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Blanchat: Football success defies recruiting class rankings

Back in February 2008, high school football players all across the nation signed on the dotted line and swore their allegiances to the best college football programs in the country. After all the hats were firmly atop the heads of the recruits, Rivals.com ranked the top 50 recruiting classes in the nation.

Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide sat atop the rankings as it brought in a class that boasted three five-star recruits and 19 four-stars. Ohio State nabbed the nation’s top recruit — Pennsylvania quarterback Terrelle Pryor — and earned the fourth-best recruiting class in the country. And way down at the bottom of the list was Stanford, where head coach Jim Harbaugh had brought in zero five-star recruits and just two four-star athletes.

But today, that 2008 Stanford recruiting class has vaulted the Cardinal to an Orange Bowl victory and possibly a top-five preseason ranking for 2011. All of a sudden, three years later, this class of seniors and redshirt juniors looks like it might be the best Stanford football recruiting class in recent memory. Not bad for a class that was ranked lower than Minnesota, Rutgers and Kansas.

Almost every member of the recruiting class of 2008 has stepped up to be a major contributor to the Stanford team since the group’s arrival on campus — and the ones who haven’t yet seen their names in the starting lineup will undoubtedly be integral players this season.

First, consider the two “four-star” athletes: wide receiver Chris Owusu and quarterback Andrew Luck. Owusu missed quite a bit of time last season due to injury, but he is the team’s top returning receiver heading into 2011, a dynamic kickoff returner and the Cardinal’s consistent deep threat. Luck, of course, will go down on the short list of the greatest quarterbacks in Stanford (and possibly college football) history.

But the other, less-“starred” members of the 17-man class evidence just how talented and deep the 2008 Cardinal recruits really are. Studs like Moose Martin, David DeCastro, Delano Howell, Chase Thomas and Michael Thomas, contributors like Johnson Bademosi and Daniel Zychlinski, and possible 2011 starters like Alex Debniak and Sam Schwartztein all came to the Farm with three or fewer stars next to their name.

So what does this tell us? It certainly tells us that recruiting rankings are imperfect. While Rivals did not miss by calling Alabama the best recruiting class in the country — the Crimson Tide has already produced three first-round picks: Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcel Dareus — someone obviously overlooked the talent pool that was assembled in Palo Alto, especially compared to the rest of the Pac-10.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the 2008 recruiting rankings is not just that Stanford and Harbaugh dug up some drastically underrated high school football players, but also that the Cardinal had to consistently defeat a Pac-10 conference that turned in several other strong recruiting classes. USC had the eighth-best class. UCLA had the 13th best. National title contender Oregon had the 19th best. Arizona State, Washington, Cal and Arizona were all ranked in the top 40. Somehow, Stanford had the “worst” of all these classes, and yet it still cruised to last year’s near-perfect season.

Additionally, this (formerly) overlooked class has brought nothing but positive vibes to the Farm on and off the field. They bust heads and rack up points on the grid, then give polite, well-spoken interviews and represent the school well. In the college football world, this is a tremendous achievement. Consider Pryor, ‘08’s number-one recruit, who was last spotted on ESPN sitting slack-jawed while watching Jon Gruden make uncomfortable noises and talk about how much he hates bubble screens.

So as you watch members of the recruiting class of 2008 take their last snaps in cardinal and white this season, consider this: someday, many years from now, they might make a “30 for 30” film about how Stanford became a football powerhouse overnight. I can hear it in my head already — “What if I told you…that a school known for world class students…suddenly made the traditional football powerhouses look foolish?” When you hear the opening monologue to that movie, you’ll already know exactly just how it happened. One underrated, overlooked, supremely talented recruiting class turned a loser into a winner, a winner into an Orange Bowl champion and an Orange Bowl champion into — maybe — a national champion.

Jack Blanchat has already started filling out an application to narrate Stanford’s future “30 for 30” film. Help him hone his dulcet tones at blanchat “at” stanford.edu.