Bruschi, Flutie among late signees who thrived

The zero hour approaches. You're ready. You've committed the lists to memory: your ESPN 150, your Super Southeast 120, your Hot 101, your Dream Team 100, Amazing 88, Fab 55, Top 40, and Marvelous Metro 11.

The only way your wife can get you to go to the grocery store is to ask you to scout the Dazzling Dozen. When you pull out the salsa, you eat only blue chips. As signing day arrives, and you agonize over whether your school has signed enough highly sought players, there's only one piece of advice we can give:

Read the bottom of your team's list as closely as the top.

It's possible that the last guy a team signs, the guy who didn't fit the mold, the guy who was too short/slow/skinny/fat, the guy the coaches fought over whether to give a scholarship or not, may be the guy who turns into an All-American.

Every coach has a player like that seared into his memory. They remember the players who climbed a long way to succeed. They remember the players who fooled them. Those guys speak to why coaches love coaching. It may be an age when Web sites and cable networks -- in our case, ESPNU -- deliver an unprecedented amount of recruiting coverage. Yet as exact sciences go, recruiting remains right up there with cold fusion.

In our random survey of late signees, we found a Heisman Trophy winner, a College Football Hall of Fame member, and some of the top players in the National Football League.

"Recruiters have to believe in what you see," said Jim Hofher, the longtime coach recently fired by the University of Buffalo. "Believe in your instincts. Don't care about whether anyone else is recruiting him."

Sometimes, it's an issue of size. Doug Flutie was too short. Jack Bicknell got hired late in the recruiting season by Boston College and took a chance on the 5-foot-9 quarterback/safety because he had some scholarships available. Flutie, of course, won the 1984 Heisman Trophy and is still playing in the NFL.

Russell Maryland was too fat. University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson took a chance on the defensive tackle from the Chicago area.

"We were looking for a defensive lineman," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, recalling that decision in the winter of 1986 when he was a Miami assistant. "Very few people were on him. [Canes assistant] Hubbard Alexander stood up for him. He was oversized for the type we took. We were more of a speed defense. He made himself a player. He lost weight, lifted weights every day. He was by far the least impressive athletically out of the top 25."

By the time he left after the 1990 season, Maryland had a 6-foot-2, 273-pound body and an Outland Trophy.

"When he graduated, he was the first pick in the draft and drafted by the guy who signed him," Tuberville said, referring to Johnson. "His attitude was the big difference. If they've got the passion and the work ethic, they can be a factor."

Tedy Bruschi, the rock of the New England Patriots' defense, was too small some 15 years ago. Growing up in Roseville, Calif., at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills, Bruschi couldn't attract attention from college coaches.

Except Dick Tomey at Arizona.

"Nobody wanted to give Tedy Bruschi a scholarship," recalled Gerald Carr, a member of that Arizona staff. "We sat around the table. He was a good player. He was undersized. Dick said, 'I love his motor. I'm taking the head coach prerogative. We're giving him a scholarship.'"

On some staffs, the coaches poll one another to determine who gets a scholarship. On others, as Carr put it, "There are nine thoughts. There's one vote."

Sometimes it's an issue of geography. Dennis Franchione's favorite last signee came from Lovington, N.M., a small town near the Texas border.

"You don't just go through Lovington," said Franchione, the former New Mexico coach now at Texas A&M. "You got to go to Lovington. … He is 6-3, 200, plays tight end, plays wide receiver, plays linebacker, does everything. He's pretty good."

When the player arrived for preseason practice in August, Franchione said, "We had him all of three days, and we looked at each other and said, 'This guy is good.' He was just the most valuable defensive player in the NFL: Brian Urlacher."

Hofher came up as a young assistant on Dick MacPherson's Syracuse staff in the mid-1980s. He drew a crude map of New York on his legal pad to show where Youngstown is located.

"It's basically on the corner of the country," he said. "You look across the Niagara River to Canada. There was a fort over there and a fort over here."

Syracuse found a fullback there named Daryl Johnston. The only other offer Johnston received to play Division I football came from I-AA Cornell in the Ivy League.

"We just didn't know if we should scholarship him. He's as tough as the day is long. He was as good a collegiate football player, probably the toughest football player, as I've ever been around," Hofher said of Johnston, who went on to play 11 years for the Dallas Cowboys and now serves as an NFL analyst for Fox Sports.

Sometimes, it's an issue of seeing a player that no one else saw. Former Colorado coach Gary Barnett signed Derek McCoy after a tip from Western (Colo.) State basketball coach Bobby Hoffman. McCoy had played high school football without attracting attention. Hoffman was recruiting him to play hoops, but McCoy kept saying he wanted a chance to play football.

"In May, I sent one of my coaches to watch him play basketball," Barnett said. "We just absolutely took a chance on him. He was 6-3, had good grades, seemed to be a good kid."

From 2000 through '03, McCoy caught 134 passes for 2,038 yards and 20 touchdowns, including a school season record 11 in 2003.

"Until this year," Barnett said, smiling, "he played more games than anybody in the history of Colorado."

There's not much of a market for 5-11, 190-pound linebackers, but Tulsa signed local product Nick Bunting anyway.

"He was playing basketball at my son's school," coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "I couldn't watch him. My son wasn't playing, so I couldn't go. My wife and son went. When the game was over, I said, 'How did he do?' She said, 'Well, he fouled out in about the first 15 minutes and he got a technical. He's not much of a basketball player but I think he's going to be a pretty good football player. He's a bruiser.'"

Tulsa beat out I-AA Missouri State for Bunting. He has put on 40 pounds, was named freshman of the year in the Western Athletic Conference in 2003, and has started for three seasons.

"I just had a great feel for him as a person," Kragthorpe said. "When you get down to the last couple of recruits, you're saying, who's the best football player that can help us to be successful? You go more toward character. You're always recruiting character when making that last pick. You take a Tom Brady in the sixth round [New England, 2000]: a good person, a good teammate, a good worker. It's the same thing in college football. You're trying to find a good team player who will contribute to the success of the team."

That's how Georgia coach Vince Dooley stumbled onto a defensive back from Huntsville, Texas, in 1980.

"When we signed Herschel [Walker], the number one recruited player in the country, we also signed Terry Hoage, who was the least recruited player in the country," Dooley said. "Nobody in Division I offered him. A professor at Georgia knew his daddy at Huntsville, Texas. He taught at a state college. He contacted us. Terry was a quarterback who hurt his knee. We had one or two scholarships left. I told my coaches, 'Let's see if we can find a good student, a hard worker, who could hang around for four years and maybe help us.'"

Hoage became a two-time All-American safety and played for many years in the NFL. Hoage and Walker came into Georgia at opposite ends of the recruiting spectrum, but both made it to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Sometimes, assistants believe what their parents tell them. That's what happened at Clemson some 20 years ago. Every week, when the coaches met to discuss recruits, assistant Don Denning sang the praises of a Commerce (Ga.) High tailback Terry Allen. Head coach Danny Ford never committed to him.

"It went on and on for about three weeks," recalled Mississippi State offensive coordinator Woody McCorvey, a member of that staff. "Tommy West's [now the Memphis head coach] dad was the mayor of Gainesville, Georgia. His mom and dad went to watch Commerce and Gainesville. They get home and his dad calls Tommy and says, 'There's a really good running back over at Commerce.'

"Tommy said, 'That's the guy that Don has been talking about.' When it came up, Tommy says, 'My mom and dad watch the kid and think he's a heck of a player.' And we take him."

Allen lettered three years at Clemson, making All-ACC in 1988, and retired from the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens after the 2001 season. He is still 22nd all-time in career rushing in the NFL with 8,614 yards.

If Allen hadn't gone to Clemson, he might have ended up at South Carolina State. Sports in general, and college football in particular, are filled with might-have-beens. The last-minute recruits who succeed are the might-have-beens who did. They overcame being too short/slow/skinny/fat.

The players who succeeded did so in spite of the circumstances that happened to them at the outset. What they had inside -- and what some players today still have -- is the inner drive that can't be measured by a stopwatch. Remember that as you dive into the next bag of blue chips.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.