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Recruiting hardly an exact science

Offensive linemen are the hardest to project.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001


Central Florida assistant coach Darin Hinshaw is responsible for a vast area of fertile recruiting territory ranging from just south of Ocala up through Gainesville and Lake City and into southern Georgia.

Some great football players have come from this region. UCF legend Daunte Culpepper is from Ocala. Florida, Georgia and Florida State have mined dozens of great players from the area.

Last year, after scouring the landscape for prospects and making careful evaluations, Hinshaw concluded there were six offensive linemen the Golden Knights should recruit from his zone. He brought videotape of the six back to Orlando for UCF offensive line coaches Scott Fountain and Robert McFarland to review.

They liked one; they rejected five.

"I thought I had five or six good offensive linemen," said Hinshaw, a UCF wide receiver from 1991-94 who is the quarterbacks coach. "But (they) thought only one. The guys didn't fit what (they) were looking for."

Such is the fickle nature of football recruiting, especially with regard to offensive linemen. A survey of high school and college coaches and recruiting experts reveals the "Big Uglies" are the hardest to project success for from high school to college.

"Offensive line is the hardest (to evaluate)," recruiting analyst Bobby Burton said. "Heart, desire, aptitude mean more on offensive line than anywhere else, and you never know about those things until you coach them. And the majority of them aren't mature yet physically, either.

"So much of offensive line has to do with work ethic, and that's so hard to tell when you're recruiting," Burton said.

College coaches concur.

"Offensive line (is the toughest), that's been my experience," said USF assistant Wally Burnham, who has been recruiting the state since 1985 as an assistant for Florida State, South Carolina and USF. "You see the 6-foot-3, 280-pounder, but it's hard to see how much they're going to mature.

"We've probably missed more of those guys than any other position."

Among the reasons:

Usually offensive linemen are going against much smaller players in high school and are not tested. In college, they have to block guys their own size.

They have more room to develop physically than other (smaller) positions. Some develop a lot; some don't.

Offensive line is perhaps the most cerebral position on the field, and blocking schemes are much more complex in college.

Offensive line requires grit and determination on an every-play basis, and the desire to compete can be hard to measure.

"Does he get scared against good competition. What's he made of?" Hinshaw said. "It's the character of the kid that determines how he does."

"An offensive lineman has to be a battler, a warrior," Burnham said. "Sometimes they don't have that competitive personality."

Physical growth projections are a factor for offensive line more than other positions.

Admiral Farragut offensive lineman Adam Butcher, a UCF commitment, is 6-4, 278, but he has been told by his doctor he will grow another 2 to 3 inches. Butcher said college coaches seemed more interested in him after he showed them his doctor's report.

Florida State made an accurate projection in 1993 with Tra Thomas, an offensive tackle who became a 1998 first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles.

"Ronnie Cottrell (a former FSU assistant) recruited him out of DeLand even though he wasn't really a good high school football player. He was a good basketball player," said veteran recruiting analyst Bill Buchalter of the Orlando Sentinel.

"(Thomas) just went through the motions in (football) practice. There was nobody to challenge him. Cottrell said, "I've got to take a chance on a guy that big and athletic.' It took a few years, but he really became a good one," Buchalter said.

The 6-8 Thomas was 280 pounds when he signed with the Seminoles. By the time he was drafted, he weighed 349.

"You try to get kids who can grow into their bodies and be taught technique," Buchalter said.

While "bigger is better" would seem to be a no-brainer theory on offensive linemen, sometimes it doesn't hold up.

"Sometimes they get bigger and better, sometimes they get bigger and slower," Burnham said. "It's a mystery."

What is the most difficult position to project after offensive line? Most say defensive back, specifically cornerback.

"DBs are next toughest," Burton said. "If you see them in person in a good situation, you can evaluate them in a heartbeat. But on film? We do a lot of evaluation by videotape, and these guys are almost never in the play. They just aren't in the footage as much."

Some think cornerbacks are harder to project than offensive linemen.

"You just don't see cornerbacks in the film a lot, and a lot don't play bump-and-run coverage or get a lot of experience playing the pass," UCF assistant coach Alan Gooch said. "You need to watch them closely in practice and in games. They don't get much one-on-one pass coverage."

"The hardest for (college coaches) to find are DBs," Seminole High coach Sam Roper said. "It's not a normal thing to run backwards. Then they have to break on the ball and have good closing speed. And there are four different positions back there -- there's so much to evaluate."

On the flip side are the skill positions, which tend to be the easiest to grade because they frequently have the ball and ample opportunity to demonstrate their ability. The attacking defensive players, the linemen and linebackers, tend to be easier to evaluate than defensive backs.

Still, players at any position can be overlooked or overrated.

Santana Moss, who's expected to be a first-round selection in the NFL draft this spring, was a walk-onfor Miami. He came to Miami on a track scholarship after playing receiver in a run-oriented offense at Miami Carol City, yet he almost immediately cracked the Hurricanes' receiving rotation.

"How did that kid get missed?" Hinshaw wondered, noting that Moss' height, 5-7, probably was a factor. "All of the scholarships given out in Florida and that kid got missed? It's amazing.

"You've got to take the media and the numbers and everything and throw it out the window. It's what you see on film, what you see in person. Numbers are nice, but we look at ability."

Ability has been harder to gauge for the big guys on the offensive line than anywhere else. In the recruiting game, offensive linemen are the enigmas.

"Some kids who dominate in high school get to college and it doesn't happen right away," Gooch said. "When they don't have that immediate success, some of them fold their tent."

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