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Player development: Examining Stanford's distinct system

The smoldering aftermath of national signing day sparks plentiful chatter.

Coaches who've just signed highly ranked recruiting classes point to their numbers as a telltale sign of future success. Those lower on the pecking order argue that star ratings aren't really all that they're made out to be. Many writers espouse the vital importance of recruiting rankings when it comes to predicting future success, but examples of programs that outperform their signing day numbers inevitably persist.

Since the beginning of its turnaround in 2007 -- and outside of last season's dip to 8-5 -- Stanford has been one of these programs.

The rankings suggest that the Cardinal have recruited decently well -- but only rarely on an absolutely elite level. Player development is the force that has ultimately driven Stanford up the post-signing day food chain.

The Cardinal initially surged into national prominence behind recruiting classes that Rivals ranked 50th and 51st in the nation -- Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Coby Fleener and Doug Baldwin were just four of the future NFL parts of those 2007 and 2008 hauls. After that, Stanford didn't break into the top 20 of Rivals' team rankings until it finished fifth in 2012. That was the high-water mark, but it certainly didn't represent the norm: Although Stanford is currently sitting on consecutive top-20 hauls, the program's average recruiting class ranking in the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era is a not-so-gaudy No. 30.

"We don't pay much attention to the star rankings," defensive coordinator Lance Anderson said. "In fact, I'd have a hard time telling you how many stars each guy has, because we really don't look at them at all."

College football programs perform their own player evaluations independent of the recruiting services -- there's no surprise there. Stanford, though, has taken the distinct challenge of the university's strict admissions standards and turned them into a productive selling point, one that has fostered effective player development. As a result, this era on the Farm has already featured four consecutive trips to BCS bowl games and prolific player entry into the professional ranks: the NFL saw 41 Stanford players in 2014, good for 14th nationally and 16 spots above that average recruiting ranking of the past nine years.

Recruiting and development: Working in tandem

When it comes to development, the program's beating heart is a synergistic health and strength focus orchestrated by sports performance director Shannon Turley and the Cardinal's medical staff. But it's important to understand that the process begins long before that -- in the recruiting phase, when the staff must equip the cannon with the appropriate ammunition. In that regard, it can be argued that the university's strict admissions standards have harmonized with the football system.

"I love the kind of kids we have at Stanford," Anderson says. "I love coaching those guys. Aside from wanting to be really good and wanting to work really hard, they want to understand the whys and the hows. It's fun explaining things to them, because they're really smart kids, and they can handle a lot."

It's easy to see how a brainy approach to the game can mesh well with a strength and conditioning guru like Turley, who's a significant departure from the stereotypical, barrel-chested football strength coach. Turley is known as a "technician" and a "scientist" around the program, and his meticulous attention to detail has resonated well with Stanford's roster.

"I'm not concerned with how much our guys can bench press, back squat, power clean, or any of the numbers that really have nothing to do with playing football," Turley said in 2013.

Instead, he's focused on Stanford's functional strength -- "if it won't block, tackle or score touchdowns for us, we're not really concerned with it" -- a cornerstone evident whenever one sees a Cardinal workout staple: players pushing John Deere carts around campus, complete with yelling coaches on the bed (Stanford prides itself on its ability to move the opposition).

The 87 percent reduction in Stanford's injury rate from 2006-12 was staggering, and the team's strength advantages on the field have been apparent during this winning run. The system's biggest beneficiaries have morphed into superstars: Most of the Cardinal's NFL alumni, including Luck and Richard Sherman, return to train with Turley over the offseason. Luck's physical jumps were impressive (from 5.1 to 4.6 in the 40-yard dash even while adding 24 pounds), but the most eye-popping development under Turley's tutelage might have come on the defensive side of the ball. That's where two-star recruit Ben Gardner blossomed into an NFL draftee, and where Stanford has identified the gangly teenagers capable of transforming into athletic 6-foot-6, 285-pound specimens.

"We look at a way a kid is built, his frame and his background," Anderson says. "We look into his history: How many different sports has he played? How much has he been in the weight room already? We try to project what he can grow into -- if he can possibly develop like a Trent Murphy (three-star recruit, second-round NFL draftee) or a Henry Anderson (three-star recruit, projected NFL draftee)."

The right mentality: A prerequisite for development

Readiness for Stanford's system goes beyond the physical projections, and Anderson says it's tough to judge football instincts and attributes such as toughness on film. The Cardinal, then, put a high priority on encouraging prospects to attend their camps. That's where a number of current players first proved their mettle: The staff viewed Peter Kalambayi, for example, as an excellent athlete (worthy of four recruiting stars) before his visit, but he didn't turn into a primary recruiting target until after the staff saw his intangibles fit well in Stanford's scheme.

"We're looking to see that guys are tough," Anderson says. "And we're looking to see that they're coachable."

Defensive lineman Harrison Phillips (three stars) proved to be both, and that earned him an offer after he dominated a one-on-one strength drill at the Cardinal's camp, which he said differed greatly from other stops on his recruiting circuit.

"Out of all the camps I've gone to, this one was the most blue-collar camp," Phillips said after the 2013 camp. "No one cares what you weigh, no one cares how much you bench, no one cares how fast you can touch a cone and run back. It's basically who can strap up when the pads are on, when the mouthpieces are in. Who can get it? That's how the game should be played."

Phillips may have put his finger on Stanford's precise source of developmental success. Up to this point, the program has been able to stockpile recruits with a palpable hunger for improvement and the game of football, and that hasn't always overlapped with the flashiest prospects coming out of high school. Make no mistake, the Cardinal also nets highly ranked recruits, but there's a common denominator among the entire roster that has led to success. A player's ability to jive with the program's precise, scientific drive forward holds more value than any star ranking.

"We aren't always right [in our evaluations]," Anderson says. "But there have been some cases where it's worked out really well."

Given the significant annual roster turnover in college football, Stanford's success moving forward is reliant on the continuation of good development news -- especially since a bevy of young players will take over key roles on defense in 2015.