Looking Back at the Class of 2009: Part Four
By Joey Accordino
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The importance of getting five-star recruits may be overrated, but as LSU and Alabama prove, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
In 2009, Rivals.com evaluated thousands of high school football prospects, from Hawaii to Maine, from Florida to Canada. Of those prospects, 33 were deemed worthy of a five-star ranking, the highest honor bestowed on a high school senior. These athletes are the cream of the crop, future collegiate stars and first-rounders, and for these prospects, leaving school in three years for NFL glory is not an exception; It is an expectation.
Alas, gold stars and all-star game invites do not always equate to gridiron success. Of the 33 players considered to be the most elite in the class of 2009, only two managed to pull off the impressive feat of leaving school in three years to become first round picks: Trent Richardson and Dre Kirkpatrick, both Alabama products. There are far more, including Vontaze Burfict and Garrett Gilbert, that have spectacularly underperformed to this point in their careers. Besides Richardson and Kirkpatrick, 19 other five-stars committed to SEC or ACC schools. In the final part of our series, let’s examine their careers so far, “The File,” and their chances of living up to their pre-college hype, “The Future”.
#25-Chris Davenport, DT/OL, LSU
The File: Davenport came to LSU as a 6’4”, 320 pound defensive tackle, with the frame to be a dominating nose tackle in the NFL. But like so many of his 2009 five-star compatriots, his potential has gone unrealized thus far. Davenport redshirted due to superior talent in front of him (four LSU defensive linemen have been drafted since Davenport enrolled), and played sparingly his redshirt freshman year. He was moved to the offensive line prior to his redshirt sophomore season and started zero games.
The Future: Don’t Hold Your Breath. A former five-star defensive lineman getting moved to offensive line is an indictment of his football skill, plain and simple. He does, however, have two more years to become a top-flight offensive guard. But the clock is ticking, and Davenport certainly hasn’t made much progress yet.
#27-Greg Reid, CB, FSU
The File: Three years and three honorable mention All-ACC teams for Greg Reid. Surely this is not what the college football world expected when Reid was being named “Georgia Player of the Year,” and Florida, FSU, and Georgia were dueling for his collegiate services as a high school senior. Despite running into legal trouble and internal disciplinary issues, Reid has played significant time for all three of his seasons on campus, but has made more of an impact in the return game than as a pure cornerback. That will need to change as he moves into his final season in Tallahassee.
The Future: Possibly Maybe. Reid, like fellow five-star Andre Debose, is a return artist. But the NFL looks at return ability as an added bonus rather than ample justification for drafting a player. Reid certainly has the natural ability to take the next step as a cover corner. If he does, he may fulfill his promise.
#28-Branden Smith, CB, Georgia
The File: Smith is one of the rare two-way high school talents who end up playing both offense and defense at the collegiate level as well. But much like Russell Shepard at LSU, Smith’s versatility may be a hindrance to his development as a corner. Smith has been Brandon Boykin-like during his three years in Athens, catching and rushing on offense, returning kicks, and playing primarily as the third corner in the defensive backfield. Smith will be suspended to begin his senior season as a result of a marijuana-related incident in the offseason.
The Future: Stay Tuned. Smith has an incredible amount of athletic ability and should be a full-time starter at corner this year. If he can shake off the suspension and tighten up his cover abilities, he will follow Brandon Boykin right to the NFL.
#32-Nico Johnson, LB, Alabama
The File: Of the four Alabama recruits that earned five stars in the class of 2009, none of them can be considered disappointments. Trent Richardson and Dre Kirkpatrick are the two most immediately successful of the bunch, but DJ Fluker and Nico Johnson are eyeing first round selections come April as well. Johnson has certainly earned such consideration, gaining multiple starts over his three years in Tuscaloosa despite competing with some of the best linebacker talent in the nation. Johnson steps into a more prominent role this year, and will try to parlay that prominence into NFL recognition.
The Future: Bet On It. In five short years Nick Saban has made the Alabama Crimson Tide the premier program in college football. His formula is simple: the best players + the best coaches = championships. Nico Johnson is a piece of that puzzle, a cog in the well-oiled machine that is Alabama football. The NFL is one of the most elite clubs in the world, but because of Johnson’s natural talent and work ethic, plus the world-class coaching he receives at Alabama, it is a club of which he will soon become a member.
Sheldon Richardson. Gary Brown. Darius Winston. Russell Shepard. Who are these guys? Many college football fans may be unfamiliar with the names of these players, guys who were considered future NFL superstars just three years ago. Some fell victim to academic ineligibility, others to legal issues. Some had Twitter controversies, and others just didn’t perform well on the field. The fact that just two of these guys left college as soon as they were eligible for the NFL Draft and were picked in the first round is a cautionary tale of football evaluation. But to say that high school football evaluation is a crapshoot is not quite right.
First, the Class of 2009 is weaker than most, at least at the top. The Class of 2008 had five players who left school in three years to be first-rounders. And lest we forget, eight of these 33 five-star players in 2009 chose to attend LSU or Alabama. It is no coincidence that the Tigers and the Tide were the two best teams in college football last year. The importance of getting five-star recruits may be overrated, but as LSU and Alabama prove, it certainly doesn’t hurt.