As the clock to Feb. 1 ticks down, remember this:
The last five Wisconsin recruiting classes wound up ranking, on average, seventh-best among the 14 current Big Ten programs, according to 247Sports.com. The last five Badgers football teams, by Sagarin rankings, averaged a league ranking of 3.6 — landing almost squarely between third or fourth in the conference, every season — while appearing in three Big Ten championship games and winning one of them.
When you’re throwing darts, even the experts miss, too. Sometimes.
“I think if you look at it on the next level, a team like the Patriots who can find undrafted guys and free agents, you look at it a little bit differently when they find late-round (talent),” said Allen Trieu, Midwest recruiting manager with Scout.com. “And you look at it very differently when Wisconsin offers a guy late or Kansas State looks at a guy late. Those guys have made it so we must look at every kid that they offer. You can’t look at the offers and judge a kid off of that. You have to go up there and evaluate them.
“I was looking at the kids they offered, because, in fact, we even have one of their walk-ons ranked as a 3-star this year. We turned over every stone, just as they have.”
The Badgers haven’t just made the recruitniks double-take. They’re making them grind.
“I’ve watched more Wisconsin walk-on film the last three years,” Trieu laughed, “than I ever thought I would.”
The Scout.com manager says he’s pouring twice the energy into Wisconsin high schools, small colleges and junior colleges as he did five years ago, trying like hell to crack The Alvarez Code. How did LB T.J. Watt go from 247Sports’ 645th-best prospect in the Class of 2013 to one of the Big Ten’s nastiest edge rushers and a likely second-round NFL draft selection? How did OT Ryan Ramczyk go from Winona State to Madison Area Technical College to Mid-State Technical College to Wisconsin-Stevens Points to Mad City to a probable first-round selection and membership in The Instant Millionaires Club?
“The most famous example, the one that gets thrown in our face all the time, is J.J. Watt,” Trieu chuckled when asked about the NFL All-Pro and ex-Badgers star. “That was a Wisconsin kid who they didn’t offer, went to Central Michigan, comes back (to Madison) as a walk-on. He was a tight end.
“I wouldn’t call it frustrating for us. Every year, it seems there’s a Wisconsin guy in the (NFL) draft who we were like, ‘Oh, we missed that guy.’ Ryan Ramczyk was a transfer from a Division III school. You’re just not going to see those coming.”
As of Sunday morning, Wisconsin’s Class of 2017, the third assembled by coach Paul Chryst, sits at No. 40 on 247’s national rankings chart and ninth in the Big Ten. Solid, but not sexy.
“Not every school could get away with taking a bunch of unwanted, unknown, unranked and under-recruited guys and do what they do.”
— Allen Trieu, Scout.com, on Wisconsin’s football recruiting
“You wouldn’t necessarily say (Chryst) is an Urban/Harbaugh type,” countered Brandon Huffman, Scout’s national recruiting director, “where he’s going to come in and floor you with his energy. What he’s going to sell you is his system, the Wisconsin system, the success that Wisconsin has had in taking that and translating it to the next level.”
Much has been written about the Badgers’ acumen at development, from strength and conditioning to schematic prep. Few get more out of what is presumed to be less: From 2000-15, only one Big Ten program saw more of its players drafted by the NFL than Wisconsin and its 67 — Ohio State, with 97 (Nebraska was No. 3, at 63; Michigan followed at 62).
“I think that it shows that they’re certainly one of the best in terms of eyeing talent, fitting it into their system how they want it and clearly in developing those players,” Huffman continued. “And I think they do as good a job as anybody in finding guys who are really perfect for what they want to do and making sure these guys develop over their time at Wisconsin.”
To wit: Of the six previous classes procured in Madison from 2011-16, the highest ranked, according to 247Sports, was Chryst’s haul last year, at No. 32 nationally. The average finish of those six classes? No. 41. The last six Badgers teams from 2011-16 averaged a 16th spot nationally in the Sagarin rankings, with two squads — 2011 and 2016 — finishing among the top 10 (’11 was No. 8; ’16 was No. 9).
“I think (Wisconsin) fans have the right to question recruiting rankings given the number of guys they have that have defied those,” Trieu said. “You kind of have to understand that they’re an anomaly — not every school could get away with taking a bunch of unwanted, unknown, unranked and under-recruited guys and do what they do. So I understand (the skepticism).
“(But) these kids slide under the radar much less than they used to. J.J. Watt, if he came out today, chances are I would’ve seen him at two or three camps, whereas back then, I don’t know if anybody in our group would’ve seen him.”
In the meantime, there are more weeks yet to go, more stones yet unturned, more Ramczyks on deck, just waiting for their chance to chuck a spanner in the works. Humble acorns don’t become mighty oaks by their lonesome. Or overnight.