McGrane: Fame isn't Always Written in Stars
Dec. 13, 2016
2016 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Fame isn't Always Written in Stars
Recruiting services are fascinated with stars. Two, three, four and five stars. Stars that are blue-chippers and stars that are busts, stars bound for fame and stars bound to flop.
Stars don't often land in the lap of Rocky Long. Be it the Aztecs' Mountain West address, their "non-Power 5" designation or their relatively recent rise in the national ranks, the cream of the crop seldom takes root at SDSU.
And yet, the lure has become oh-so inviting. The Aztecs, who just became the league's first team to win consecutive championships, are preparing for their school-record seventh straight bowl game. They've either won or shared the MW title three of the last five seasons. Two of the program's nine double-digit win seasons have come in the last two years.
But it's never easy scrubbing away the stain of 11 straight losing seasons, the skid endured by SDSU from 1999-2009. Stars, particularly those of the four- and five-star variety, snicker without giving you so much as a sniff.
Indeed, only three times since the Aztecs began their run of seven consecutive postseason appearances and two straight MW titles have they successfully recruited a player with a rating greater than three stars. Perry Jackson, a four-star defensive end, was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules in 2011. Darryl Richardson, a four-star high school quarterback who was moved to tight end at SDSU, has one catch in two seasons. The only five-star player to sign with the Aztecs, long snapper and class of 2016 signee Turner Bernard, is redshirting.
Lacking star-studded recruiting classes, then, what is it that serves as SDSU's key to success? Long, other than to suggest that the program isn't for everyone, won't go into specifics.
David Wells, however, thinks he knows. SDSU, which has produced a number of successful NFL tight ends, could have another in Wells, a junior once pegged a three-star prospect.
"I think you have to be mentally tough (to play here)," Wells said. "We're put through a lot of stuff during the winter with Coach (strength and conditioning coach Adam) Hall that will test you physically and mentally, both on the field and in the weight room.
"We may not get all the five-star and four-star guys, but you know what? We get a bunch of guys here who want to be successful, who want to play and who have that drive inside of them to do great things here. Players are pushed to better themselves and they're put into a position where they can do that. We have guys who fit the mold of what we want to do, guys who are tough."
Consider: Running back Donnel Pumphrey, who needs 108 yards to become the all-time NCAA rushing leader in the Las Vegas Bowl against Houston on Dec. 17, was viewed as a three-star prospect, as was senior cornerback Damontae Kazee, who currently has a school-record 17 interceptions. Another three-star recruit, junior running back Rashaad Penny, has returned a school-record five kickoffs for touchdowns and is averaging 8.0 yards per carry, fifth-highest in the FBS among running backs with at least 750 yards.
On Nov. 29, for the second straight season, Pumphrey, Kazee and Penny were named the Mountain West's Offensive, Defensive and Special Teams players of the year, respectively.
Standout senior linebacker Calvin Munson, also considered to be of three-star status, has started 41 straight games, leading the Aztecs in tackles 15 times.
"I think our coaches do a very nice job of evaluating talent to the point where we can develop a player into a five-star college player that wasn't a five-star player coming out of high school," Long said. "But to have a senior class that has four to five guys who are for sure going to play in the NFL, when we're not able to (attract) five-star guys out of high school, there's a lot of luck involved. You don't know their personalities well enough. You can evaluate their physical talents and whether they can compete at this level, but it's attitude that makes them the players they are.
"Calvin Munson is big enough, he barely runs fast enough, but he's as good as any linebacker they have in the Pac-12, I promise you. But he didn't get recruited because he didn't run real fast in high school. Any team in the Pac-12 or on the West Coast would love to have DJ Pumphrey on their team, but he was considered a three-star recruit because he was too little. Damontae Kazee is the same way. Teams didn't recruit him because he was too little. We believed in him because his older brother (former Aztecs running back Walter Kazee) is such a good guy. All three of those guys are going to play in the NFL.
"What you don't know about those kids is their attitude and heart. And you can't evaluate that."
What you evaluate instead are simply the facts, like the fact that only four teams --- Alabama, Clemson, Western Michigan and Ohio State --- have better winning percentages than the Aztecs (.857) since Oct. 10, 2015. Like the fact that in September, SDSU made its first appearance in the AP Top 25 in 21 years. Like the fact that Long, in just six years, has won two more championships than the program's previous five head coaches combined. Like the fact that the Aztecs own the league's best record (26-8) since the MW moved to division play in 2013.
Like the fact that losing is no longer accepted within a program that mustered only four winning seasons in 19 years prior to the 2010, Long's second year as defensive coordinator under former head coach Brady Hoke.
"Failure is not acceptable around here," Wells said. "If you lose one game or if you lose three games, I still think we could have won every game we played this season. It's just the mentality that we have. Each week we expect to win and each week we expect to keep getting better."
Said junior defensive end Dakota Turner: "The leaders and the coaches on this team have set a high standard when it comes to winning. That's what we're here for. We're never going to be satisfied with losing. That's what has been drilled into us since we first set foot on campus. It's the new trend. We're a winning team and we've got to keep that going."
Regardless of recruiting service ratings.
"The key is always the players," Long said. "They've responded to the way we run things, and now we recruit guys with similar personalities. And it's nice that there's leadership within the program. It comes from the (players) just as much as it comes from the coaches. The majority of the young men in our program believe in how we do things around here and they kind of teach the younger guys about the way we do it.
"When we recruit, there are some guys we'd love to have who don't want to come here because of our culture. Most of the guys we're able to recruit into our program believe in how we do things and they fit right in."
In hopes of becoming stars.