Clemson's Justyn Ross Has The Playmaker's Advantage

Clemson's Justyn Ross Has The Playmaker's Advantage

n 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.

Here’s an excerpt from The Playmaker’s Advantage, available now in hardcover, ebook and audiobook, and in paperback on 1/29/19.

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College Football Scandals Stress Need For Coaching Character

Jim Tressel
Former Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel seemed to be a role model for achieving on-field success with a high level of character.  Two-time National Coach of the Year, Larry Coker and former player Randy Shannon also were thought to provide moral leadership while winning national championships during their tenure as head coaches for the University of Miami.

Yet, both storied football programs now find themselves in the middle of NCAA investigations for major rule violations.  Reports of players trading memorabilia for cash or discounts, receiving cash and “entertainment” from boosters, and at least one of these coaches admitting to lying about their knowledge of these events has triggered a frenzy of discussion on what’s wrong with college athletics.

As head coaches often claim at their post-scandal press conferences, the buck stops with them as they have overall responsibility for the program and its players.  Being in the hot seat requires a coach that can provide the balance between ultra-competitive, “win now” demands of fans and boosters and long-term development of players’ skills and character. Several recent research initiatives have looked at this unique role and how to walk that fine line

Randy Shannon
Before arriving on a big-time college campus, elite athletes are exposed to multiple coaches.  Certainly, these coaches influence the player’s knowledge and skill level in their sport, but exercise science researchers at Concordia University in Montreal have documented a link between coaches and players in moral and ethical development.

Through interviews with elite coaches and athletes, Sandra Peláez and Simon Bacon found that after parents, coaches can become significant influences in moral guidance for athletes.

"Coaches are mentors, parent figures, career enablers, and judges -- all at the same time," lead author Peláez said. "Every coach, however, doesn't influence every athlete he or she works with. The coach-athlete relationship is what enables a coach's influence and therefore determines how much influence a coach has. We found athletes would evaluate the relationship with their coaches and then decide whether to accept moral guidance or not."

Of course, defining what is meant by the term morals is slippery.  For this study, four core moral values were defined. These were "elite sports involvement" (i.e. discipline), "interaction with others" (i.e. respect), "self-related" (i.e. enjoying the sport) and "game" (i.e. striving to win).

Also found in the study was the importance of cultural differences between coach and player as well as the generational influence of coaches being mentored by their former coaches.

Attitudes towards sports also begins at much younger age and helps set the stage for future behaviors.  A “win at all costs” coaching mentality has been found to be less effective for player development than a mastery method which emphasizes positive communications and learning the sport.

Recently, University of Washington sport psychologists interviewed 243 children -- 145 boys and 98 girls -- playing basketball in two separate Seattle leagues. The athletes ranged in age from 9 to 13 and 80 percent were white. They were given questionnaires to fill out twice, once prior to the beginning of the season and again 12 weeks later when the season was almost over.  Those kids that played for mastery coaches reported having more fun and enjoying the sport.

"One consistent finding of our research is that a mastery climate retains more youngsters in sports. It keeps them coming back," said Ronald Smith, a UW psychology professor and lead author of the study. "Retention is a huge problem in some youth sports programs. An important reason to keep kids involved in sports is that it reduces obesity by helping them be more active."

Like their athletes, elite college head coaches can often reach rock star status, as well.  This can cause problems if the coach cannot adapt to new situations for fear of trying new methods and not having an answer for everything.

"Coaching is complex, continually changing and influenced greatly by the context, athletes' circumstances and the developing relationship between the coach and the athlete,” claims Jim Denison, PhD, of the University of Alberta, and co-author of a new paper on positive coaching and ethical practices for athlete development. “When coaches achieve an expert status they tend to want to maintain that, so admitting that you don't know becomes a threat to their expertise."

So much is riding on a successful NCAA Division 1 program that a head coach may not be able to step back and admit a mistake or a problem with their players.

"It's hard for that person to express uncertainty, or be open to new ways of looking at a problem or consulting with others,” added Denison. "You cannot begin to 'problemetize' until you acknowledge and recognize that the knowledge you have is socially constructed based on a lot of take-for-granted ideas and traditions that have become dominant. We invite coaches to think more critically about how they think and what they do, to 'problemetize' their assumptions and to open their minds to look at their coaching practices critically and with the opportunity to try new things without feeling threatened by change."

Of course, easier said than done.  With so many strong influences on college athletes, head coaches will need to develop strong relationships with their team and even stronger support from their universities and fans in order to provide a championship with character.

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See also: Youth Sports Coaches Should Prioritize Teaching Over Winning and Wait Until After The Season To Fire The Coach

NFL Scouting Combine Not A Good Predictor of Draft Pick Success

Every April, general managers and head coaches fear that their NFL Draft selection of "can't miss" college players may end up being added to the long list of past multi-million dollar draft mistakes.
So, for last month's NFL Draft, they hope they found the right matrix of information that will reveal those players with true NFL potential. One set of criteria that seems to get more media attention every year is the scouting combine, a collection of physical and mental tests given to about 300 invited prospects.

However, university researchers have now shown the tests are not good predictors of success in the NFL.

According to ESPN, of the top 10 player selections in the last five drafts (50 players total), eight have been released or traded at least once and five are completely out of the league.

Teams are becoming less willing to gamble millions of dollars on a player who has not played a single snap in the league.

The combine event, held in Indianapolis each February, was meant to provide some common denominators to compare players. Physical tests such as the 40-yard dash, shuttle and agility runs, bench press, and the vertical jump are combined with the Wonderlic Personnel Test (WPT), a 50-question general intelligence test, to paint a profile of a player beyond his on-field resume.

Of course, teams should evaluate the whole package of game film, interviews and position-specific drills, but the combine data seems to be growing in influence. A player's stock seems to rise and fall with their performance at Indianapolis.

In fact, a 2003 Arizona State University study showed that performance at the combine was directly related to draft order, which might indicate that teams rely on these tests more than they admit.

Specific combine tests also seem to make a difference in getting drafted. Last year, University of North Carolina researchers found that there were significant performance differences between drafted and non-drafted skill players in the 40-yeard dash, the shuttle runs and the vertical jump, while drafted linemen performed better in the 40-yard dash and bench press.

But in a new study, Frank Kuzmits and Arthur Adams, professors at the University of Louisville, evaluated more than 300 quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers drafted over six seasons from 1999-2004.

They compared the players' combine performance on seven physical tests and the WPT with measures of success in the NFL. These three skill positions were chosen as they have distinct performance statistics that can be tracked (as opposed to linemen or defensive players.)

Each position used the success metrics of draft order, salaries for years 1-3 and games played for years 1-3. In addition, QB rating, yards per carry and yards per reception were measured for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, respectively.

No significant link was found between combine performance and NFL success, except between 40-yard dash times and running backs. Interestingly, even the Wonderlic aptitude test did not predict NFL achievement, even though a skill position like quarterback requires a decent amount of cognitive talent. That's not to say other psychological tests would be worthless. Kuzmits and Adams cite other studies that show a player's level of self-confidence and anxiety management to be strong clues to their future accomplishments.

Of course, not all draft picks are surrounded by great teammates and some don't even get out on the field during those first few seasons. But this research showed that good or bad performance in the combine is not related to good or bad performance on the field. So, the researchers question the value of these combine tests as a draft decision support tool.

They do see a similarity between NFL teams choosing players and companies choosing employees.
"Contemporary human resource techniques could be applied to any hiring decision, including the NFL hiring process," Kuzmits told LiveScience. "Basically, teams could develop a regression equation with various success predictors weighted (college success, combine tests and interviews, awards, psychological profile, etc.). It could be done but in the end 'art' would probably trump 'science.'"

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NFL Linemen Trade Health For Super Bowl Rings

When the Arizona Cardinals met the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, every starting offensive lineman was a member of the 300-pound club.

This season, there were more than 600 players — about 20 percent of the league — in triple donuts. Even with 6-foot plus heights, their Body Mass Index (BMI) levels are all in the range of grade 2 obesity, one step below what's called morbid obesity.

This super-sizing of NFL players has accelerated in recent years, and some studies suggest health risks are growing. But studies are conflicting on this point.

And the big question on the minds of coaches and owners: Do heavier players mean more wins? No, says one NFL executive.

Strong vs. fat
The trend towards the ever-expanding football player, especially on the offensive and defensive lines, has accelerated over the last 20 years. From 1920-1984 no more than eight players in the league were over 300 pounds.

The motivation to be bigger comes from the perceived advantages on the field. When Nick Saban, now head coach at Alabama, was drafting players for the Miami Dolphins, he said: "I always say it this way: They have weight classes in boxing for a reason. The heavyweights don't fight the lightweights. What's the reason for that? Because if a big guy is just as good as a little guy, the little guy doesn't have much of a chance."

BMI is a measure of obesity based on a height to weight ratio. Often the apparently risky BMI of large athletes is dismissed because of the percentage of muscle included in their mass. The question becomes whether "big and strong" is any less dangerous than "big and fat."

Last year, Mayo Clinic researchers studied the cardiovascular health of 233 retired NFL players, aged 35-65. They found that in players less than 50 years old, 82 percent had either plaque or carotid narrowing of their arteries greater than the 75th percentile of the population, adjusted for age, sex and race. This condition could lead to a restriction of blood flow causing a heart attack or stroke.

Conflicting results emerged from a University of Texas study later in the year. They compared the health of 201 former NFL players and compared them with the population-based Dallas Heart Study and the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. Compared to the control group of men, retired players had a significantly lower prevalence of diabetes, hypertension, sedentary lifestyles and metabolic syndrome.

"Despite their large body size, retired NFL players do not have a greater prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors nor CAC than community controls," Alice Y. Chang, lead author and assistant professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. "Age and high cholesterol levels, not body size, were the most significant predictors of sub-clinical coronary atherosclerosis among retired NFL players."

Does it matter?
Jackie Buell, director of sports nutrition at Ohio State University, recently released a study focused specifically on players with metabolic syndrome. This condition is characterized by a group of symptoms that include excess fat in the abdominal area, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and elevated levels of triglyceride. Having one or more of these symptoms increases the risk of future heart disease or attacks.

Buell's study measured these factors in 70 current college football linemen. Thirty-four players had at least three risk factors, while eight had four and one had all five risk factors.
"We understand these athletes want to be big, but they can't assume all their weight gain is lean mass just because they're lifting weights and taking protein supplements," Buell said. "The bottom line is we're seeing more and more abdominal obesity. And these findings show that athletes aren't necessarily off the hook when it comes to health risks."

Are the potential health problems worth the risk of garnering a Super Bowl ring?
Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian recently asked that very question to help his NFL draft planning. He compared the winning percentages with the average weight of NFL teams over a recent ten year period. "We found higher weight had no bearing on winning — none," Polian said. "There was a lot of noise about 'big is the answer.' We tested it. It's not valid."

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Inside The BCS Computer Ranking Black Box

As the new President-elect, Barack Obama faces one of this country's most vexing problems.

Obama has promised the American public that he will bring change to a stagnant system that is controlled by a few wealthy men that control the millions of dollars at stake.  Last month, during his first "60 Minutes" interview, Obama elaborated on his plans: “Eight teams. That would be three rounds to determine a national champion. I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me on this. So, I’m going to throw my weight around a little bit. I think it’s the right thing to do.” That’s right, fixing the college football post-season is on the national agenda.

Prior to 1998, the collective wisdom of football coaches and sportswriters decided the fate of college teams by ranking them in two weekly polls, with the final lists deciding the season's champion. This led to problems when the media poll did not agree with the coaches poll, and dual champions would have to be named.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was created to finally provide a national championship game so that at least the No. 1 and the No. 2 ranked teams could play each other at the end of the season.

Of course, working backwards, how are we sure that the two teams selected are indeed the No. 1 and No. 2 teams? Should we fall back on the polls or should we use the other four BCS bowl games to provide an eight team playoff, as our next president suggests?

Since the playoff system seems to be an uphill battle, let's focus on the current BCS polling solution and why it has so many doubters.

The weekly BCS rankings consist of three components: the Harris Interactive poll (114 writers); the USA Today coaches poll (60 coaches); and the infamous "computer" rankings (6 independent systems averaged together). Each component counts for one third of the total, with the average point value of all three determining the rankings from 1 to 25.

The human polls are self-explanatory but come with an opportunity for bias among writers and coaches, as well as varying methods of ranking. This uncertainty and frequent lack of logic helped support the use of automated ranking models. Just feed in the data from previous games and have the rankings derived according to the embedded algorithm. Human emotion and bias are eliminated, but the focus is now on the correctness of the model.

Unfortunately, of the six models used by the BCS, only one, by astrophysicist Wesley Colley, provides all of the mathematical details, while the other five claim proprietary rights and keep their methods shrouded.

In a Nov. 19 interview with the Birmingham News, BCS administrator Bill Hancock admitted, "We don't have the formulas and that's by design. The commissioners are not in the computer business and don't want to be. But on the other hand, they want to know that the computer rankings they hire are the best they can be. Because we're hiring the service, we don't have any control over the math."
Even the coaches are in the dark. "I don't know how the computer thing works," USC coach Pete Carroll said earlier this month.

Typically in science, a hypothesis is proposed and then checked against observations to find out if it’s valid. However, in college football or any sport there are no definitive observations, as each team does not play every other team. So, the best we can do is compare a model's results with other human polls or other computer-based rankings. Since there is no final "right" answer, any system's output is going to be open for disagreement.

Wins and losses seem to be the simplest statistic to use to compare teams. Within conferences, teams typically play every other team so a winning percentage (wins divided by games played) provides a reasonable ranking. However, comparing teams across conferences becomes the challenge, as we can't assume that each conference has equally strong teams.

So, a "strength of schedule" (SOS) variable is added to each model. The algebra fun begins in knowing how deep to take this SOS factor. If Team A beats Team B, we need to know how good Team B is by analyzing its previous opponents. But, how good are Team B's previous opponents? This backward chain needs to stop somewhere.
Thankfully, when trying to rank only the top 25 teams, the iterations can stop when there is only a negligible change in ratings. A team that plays weaker teams in their non-conference schedule not only runs the risk of an upset, but also lowers their SOS. The NCAA has also prohibited the use of margin of victory as a factor to prevent unsportsmanlike run-ups in the score.

Its not a perfect system, but that's OK with the BCS' Hancock. "We know that there's no one computer ranking that can adequately tell you who's going to win it on Saturday," he said. "We just need something to add a little science and that's what we have."

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