Some three months after the most unexpected hire in the history of the football program, Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders, wearing a grey sweatshirt featuring his old jersey number, explained to the country during an ESPN interview how coveted four-star prospect De’Jahn Warren ended up there and not Georgia where he previously committed.
“I think we hit it out of the park,” Sanders said on Dec. 16 in reaction to JSU getting a commitment from the No. 1 junior college prospect in America that held offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Oklahoma. “We hit a home run. “He (Warren) was our first guy in. We loved him.”
Warren was one of many players acquired by Jackson State in the offseason who would be described by 247Sports national recruiting expert Andrew Ivins as a “headliner.”
Sanders, though, in promotional videos often posted on the school’s social media accounts, refers to recruits like Warren as simply “dawgs” — program-altering athletes that are found on Power Five rosters and later end up playing in the NFL.
But how did Jackson State, a program that hadn’t played for the SWAC championship since 2013, go from middle-of-the-road over the last eight seasons to a top-40 recruiting class nationally?
Sanders being at the helm of the operation undoubtedly is a major component. Leveraging his ability as a charismatic pitchman selling JSU on the strength of the “I believe” mantra was an invaluable asset.
But the school arguably won on National Signing Day through artificial intelligence.
In October, JSU announced it partnered with Atlanta-based Recruiting Analytics, which enables schools to harness predictive analytics and advanced performance data to identify and evaluate recruits.
“We are taking a data-driven approach to our recruiting efforts to help increase our hit rate,” Ashley Robinson, the school’s athletic director, said at the time.
Cory Yates, a former college football player and co-founder of Recruiting Analytics established in 2019, had pitched to JSU during a consultation that its service would help the football program “find recruits 10 times faster” and identify athletes that featured true NFL potential.
How they do is by boiling down 17 million minutes of available film from among 1 million athletes to provide coaches with an in-depth appraisal of potential recruits.
One of the athletes that immediately stood out was Warren.
Using its specialized grading system and specific player evaluation techniques that go beyond studying highlight tapes, Recruiting Analytics projected the junior college defensive back to be a Power Five talent.
“He was very, very high on there,” said Yates regarding the scale in which players are measured to determine where they project to fit at the collegiate level. “I won’t say how high but he was very high.”
Recruiting Analytics uses advanced player tracking technology to auto-evaluate film and quantify athletic and playmaking ability. These aspects, says Yates, helps unlock data previously unavailable to coaches when evaluating film such as attempting to determine an athlete’s maximum speed.
Through its FitFinder program, RA is able to deploy its artificial intelligence to automatically find prospects that meet a school’s athletic measurables and geographic needs.
While Yates did not get into specifics as to which 2021 JSU signees were targeted using the technology, it is clear that the system — used by Georgia, Southern Methodist University, South Carolina, Michigan, and Baylor — was influential in the Tigers securing the top class in the FCS.
“A lot of that (success) has to do with them leaning into and leveraging that data,” he said. “We kind of helped them understand what their roster needs are not only for this particular class but for the next four recruiting cycles.”
The 2011 movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill documented how then-Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane used a sabermetrics approach to build a competitive roster during a period in Major League Baseball when lavish spending and traditional scouting methods ruled the day.
Beane’s reliance on spotting undervalued or unheralded players through statistics that measure in-game activity not found in newspaper box scores has now become the norm throughout professional sports.
But can working with a company such as Recruiting Analytics truly level the playing field for black college football programs?
Yates is under the impression that it can.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “They’re (Jackson State) getting their hands on the data.”