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Kentucky Football Recruiting: SPARQ

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A different kind of way to evaluate Kentucky's football commits.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There are various ways high school football prospects get evaluated. The "star" rating is the big one, but some sites attempt to rank prospects by which schools have offered. Beyond those two are the evaluations done by coaching staffs, and their formal or informal advisers. A sub-component that feeds into each of these camp's ratings is a prospect's athletic ability, and unlike broader ratings that are subjective, we now have a way to more objectively measure that fundamental variable.

The vehicle for bringing a ton of new data to the public is Nike's The Opening, and specifically the SPARQ combine it conducts for prospects. SPARQ is comprised of five measurements: forty time, twenty yard shuttle, kneeling powerball toss, and vertical leap. Those factors, along with a prospect's height and weight, provide the SPARQ rating. In effect, it provides a common base to which all prospects - regardless of size - get their athleticism measured. Capiche?

Brent over at Roll Bama Roll then normalized a very large population of SPARQ scores nation-wide to get a Z-score. Brent was kind enough last November to send me his giant spreadsheet, but I couldn't do much with it because not enough of UK's commitments were attending The Opening. Then last month, a whole bunch of them attended The Opening regional in Columbus, and we were suddenly in business.

Current UK Commitments

With a Z-score we can now measure the athleticism of UK's commitments to all participants who receive a SPARQ score by position. Below lists the Z-score of UK's commitments from the Columbus regional. A score of 0 is a player with a SPARQ score that is exactly average for his position. A score of 1 is a player in approximately the top 16% of all college athletes.  A score of 2 puts a player in the top 2.5%, and a 3 is truly elite: the top 0.15%.

Name SPARQ Rating Z-Score
Benny Snell 103.77 0.61
Tobias Gilliam 103.53 1.24
Kordell Looney 86.1 1.15
Justin Rigg 81.3 0.68
Drake Jackson 79.44 1.38
Jaylin Bannerman 72.72 0.67
Landon Young 72.27 1.07

The chart illustrates some interesting things. The recruiting sites rank Drake Jackson and Landon Young as the highest commits UK has to date, but after controlling for size, and comparing to other individuals at their position nation-wide, the Z-Score ranks defensive back Tobias Gilliam the highest. Gilliam may, I stress may, but this class' most important recruit.

The other player who ranks highly is defensive lineman Kordell Looney. Coupled with his Z-Score, and how impressive Looney looked in drills at The Opening, UK will probably have to hold-off suitors come the end of the year.

More broadly, the SPARQ ratings for these UK commitments don't exactly match up with their Z-Scores. Landon Young, for example, actually is much better than his SPARQ rating indicates when comparing to other offensive linemen. The Z-Score allows for another level of nuance.

Comparing Z-Scores To Prior UK Commits

Let's make some more comparisons. Once again, note Gilliam's Z-Score of 1.24. That is much higher than former UK defensive back decommit Montrel Custis' Z-Score of 0.94. Do you recall defensive linemen Jason Strowbridge who decommitted from UK for North Carolina last February? His Z-Score is 1.10 which is lower than Looney's 1.15. In at least this single measure, for these two positions, UK has a higher quality recruit this cycle. If decommits were to occur this January there will be a larger impact, again by this metric.

Random Observations

One, in the state of Kentucky's 2017 class, two in-state prospects had interesting scores. First is offensive linemen Jedrick Wills with a Z-Score of 1.19. That would rank him higher than Landon Young in this one metric. Also, defensive linemen Jacob Paulson of Christian Academy (Louisville) had a Z-Score of 0.84. I wonder if UK is recruiting him? Probably a name to keep in the back of our minds.

Two, how did Young and Jackson hold-up to two other offensive line beasts? Well, Notre Dame-bound Tommy Kraemer had a Z-score of 1.18. Josh Myers, a 2017 prospect whose brother Zach currently plays for UK and whose father played for UK in the 1980's, had an insane Z-Score of 2.23. He's currently committed to Ohio State and will probably be a five star. One wonders if UK would have had a shot at Myers if the rebuild at UK had started a season earlier? Maybe, maybe not.

Three, it will be useful to track UK target's Z-Score from here on out to see if there's a correlation between Z-Score and who UK offers, and if it varies according to position or in-state/out-of-state prospects.

Finally, for giggles I started to fill out the SPARQ variables based on Bud Dupree's combine performance. Unfortunately, he didn't run the 20 yard shuttle, and the Kneeling Powerball Toss isn't a combine event, but eye-balling the highest scores of linebackers with similar 40 times (4.56 seconds) and vertical jumps (42 inches) leads me to think Bud would have a Z-score somewhere in the mid-2's. Now, that begs the question: would he have scored that high coming out of high school (I doubt it); and if not, is this further evidence the development done in college is more important than natural ability coming out of high school?

Caveat(s)

These scores shouldn't be taken as absolute. There are many other factors (emotional and mental intelligence, coachability, character, etc.) that have to be taken into account as well due to finite roster space. That goes without saying this was only a single day worth of results for UK's commitments. Who knows, maybe Justin Rigg did what he did with a pulled hamstring? You catch my drift?

This metric does tell us quite a bit about the level of athleticism for UK's recruits, on a single day, compared to other SPARQ participants. At the very least, it's a different way to consider how valuable certain commits are to Kentucky, and which ones fans should be most excited about faxing in their LOI come February.