All of this debate about "Who is No. 1?" or "Is Darius Fleming better than Steve Filer?" or "Why isn't Garrett Goebel rated higher than he is?" or "Will Loyola's Chance Carter be the best prospect in the state in two years?" or "Is everybody overlooking Rolling Meadows' Ty Kirk and Joe Okon?" caused me to think about how difficult it is to evaluate a 17-year-old player and project if he will develop into a productive performer in college.
I'm not a professional recruiting analyst like Tom Lemming. That's his business. He's been doing it for nearly 30 years and he's good at it. If he wasn't, he wouldn't have been doing it for so long. College recruiters wouldn't trust his evaluations. By comparison, everybody else--Rivals and Scout and SuperSport--are Johnny-come-latelies.
Dick Lascola has been in the business for a long time, too. But he isn't one of Lemming's competitors. Based in southern California, Lascola was the first to provide lists of junior prospects to colleges across the country. Years ago, he asked me to cover the Chicago area for him. Each year, I call about 200 coaches in the city and suburbs and obtain names of 300 to 400 players who they believe have Division I potential.
To give you an idea of how the process has accelerated over the years, I used to contact the high school coaches in January, evaluate the players and send my findings to Lascola by the first week in February. But now, to meet the needs of the recruiters who want to contact prospects as soon as possible, I make my calls after the state finals in November and send my list to Lascola by the first week in December.
The other day, I examined by old lists dating to 2002 to see how I had fared. Did I pick the best players? Did they hold up from November of their junior year to the end of their senior year? Did they perform well in college? Did I overlook someone? Did I underrate or overrate someone? Did a high school coach neglect to inform me about a player who should have been listed?
2002: Joliet Catholic's J.R. Zwierzynski was my No. 1 choice. At the end of the season, he was everybody's pick. He went to Penn State, didn't play up to expectations, then transferred to Western Illinois.
2003: Buffalo Grove's Tom Zbikowski was my No. 1 choice. At the end of the season, he was everybody's pick, the Sun-Times Player of the Year. He went to Notre Dame and is a starting cornerback. As a junior, he earned some All-America recognition.
2004: Buffalo Grove's Eric Andino was my No. 1 choice. He went to Michigan State but wasn't much of a factor. At the end of the season, Thornton's Tim Jamison, who went to Michigan, earned the top spot. Hubbard's Chris Patterson, now at Kansas, was second. Harper's Roland Martin, now at Michigan State, was third. Rivals picked Bolingbrook's Kyle Williams, who wasn't in Tom Lemming's top 100. Lemming said he observed Williams on two occasions, once against Jamison, and "he didn't do anything."
2005: This was easy. Niles West's Rashard Mendenhall was my No. 1 choice. At the end of the season, no one argued the point. As a junior at Illinois, he is emerging as the impact player that everyone anticipated.
2006: Morris' James Cumbie was my No. 1 choice. He is a starting defensive end at Clemson. But he didn't have an outstanding senior year so he fell behind two quarterbacks, Morgan Park's Demetrious Jones and Vocational's Isiah "Juice" Williams, in the postseason evaluations.
2007: Hubbard's Justin Hickman was my No. 1 pick. Hickman is playing at New Mexico. But Simeon's Martez Wilson was a popular choice as the top prospect at the end of season. Wilson wasn't rated among the top prospects in my November list because Simeon coach Jesse Chick said he was 6-2 and weighed 200 pounds and projected him as a wide receiver in college. At the end of his senior year, Wilson was closer to 6-4 and 240 and terrorizing opponents as a defensive end. He was named to USA Today's first-team All-America squad.
2008: Mount Carmel's Steve Filer was No. 1, St. Rita's Darius Fleming was No. 2. That was last November. Nothing much has changed.
"It's tougher to pick the top players in November, before they have played their senior year," Tom Lemming said. "So much happens between then and now. Some don't perform as seniors. Some are injured. It's so difficult to single them out, mostly on the basis of what they did as juniors and how you think they will project as seniors and beyond."