The best composite 5-star player from every recruiting class
For every LeBron James and Tiger Woods, there are a dozen so-called prodigies whose names you have long since forgotten.
It’s not easy to match or exceed expectations when you’re labeled the next Adrian Peterson before you’ve even stepped onto a college field.
That’s why it’s fun when a player like Leonard Fournette is able to wow us. It takes a surreal performance when so many accolades are attached to your name before most people ever have seen you play.
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 threshold for becoming a five-star player has changed as well. In 2000 and 2001, there were a total of 82 five-star players. In the 2016 class that signed earlier this month, there were just 25.
Fifteen years ago, Texas and USC dominated college football, and that’s evident by looking at the five-star players. Of late, the SEC has dominated the recruiting landscape.
Just for kicks, we’ve identified the player that we believe was the best five-star member of his respective class.
Best 5-star player: Texas WR Roy Williams
Others considered: Auburn QB Jason Campbell, Miami LB D.J. Williams, Michigan State WR Charles Rogers, Miami RB Willis McGahee, Florida State DE Travis Johnson
Total 5-star players: 41
Williams left the Longhorns as the program’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. A three-time All-Big 12 selection, “The Legend” notched 4,109 yards of total offense and 39 touchdowns during his career, which included four productive seasons.
Best 5-star player: Texas RB Cedric Benson
Others considered: USC DT Shaun Cody, Oklahoma DT Tommie Harris, LSU DT Marcus Spears, Auburn RB Cadillac Williams, Arkansas CB Ahmad Carroll, LSU WR Michael Clayton
Total 5-star players: 42
It seems unthinkable just more than one decade later, but Cedric Benson ran the ball 1,112 times in four years at Texas. If Derrick Henry would have returned to Alabama in 2016, he would’ve needed to carry the ball 509 times just to tie Benson on that front — an impossible amount.
Benson ran for more yards every single season in Austin, scoring a combined 40 rushing touchdowns in his final two seasons and amassing 5,540 career rushing yards. That last figure still ranks him eighth in NCAA history, ahead of players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Herschel Walker.
Best 5-star player: Texas QB Vince Young
Others considered: UCLA TE Marcedes Lewis, Ohio State RB Maurice Clarett, Miami ATH Devin Hester, Virginia OLB Ahmad Brooks, Mississippi State RB Jerious Norwood, Oregon DT Haloti Ngata
Total 5-star players: 39
One of the greatest running quarterbacks in college football history, Young came within two yards his freshman year of producing three 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown rushing seasons.
As a junior, he finally started to pass the ball as well. The results were astounding, as “VY” almost singlehandedly led Texas to a Rose Bowl win against USC in one of the most memorable college football games of all-time. That season, and perhaps that game, earned him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.
Best 5-star player: USC RB Reggie Bush
Others considered: Florida State CB Antonio Cromartie, Tennessee WR Robert Meachem, Florida WR Chad Jackson, Ohio State CB Donte Whitner, Florida DE Jarvis Moss, Miami TE Greg Olsen, Florida WR Andre Caldwell
Total 5-star players: 33
At USC, Reggie Bush was his generation’s closest approximation of Barry Sanders.
During his final college season, he averaged 8.7 yards per carry. And he ran the ball 200 times. That’s not mentioning the fact that he caught a combined 80 passes during his final two college seasons, with a per-catch average that rivals most receivers. Oh, and he moonlighted as one of the nation’s top returners.
At the college level, he usually was faster and quicker than every defender on the field. Get him the football with some green grass around him and he was likely to score.
Best 5-star player: Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson
Others considered: USC WR Dwayne Jarrett, LSU DT Glenn Dorsey, Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson, Arizona State TE Zach Miller, Michigan QB Chad Henne, USC TE Fred Davis, Ohio State WR Ted Ginn Jr.
Total 5-star players: 37
At Oklahoma, Adrian Peterson was 2015 Derrick Henry or Leonard Fournette good — except he was that good as a true freshman.
In 2004, Peterson ran for 1,925 yards in 13 games, on a whopping 339 carries. He played in just 18 games the next two seasons. But whenever he was on the field, he was usually the fastest, strongest, most balanced and most explosive player, regardless of position.
He scored 42 touchdowns in 31 college games and earned first-team all-Big 12 honors all three seasons before going seventh overall in the 2007 NFL draft.
Best 5-star player: Arkansas RB Darren McFadden
Others considered: Ole Miss OT Michael Oher, USC OLB Brian Cushing, Cal WR DeSean Jackson, Texas A&M TE Martellus Bennett, Oregon RB Jonathan Stewart, USC LB Rey Maualuga, USC QB Mark Sanchez, Virginia OT Eugene Monroe
Total 5-star players: 38
One of the greatest offensive players in SEC history, McFadden single-handedly created one of the most entertaining football fads of the 21st century.
Lining up in the “Wildcat” formation, McFadden would take direct snaps and either run, hand off to Felix Jones or even throw the ball.
He rushed for 4,590 yards in just three seasons. For context, that’s nearly 900 yards more than Alex Collins, one of the most productive running backs ever to come through Arkansas. McFadden also occasionally returned kickoffs and even completed 14 of 22 passes for 7 touchdowns against 1 interception.
McFadden won the Doak Walker Award twice — a rarity — and finished as the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy runner-up in both seasons.
Best 5-star player: Florida QB Tim Tebow
Others considered: Miami RB LeSean McCoy, Oklahoma RB DeMarco Murray, Clemson RB C.J. Spiller, Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy, USC S Taylor Mays, Ohio State RB Beanie Wells, Georgia QB Matthew Stafford, Texas LB Sergio Kindle, Florida WR Percy Harvin, Alabama OT Andre Smith
Total 5-star players: 29
This was arguably the deepest collection of five-star players since 2000, the first year of the composite database. And that’s with just 29 five-star players.
There’s a wealth of runner-up options, but USC’s Taylor Mays probably would’ve been the best five-star player any other year. He collected three first-team All-America honors. The fourth year he only mustered second-team All-America.
But Tebow is one of the greatest college football players of all-time. He won two national titles, a Heisman Trophy, was twice the SEC Player of the Year and was named first-team All-SEC three times. He threw for 88 touchdowns and ran for 53, accounting for more than 12,000 yards of total offense.
Tebow left Florida with 28 school, 14 SEC and 5 NCAA records, dominating during the peak of the SEC as a football conference — just as Urban Meyer’s Florida and Nick Saban’s Alabama converged.
Best 5-star player: Tennessee DB Eric Berry
Others considered: Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor, Florida DE Carlos Dunlap, Michigan/Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett, Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen, West Virginia RB Noel Divine
Total 5-star players: 26
The spectacular ’06 class gave way to a much quieter ’07 class.
Defensive backs don’t often get dubbed “best in class” when compared to skill-position players. But Berry was a different breed. He made 86 tackles and intercepted five passes as a true freshman in the SEC, which is unheard of for a safety.
He added 7 interceptions in just 12 games as a sophomore — in addition to 9 tackles for loss, good enough to win SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Twice a unanimous All-American, he won the Jim Thorpe Award in 2009 before becoming the No. 5 overall pick of the ’10 NFL draft.
Best 5-star player: LSU CB Patrick Peterson
Others considered: Florida State QB E.J. Manuel, Ohio State OT Mike Adams, Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd, Pitt WR Jonathan Baldwin, Georgia WR A.J. Green, LSU CB Patrick Peterson, Alabama WR Julio Jones, Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor, Clemson DE Da’Quan Bowers
Total 5-star players: 27
The SEC trio was outstanding. All three got selected in the top 10 of the 2011 draft, and they already have collected 13 combined Pro Bowl selections.
But Peterson gets the nod here in part because he defended those two receivers so well in college.
By his junior season, Peterson was the country’s top lockdown cornerback. He also emerged as the best punt and kick returner in the country, and entered the 2011 NFL draft as the surest pick on the board.
Best 5-star player: Notre Dame LB Manti Te’o
Others considered: Missouri DT Sheldon Richardson, Alabama OL D.J. Fluker, Georgia QB Aaron Murray, Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick, LSU WR Rueben Randle, Alabama RB Trent Richardson, USC QB Matt Barkley
Total 5-star players: 30
Though most SEC fans remember him most for falling victim to an uncomfortable “girlfriend hoax,” Te’o was one heck of a linebacker for the Fighting Irish.
He finished his college career with an astounding 437 tackles, including 34 for loss. As a senior in 2012, he intercepted seven passes and recovered two fumbles along with his usual tackle totals. That helped him become one of the most decorated defensive players ever.
Te’o won the Lott Trophy, Maxwell Award, Chuck Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award, Lombardi Award and the Walter Camp Award, finishing second to Johnny Manziel for the Heisman Trophy.
Best 5-star player: USC WR Robert Woods
Others considered: Michigan State DE William Gholston, Florida S Matt Elam, Alabama CB Dee Milliner, Cal WR Keenan Allen, South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore, Florida DL Sharrif Floyd, Florida DT Dominique Easley
Total 5-star players: 31
This wasn’t the strongest class of five-star talents, though Florida signed a very strong group of defensive players and Marcus Lattimore mesmerized as a true freshman.
Woods was both consistent (252 catches and 2,930 yards in three seasons) and explosive. With Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator in 2011, Woods managed to snag 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns. He earned two first-team all-Pac-12 selections and one second-team selection in his three seasons.
Best 5-star player: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Others considered: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, Ohio State QB/WR Braxton Miller, Florida State TE Nick O’Leary, Oregon RB De’Anthony Thomas, LSU WR Jarvis Landry, Alabama S HaHa Clinton-Dix, LSU OT La’el Collins
Total 5-star players: 30
Others had better individual seasons. But Watkins averaged more than 1,100 receiving yards for three years, twice earning All-America status.
It’s not often that even five-star players make the type of impact that he did as a true freshman, including 1,450 yards of total offense and 13 total touchdowns. As a junior in 2013, he caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and led Clemson to an Orange Bowl win against Ohio State.
Best 5-star player: Florida State QB Jameis Winston
Others considered: USC WR Nelson Agholor, Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon, Stanford OT Andrus Peat, Miami RB Duke Johnson, Texas DT Malcom Brown, Alabama S Landon Collins, Washington S Shaq Thompson
Total 5-star players: 35
He did many of the same things that Cam Newton did at Auburn — including the off-the-field controversy.
Winston won a Heisman Trophy and a national title as a redshirt freshman. Florida State finished 27-1 during his two years as starting quarterback in Tallahassee, finally losing to Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
The FSU quarterback threw for nearly 8,000 yards and 65 touchdowns in those two seasons before becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL draft.
Best 5-star player: Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil
Others considered: Alabama DT A’Shawn Robinson, Ole Miss DB Tony Conner, Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander, Virginia Tech CB Kendall Fuller, Alabama DE Jonathan Allen, Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey, Ole Miss WR Laquon Treadwell, Alabama RB Derrick Henry, UCLA DT Eddie Vanderdoes, USC S Su’a Cravens, Notre Dame OLB Jaylon Smith, Florida CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Ole Miss DT Robert Nkemdiche
Total 5-star players: 34
Maybe I have a recency bias. There wasn’t an all-time legend in the ’13 group. But this class seemed especially deep. Many of these players will become first-round picks in April — maybe a half-dozen or more. That’s a huge number for early-entry five-star players from a specific class.
It’s tough to pick out a single one of these players and say that he was clearly the best college player of his class. So we’ll go with Tunsil, who has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Ole Miss fans may end up with mixed feelings for him, considering the NCAA attention he brought to the team. But he was clearly the No. 1 offensive tackle in the SEC in 2015 and should be an instant-impact player in the NFL. He also probably was the best of the four five-star players the Rebels signed in this class.
TO BE DETERMINED
Even the early-entry members of the 2013 class have yet to be drafted into the NFL. So although we have a good idea about some of the rock stars of the ’14 class, some of those players will stick around for two more seasons.
So for the most recent three classes, we’ll withhold judgement on “best in class” for now.
SEC notables: LSU RB Leonard Fournette, Texas A&M DE Myles Garrett, Alabama OT Cam Robinson, Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey, Florida CB Jalen Tabor, LSU WR Malachi Dupre, Georgia RB Sony Michel, Georgia LB Lorenzo Carter, LSU S Jamal Adams, Georgia RB Nick Chubb
Total 5-star players: 33
SEC notables: Georgia DT Trent Thompson, Florida OL Martez Ivey, Auburn DE Byron Cowart, Tennessee DT Kahlil McKenzie, Florida DE CeCe Jefferson, LSU CB Kevin Toliver II, Alabama WR Calvin Ridley, Missouri DT Terry Beckner Jr., Texas A&M DT Daylon Mack, Texas A&M WR Christian Kirk, Georgia WR Terry Godwin, Alabama DT Daron Payne, Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Total 5-star players: 35
SEC notables: Ole Miss OT Gregory Little, Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson, Georgia QB Jacob Eason, Auburn DT Derrick Brown, Alabama LB Ben Davis, Georgia TE Isaac Nauta, Georgia ATH Mecole Hardman Jr., Alabama OLB Lyndell Wilson, Alabama OT Jonah Williams, Arkansas DE McTelvin Agim, Mississippi State DE Jeffery Simmons, LSU CB Kristian Fulton, LSU DT Rashard Lawrence, Ole Miss DT Benito Jones
Total 5-star players: 25