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MSU Football Recruiting Retrospective, Part 5: Location, Location, Location

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Some states and regions have more football recruits than others. Can we measure the relative “quality” of those recruits in order to find talent more efficiently?

Michigan v Michigan State
Darqueze Dennard is one of the best MSU players to come out of the state of Georgia. In general, how well has MSU done in the Peach State?
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Throughout this month of May, we have taken a long journey through the history of MSU recruiting and beyond. In Part One, we learned about the quantitative value of stars. In Part Two, we used this new star counting method to put MSU’s recruiting history into context. In Parts Three and Four, we made a pivot to deeply analyze the output of MSU recruits over the past decade compared both to Michigan (in detail) and to the rest of Big Ten and nation (with a broader brush.)

In Part Four’s analysis of the Power Five, some interesting trends appeared in the national data. Recruits that committed to Big Ten and ACC schools appear to get drafted at a higher rate compared to similarly ranked recruits that commit to SEC schools and a lot higher rate than Pac-12 or Big 12 commits. What is going on here?

In the real estate business, the old saying is that the three most important factors are location, location, and location. How much does geography matter in football recruiting? Fortunately, by using the recruiting database and analytical tools that I have developed, I think that I can start to answer some of those questions.

Similar to how it is possible to measure the NFL Draft Potential for a group of recruits that commit to the same school. It is also possible to make the same calculation for all of the players from the same state out of high school. Just like the analysis in Part Four, it is then trivial to compare this initial expected value of draftees for that state to the eventual number of players drafted to measure a level of over- or underachievement for each state or region. Let’s begin with an overview of how each state measures up.

A Tour of the States

For this analysis, I will present four graphs that each compare the performance of recruits from a set of 10 states. Each Figure shows the total number of recruits in the state (red line, right y-axis), the total number of NFL Draft picks relative to expectation (blue bars, left y-axis)), and the rank of each state in NFL Draft picks relative to expectation (number shown over each bar). As with the analysis in the previous parts of this study, I am considering the nine recruiting classes from 2007 to 2015, as that is the range were the data is consistent and complete.

First, here is a plot of the Top 10 states as ranked by the total number of recruits. As you can see, the number of “recruit-able” high school seniors in each state per year varies drastically. The Big Three states of Texas, California, and Florida have 450-500 recruits every year that are rated by Rivals. States like North Dakota, New Hampshire, Wyoming, etc. average less than three a year.

Figure 1: Summary of the average number of recruits and eventual draft picks relative to expectation for the Top 10 states by number of recruits from 2007 to 2015. The rank of each state based on draft picks relative to expectation is shown above each bar

Interestingly, the top two states in terms of total recruits (Texas and California) are also very negative in terms of draft picks relative to expectation. They are actually dead last, by a large margin, for all 50 states. However, the rest of the Top 10 show a bit of variety. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Alabama, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania are all positive in draft picks relative to expectation, while Virginia and Mississippi are both negative. It is also notable that Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are all in the Top 10 in draft picks relative to expectation.

Figure 2: Summary of the average number of recruits and eventual draft picks relative to expectation for the the states ranked No. 11-20 by number of recruits from 2007 to 2015. The rank of each state based on draft picks relative to expectation is shown above each bar

Figure 2 above summarizes the next block of states which rank No. 11 to No. 20 in the average number of recruits with between 55 to 100 per year. Similar to the Top 10, the results here show a lot of variety. North Carolina has a very high score for draft picks relative to expectation and ranks No. 1 of all 50 states. Illinois, Michigan, and South Carolina are strong here as well, while Arizona, New Jersey, Kansas, Tennessee, Maryland, and New York are all negative.

Figure 3: Summary of the average number of recruits and eventual draft picks relative to expectation for the the states ranked No. 21-30 by number of recruits from 2007 to 2015. The rank of each state based on draft picks relative to expectation is shown above each bar

Next up are the states ranking No. 21 to 30 in recruits with between 25 to 55 a year as shown in Figure 3. The strong states here are Washington, Missouri and Arkansas, while Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, Kentucky, Iowa, and Hawaii are all negative.

Figure 4: Summary of the average number of recruits and eventual draft picks relative to expectation for the the states ranked No. 31-41 by number of recruits from 2007 to 2015. The rank of each state based on draft picks relative to expectation is shown above each bar

Finally, Figure 4 shows the results for the states ranked No. 31 to 41 with between five and 25 recruits only per year. At this point, the sample size is pretty small, but it is notable that states like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware and the District of Columbia are ranked in the Top 15 in Draft picks relative to expectation.

If we take all of this data together, it is possible to create a “recruiting heat map” that shows the NFL Draft picks relative to expectation in all 50 states. That illustration is shown below in Figure 5. From this image, it is clear to see where the “high efficiency” (blue) and “low efficiency” (red) recruiting areas are.

Figure 5: Recruiting “Heat Map” on the USA, showing the total NFL Draft picks relative to expectation for the 2007-2015 recruiting classes

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the same observations that we made in Part Four seem to be valid here. Big Ten country (Ohio, Pennsylvanian, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin specifically) are all strong. Similarly, ACC/SEC country (specifically the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana) is similarly strong. The states West of the Mississippi River (Big 12 and Pac-12 country) are generally weak.

There are some other curiosities as well. The upper Atlantic region is also weak, as is the swath in the middle of the country from Virginia to Mississippi. Out West, Washington is a beacon of hope, as is Nevada. So, what is going on here? Are some states simply under- or overrated? Or, is it more subtle than that? In order to learn more about this, let’s consider a case study of a few selected states.

State-By-State Case Studies

Let’s start with the state that is the biggest in area, recruits, and disappointment: Texas. Figure 6 below gives a breakdown of how each Power Five school performs in the Lone Star State. Here, I have plotted the total number of recruits from each school on the x-axis and the number of draft picks relative to expectation on the y-axis. In addition, the number in parenthesis after each school is the total NFL Draft Potential score for each school, which is a measure of the ratings of the players that school brings in.

Figure 6: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the state of Texas

The first thing to notice from this figure is that the University of Texas is flat out miserable. They bring in a lot of highly rated players from their own state, and they are failing tremendously to get them drafted. But, is this a state of Texas problem, or a University of Texas problem?

One thing to notice is that UT’s negative score in draft picks relative to expectation is only about a third of the overall deficit for the state. So, it’s not just the Longhorns. But, it may be a Big 12 problem. A glance at the other schools that underachieve in Texas shows that they are all current or former Big 12 members, including Oklahoma, which generally is above average in sending players to the draft. So, I think that it is a combination of two factors: Texas as a state is overrated, and the Big 12 as a conference is just bad at getting their players drafted.

That said, some schools have found success in the Lone Star state. Most notably are three other in-state schools that all recruit Texas heavily and are all in positive territory in draft picks relative to expectation: Baylor, TCU, and Texas A&M. Other schools that have found success in Texas are Stanford, Oregon, Missouri, and Arkansas. There is obviously a lot of talent to be had in Texas, but it appears to take some skill to find it.

Let’s now turn our attention to the other high volume and underachieving state: California.

Figure 7: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the state of California

The story here is similar to the story in Texas. First of all, there is an in-state school that brings in a lot of highly ranked in-state players, but fails to turn them into NFL Draft picks. In this case, that school is USC. That said, the Trojans do not contribute nearly as much negatively to California’s score as the Longhorn’s contribute to the state of Texas.

In the case of California, there are several other Pac-12 and Big 12 schools that recruit the state heavily, but fail to develop those players. These schools include Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State, Utah, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State and Oregon State. Much like Texas, I believe the overall poor efficiency of the state is due to a combination of the talent being overrated and the fact that it is heavily recruited by several schools that are bad at identifying and/or developing players.

Much like Texas, however, there are a few schools that have had more success in turning their California recruits in draft picks. Notably, the other in-state schools of UC-Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford have found some talent, as have other Pac-12 schools such as Washington and Oregon. Interestingly, both Florida State and Miami have also had success with the small number of California recruits that they have brought it.

Next on the list of states to explore is Florida, who puts out a similar number of recruits per year as Texas and California. However, the overall score for draft picks relative to expectation is much, much higher.

Figure 8: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the state of Florida

On first glance the situation in Florida looks much more positive than California and Texas. The overall NFL Draft pick relative to expectation score is much, much higher. As expected, a large fraction of the recruits from Florida wind up signing with the three main Power Five school in state: the University of Florida, Florida State, and Miami.

Interestingly, both Florida and Miami do an excellent job of translating local talent into NFL players. Florida State, however, is below average in this category, which is curious in itself, as FSU is above average overall and does well in pretty much all states other than Florida, including Texas and California.

As for out-of-state schools, some do quite well in Florida, most notably Louisville, Georgia, and North Carolina. Meanwhile, other schools such as Georgia Tech, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Iowa State (who generally do poorly everywhere) struggle.

But, the interesting thing is that while Florida overall is a net positive in the number of draft picks relative to expectation, if the impact of the in-state schools is subtracted out, that score drops from +6.9 to -9.7. So, while it seems like Florida might be a fertile recruiting for out-of state-schools, on average it hasn’t worked out well.

Now, let’s move on to another state in the Southeast that actually has the best overall score for actual draft picks relative to expectation: North Carolina.

Figure 9: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the state of North Carolina

The first thing to notice about Figure 9 is the surprising performance of NC State. They bring in the most recruits in the state, they aren’t as a group as highly rated as UNC’s recruits (based on the total NFL Draft Potential score in parenthesis) and yet the Wolfpack are outstanding at sending those in-state players to the draft. As for the other in-state teams (Duke, UNC, and Wake Forest) as a group they are pretty much average at sending their collective recruits to the Draft.

In general, though NC State’s strong performance does not account for the total positive score of the state. That said, nearby Clemson and South Carolina do well in the state, but the Gamecocks are generally terrible in this metric outside of the Carolinas. So, their strong performance here is notable. The teams that do struggle here (Auburn, Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia Tech) struggle everywhere.

Next, let’s turn our attention to the state in the Big Ten that has both the most recruits and a strong record of generative NFL Draft picks: Ohio.

Figure 10: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the State of Ohio

Clearly, the Buckeyes are king in the state of Ohio. They clearly recruit a lot of Ohioans, and they turn a lot of them into NFL draftees. Not surprisingly, most of the other big players in the state are Big Ten and other nearby schools, some of which have better luck than others. Specifically, MSU and Iowa have done well in Ohio, as has, oddly, Boston College. Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, and Wisconsin are all slightly positive related to expectation. Meanwhile, Northwestern, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Penn State, Tennessee and Pitt have all underperformed.

However, while Ohio is certainly a talent rich state, if the influence of Ohio is subtracted out, the state as a whole shifts negative. It seems that the Buckeye essentially sweep up most of the talent. How about the neighboring state of Pennsylvania?

Figure 11: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the state of Pennsylvania

In the Keystone state, things are a bit different. The overall number of draft picks relative to expectation is almost identical to Ohio, yet the influence of the home-state schools, Penn State and Pitt, is drastically different. Both of those schools are essentially neutral in-state. So, the highly positive score of the state is almost entirely from out-of-state schools.

The team that does the best in Pennsylvania relative to expectation is neighbor West Virginia. East Coast teams such as Rutgers, Syracuse, Maryland and Boston College also do well here, which highlights the fact that there likely are big differences between eastern and western Pennsylvania that are hard to capture in this analysis. But, Michigan, Notre Dame, and even Arizona have done well with their recruits from the Keystone state.

Finally, let’s take a look at one more state out West: Arizona

Figure 12: Breakdown of the recruiting landscape in the state of Arizona

In this case, it is clear that the two in-state schools struggle to put their local talent into the NFL Draft. However, if the influence of the University of Arizona and Arizona State is removed, the state of Arizona is actually a net positive in draft picks relative to expectation. Several schools, many of which have a poor recruiting score elsewhere, have had success in Arizona, including Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, California, UCLA, and Oregon State. Stanford and Oregon (who seem to recruit well everywhere) are also in the black here. Even the non-Arizona schools that are negative (such as West Virginia, MSU, and Notre Dame) are only slightly negative. Might there be some opportunity here?

National Summary

Based on the seven-state set of case studies, it seems that states can be grouped into four basic categories on two axis. The first axis is simply the total number of draft picks relative to exception, which are the values shown in Figure 1 through 5. While there could be some debate about this, I think that this metric is a reasonable estimation of the over under- or “overratedness” of a given state. The fact is that any random four-star recruit from the state of California or Texas is less likely to get drafted than any random four-star recruit from the rest of the country. That is clear from the math.

But, there clearly is a major influence on each state’s score from the Power Five schools in that state. If the purpose of this analysis is to identify states that schools should target for out-of-state recruiting, it would only make sense to filter out the influence of the home state schools in order to see where those opportunities lie. This corrected number of draft picks relative to expectation make up the second axis, and this data is shown below in Figure 13 and 14.

Figure 13: Comparison of the total number of draft picks relative to expectation to the same value corrected by removing the home state Power Five teams for all 50 states

Figure 13 above shows all the data, but it is a big hard to read because Texas and California are so far off in the lower corner. So, Figure 14 shows the same data, but with the range focused near the origin.

Figure 14: Comparison of the total number of draft picks relative to expectation to the same value corrected by removing the home state Power Five teams for all 50 states (zoomed in)

Here we can clearly see the four categories that correspond to the four quadrants of Figure 14. First, in the lower left-hand corner are the states that simply seem overrated. Texas and California are far off in this quadrant, as are Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma and to a milder extent, Colorado, Oregon, and Kentucky. These states seems to have two problems. First, the home state teams, on average, do a poor job putting their talent into the NFL. Second, so does everyone else (on average).

This is not to say that everyone should stop recruiting in California and Texas, but it does indicate that some caution is needed in evaluation. There might be a lot of four-star recruits in both states, but on average, they are not getting to the NFL draft at the same rate as four-star recruits in other states. That said, some teams have found success in Texas and California (just ask Stanford), but the data suggests that it may require extra skill, effort, and luck.

The second quadrant is in the lower right-hand corner, and features states with talent that is generally underrated. The problem here is that you can’t get that talent away from the home team(s). These states include, most notably, Ohio, Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Schools such as Ohio State, Florida, Miami, LSU, and Clemson are identifying the underrated talent in those states and are locking them down. What’s left for everyone else is actually overrated. Even an in-state school such as Florida State seems unable to find enough underrated players in the state of Florida due to the presence of the Gators and Hurricanes. Once again, there is talent to be found. MSU, for example, has done well in Ohio. But again, buyer beware.

The most promising area of the graph for out-of-state recruiting is the upper right quadrant. These are the states where the talent seems to be underrated, but the home state schools are not getting all of it. These are states that seem to be prime candidates in which to focus some (or more) recruiting resources. The biggest outliers here are Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which as both also in the Top 11 in total recruits available per year. Other states of note in this quadrant are Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and Washington. The other states in this quadrant (such as Wisconsin) typically do not produce as many players per year, but they may be worth a look.

The final quadrant is in the upper left and may be the most interesting set of states on the map. For these state, the raw numbers suggest that the talent is overrated. But, if the influence of the home state teams are removed, the recruits from these state who have gone elsewhere as a group have overachieved. So, these states may also be lands of opportunity. The four most notable states in this category are Arizona, Virginia, Tennessee, and Maryland, three of which make up the odd red swath of states in Figure 5 between the productive Midwest and southeast states. This analysis also suggests that these are the four states who home town teams are actually the worst at evaluating and developing talent.

The Best Players From Michigan Go Where, Now?

Up until now, this installment of the series has focused on the national picture. In the final section of today’s piece, I would like to look more closely at how MSU recruiting has fared as a function of geography. It is often more useful to compare MSU’s performance to another school, so similar to the comparisons made in Part Three, I will make a series of direct comparisons to MSU’s main rival, the University of Michigan. Let’s start with a side-by-side comparison of performance of each school as a function of the home state of each recruit, as measured by the number of eventual draft picks relative to expectation.

Figure 15: Comparison of MSU and UofM’s performance as a function of the home state of their recruits from 2007-2015 as measured by the number of NFL draft picks relative to expectation

Not surprisingly, both MSU and Michigan got the bulk of their recruits over this time period from two states: Michigan and Ohio. However, the eventual performance of those recruits is quite different. MSU has had above average success with recruits from both states. The combined number of draft picks relative to expectation is +4.61 for MSU. In contrast, UofM is clearly negative overall with in-state recruits, and flat average in Ohio. The combined number of draft picks relative to expectation for the Wolverines is -2.68.

As for other states, MSU also has had net-positive results in Georgia, New Jersey, Texas, and Wisconsin, although the sample sizes are small. On the other hand, MSU has struggled the most with recruits from Florida, and is just average in Pennsylvania and Illinois. As for Michigan, they are in slightly positive territory in Florida, and have seen success (at a lower volume) with recruits from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, South Carolina, and Arizona. On the other hand, Michigan has struggled in the states of Texas, California, New Jersey, and Virginia to turn these recruits into NFL players.

If we dig a little deeper into the original recruiting ratings for both MSU and UofM, we can gain some additional insight. Figure 16 compares the number of draft picks relative to expectation as broken down by home state (focusing here on only Michigan and Ohio) and recruiting rating for both universities.

Figure 16: Comparison of the number of draft picks relative to expectation for MSU and Michigan for the 2007-2015 recruiting classes as broken down by the home state (Michigan or Ohio) of each recruit and the Rivals recruiting ranking.

As for MSU, the Spartans have done well with elite players from Michigan, but not from Ohio. Does this suggest that the Buckeyes are making these evaluations and beating MSU to the punch? That said, MSU has also struggled with recruits from both states in the low four star (5.8 and 5.9) bins. However, with the exception of an oddly low score with high three star (5.7) bin, MSU has down a very good job converting local three-star and high two star recruits (5.4 to 5.7) into NFL draft picks.

As for Michigan, the picture is clear and simple. The Wolverines have struggled in both Michigan and Ohio across the board, with the strange exception of mid level three star (5.6) Ohioans, including Jake Ryan, Frank Clark, and Willie Henry.

Finally, more information about the output of MSU and UofM’s recruits can be found using the same finer grained methodology that I used in Part Three when I categorized each player as either an NFL player, an All Conference Honoree, a Starter, a Contributor, or a Bust. Figure 17 shows the player output for each school broken down by each state.

Figure 17: Summary of the output of players from MSU and UofM from the 2007-205 recruiting classes broken down by the home states of the recruits.

Considering the number of recruits from each state is very different, it is much better to look at the data in the form of percentages. That data is shown here:

Figure 18: Summary of the output of players from MSU and UofM from the 2007-205 recruiting classes broken down by the home states of the recruits, scaled using percentages.

A few things standout in Figure 18. First, when we ignore the ratings of the recruits and just look at raw productivity in each state, the data is actually quite consistent. For MSU, the NFL and All-Big Ten rate for Michigan recruits and Ohio recruits is virtually identical. In fact, those rates are reasonably stable across the entire plot for for MSU and UofM, with the productivity of MSU’s recruits being slightly higher over the time frame (as shown in much greater detail in Part Three).

But, there are also a few notable deviations. MSU’s bust rate is slightly higher for Michigan recruits than is it for Ohio recruits. For the Wolverines, the trend is opposite, and their bust rate for Ohioans is much higher (close to 50 percent). MSU has a high bust rate in the states of Florida, Georgia, and Wisconsin, while Michigan’s bust rate is noticeably poor in Texas, Pennsylvanian, and New Jersey.

Ultimately, though, one thing that is clear from this overall analysis is that it is important to be able to recruit in your back yard first and foremost. In the state of Michigan, in this time frame, the Spartans hold a clear advantage over the Wolverines. In this span, MSU has sent 18 Michiganders to the NFL, 11 via the Draft. For Michigan, those numbers are 11 to the NFL, five of which were via the draft. While MSU does sign more Michiganders, the percentages are still heavily in MSU’s favor (27 percent to 23 percent to the NFL overall and 17 percent vs. 10 percent drafted).

To make matters worse, Michigan’s recruits as a group were higher rated than MSU’s recruits. So, Michigan should have sent roughly two and and half more Michigan natives to the draft than MSU did. Instead, they sent six fewer. So, while the highest rated players in the state of Michigan went to Ann Arbor, it is the ones in East Lansing that had the better outcomes.

Final Thoughts

Literally and figuratively, we covered a lot of ground today. To recap, we learned that there is a big difference in the relative outcomes of high school football recruits based on the which state they come from. This allow us to create a “recruiting heat map” of sorts which identifies the areas of the country that are either underrated (the Midwest and Southeast) or overrated (the upper East Coast and the area West of the Mississippi).

We then looked at a series of state-by-state case studies and in the process we learned that some states just seem to be overrated (like Texas and California), some states have too much competition from the in-state schools (like Florida and Ohio), some state have talent that can be mined due to weak in-sate competition (like Arizona and Virginia), and some states have enough underrated talent to go around (like Pennsylvania and North Carolina).

Ideally, schools could use this information to strategically target certain areas. For teams like MSU, the Midwest is already a fertile recruiting ground, but more work could be done in Pennsylvania, Illinois, or perhaps Missouri. It would also seem to pay to be able to try to lock down some of the underrated talent from the Great Lakes State itself, as some of it seems to be escaping.

Finally we made another direct comparison to the University of Michigan and found that MSU over the past decade has done a lot better with recruits from both Michigan and Ohio. The players from Michigan with the best outcomes are clearly the ones that go to Michigan State.

As I have poured through the mountain of recruiting data that I have collected for this study, I believe that it is akin to looking at a Rubik’s Cube. As I turn the cube around in my hand and look at it from different angles, I see something completely different. As this project nears its end, there is one additional factor that I would like to explore when it comes to recruiting, and that is the performance of different positions or position groups.

Which position group has MSU recruited the best or the worst? Are certain states a better source for quarterbacks or linemen, specifically? Are certain schools actually linebacker or quarterback U? Does playing a certain position in high school hint at future success in the NFL Draft? These are the questions that I plan to tackle in the next installment of this series. As always, stay tuned.