Nevada was reportedly the only FBS school to offer Colin Kaepernick a scholarship. (US Presswire)
While NFL fans brace for the interminable, all-consuming build-up to Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, college football is increasingly consumed by its own winter obsession: Recruiting, culminating in national signing day on Feb. 6. In the span of a few days, one cycle will end in a global spectacle, and a new one will begin in hundreds of high school gyms.
At some point, every player who steps on the field for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers entered the pipeline with the same goal as hundreds of their aspiring teenage peers who will never lay eyes on the Lombardi Trophy. In the spirit of the season, and of nostalgia, we've compiled the original recruiting rankings of every starter in the Super Bowl when he was an unproven, often unheralded prospect breaking in his dorm room, just another adolescent face in the crowd. It's a reminder that the parts that make up a championship whole can come from anywhere, and usually do.
For the sake of consistency, all rankings are via Rivals.com, which has the most extensive online database of recruiting rankings, dating more than a decade to 2002. Other services might have had slightly different opinions on certain players, and Rivals might have slightly refined its process for rating players over the years -- but only slightly.
Moss ended up playing at Marshall. (AP)
Unfortunately, more than a dozen starters in the Super Bowl were recruited prior to 2002, including the celebrated likes of Justin Smith, Terrell Suggs, Anquan Boldin and a quartet of former Miami Hurricanes, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Frank Gore and Bryant McKinnie. (Lewis, playing in his final game at age 37, is so far removed from the recruiting process that his alma mater is now recruiting his son, Ray Lewis III, who's expected to sign with Miami next month.) Some of those players were more hyped entering college than others -- as you might expect, aging 49er wide receiver Randy Moss was a legendary recruit in the mid-90s before his early misadventures at Notre Dame and Florida State forced him to spend two years at Marshall, then a I-AA school -- but the overall lack of information excludes them from this look. Every starter recruited since 2002 can be accounted for.
Also note that "starter" has been defined loosely to mean any player who sees the field regularly on offense or defense, and does not include injury casualties or anyone else not listed on the depth charts on the 49ers and Ravens' official websites.
Five-stars. Before you indulge the instinct to gloat over the relative lack of top-rated, blue-chip headliners on the sport's biggest stage, it's important to realize just how few of those guys there are: Out of several thousand prospects who sign letters-of-intent every year, only a small sliver are pegged for five-star status, representing far less than 1 percent of any given recruiting class. Against those odds, San Francisco's lineup alone features three regulars who were given top billing, offensive lineman Alex Boone (Ohio State), linebacker Ahmad Brooks (Virginia) and cornerback Chris Culliver (South Carolina) -- all of whom have fared better as pros than they did in relatively disappointing careers on campus -- as well as a handful more who were right on the edge of a five-star rating.
The highest hosannas, however, were reserved for Baltimore defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who arrived at Oregon in 2002 ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect in the nation, just behind Vince Young. Both Ngata and Young left school as consensus All-Americans, and both wound up going as high first-round picks in 2006, but only one of them has made good on the hype.
Four-stars. Most of the 49ers' most recognizable players fall into this category, beginning on offense with their top two receivers, Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech) and Vernon Davis (Maryland), as well as the starting right tackle, Anthony Davis (Rutgers). On the other side of the ball, three of the Niners' six defensive Pro Bowlers were pegged as four-star recruits: Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, safety Donte Whitner (Ohio State) and fellow safety Dashon Goldson (Washington), one of only four starters in the game who took a detour through junior college.
Ngata justified his 5-star billing. (US Presswire)
There is also Baltimore right tackle Michael Oher, whose hard-luck background and colossal size made him arguably the single most famous recruit of the past decade. Before he was the inspiration for a best-selling book (and even better-selling movie), Oher was a four-star recruit to Ole Miss, where his old high school coach, Hugh Freeze, is now the head coach.
Three-stars. Former three-star prospects make up the majority of most college (and therefore most NFL) rosters, and will be well represented in the Super Bowl by both starting quarterbacks (Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco), four Pro Bowlers (linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith for the 49ers, tailback Ray Rice and offensive lineman Marshal Yanda for the Ravens) and at least one future Hall-of-Famer (Willis). For some context of how far the two signal-callers have come since they were 18 years old: As a recruit, Kaepernick was listed by Rivals at a stringy 6-foot-4, 172 pounds, a full 60 pounds below his current weight, according to the 49ers, while Flacco has put on nearly 50 pounds. After two years at his original school, Pittsburgh, Flacco transferred to Delaware for a chance at playing time rather than sit behind the Panthers' far more touted starter, Tyler Palko.
Two-stars. The 49ers struck gold with a pair of two-star offensive linemen, Central Michigan alum Joe Staley and ex-Idaho All-American Mike Iupati, both of whom were voted to the Pro Bowl. Although, given that Staley and Iupati also overcame their humble beginnings to become first-round draft picks out of college, neither exactly qualifies as a "sleeper" at the next level.
Unranked. Baltimore has done well by players who were ignored by recruitniks entirely, featuring the only starter in the game who began his college career as a walk-on, former BYU tight end Dennis Pitta, as well as a Pro Bowl return man, Jacoby Jones, who started out on a track scholarship at Southeastern Louisiana. (From there, Jones transferred to an even smaller school, Division II Lane College in Tennessee.) Both of the Ravens' starting cornerbacks come from well off the beaten path: Cary Williams was a seventh-round pick out of an obscure Division II school in Kansas, Washburn University, and Corey Graham (a 2011 Pro Bowler with the Chicago Bears) was a fifth-rounder out of New Hampshire. The only small-school hero in San Francisco's lineup is tight end Delanie Walker, a former Central Missouri Mule.
Here's a look at the full list for both teams: