In the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship game, two true freshmen, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross, made a startling statement as they dominated the defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide. The Lawrence to Ross connection produced 6 catches for 153 yards, including a game-breaking 74-yard touchdown pass and a one-handed circus catch for a late, crucial first down. Two 19-year-olds, one 6 feet, 6 inches and the other 6’ 4”, outplayed one of the best defensive units in the country.
In our latest book, we featured the rise of Justyn Ross and his ironic results at Nike’s “The Opening” competition for high school football stars. Despite the speed and athleticism that Ross displayed in the national championship game, he has another, defining quality that doesn’t show up in the SPARQ ratings - he’s a Playmaker.
From The Playmaker’s Advantage, ©2018-19 Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel R. Peterson
For Justyn Ross, the numbers started to add up. As the top recruit in the 2018 high school class of football-crazed Alabama, he was attracting not only the state’s two dominant football programs, the University of Alabama and Auburn University, but over twenty more Division 1 powerhouses, including 2017 NCAA champion Clemson University. As a five-star recruit and a 2018 Under Armour All-American, he ranked as one of the top five wide receivers in his class and in the top twenty of all positions in the country. He was certainly one to watch when he arrived at Buford High School, about an hour northeast of Atlanta, on a warm March Sunday for one of the thirteen regional events of Nike Football’s “The Opening,” an annual showcase of the top prep players.
With almost 500 local playmakers at each event, getting noticed enough to be one of only 166 players invited to the national final in June at Nike headquarters in Oregon requires both a football résumé of achievement along with stellar performances at the regional event. In addition to position-specific drills and competitions, all recruits have their raw athleticism assessed through the four tests that make up the Nike Football Rating. Scores on a forty-yard dash, twenty-yard shuttle run, a vertical jump test, and a kneeling power ball toss combine to create the single rating metric, also known across sports as SPARQ (Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction, Quickness).
As a six-foot-five-inch, 195-pound junior starring for Central High School in Phenix City, AL, Ross dominated his opposition, catching 38 passes for 663 yards and 8 touchdowns. “He’s just a very coachable kid and probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around, period, in my 23, 24 years of coaching,” said his head football coach Jamey DuBose.
To be sure, Ross’s impressive physical stature at age seventeen is usually enough to put fear in local opposing defensive backs, even in Alabama. But what about when going up against the top defenders from across the South? To be a playmaker on that stage, there has to be more than just speed, power, and agility, since everyone comes to the table with those tools. Like the other players at the Atlanta regional, Ross put up impressive numbers in the four SPARQ tests: a quick 4.87 seconds in the forty-yard dash, 4.40 seconds in the shuttle run, 34 feet in the power ball toss, and 27.3 inches in the vertical jump, for an overall rating of 74.2.
However, of the forty-nine wide receivers at the Atlanta event, Ross’s SPARQ rating came in at forty-first place. The five-star recruit could not even place in the top half of his position group in pure athleticism. In the two key measures for a wide receiver, the forty-yard dash and vertical jump, he ranked thirty-seventh and forty-sixth, respectively. Just a bad day of testing? Possibly, until he finds out at the end of the day that he is one of only six players total, out of the entire field of more than four hundred, to be invited to the national event in Beaverton, Oregon.
“It means a lot to me to be invited,” said Ross, who has received more than twenty Division I scholarship offers, “because I’ll have a great chance to showcase myself against the best of the best across the country.”
Ultimately, Ross signed to play for Clemson University, marking the first time the top-rated high school player in Alabama went out of state since Jameis Winston left for Florida State in 2012.
There were other mismatches at the Atlanta event: under-recruited players with high test scores and vice versa. Channing Tindall, a three-star-rated linebacker ranked thirty-seventh-best nationally at his position, was invited to Oregon, thanks to his regional-winning SPARQ score of 125. However, of the top ten SPARQ scores at the event, only Tindall will be headed to the finals.
On the other hand, another finals invitee, Jamaree Salyer, a five-star recruit and the sixth overall ranked 2018 player in the country, only placed fourth in SPARQ among the offensive linemen and seventy-first overall at the Atlanta event. Ja’Marcus “J.J.” Peterson, a four-star linebacker also invited to the finals, placed fifth among his position group and twenty-sixth overall. Tindall and Salyer will be teammates at the University of Georgia while Peterson signed with the University of Tennessee.
There’s no question that all of these players are elite athletes, but to be a playmaker who attracts the interest of top colleges requires something more. Otherwise the highly coveted recruits would consistently place among the fastest, strongest, and quickest. Physical strength and conditioning is a must for staying on the field, but being the champion of the weight room does not guarantee a spot in the starting lineup. Take away pure athleticism and you’re left with cognitive-based, sport-specific skills to differentiate the elite players from the better-than-average crowd.
Still, for some coaches, the allure of the physical specimen with the raw tools is enough to take a chance on, especially at the pro level. Because when all else fails, what can get measured gets ranked, and what gets ranked can justify a draft pick. And that’s the allure of the SPARQ rating.
As players progress from high school to college to pro, the talent pipeline filters out all but the best athletes. The marginal differences in physical attributes as well as in-game performance are measured in decimal places rather than whole numbers. Coaching staffs feel confident that they can teach the finer points of the game to these uber-athletes. In football, the drafting philosophy known as “best player available” is a nod to the well-publicized NFL Scouting Combine physical tests, a modified set of SPARQ standards.
According to Zach Whitman, creator of the 3 Sigma Athlete3 blog, the dream is to find the freak athlete buried somewhere in an underappreciated and lesser-known college conference who can stand up physically to the rigors of the NFL. Whitman has analyzed hundreds of players, comparing a prospect’s position-adjusted combine results, what he calls pSPARQ, with their counterparts already active in the NFL. This comparison, known as the z-score, will be 0.0 if the prospect matches the league average for his position. A z-score of 1.0 indicates a prospect who is one standard deviation higher than his position peers. A negative z-score warns coaches and GMs that the player will enter the league as a sub-par athlete, relatively speaking. Whitman’s blog name, 3 Sigma Athlete, honors the five prospects who ranked at least three standard deviations (three sigmas) above their NFL peers when they were drafted: Evan Mathis, Byron Jones, Calvin Johnson, Lane Johnson, and J. J. Watt. Being in this exclusive club places you in the 99.87th percentile of NFL players.
As Whitman likes to say, “Not all good athletes are good players. Very few poor athletes are good players. Most great players are great athletes.” In a 2015 study, to demonstrate this at a macro level, he plotted the pSPARQ score of every NFL player from 1999 to 2012 against another new age metric, approximate value (AV). Created by Doug Drinen, founder of the Pro Football Reference website, AV9 is an attempt to measure an NFL player’s career impact on the league. Just counting “number of seasons as a starter” or “number of Pro Bowls attended” doesn’t capture a player’s weekly contribution to his team over the years. Whitman’s goal was to confirm the importance of generic athletic skills to an NFL career by comparing raw athleticism, as measured by pSPARQ, with success at the pro level, described by AV3 (the best three seasons of the player’s career).
While individual results will always vary from player to player, Whitman found an overall direct relationship of physical skills to production in the NFL when taken as a group. This satisfies two conditions of his maxim, that “very few poor athletes become good players” and that “most great players are great athletes.” It does not explain his third axiom: that “not all good athletes are good players.” Being physically elite in football may be necessary but not sufficient to being a game-changer.
Even with this relationship established and with the exploding emphasis on strength and conditioning in high school and college football, it would appear logical that average SPARQ combine scores should rise over time as players eventually get bigger, faster, and stronger. Surprisingly, a 2017 analysis found that the individual test results of the so-called offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, tight end, and wide receiver) were relatively flat from 2000 to 2016. Average height and weight within each position has remained virtually the same. Forty-yard-dash times for quarterbacks and tight ends have stayed consistently at 4.8 seconds, while running backs and wide receivers have hovered around 4.6 seconds, +/−0.1 seconds, over the last seventeen years. Tests of quickness have become very tightly grouped across the four positions, while broad and vertical jumps have been virtually unchanged. Strength, as measured by the bench press, has declined for running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, with quarterbacks rarely participating anymore.
Yet, the widely held assumption of forward progress in physical development remains. The data disagrees with claims by barstool pundits that athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger than the past generation.
Athleticism and sporting success are linked but not mutually exclusive in either direction. So, while Whitman showed that, overall, being a better athlete corresponds with being a better player, there is still an X factor to being a dynamic playmaker. Because physical training shows improvement in the form of numerical stats that can be tracked and compared, it is an easy target for training sessions. But we’re after those intangible improvements in knowledge, awareness, and decision-making that reveal themselves only subtly in competitive team situations. Coaches are convinced that they know a playmaker when they see one, but ideally they would prefer to create a training environment that proactively produces sport-related neural connections, just as speed training adds fast-twitch fibers and resistance training builds muscle.
© 2018-19 Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel R. Peterson