How important is recruiting a difference-maker for a college football program? To develop an elite program, a top 20 program nationally, you need at least one or two difference-makers who are capable of converting a team from a pretender to a contender to a national champion.
"It is very important to get at least one difference-maker at certain positions--quarterback, tailback, wide receiver and rush end," said recruiting analyst Tom Lemming, who has been evaluating and uncovering difference-makers for 31 years.
"A difference-maker is a guy who can change a game with one play, a guy who you can count on to make a game-winning play when you are behind with two minutes to play or a defender who can stop a drive with one play."
But they don't come along every year or even every other year. "They are extraordinarily above and beyond the norm. They have great natural ability that you don't see all the time, players such as Herschel Walker, John Elway, Dan Marino, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Dupree and Bo Jackson," Lemming said.
The list is short and distinguished. Dick Butkus was a difference-maker at Illinois. Michael Vick was a difference-maker at Virginia Tech, Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech, Tim Tebow at Florida, Reggie Bush at USC, Randy Moss at Marshall, Adrian Peterson at Oklahoma and Ron Dayne at Wisconsin.
"They must be injury free and go into a program that will best utilize their ability," Lemming said, noting that injuries and other factors often rob outstanding high school prospects of their great potential even before they get to college.
Butkus was a difference-maker at Illinois. So was Rashard Mendenhall. And Arrelius Benn. Martez Wilson was supposed to be one but a serious injury has slowed his progress. Juice Williams also was highly recruited. But coach Ron Zook hasn't signed a legitimate difference-maker in the last two years.
In the last five decades, Illinois has produced only a handful of difference-makers. The list is headed by Butkus, Mendenhall, Jimmy Smith, Alvin Ross, Clay Matthews, Chris Boskey, Dennis Lick, Scott Dierking, Tony Furjanic, Eric Kumerow, Dempsey Norman and John Foley.
All had sensational high school careers but some didn't reach their potential or high expectations in college because of poor grades or injuries. Some stood out in college but had only good but hardly distinguished careers in professional football. Only Butkus and Matthews had outstanding NFL careers.
Billy Marek, Ryan Clifford and Dan Dierking were high school difference-makers who led their teams to No. 1 rankings and state championships but were deemed too small by college recruiters and NFL scouts.
Still, Marek played at Wisconsin and graduated as one of the school's all-time leading rushers. But the NFL said he was too small. Clifford never got a chance in college. And Dierking, whose father played with the New York Jets, is trying to find a niche at Purdue.
Who are the difference-makers in the class of 2010?
Seantrel Henderson of St. Paul, Minn., a 6-7, 325-pound offensive lineman, has a chance. So has running back Lache Seastrunk of Temple, Texas. And quarterback Phillip Sims of Chesapeake, Va.
It all proves that, no matter how much talent you have or how many yards you have rushed for or passed for or how many touchdowns you have scored, the odds of completing a journey from high school to college to the NFL is long and difficult. It makes you wonder how many players might have been better than Walker or Elway or Marino in high school but never got a chance to realize their potential.