The best composite 4-star player from every recruiting class
It’s more difficult to do at the NFL level. But one of the reasons we enjoy watching college football is that a player doesn’t need to be as gifted as Leonard Fournette or Myles Garrett to become a superstar.
The recruiting industry is a fairly new creation. The 247Sports composite rankings, which now include all four major recruiting services, only has data that goes back to 2000.
During that time, there have been plenty of five-star busts. It’s easy to call out a kid for failing to live up to monstrous expectations, many of which are based on difficult projections. Just the same, there have been an impressive number of five-star players that have achieved superstar status.
The number of composite five-star players shrunk from 41 in 2000 to 25 for the 2016 class that signed in February. By contrast, there were just 79 four-star players in 2000, and a whopping 313 in 2016.
Because of that discrepancy, there are now more four-star players that become All-Americans and first-round draft choices than there are five-stars.
And while the list of greatest five-star players is saturated with guys from Texas, USC and the SEC, the list of four-star greats is much more diverse. Players from Arizona State, Pitt, Memphis, Texas Tech and Baylor are among the all-time best.
Just for kicks, we’ve identified the player that we believe was the best four-star member of his respective class.
Best 4-star player: Arizona State ATH Terrell Suggs
Others considered: Tennessee TE Jason Witten, Auburn RB Ronnie Brown, Miami DT Vince Wilfork, Florida State LB Michael Boulware
Jason Peters and Cameron Wake were multiple-time Pro Bowl players at the NFL level and four-star members of this class, but they didn’t have spectacular college careers.
“T-Sizzle” made 65.5 tackles for loss and 44 sacks in just three college seasons, including the NCAA single-season record of 24 in 2002. He became the 10th overall selection of the 2003 NFL draft and became a six-time Pro Bowl player, including the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.
Best 4-star player: Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald
Others considered: Purdue QB Kyle Orton, Miami RB Frank Gore, Oregon State RB Steven Jackson, LSU RB Joseph Addai, Miami CB Antrel Rolle, Oregon State QB Derek Anderson
There were several deserving players with outstanding college statistics from the four-star members of this class. But it’s hard to select anyone ahead of Fitzgerald despite the fact that he played just 26 games at Pitt.
The wideout made good use of those contests, including 2,677 receiving yards and 34 receiving touchdowns. The Heisman runner-up in 2003 and the third overall pick of the 2004 NFL draft, he’s 15th all-time in NFL receiving yards and has a chance to break into the top 10 in 2016.
Best 4-star player: Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams
Others considered: LSU APB Skyler Green, Michigan ATH Steve Breaston, Penn State DT Levi Brown, Auburn OT Marcus McNeill, Texas CB Aaron Ross, Ohio State QB Troy Smith, Georgia TE Leonard Pope, Florida State DE Kamerion Wimbley, Penn State DE Tamba Hali
He wasn’t a Heisman winner like Troy Smith or a two-time All-American like Levi Brown. But Williams flat-out produced at Memphis, compiling 6,026 career rushing yards, good enough for fifth all-time. He broke the NCAA record with 34 different 100-yard games. Williams also contributed all four seasons and was a decent receiving option.
Best 4-star player: Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn
Others considered: Texas WR Limas Sweed, USC RB LenDale White, Texas S Michael Griffin, Notre Dame OT Ryan Harris, LSU S LaRon Landry, UCLA RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Wisconsin OT Joe Thomas, Maryland TE Vernon Davis, LSU QB JaMarcus Russell
Although he was a bust at the NFL level, at one time Quinn was the best player in college football. During his final two seasons at Notre Dame, Quinn threw for 7,345 yards and 69 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. He led the Fighting Irish to the Feista Bowl and Sugar Bowl in back-to-back years. Considering Charlie Weis was his head coach, that’s an impressive run.
Best 4-star player: Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell
Others considered: Texas WR Jordan Shipley, Arkansas FB Peyton Hillis, Cal RB Marshawn Lynch, Tennessee LB Robert Ayers, Florida State OLB Lawrence Timmons
Arguably the most touted quarterback coached by Mike Leach, Harrell smashed all sorts of NCAA passing records for the Red Raiders. He only started three seasons, but threw for 4,555, 5,705 and 5,111 yards. In 2007, he also managed 48 touchdowns in 13 games, completing 71.3 percent of his jaw-dropping 713 pass attempts.
He wasn’t an NFL quarterback, but he was the perfect player for the Air Raid offense, finishing his career with nearly 16,000 passing yards — fourth all-time.
Best 4-star player: Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh
Others considered: Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall, Michigan WR Mario Manningham, Oklahoma LB Curtis Lofton, Georgia WR Mohamed Massaquoi, Texas RB Jamaal Charles
One of the most dominant college defensive tackles of all-time, Suh managed to become a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2009. That’s unheard of for that position.
In his final two seasons, he managed to put together 36.5 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks and a relatively outrageous 161 tackles, in addition to three interceptions, 35 quarterback hurries and five blocked kicks. Essentially Suh was unblockable in 2009 and won almost every Trophy imaginable, including Associated Press College Football Player of the Year.
Best 4-star player: Florida LB Brandon Spikes
Others considered: Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn, Clemson CB Byron Maxwell, Kansas State QB Josh Freeman, Clemson S DeAndre McDaniel, Auburn RB Ben Tate, Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno, Washington QB Jake Locker
Moreno put together two tremendous seasons at Georgia, but it’s tough to match him against a player with four outstanding seasons.
A four-year player at Florida and a team captain, Spikes was one of the most intimidating SEC linebackers of the 21st century, often crossing the line between fair and dirty. He earned first-team All-SEC status in three years — pretty unheard of in the conference at linebacker — and helped the team to two national titles, twice earning consensus All-American status.
Best 4-star player: Alabama LB Rolando McClain
Others considered: Notre Dame S Harrison Smith, Florida G Maurkice Pouncey, Cal RB Shane Vereen, UCLA LB Akeem Ayers, Cal RB Jahvid Best, Penn State DT Devon Still, Notre Dame WR Golden Tate, Arizona TE Rob Gronkowski, Iowa OT Bryan Bulaga, Florida S Major Wright, Florida RB Chris Rainey, Florida TE Aaron Hernandez
Arguably the deepest class of four-star players ever, there were a number of deserving names that I trimmed from this list. Picking an overall winner was equally challenging, as there were more really good players than there were all-time greats.
McClain was one of the first true stars to come out of the Saban era at Alabama, making All-SEC in 2008 and 2009 and earning consensus All-American honors in 2009 when he helped lead the Crimson Tide to its first national championship since 1992. That year he had 105 tackles, 14.5 of them for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and given the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in the country.
Best 4-star player: Baylor QB Robert Griffin III
Others considered: Alabama LB Dont’a Hightower, Oregon QB Darron Thomas, Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson, Florida RB Jeff Demps, Georgia CB Brandon Boykin, Oregon DE Dion Jordan, Alabama DE Marcell Dareus, North Carolina DE Quinton Coples, Alabama G Barrett Jones, Alabama S Mark Barron, Notre Dame TE Kyle Rudolph
One of the most decorated college football quarterbacks of the last decade, RGIII’s magic hasn’t translated as well at the NFL level. But he was a special player at Baylor, winning a Heisman Trophy in 2011 and ushering home the Bears’ transition into a perennial power under coach Art Briles.
A true dual-threat player, Griffin accounted for 9,152 yards of total offense and 77 touchdowns in his final two seasons.
Best 4-star player: Alabama QB AJ McCarron
Others considered: Stanford FB Tyler Gaffney, Stanford TE Zach Ertz, West Virginia WR Tavon Austin, LSU OLB Barkevious Mingo, Michigan OT Taylor Lewan, Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox, Alabama RB Eddie Lacy, South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery, Clemson QB Tajh Boyd
The ultimate “game manager,” McCarron in truth outgrew that label by his senior season. Though he redshirted in 2009, McCarron collected three national championship rings during his college career, becoming just the seventh college quarterback ever to win back-to-back titles as a starter.
The Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2013, McCarron threw 58 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions during his final two seasons, exiting Tuscaloosa with a 36-4 record as a starter. He remains Alabama’s all-time leading passer by more than 1,000 yards and also holds the team’s all-time lowest interception percentage.
Best 4-star player: LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu
Others considered: Colorado WR Paul Richardson, Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins, Missouri DE Kony Ealy, Alabama LB C.J. Mosley, LSU DE Ego Ferguson, LSU S Eric Reid, Texas A&M OT Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews
One of the most unique players in SEC history, “Honey Badger” was a two-year comet. His breakout moment came in the Cotton Bowl after his true freshman season: 7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception, 1 sack and 1 pass breakup.
The following year he managed to become a one-man wrecking crew, a very difficult thing to achieve for a 5-foot-9 SEC cornerback. Mathieu forced five fumbles (and recovered four) during the 2011 season, scoring four non-offensive touchdowns. He was one of the best cover corners in the SEC and one of the best returners in all of college football, winning MVP honors for an unforgettable performance in the SEC Championship Game.
Mathieu also won the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the year’s best defensive player in college football, and became a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Best 4-star player: Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Others considered: North Carolina QB Marquise Williams, Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, Alabama C Ryan Kelly, Washington RB Bishop Sankey, Georgia CB Nick Marshall, Penn State DL Anthony Zettel, LSU WR Odell Beckham Jr., Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin, Auburn OT Greg Robinson, Auburn C Reese Dismukes, USC WR Marqise Lee
The Miami native led Louisville to a Sugar Bowl appearance after the 2012 season in which he earned Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors. The Cardinals finished 11-2 with a win against Florida in the BCS bowl game.
The next year, Bridgewater arguably was the third-best quarterback behind only Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel. He threw 31 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions and came within a 38-35 loss to eventual Fiesta Bowl champion UCF of a perfect 13-0 season.
Best 4-star player: Georgia RB Todd Gurley
Others considered: Clemson DE Shaq Lawson, Florida LB Antonio Morrison, Oregon DE DeForest Buckner, Clemson QB Chad Kelly, Georgia LB Leonard Floyd, Arizona State ATH D.J. Foster, Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard, USC DE Leonard Williams, Alabama WR Amari Cooper, Alabama LB Reggie Ragland, Florida DE Dante Fowler
Kelly has a chance to rewrite this list in 2016 if he becomes the only SEC quarterback with back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons and can somehow lead Ole Miss to a conference championship. But for now, we’re sticking with a guy who was a major game-changer during his limited time on the field in Athens.
As a true freshman, Gurley nearly rushed for 1,400 yards and already was one of the nation’s best. After dealing with nagging injuries in 2013, he averaged 7.4 yards per carry in an abbreviated ’14 season. Overall, he scored 42 total touchdowns. If not for a suspension and an injury, he would’ve been a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Gurley arguably was the best player on the field in every college game he played.
Best 4-star player: Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
Others considered: Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Clemson WR Mike Williams, Cal QB Jared Goff, UCLA LB Myles Jack, Clemson LB Ben Boulware, Michigan TE Jake Butt, Arkansas G Denver Kirkland, Arkansas TE Hunter Henry, Ohio State CB Eli Apple, Arkansas RB Alex Collins, Ohio State DE Joey Bosa
“Zeke” rushed for 3,699 yards and 41 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter. He ran for 476 and 6 touchdowns during the College Football Playoff after the 2014 season, carrying Ohio State to a national championship. He also caught 55 passes in those two seasons and was one of the best blocking backs in college football.
TO BE DETERMINED
SEC notables: Arkansas OL Frank Ragnow, Georgia KR Isaiah McKenzie, Missouri WR Nate Brown, Tennessee ATH Evan Berry, Mississippi State ATH Gerri Green, Kentucky RB Boom Williams, Texas A&M S Armani watts, Tennessee DE Derek Barnett, Alabama LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, South Carolina CB Chris Lammons, Kentucky DT Matt Elam, LSU DL Davon Godchaux, Georgia TE Jeb Blazevich, Georgia G Isaiah Wynn, LSU QB Brandon Harris, Tennessee WR Josh Malone
SEC notables: South Carolina QB Lorenzo Nunez, Kentucky TE C.J. Conrad, Florida RB Jordan Cronkrite, Tennessee LB Darrin Kirkland, Florida RB Jordan Scarlett, Missouri QB Drew Lock, Georgia DE Natrez Patrick, LSU DE Arden Key, Ole Miss G Javon Patterson, LSU RB Derrius Guice, LSU G Maea Teuhema, Tennessee DE Kyle Phillips