In terms of star power, Erik Highsmith doesn't exactly stand out in a scan of North Carolina's class of 2009 football commitments.
On recruiting Web sites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com, there are plenty of Tar Heels players with three or four stars next to their names, indicating the significant regard recruiting analysts had for them in a highly rated UNC class. Tar Heels freshman defensive end Donte Paige-Moss even received the sites' gold standard -- a five-star rating.
Highsmith was one of about a half-dozen players in North Carolina's class rated with two stars. But his performance thus far has exceeded that of other, more prominent recruits in his class.
The 6-foot-3 freshman wide receiver from Vanceboro leads North Carolina with 290 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 18 catches, demonstrating that not every recruit should be judged by his star ratings.
"I don't think the star thing means anything," Highsmith said. "A lot of two-star, one-star athletes have played at the next level. I think that star stuff is overrated."
Recruiting analysts concede that their ratings are far from perfect. Scout.com analyst Miller Safrit said that with about 3,000 players signing with Division I schools in a given year, it's difficult to accurately rate everybody who will strap on a helmet in a college program.
He said some players are rated based on grainy film shot on 20-year-old cameras, with half the screen showing the football field and the other half showing the parking lot.
Safrit said even college coaches estimate that only about 50 percent of the players they sign will perform up to the level they expect when they recruit them. He likes to say that analysts are right about 50 percent of the time as well.
A look at different indicators show that analysts get plenty of their predictions right, however. Rivals.com's top five players in 2007, for example, included quarterback Jimmy Clausen (Notre Dame), tailback Joe McKnight (Southern California) and quarterback Ryan Mallett (Arkansas), some of the most productive players in their class.
Four of the top 10 players in the 2009 NFL draft were five-star players according to Scout.com. But another three of them were two-star recruits.
"When you look at the stars, I don't think they tell you everything," Safrit said. "They definitely don't. It's not an evaluation. It's just a way to tell people, a quick way, of how good a player is. But it doesn't tell everything about a player."
Only one offer
Highsmith's lack of college scholarship offers seems to indicate that recruiting analysts weren't the only ones who missed on him.
After his junior season, he attended football camps at Duke, East Carolina, North Carolina and N.C. State. He said he performed well at all of them but particularly shined in Chapel Hill.
Bryn Renner, now a Tar Heels freshman quarterback, was throwing some of the passes as Highsmith ran crisp routes, caught just about every ball thrown his way and refused to let any defensive back stop him one-on-one.
North Carolina offered Highsmith a scholarship, but he said no other major school did. That might be a result of his growing up in Vanceboro, a small town 25 miles southeast of Greenville.
Just about everybody in town went to the West Craven High football game each Friday night, and Highsmith enjoyed that atmosphere. But he said his rural background made it more difficult to get attention.
"All the athletes from the Charlotte/Raleigh area, they get looked at first over us down there in the country," Highsmith said. "But I just know from going to camp that I'm just as good as the other receivers that were highly recruited."
It hasn't taken him long to prove it. Against East Carolina and at Georgia Tech, he had six catches for more than 100 yards and a touchdown in each game.
Part of Highsmith's success may come because of North Carolina's offensive game plan under coach Butch Davis. Over the previous two seasons, Tar Heels wide receivers such as Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate excelled in Davis' offense.
Highsmith may just be inheriting that highlighted spot, illustrating a point N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien makes about one shortcoming of recruiting rankings.
"Everybody runs different schemes on defense and different schemes on offense," O'Brien said. "The most important thing in recruiting is to recruit people that fit into your philosophy about how you want to do things."
Safrit agreed that a player's choice of schools can have a tremendous impact on whether he lives up to his ranking. Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt, for example, was rated a four-star player by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
He is living up to that rating as a powerful ground-gainer in a flexbone offense that accentuates his running ability. Had Nesbitt attended Texas Tech, though, he might have flopped in an offense that relies heavily on the pass.
"When you're evaluating players, you're trying to do it in a vacuum," Safrit said. "You're trying to do it regardless of an offense. ... And you're always hoping the players select an offense that's right for themselves."
When the players don't do that, there's a good chance their rating won't accurately predict their production.
Too early to tell?
Despite Highsmith's success, Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell said it's too early to say his service missed on its evaluation of him.
He said that over time, teammate and four-star receiver Jheranie Boyd of Gastonia still might post better numbers than Highsmith's for UNC, because Boyd has superior athletic ability.
"To me, a miss is like [Wake Forest linebacker] Aaron Curry or [Boston College defensive lineman] B.J. Raji," Farrell said. "Those are guys we had that went in the first round of the NFL draft. We whiffed."
Other prominent players who are still in college also have performed better than their ratings. Quarterbacks Russell Wilson of N.C. State and Riley Skinner of Wake Forest headline the list in the Carolinas. Wilson said he knew he was a two-star recruit but didn't let that bother him.
"I didn't really think anything of it," Wilson said. "I knew I had an opportunity to play here [at N.C. State]. I knew this was a good opportunity at an ACC school, so I must be OK."
Likewise, Highsmith remains confident. He acknowledges that at a lanky 175 pounds, he needs to get stronger to improve his game.
Without that strength or the all-state high school track sprinter's speed of Boyd, Highsmith lacked measurable statistics that might have gained him more stars in his recruiting rating. But he's making it clear that two-star recruits can make a big impact, too.
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