February 3, 2009

Coaches look for more than just on-field talent

A 40-yard dash time defines speed. Bench press reps show strength. Vertical jump indicates explosiveness.

All offer tantalizing hints of a football player's potential, but still only reveals just so much.

Sometimes learning about the motor requires peering under the hood.

"Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane" is an old and oft-repeated criticism of a physical specimen who isn't an intense competitor. Athletic ability without desire is a recipe for disappointment and helps explains why some four- and five-star recruits never distinguish themselves in college football.

Competitiveness cannot be measured by exercise or drill, but many coaches feel that intangible quality is just as valuable as speed and strength. Indeed, it can make a player seem faster or stronger. In turn, it can make a good player great, which explains why some two- and three-star prospects develop into legends.

And that's why coaches always are trying to find the quality that is so vital, yet so difficult to identify.

"That's what's hard," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "That's why I like to see [prospects] on a basketball court. I like to see them compete in something.

"I love watching film of Friday night football, but you can't see everything. In the spring you can evaluate. I like to see them in track or baseball. I don't even care if it's one-on-one basketball in P.E. You get a taste of how they approach things."

For a prime example, Nutt remembered his days as coach at Arkansas when he was interested in a kid from Memphis, Tenn., whose video tape was grainy and unclear.

So, Nutt had his basketball game scouted. Turns out Kenny Hamlin, who now is a starter at safety for the Dallas Cowboys, had the qualities Nutt sought.

"We trusted his [high school football] coach and he said, 'This kid is a player,' " Nutt said. "We saw him in a basketball game and he was very competitive. Sometimes kids are hesitant, but you could see how he wanted to compete and wanted to make plays. I knew he was the kind of guy I wanted in our locker room."

By the time Hamlin left Arkansas after his junior season, he had earned All-SEC recognition, was the first player in school history with at least 100 tackles in three consecutive seasons and set a school record with 381 tackles while also deflecting 28 passes and intercepting nine.

There are times when a prospect looks like a fierce competitor because he's dominating lesser competition. That mistake has been made more than once. But coaches at some schools have to look even harder for that competitive quality because they don't typically attract the top-flight athletes.

Northwestern is a highly respected academic institution, but its football program isn't as esteemed. Before Wednesday, Northwestern had not signed a four- or five-star prospect since 2002.

Therefore, if Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald needs players with a competitive edge, he looks hard for it.

"It goes back to the relationship you have with coaches at the high school and junior college level," Fitzgerald said. "You ask [a recruit's] coach in initial interviews and find out about his character. That's the cut. You have to find kids that love football."

Coach Mack Brown doesn't have issues coaxing great athletes to Texas, but he's also looking for the competitive spirit. He also acknowledges that recognizing it is a tough job.

"You just don't know," Brown said. "You go with your heart and hope it works out. When you're evaluating, the most important thing to ask is, "Do they have character?' "

Brown certainly found that in 2005 with quarterback Colt McCoy, a three-star prospect whose competitive spirit was obvious. He committed to the Longhorns even though five-star prospect Ryan Perrilloux also had pledged to Texas.

"He wasn't worried about who was there," Brown said. "[Texas] was his top school and had a chance to win a national championship. He was not concerned a bit when people brought it up that 'you're the other guy.' "

Perrilloux, who reneged on his commitment and went to LSU, became the "other guy" instead. Last summer, he was dismissed after repeated off-field incidents and transferred to Jacksonville State.

Meanwhile, McCoy is a three-year starter for the Longhorns who has passed for almost 10,000 yards and 85 touchdowns in his career and this past season was the Heisman runner-up.

He's done all that even though his 40 time, bench press and vertical jump weren't that great. Well, not as great as his competitiveness.

Heisman review

Sometimes vindication takes five years.

My 2003 Heisman Trophy vote went to Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was the best player I saw that season. Second on my ballot was Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning.

This resulted in hate mail from legions of Oklahoma fans, who protested my shunning of Sooners quarterback Jason White.

Though White won the Heisman, I felt he wasn't even the best player on his offense. Personally, I was more impressed with OU receiver Mark Clayton.

So after Fitzgerald scored two Super Bowl touchdowns, which gave him seven in the playoffs this season, I felt vindicated, especially considering Manning was MVP of last season's Super Bowl.

But I should also face up to my mistakes, too. In 2002, I voted for Iowa quarterback Brad Banks instead of USC quarterback Carson Palmer, who won, or Penn State running back Larry Johnson.

I didn't get much hate mail that year. I should have.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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