time they substitute, they are putting a four- or five-star guy in for another four- or five-star. You look at the film, you see how talented they are.”

But how talented someone is at age 17 and 18 doesn’t necessarily translate to how talented they will be at 21 or 22. Some guys develop later. Some guys haven’t been coached up. Some guys get hurt. Some guys just flat work harder. Some guys fit certain systems better.

And some coaches and recruiters evaluate better. Southern Miss used to beat powerhouse teams with zero-, two- and occasional three-star athletes. Jeff Bower was particularly good at that, finding the lean 6-3, 190-pound high school safety, who becomes a 6-4, 260-pound college defensive end.

Deion Calhoun

Clearly, Mullen and his staff have evaluated talent especially well. One example: Starting offensive guard Deion Calhoun, out of Pleasant Grove, Ala., was a two-star recruit, the first Restoration Academy player to ever earn an FBS scholarship. State saw potential most others missed. Calhoun red-shirted as a freshman, became a starter in the bowl game his red-shirt freshman season, started all last year and last Saturday night blocked the socks off LSU’s four- and five-star defensive linemen. He wears Gabe Jackson’s old jersey, No. 61. He plays a lot like him, too. Jackson now makes $11.2 million per year for the Oakland Raiders. State’s two-deep depth chart includes several Deion Calhouns.

It’s a credit to Calhoun and the others, but also to the coaches who evaluated them and then coached them up.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.

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