While molding the 30th anniversary American Family Insurance ALL-USA high school football team, there was a lot of clay to work with. There were NFL All-Pros or even Hall of Famers to choose from at almost every position.
But not the sport’s most important spot - quarterback.
Jeff George was named the 30th anniversary American Family Insurance ALL-USA quarterback, edging out Tim Couch. George saw action in 12 NFL seasons, while Couch played five years in the NFL. Two great high school and college quarterbacks who were, eh, OK pro players.
In all fairness, it’s easy to whiff when selecting quarterbacks for the annual American Family Insurance ALL-USA team. The selections are based on high school accomplishments, which doesn’t necessarily predict NFL success.
"Quarterbacking is so unpredictable," said Trinity (Louisville, Ky.) coach Bob Beatty. "In many cases, it depends on who surrounds you. In anybody else's system, (Joe) Montana is probably a below-average quarterback, but you start surrounding him with people like Brent Jones and Jerry Rice and you see what he can do."
In other words, having a five-star wide receiver at your disposal in high school could make a world’s of difference when it comes to a QB’s ALL-USA candidacy.
Plus, unlike most positions, only one quarterback makes the ALL-USA first team each year, so the margin of error is greater. Had Peyton Manning not been edged out in 1993 by Josh Booty, who never started an NFL game, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
It’s not uncommon to struggle identifying future NFL quarterbacks based on high school success. Here are of some of the top quarterbacks recruits from the past 10 years, according to various recruiting services: Rhett Bomar, Kyle Wright, Ben Olson, and Mitch Mustain. Remember them? Neither do we.
Jimmy Clausen was hailed as a “once-in-a-generation talent” by Sports Illustrated in high school, but now he’s a backup with the Carolina Panthers who hasn’t thrown a pass in two seasons.
"It's the toughest position in all of sports," said IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) director of football Chris Weinke, a former ALL-USA quarterback who won the 2000 Heisman Trophy at Florida State and played seven NFL seasons. "None of us have a crystal ball. We can project, but the projection doesn't always go to fruition. There are so many pieces and variables that go into the quarterback position. It's not just if the guy looks good in the lobby.”
Some of today’s top NFL and college quarterbacks were late-bloomers. None of the big three rookie quarterbacks this year – Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson – were rated Top 50 high school recruits by Rivals.com, nor selected to the ALL-USA team. And Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, who this year became the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, wasn’t a Top 100 recruit.
Part of the problem is that recruit rankings are typically forward-looking and based on height, weight, strength, speed, arm strength and other measurables that don’t necessarily correlate to on-the-field success after high school.
Elvis Grbac is a great example. Now a quarterbacks coach at St. Ignatius (Cleveland), Grbac did not make the ALL-USA team when he was in high school at St. Joseph’s (Cleveland, Ohio) in the late 1980s. And he didn’t get drafted until the eighth round of the 1993 NFL Draft. Yet he still went on to play in the 2000 Pro Bowl.
"I wasn't as talented as some of these kids coming out of high school, but I was able to study film and understand what I was doing and what these defenses were doing," Grbac said. "The mental part of it is more important.”
It's not going to get any easier predicting future success behind center in large part because so many high school and college teams have gone to the spread offense, which is rarely used in the NFL.
"The spread takes the thinking out of it and if you have a great athlete, you make him make plays," Grbac said. "I've heard of Tim Tebow not reading defenses in college, and I couldn't understand that. The level of complexity as it goes on to the next level is great."
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @jimhalley.