The game of the year in the Big 12 was won by three-stars and two-stars and no-stars.
When they met last October in Waco, Baylor and TCU started a combined 39 players who were once considered no better than three-star talents as recruits. The Horned Frogs' biggest play of the day came from a two-star linebacker. A 61-58 shootout came down to a three-star cornerback stopping a once-unranked receiver.
The reigning kings of the Big 12, led by two of the most respected talent evaluators in college football, steamrolled the conference last season and are poised to do so again in 2015. In the process, they're defying the myth that powerhouses -- especially in the Lone Star State -- must be built by corralling top-10 classes. But their secret is out, and there's a growing list of coaches and teams looking to infringe on their -- and the Big 12's -- recruiting turf.
Art Briles and Gary Patterson are quietly and patiently proving that three-stars from Texas are among the game's most valuable commodities. A combined 50 of their 63 players who started games last season were once rated three stars or less by ESPN. Three-fourths of them came from Texas.
"It's not where they start," Patterson said. "It's where they finish."
Three-star foundation and five-star ability
Nearly 75 percent of the All-Big 12 selections last season -- including 23 of the 29 first-team picks -- were once recruits ranked three stars or lower. They aren't just the building blocks of good rosters.
Baylor's Shawn Oakman was already 6-foot-8 in high school yet still only garnered three stars. Tyler Lockett was a small, solid two-star before he arrived at Kansas State. And the conference's brightest star, TCU's Trevone Boykin, was once a two-star ranked behind 117 other quarterbacks in the Class of 2011 by ESPN.
"I'd always hear, 'Coach, he's an athlete. Can't see over the line,'" said Mike Overton, Boykin's coach at West Mesquite High. "Ask Ole Miss how he sees over the line. Their front four were all NFL players. Some schools, they just missed the boat."
The recruiters were right about his athleticism. Boykin could've been an exciting receiver, maybe even a defensive back. Few saw the 6-footer making a living at quarterback.
The way Patterson retells it, Boykin's recruitment was too easy. He worked out at QB at a one-day camp and was hard for defenders to handle. Tape showed it, too. He stood out. So the Frogs took him.
"You know me, I don't really look at the star deal," Patterson said. "I think it's about finding a good player that also has a lot of want-to. As I tell people all the time, I'd rather have a four- or five-star with a two-star or three-star's mentality."
At TCU, Patterson's 2014 defense featured 14 players who earned starts. And 13 of them received no more than three stars as recruits. The Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year, Paul Dawson, was a no-name junior college receiver turned game-changing linebacker. The Frogs' record-setting offense had 10 similarly average-rated starters.
And remember, most of them were recruited to play in the Mountain West.
"I think that's how we build our foundation," Patterson said. "Obviously you have to have good players. There have to be guys who can play anywhere to win conference championships. But that's the best way for us: a three-star foundation with the potential for five-star ability."
Chips on their shoulders
Evaluation and development is the name of the game at Baylor.
In four years, Bryce Petty went from a three-star grayshirt to Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Bryce Hager was one of four starting defenders last season who went unranked by ESPN out of high school. Even as the Bears' talent level rises rapidly, they still had two senior walk-ons starting in 2014. No Big 12 roster had more former three-stars (44) from the state of Texas.
Thanks to his staff's deep ties throughout the state, Briles has two Big 12 trophies and is happy to continue stocking the Bears' cupboard with underestimated assets.
"I don't think that'll ever change," Briles said last year. "There are so many good football players out there. A lot of them need to be in the right situation with the right opportunity. We're always looking for guys that may not have blossomed yet and are waiting for their first rain."
How do so many quality players in Texas end up being underrated or under-recruited in high school? The coaches who find these gems know it takes good fortune, creativity, persistence and some risk.
Before he was an All-Big 12 running back at Baylor, Shock Linwood was an undersized athlete from Linden, a tiny East Texas town 20 miles from the Louisiana border. He was, like so many other small-school studs, a summer camp revelation.
The 5-foot-9 back clocked a 4.42 in the 40 at a TCU satellite camp in 2011 and did enough to convince Patterson he could play slot receiver at the next level. He committed that June. Briles' staff didn't back off and eventually persuaded Linwood to take an official visit and flip two weeks before signing day.
At Linden-Kildare, Linwood was a two-star recruit ranked No. 176 among all athlete prospects by ESPN. Playing on a small Class 2A team and confusion over his projected position didn't help. But in a town that small, he was just excited to even be on the websites.
Now that he's rushed for 2,133 yards over two seasons, Linwood says he wouldn't change his star rating.
"Coach Briles wants guys that have a chip on their shoulder and have a lot to prove," Linwood said. "It makes us a better team."
Develop the potential
Even at the most successful high school programs in Texas, the three-star label can be hard to shake. Cedar Hill coach Joey McGuire, a back-to-back state champion, can't help but wonder why. Maybe it's the preference for cookie-cutter measurements and testing numbers. Maybe there are just too many late bloomers.
He sent a receiver to Ole Miss (Quincy Adeboyejo) who caught five passes as a junior at Cedar Hill and 91 as a senior. Still a three-star. He sent a linebacker to Texas A&M (Richard Moore) who had 410 career tackles in high school. Still a three-star.
"I think you don't see as much movement in older kids getting another star or two more stars," McGuire said. "They don't jump from three to five. They kind of have to start that way, and you don't see guys lose stars or gain them, usually."
Fair point. But in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, exposure is rarely the problem. Overton, now the head coach at Mesquite Horn, recently witnessed a fine example of why mining for three-star talent can be so tricky.
Coaches from 97 schools (60 in FBS) visited Horn this spring. Only four extended offers to Jared Atkinson, an unranked 6-foot-3 receiver who caught 10 passes as a junior. Then Baylor did. He has the track speed, size and ceiling that Briles covets. Atkinson committed soon after and debuted this week as a four-star recruit ranked No. 236 in the ESPN 300.
"I'd always hear, 'Coach, he's an athlete. Can't see over the line.' Ask Ole Miss how he sees over the line. Their front four were all NFL players. Some schools, they just missed the boat." Mike Overton, Trevone Boykin's high school coach
"They see a kid's potential and continue to develop that potential," Overton said of Baylor. "It's evident and proven in their success that they know what they're talking about."
Atkinson is just one of the more than 400 future FBS signees from the state. As the Big 12's rival co-champs prove again and again, where you look for them isn't as important as how you look at them.
"This statement isn't an indictment of anybody else, but I truly believe this about Art Briles and Gary Patterson: They have a formula for what they want in a football player," McGuire said. "They really focus on that formula."
Processes change, the purpose does not
The value of three-stars is, by now, no great secret in the Big 12.
This is a conference in which nearly 40 percent of all players last season were Texans rated three stars or less as recruits. Every coach is fishing from the same pond and trying to achieve precisely what Baylor and TCU are thriving on today.
"Sometimes it's not that you missed on them; it's that you can only take 20 to 25," Patterson said. "You just try and make it the best 20 to 25 you can possibly make."
The blueprint isn't much different for Houston's Tom Herman and SMU's Chad Morris, the state's newest head coaches. They've coached a combined 27 years in Texas and return after stints as big-time coordinators operating the same kind of wide-open offenses that have prospered in the Big 12.
Outside the state, Kansas' David Beaty and Tulsa's Philip Montgomery intend to take the same path: rebuild with Air Raid offenses fueled by the coaches' deep roots and connections in Texas.
All four are leveraging their Lone Star ties and searching diligently for more hidden gems in the vast state. Their arrival should make recruiting three-stars in Texas more competitive than ever.
Success shakes up the food chain. TCU has a real chance with anyone it wants these days. Committing to Baylor can actually lead to a ratings bump. The days of the Longhorns having first dibs at February junior days are over.
Now that recruits are more interested in his program than ever before, Patterson says he's not going to stray from his formula. The process is different. The purpose is the same. He'd like to shake the stigma that all TCU has are hard-working overachievers. But that rep did get them this far.
"It's fun for them," Patterson said, "because most of them have been told what they couldn't be."