Year after year, UW consistently out-performing low recruiting rank

Wisconsin consistently finds "diamonds in the rough," as exemplified by turning T.J. Watt, who's national recruiting rank was 941, into a first round draft pick.

Image By: Jessi Schoville

To the untrained eye, there is a considerable lacuna between Wisconsin football’s on-field success and its recruiting achievements. While many of its peers atop the college football heap — and even various schools that haven’t come close to equaling its consistently impressive year-to-year performance — continue to compile recruiting classes chock-full of four and five-star recruits, the Badgers have continued to plod along, gladly focusing on in-star talent and unheralded prospects whom many other traditional powers overlook.

According to 247Sports, UW has signed three five-star recruits in program history (to put that in context, Alabama reeled in five of them in their 2017 class alone). Its highest finish in recruiting rankings has been 31st, and in 2017 it came in behind several programs it would have little reason to fear on an actual football field: Kentucky, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and even Maryland, my home state (fear the turtle indeed). To some, it’s a confusing situation: How could a team that has enjoyed such unmitigated success over the past two decades continue to trail behind so many programs?

One factor that is continually blamed for the lack of flashy recruiting splashes is the stringent academic policies that often handicap UW recruiters. The university tends to be less forgiving to potential commits with poor academic records, occasionally preventing coaches from going all-in on some top athletes (this is often cited as a reason for the last two head coaching changes this decade).

A closer look, however, eases many of the concerns about Wisconsin’s perpetually mediocre finishes in recruiting rankings. The most obvious consolation is that clearly, top-ranked commits don’t always pan out. Coaching deficiencies, poor scheme fits, injuries and a slew of other reasons often prevent many of the so-called “best” prospects in the country from reaching their putative potential.

Clearly, Wisconsin’s coaching staffs have a knack for finding diamonds in the rough and developing players into bona-fide stars. A 2015 analysis by Fivethirtyeight that surveyed a decade of college football teams’ success relative to expectations of a given incoming class found that UW was by far the most successful program in the country at getting the most out of its recruits. When considered in tandem with the Badgers’ robust walk-on program that has produced a plethora of stars in the college and pro levels, this explanation helps allay any fears caused by the stubbornly unimpressive rankings every National Signing Day.

Furthermore, recruits are beginning to take note, and Wisconsin has started to attract the type of athletes it used to struggle to bring in. This year’s freshman class is a strong indicator of this progress: True freshmen have seen the field a significant amount thus far, and it isn’t a result of a dearth of experienced players worthy of snaps. They aren’t just from Wisconsin either; Jack Coan, Danny Davis, Jonathan Taylor and Adam Bay hail from New York, Ohio, New Jersey and Arizona, respectively. While the coaching staff certainly has not deviated from its longtime strategy of focusing on the Badger State talent pool first and foremost, they have shown an ability to bring in top talent from other states too.

Current recruiting efforts give reason for hope as well. Wisconsin continues to make forays into regions that have generally not been kind to its recruiting efforts. Its 2018 class boasts five commits from Michigan alone, a state that has traditionally been dominated by Michigan and Michigan State. It continues to compete for offensive tackle Logan Brown, the second-rated recruit in the Wolverine State. The Badgers have also been in the top five for various other top prospects, including the top tight end in the nation in 2018.

While there is still room to improve, it is clear that Wisconsin’s recruiting is headed in the right direction. It can be easy to take a look at the numbers and despair over the lack of commits in the upper echelon of recruiting ranking lists. But at the end of the day, with its proven ability to coach up prospects and to identify future stars, the Badgers are headed in the right direction. As long as they continue to do so, the future remains as bright as ever.

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